Couples can significantly boost their happiness and wellbeing by having date nights away from their children, research from University College London has shown.
The study, based on a detailed analysis of the lives of 236 couples, found that time parents spent with their children significantly contributed to their happiness when compared with being alone.
However, the largest increase in wellbeing came when couples spent time alone without their children, according to research by the University’s institute of education.
Dr Giacomo Vagni, who conducted the study, said it dispelled previous speculation that children can have a negative effect on parents’ mental health.
“I found the opposite, that when parents are away from their children, they are sadder or depressed,” he said.
There were, however, significant gender differences in that fathers benefited more from family time in terms of their mental wellbeing than mothers.
“One of the reasons is that during family time when everyone is together, mothers are up and running around doing all the chores and housework. There is an uneven distribution of housework during family time,” said Dr Vagni.
On weekdays during family time, mothers do an average of 38 minutes of childcare compared to 29 minutes for fathers; on weekends, they do 70 minutes of childcare compared to 57 minutes for fathers.
“It highlights how mothers still bear a disproportionate share of domestic and care work and even when families are spending time together,” said Dr Vagni.
‘Significant policy ramifications’
He said the finding on the importance of “couple time” for happiness had significant policy ramifications, adding: “Couples today have difficulties finding time for each other with their often very busy schedules and scheduling family time.
“When parents spend couple time together, that is super important both for the relationship and for their wellbeing. David Cameron picked up on this as a policy point.”
Barack and Michelle Obama have also spoken in the past about how they try to find time for one “date night” on a Friday or Saturday evening each week.
The study also showed how interconnected families were, so that the activities they were doing and their moods could influence the happiness of other members of the family, even when they were not together.
A mother’s happiness could be negatively affected by a husband having “father time” with the children.
“What the partner is doing, even when not together, has a significant impact on the other partner’s mood,” said Dr Vagni.
“Partners and parents are profoundly interconnected in not just what they do but also how they feel and therefore a partner’s enjoyment of a situation is one of the most important predictors of a person’s own enjoyment.”
Fathers have ‘more leisure time on weekends’
For the study, parents born in the Eighties with a median age of 35 were asked to rate a series of activities on a seven-point scale. Paid work, including their commute, and domestic unpaid work in the home were most disliked, while sleep and leisure such as watching TV were the most enjoyable.
The time fathers spend with their children plays an important role in shaping their wellbeing, and fathers are negatively affected by not being with their children on weekends.
Fathers have more leisure time than mothers on weekends, even when families are together, largely because women do more housework and childcare.
The study was published in the journal, Sociology.