NOVEMBER 3, 2009
Elizabeth Bernstein / WallStreetJournal
Then I found myself out at a restaurant, smiling a little too broadly, watching my table manners and nervously trying to make conversation.
It was a date all right—a “couples date.”
My husband and I were having dinner with an acquaintance and his wife who had just moved to town. We were hoping the evening would be the start of a friendship.
Little did we know that finding another couple we could stand to spend time with could seem twice as hard as finding each other in the first place.
“It’s frustrating,” says Ben Van Houten, a 40-year-old technology writer. “We are looking for chemistry—a couple to become life-long friends with us. But we have not been able to find it.”
Since moving to Grand Rapids, Mich., three years ago, Mr. Van Houten and his wife have gone out with several of his old high-school buddies and their spouses, and tried to meet couples through work and their son’s school.
They had one “date” where the woman was self-absorbed, another, Mr. Van Houten recalls, where the man was “a complete dud with no sense of humor,” and a third that was ruined by politics. When Mr. Van Houten got up his nerve and asked a neighbor and his wife out to dinner, the man replied, “I don’t like people.”
For the past few weeks, the Van Houtens have been waiting nervously for a couple to reschedule a date they had postponed—and debating whether to call first. “With couples dating, you really have to put yourself out there,” Mr. Van Houten says. “It’s hard.”
Yup. The possibilities for awkwardness are seemingly endless. And if something goes wrong, you don’t just embarrass yourself. You embarrass your mate, as well.
Just ask Brett Blumenthal. She was nervous when she and her husband were introduced to another couple by a mutual friend. “We knew that this couple was friends with our friend and that we would feel weird if it didn’t work out,” says Ms. Blumenthal, who is 35 and owns a Web company that promotes balanced living.
For their first date, the couples went to a restaurant in Cambridge, Mass., where they both live. They broke the ice with wine and jokes about how they were on a blind date, and chatted about their careers.
Then the topic of vacations came up. When the other couple said they go to Utah every year to ski, Ms. Blumenthal blurted out: “We would totally love to go with you!” Unfortunately, no one had invited her.
After dinner, Ms. Blumenthal told her husband she worried she had come across as desperate. “I hope I didn’t ruin our chances of hanging out with them,” she said. His response: “Yeah, that was a little forward of you.”
Actually, the date itself is just the beginning of the stress. Wait until the next day, which can be just as excruciating as the day after a singles date. If you didn’t like the other couple, you’ll need to plot ways to avoid them. If you did like them, you’ll need to deal with your anxiety.
Because what if they don’t call? Should you contact them? And if you do, and you still don’t hear back, what does that say about your relationship with your partner? Are you irritating? Insufferable? Uninteresting as a team?
“There’s a whole new lack of self-esteem in this venture,” says Rhett Soveran, 27, a Web editor in Calgary, Alberta. He and his wife have undertaken a flurry of couples dates this fall, looking for new friends to replace several who have moved away.
In September, they had dinner at a local brewery with a couple they met through Twitter. Mr. Soveran was fascinated to learn that the husband also works on the Web and is the son of a pastor, as is he.
After dinner, the two couples went to the Soverans’ house, where they made a bonfire in the backyard and toasted marshmallows. “We had an awesome night,” says Mr. Soveran.
So what’s the problem? Mr. Soveran didn’t go in for the hug. He wonders if that’s why there hasn’t been a follow-up date. “There was a millisecond where I could have made the move,” he says. “Maybe as the host I should have initiated it.”
Sure, there are ways for the date to go wrong. Some are big: jealousy, extramarital attraction, the discovery that you’re on a date with real, live swingers.
But plenty more are petty deal-breakers. Because whether we admit it or not, we’re just as picky when looking for a couple to date as we were when we were looking for a mate in the first place.
Which reminds me: Am I the only one who finds the idea of making new couple friends on one of those couples Web sites, such as kupple.com, simply terrifying?
It’s always sticky if half of one couple is friends with half of the other. That often leaves the other two people to stumble through the conversation on their own.
Case in point: Last year, my husband and I went to brunch with my boss and his boyfriend. My boss and I chatted, laughed and gossiped; our partners politely discussed carbohydrates. (We haven’t double-dated since.)
Some couples will hog all the attention. Or run up a gigantic bar bill and ask you to split it down the middle. Or just not talk.
“I sometimes feel like I’m doing stand-up all night,” says Nancy Berk, a 50-year-old psychologist in Pittsburgh, recalling dates she’s been on with her quiet husband and a subdued couple.
Other couples will bicker, or flirt, or make out right in front of you. “When the night is about to draw to an end, I’m not really sure if I want to hear the one ask the other, ‘Want to go sleepy in the beddie?'” says Jason Scarlatti, a 34-year-old creative director for a Manhattan underwear company.
And then there’s the bad manners. A few years ago, Lauree Ostrofsky, a 34-year-old life coach in Bethesda, Md., and her then-husband were having dinner at a tapas restaurant with another couple. Everything was going fine until the cheese plate arrived. As everyone was chatting, the wife stabbed a piece of manchego with her knife—and licked it off.
After dinner, Ms. Ostrofsky told her husband she didn’t want to see the couple again. But that didn’t stop her from being offended when they never called. “They should have—we’re fun, entertaining and engaging,” she says, adding, “Not that we wanted to hang out.”
Still, we do need friends. Research shows that couples who are friends with other couples have happier, longer-lasting relationships with each other.
The reasons are simple. If you have friends who enjoy you as a couple, you may feel better about your union. These other couples can be a support network. And the process of making new friends together may inject energy into your relationship and give you something to bond over.
But finding the perfect match is hard. Look at it this way: You had to go on lots of dates when you were single just to find the one person who clicked. Imagine how many more it will take if four people are involved.
I’ve got some tips to help make the most of your next couples outing: Don’t date your boss. Don’t share food on a first date. And don’t sit there silently, letting others do all the work.
Do ask questions and share. Soon-to-be-published research into how couples form friendships, by Richard Slatcher, a psychology professor at Wayne State University in Detroit, found that pairs of couples who spent 45 minutes discussing personal issues bonded more closely than couples who made small talk. “You need to do it slowly, though, so you don’t scare them off,” Prof. Slatcher says.
More tips: Hug them if you like them. And, for heaven’s sake, let your partner get a word in edgewise.
Several years ago, my husband and I were invited to a dinner party by a co-worker and his wife. That evening I felt a little under the weather but didn’t want to cancel. So I asked my husband, who is often more quiet than I am, if he would cover for me by talking more.
I spoke very little that night. And my husband was the life of the party, effortlessly steering the conversation from hip writers and foreign films to how to fry a turkey.
When we left, he asked me how he did. And I asked him what happened. I’d never heard him talk so much when we were out on a couples date.
He thought about it for a second.
“Well, you finally shut up.”