Let me set the scene: Chicago. My anniversary night. We both get off our respective restaurant shifts utterly exhausted. I put on a skirt that does not fit right and slather on makeup that has fully melted off my face by the time I rush into the restaurant (thank you, Midwestern summers). We sit down on the patio at a lovely spot both of us can absolutely not afford and I already catch myself wondering why big date nights are never any fun. I am hell-bent on making this one different. We order a bottle of crisp white wine that I am physically unable enjoy because of the severe dehydration that comes from a day of waiting tables and shoveling hash browns into my mouth next to a 140-degree back kitchen. We realize halfway through dinner we were late to our second stop, a concert we had bought tickets to months ago, so we scarf down the rest of our food and sprint. No meaningful conversation has taken place thus far in the night. When we arrive at the venue, I realize I do not have my ID and am barred from entering. We both give up our tickets, get in an Uber back home and I can feel tears welling up in my eyes.
You might have your own version of this night, an evening with blueprints so perfect that in theory it would have (1) raised the bar for all your future anniversaries and (2) set the tone for the blissful year ahead. In reality, it was lackluster in its best moments and profoundly stressful in its worst moments, right? The Big Date Night™ is a complicated endeavor and I know I am not alone. To figure out why it so often turns into an absolute mess, I enlisted the help of therapist and dating coach Kimberly Seltzer.
“Holidays [anniversaries, birthdays, Valentines Days, etc.] have become so sensationalized,” Seltzer tells me over the phone. “If you think about our grandparents’ era, they didn't have [social] media, so holidays were more geared towards each other and the couplehood. What I’m seeing happen now is there is more focused on what is being done for the holiday rather than the real connection of the couple.”
Cutesy social media posts tend to spike around these occasions, with an endless Instagram feed of flowers on Valentine’s Day and kisses on New Year’s Eve. It can feel like you need to do something glitzy or there really is no point in celebrating at all. While anniversaries, birthdays and holidays can be a lovely time to shower your person with love and plan an extravagant evening, there is an undeniable pressure when you put unreasonable expectations that this one night will turn it all around, reignite the flame, and s et the tone for the next year of your life and your relationship.
“A lot of negativity and conflict arises because each person does not fulfill that expectation and there is a lack of communication with the couple,” says Seltzer. When it comes to ensuring you actually enjoy your big date night, communication is key. If you have found yourself looking around as a meticulously planned night goes up in flames, it might be because you and your partner glossed over certain aspects of communication beforehand — as was the case with my own disastrous anniversary.
One hundred percent of our troubled night could have been avoided if we had asked each other a simple question: What if, instead of doing this wildly elaborate date night, we stay in and celebrate our way? The whole evening was filled with such stress that we didn't enjoy any of it. In hindsight, we both would have preferred a calmer night at home. To save you all from suffering the same fate, I asked Seltzer for advice on how to save your big date night from turning into a indigestion-inducing mess.
Big date nights can be extra special if you make your own traditions. “If crowded restaurants are not your scene, maybe you celebrate the day before and that is your thing,” says Seltzer. If you love being in nature, why not book a one-night camping trip in Joshua Tree rather than a stuffy restaurant? Doing something that totally veers from your daily routine, especially something that gets endorphins going, actually leaves you feeling bonded (not to mention the inevitable spike in sexual attraction), says Seltzer. Take a Valentine’s Day bungee jump or go on an anniversary rock climb. Don’t be afraid to do something totally out of your comfort zone, because chances are you will have fun. “The element of surprise is what keeps the flame going,” says Seltzer.
Insecurities, be gone! Getting ready is such an intimate and empowering part of the date night ritual. It can be really difficult to let loose and enjoy if you are carrying stress and negativity around all evening. Give yourself ample time to lay out an outfit that makes you love your gorgeous bod, put on your favorite playlist, and dance around in your some pretty or badass underwear. “Do something that will get you out of your head and into your body” says Seltzer. Putting yourself in a positive headspace before a date immensely impacts the way you feel the whole night. It also gives you the confidence to flirt the evening away with your honey (one of the most important date night protocols, according to Seltzer).
Even if you are en route to your reservations, it is never too late to turn around and do something else! If you would rather bail and get some ice cream, do it. At the end of the day, this night is yours and you have nothing to prove to anyone (especially not your Instagram followers). “Oftentimes one person is getting mad at the other person if they didn't read [your] mind and the other is people pleasing too much, either way it is not congruent and authentic to how the couple is feeling,” says Seltzer. There is no reason to suffer through a fancy evening you don’t actually want any part in. Be honest and you might find they are feeling exactly the same way.
Don’t feel bad if you find yourself on a bad Big Date Night™. Almost every couple I know has some story of what should have been a perfect date night and how it turned sour. It doesn’t mean that your relationship is doomed, or your partner doesn’t know you. I laugh when I look back at my disastrous date night. That one was all it took for us to agree that we would do them our way from that point on. Super late-night movies after a candy run at Walgreens? Totally our vibe. A stuffy restaurant you have to wait in line for? Absolutely not our vibe. Now, our anniversaries and birthdays are always an extension of who we really are as a couple, rather than an elaborate show we put on for one night only.
Celebrations give us the chance to step out of our daily routines and savor a special moment. But if you find yourself feeling stressed or anxious, take a step back and ask why. Are you or your partner feeling pressure to make the night totally unforgettable? Are you still drained from a dreary week? Are you feeling less confident than usual about a certain element of your relationship? “Celebrating love is a great thing to remind each other but it doesn't have to be something that is not reality,” says Seltzer. “If you can use the holiday as a platform to triggering proactive communication, then that is when it can all work.”
If you find yourself hashing out some issues on your anniversary, so be it. Perfection is not the point — enjoying a night with your partner is, no matter what that looks like.