The Scoop: The National Marriage Project (NMP) is a nonpartisan, nonsectarian, and interdisciplinary initiative at the University of Virginia. The NMP was created to track the health of marriage in the United States, explore how happy marriages affect individuals as well as society as a whole, and find practical ways to strengthen marriages. The project’s 2023 annual report, “Date Night Opportunity” revealed that monthly date nights boost marriage satisfaction across the board.
Marriage has changed for many Americans over the past decade. For a long time, marriage was seen as a rite of passage, and it was unusual for a single adult to be unmarried. My parents, my grandparents, and most of my aunts and uncles were married by the time they were my age. Some even had kids! As a 23-year-old who sometimes still feels like a teenager, imagining myself married or as a parent is difficult (and, honestly, kind of scary)!
There’s nothing wrong with getting married early and having children young, but that’s no longer the norm for most Americans. According to the Census Bureau, the marriage rate declined between 2011 and 2021. The average age of first marriage has increased, and many young adults prioritize their education or career over marriage. More couples are living together without being married, and an increasing number of people opt not to get married at all.
The National Marriage Project (NMP) keeps an eye on American marriage trends by conducting annual reports on the state of marriages in the United States, each cleverly dubbed “The State of Our Unions.” These reports focus on a specific trend or development in United States marriage and divorce statistics.
The NMP was founded in 1997 to provide research and analysis on the health of marriage in America. The project also analyzes the social and cultural forces shaping contemporary marriages to identify strategies for strengthening them. Dr. Brad Wilcox is the Director and Head Researcher at the project, and he told us about the project and its mission. “We think about how healthy marriages matter for adults, kids, and the community,” Dr. Wilcox said.
History and Mission of the NMP
The National Marriage Project was founded in 1997 by Rutgers University Sociology Professor David Popenoe. Until 2009, it was housed at Rutgers University and was directed by Dr. Popenoe and Dr. Barbara Whitehead. In 2009, the National Marriage Project moved to the University of Virginia.
The project is directed by Dr. Wilcox, who is also an associate professor of sociology at the University of Virginia. Dr. Wilcox is also a Visiting Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Family Studies. Dr. Wilcox is a marriage and family expert who has published many peer-reviewed articles on cohabitation, parenting, and fatherhood.
The project has five overarching goals and is on a mission to strengthen marriages in the United States. Their first goal is to publish annual reports called “The State of Our Unions.” These reports monitor the current health of marriage and family life in America. The NMP’s second goal is to investigate and report on the state of marriage, specifically among young adults.
The National Marriage Project’s third goal is to provide accurate and up-to-date information about marriage to journalists, policymakers, religious leaders, and the general public. The project collects data and organizes its findings to help Americans understand the present reality of marriage in the country.
The project’s fourth goal is to research how children, race, socioeconomic class, immigration, ethnicity, religion, and poverty shape marriages. Finally, the fifth goal is to bring marriage and family experts together to provide equitable and valuable resources that reinforce healthy relationships.
2023 Report: “Date Night Opportunity”
The 2023 “State of Our Unions” focused on the American date night. The report opens with reflections on the re-emergence of date night, which the report says is a result of “soulmate marriages.” The re-emergence of date night can be seen in more civic, corporate, and religious organizations launching date-night initiatives.
Date night matters to those in a soulmate marriage because these unions, which are increasingly the standard for contemporary American marriages, expect high levels of intimacy, communication, and personal fulfillment from partners. Such couples tend to be intent on cultivating and maintaining strong emotional and romantic connections. Gone are the days of mommy and daddy not really caring for each other all that much. Modern American marriages yearn for intimacy and, often, best friendhood.
The 2023 report investigates why date nights are essential, how they can improve the quality of a relationship, and if one-on-one time is associated with higher quality relationships and lower divorce risks. This report collected data from surveys of 2,000 married, heterosexual men and women. The report shows that only about half of couples go on frequent date nights.
In the survey, 52% of husbands and wives reported they never go out on a date night and only go out a couple times a year for special occasions. However, 48% of surveyed couples reported going on date nights at least once every month. The report showed that couples who regularly went on date nights were generally happier in their marriages.
The survey also found that 83% of wives and 84% of husbands who had reported going on regular date nights said they were very happy in their marriages. Comparatively, 68% of wives and 70% of husbands who said they did not have regular date nights reported being in happy marriages. Moreover, the wives and husbands who reported going on regular date nights in the survey were about 14% more likely to report that divorce was not at all likely at all in the future.
Happy Marriages, Healthy People
Surveys and studies consistently show that regular date nights make for happier marriages. But why? Dr. Wilcox and the National Marriage Project put together a few reasons why date nights are so important to married couples of all ages. The research and survey team examined social science literature to determine how date nights foster stronger marriages and relationships.
First of all, regular date nights make communication easier. The National Marriage Project calls communication “one of the crucial ingredients” to successful, long-term relationships. Removing the distractions of children, jobs, and household responsibilities, date nights allow couples to talk to each other, keep an open channel of communication, and build trust.
The novelty of a date night also aids in strengthening a marriage. Long-term couples can easily slide into routines that may not change for years. These routines can create a feeling of complacency and allow couples to more easily take each other for granted. Date nights interrupt this monotony and allow couples to reconnect in fresh ways.
Trying new things, learning something new, and sharing new experiences can bring couples closer. A date night can reignite a spark that can increase emotional and sexual intimacy. Going on weekly or monthly dates can also give couples a time to focus on their relationship and think only about each other. It’s dedicated time specifically for attending to the marriage.
It turns out that continuing to date, even in marriage, isn’t just anecdotal advice. It has a considerable and statistical effect on the happiness and longevity of American marriages.
“Date nights should be designed so couples are having fun together,” Dr. Wilcox said. “You gotta do something that rekindles the romance in the relationship, and that’s what we’ve focused on in this report.”