Trivial Pursuit, Star Wars edition, will always have a place in my heart. The game was the first Father’s Day gift I bought for my husband when our son was just a few months old. It may be an understatement to say that I married a huge Star Wars fan, so when several weeks went by and we still hadn’t taken it out of the box, he was getting antsy. “Are we ever going to play my new game?” he would wonder aloud. He had a point—we hadn’t been spending much quality time together; sleep deprivation and our new responsibilities seemed to crowd out everything else. So we sat down then and there on the living room floor and set up the board, beers in hand, asking each other questions about the minutiae of Star Wars lore, laughing in a way that we hadn’t since becoming parents.
This kind of lighthearted connection is crucial to any couple’s relationship, but it can easily fall by the wayside when kids enter the picture, says Ashley Howe, a couples and family therapist. “For parents, it often becomes all about function—about keeping the kids alive and healthy,” she says. Busy lives crammed with work, school, playdates and chores can lead to monotonous routines with little room for parent-only fun. Or worse, it can leave you feeling disconnected from your partner.
If you’re looking for a way to rediscover the fun this Valentine’s Day—and all year long—we’ve got a few suggestions to take you beyond the run-of-the-mill date night. We asked relationship experts and parents to give their best tips for upping the fun factor in even the most time-strapped relationships.
1. See them in a new light
Parents who spend most of their together time at home can easily fall into the trap of envisioning their partner as that guy/girl in the track pants and stained T-shirt. “It helps to be reminded how your partner is seen out in the external world,” says Howe. If you have the opportunity, sit in on a presentation your partner is giving, or listen in on a sales call, she suggests. Or when considering a weekday coffee date with a friend or colleague, plan to meet your partner instead. “Look at them through a different lens—watch the way they walk into the room, how they interact with others.” Some couples take this playful attitude a step further; Anna Toth, a registered marriage and family therapist, recalls a couple who, as frequent business travellers, decided to meet up in a city and pretend they were strangers having an affair.
2. Learn something new together
Boredom is one of the killers of relationships, says Howe. To keep things interesting—and fun—try picking up a new skill with your sweetie by taking a wine-tasting course, learning a different language or anything else that’s new to both of you.
For Debra Scott and her husband, Brad, Brazilian jiu-jitsu classes fit the bill. They get a sitter once a week to watch their daughter, six, and son, two and a half, so they can go to a class together, but they also trade off one additional night a week where they each go solo. “It has lightened our moods a lot, in general,” says Scott. “You connect more with your partner when you’re not so caught up in the day-to-day.”
The slight unease of being pushed outside your regular routine is sure to bring you closer, says Howe. “Learning something new uses the same part of the brain that kick-starts arousal,” she says. “It does so much for recharging relationships.”
3. Laugh down memory lane
It’s great to tell each other fun stories about your relationship, says Toth. You can recall your first date, your wedding or, as Jenn Wright, mom to Liam, four, and Caitlyn, two, suggests, that crazy anecdote that always makes you bust a gut. “We often reminisce about something funny that happened to us in our early days of dating or marriage—something that really makes us laugh out loud,” she says. Like the one Valentine’s Day she and her husband, Steve, went for a long drive after dinner and ended up going through what they called “X-Files fog” in a town they’d never heard of. Good times.
If you’re stuck in the present, put on some of the old tunes from when you first met, says Sherry Theriault, a mom of two kids (15 months and three years). “It brings back so many memories that you can’t help but laugh.”
4. Take a cue from your kids
Board games aren’t just for your brood. Challenge your honey to a game of cards, Scrabble or Trivial Pursuit to lighten the mood. Play video games like Rock Band, if that’s what turns your crank. And if you don’t know what fun activities your partner might enjoy, don’t be afraid to put the question out there.
“When we’ve been together for a while, we often think we know everything about our partner,” says Toth. But you may have no idea that your spouse was once a hula hoop fanatic or a Donkey Kong master. Ask them what fun things they used to do,” advises Toth.
“We play like kids whenever we get the chance,” says mom Carla Ala-Kantti. “Water-gun fights, playground equipment, bikes, skateboards—nothing is off limits.” If you’re more of a dancing fool, follow Jason Graham’s lead and try a few impromptu moves with your partner, as he does with his wife, Stephanie White. “A good song pops onto the radio and we almost absent-mindedly start moving closer together and getting down,” says the father of Hudson, nine, and Tasman, five. “Usually one of us has a spatula or a rake in our hands—doesn’t matter, we just can’t stop the boogie.”