The Relationship Experiment

A couple enjoying a dinner date at home

Like many long-term couples, my husband and I thought we had the formula to our relationship cracked: Happiness = quality time together + quantities of time apart. Essentially I worked from home, and kept our kids alive; my husband roamed the world hunter-gathering, then came back to make fire and cook curry.

Then COVID-19 hit; social distancing struck, and overnight I’ve gone from enjoying an absentee partner to having a husband permanently sat in my lap (and not in a good way).  As we fight over desk space, plug points and airtime for LOUD video calls, we’re far from the only couples feeling the strain: As lockdown lifts in China, local governments are buckling under the weight of divorce papers filed by couples who’ve cracked up under quarantine. Is there anything we can do to ensure we won’t be next?

How to avoid a lockdown break-up

The research on relationship fixes provides some promising clues:

  • Findings from the National Marriage Project show couples who devote time specifically to one another are more likely to have high-quality relationships and, crucially, less likely to divorce.
  • Time together leads to higher levels of communication, sexual satisfaction, and commitment
  • Crucially, so does a bit of novelty: According to anthropologist Helen Fisher (senior research scholar at the Kinsey Institute, and pretty much THE world expert on the science of love) romantic chemistry starts to sizzle when you elevate levels of dopamine – a natural stimulant produced by experiencing new things.

BUT how can any locked-down lovers experience new thrills when stuck together 24/7 and unable to go out?

Thomas Bradbury, a researcher studying the effects of stress on relationships states: successful couples are able to build a virtual “firewall” around the good things they have in their relationship (like date nights) and refuse to let them be affected by stress.

So in an attempt to preserve our personal relationship from external pressures, can we build a ‘firewall’ in our living room – and have some (gulp) fun behind it?


Can my husband and I create a much-needed sense of novelty and connection by having a ‘date night’ at home?


To create a sense of occasion, I switch our current ‘couple status’ (slobby) to ‘date state’ (special)

I dispatch our youngest child to deliver a handwritten invitation to my husband: “Please come to a hot date in the living room at 7pm tonight. Dinner will be served. Dress to impress.”

To add novelty to what would otherwise be yet another night on the sofa I ‘format’ three romantic challenges into our date:

  • All mobile phones and screens banned; ditto any talk of work.
  • Each must read to the other from a favourite book.
  • Each must list ‘Ten Things I Like About You’.

To ring fence ‘special’ time, we commit to staying in the room for one hour. After that, staying together (as all couples know) will come down to choice…

What Happened?

So touched was he to receive my dinner invitation, my husband claims his first impulse was to write a card back. But he couldn’t find one, so instead he leans over, taps me on the shoulder, and says ‘I’m in.’

The children clear our cluttered living room, and ‘set’ it for dinner a deux, thus freeing up their parents to Prepare for Love. While my husband does something energetic with quinoa, I attempt to do something with my face (cued-up by our 10 yr-old: “You’re going on a date?! Oh, Mummy, you’re going to have to put on A LOT of make-up”).

As I pile on the slap, I realise this is the first romantic effort I’ve made in…well, weeks. As I smarten myself up, I physically shed the traces of my workday and stressed-out self. When comparing my normal pre-date stress levels (husband hustling me; cinema times pressing; no tights) I start to see definite advantages to staying home.

When I come downstairs, in a frock and heels, I find my husband wearing a clean shirt, a resolutely fixed grin, and (gulp) product in his hair. We are IN BUSINESS!

My husband admits, “My energy levels skyrocketed when I saw you dressed up.”

Phones/screens banned; no talk of work

It’s a relief to down our tech tools. Deprived of work chat, we have to dig deep into our conversational coffers…yep, we talk about the kids. Already I’m glad I formatted ‘new stuff’ for us to try….

Each must read aloud to the other

Our choices of date-night literature reflect our relationship (I’m all prose, he brings the poetry). I read an extract from ‘Adrian Mole’ which he doesn’t find funny. He reads a romantic poem to me, which I find gets me planning tomorrow’s trip to Lidl.

10 Things I Like About You

When I read out my list of ‘likes’, Mat looks visibly moved. When he reels his 10 off the top of his head, I tell him I’m impressed (“it took me AGES to come up with yours”). We are both surprised by some of the ‘likes’ the other has come up with (“Really? You find that lovable?”) Confounding all expectation, have we found something NEW in our relationship?

Couple feeding each other on sofa


True, we don’t last an hour before turning on the telly, but when we do hit the Amazon Firestick, we feel like we’re in the back row of the cinema, not a stained sofa in the midst of a lockdown. We enjoy a companionable, kid-free evening before heading to bed together (yes, in a Dick Emery sense of the word) and next day, before sloping back to his cluttered desktop, my husband thanks me for “the best night out I’ve had in ages.”


  • We don’t have to go out to get back to being a couple. We just need to make a conscious effort to re-set – to carve out special time together, and structure what we do with it.
  • The key is not to set the bar too high. You don’t need to dress up like you’re going to wedding, but you can brush your hair. Wear shoes.
  •  ‘Date Night’ is a state of mind more than an activity. To create the crucial ‘novelty’ factor, we just had to employ a bit of imagination – and engage with each other in new ways.
  • Mix it up. Already he’s announced he’ll be coming up with our ‘challenges’ for next week. (Should I be worried that I’ve heard him banging nails into the wall?)

Report filed by Tash Bell, who’s since learned that her parents-in-law (no-nonsense Yorkshire folk) celebrated their 51st wedding anniversary by donning dinner suit and evening dress for a kitchen date night. Now that’s how you stay married!


Sign up to our newsletter and reinvent your world

Join our newsletter to get the latest experiments and ideas.

You've been added - thank you!