“You should date your spouse.”

I heard this advice as a newly married woman and hung my hat on its truth. I assumed the person who spoke it was speaking with authority, and we needed to strive for weekly date nights or else surrender our marriage to its doom. But for many years, date nights were simply not a thing we could do with regularity. Not in the commercial and social sense of the word, anyway.

Did we have fun together when we went out? Of course.

Would frequent dates have been welcomed? Probably.

Was other people’s advice for our marriage helpful? Nope.

The truth is we married young, and for years we were the poster children for paycheck-to-paycheck living. For years, our life could be summarized by “they had babies and he was deployed with the Army a lot.” It was important for us that I stay home with our children, so we lived on one income and that necessitated a tight budget. For a few years, we juggled special needs children, weathered yet another military deployment, and then came the devastating diagnoses for our daughters. The years that followed were filled with the commitment that comes with loving and parenting two terminally ill children. Also, life. Also, marriage. Also, bills. Also, lots of stuff.

Date nights happened now and then thanks to friends and family who stepped in to care for and love our children well, but can I tell you a secret?

Four hours away for dinner and a movie was sometimes more stressful than it was helpful.

It meant spending a chunk of money that was honestly needed elsewhere. It meant making sure whoever was with our children was capable of providing the personal and medical care required. By the time those things were dealt with, my husband was left with an anxious wife who wanted desperately to enjoy a night out, but who was simply exhausted and couldn’t stop her brain from going over all the things.

An evening out of the house was great, but it often took me so long to decompress from daily life that I didn’t have much time to really enjoy it. Sometimes our dates were less than fantastic because we put so much pressure on ourselves to enjoy those hours together. When you set the expectations that high, there’s bound to be a bit of disappointment from time to time.

We were privileged to have a handful of overnight dates over the years and those were precious. The hours required for me to decompress and relax enough to enjoy myself were available. I could take a deep breath and be a wife. For even a few moments, I could be a wife without the beautifully heavy distraction of motherhood and caregiving. We had time to just be us, and it was treasured. Rare and fleeting, but of true value.

I’m grateful for those date nights and for every scrap of effort we’ve put into our marriage over the years, but date nights aren’t what held us together.

Sitting on the back porch together for a few minutes after the kids were in bed held us together.

Setting my alarm to wake up early and spend half an hour with him before he left for work held us together.

Trading back rubs for foot rubs in the living room while the kids watched cartoons held us together.

Our arrangement to take turns getting up with the kids on Saturday mornings so the other could sleep in held us together.

Laughing over reruns of our favorite shows on late-night television held us together.

Picking up each other’s slack, offering heaping portions of grace, and our commitment to keep trying held us together.

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We’ve been married 19 years now. We’ve grown up together. Our lives look different now than they did then. Our parenting responsibilities are different now than they were then. Our budget is different now than it was then. We are different now than we were then. We still have responsibilities and considerations to make, but we also have more freedom to date each other in this phase of life and that’s sort of amazing.

So, here’s my non-advice for spouses:

If you can date your spouse, I hope you will.

I hope you’ll wash your hair and put on clothes that make you feel pretty. I hope you’ll ask the grandparents to keep the kids or trade childcare with a friend or figure out how to pay a sitter. If your budget allows for sharing a snow cone while sitting on the tailgate of the truck in the grocery store parking lot, I hope you’ll do it. If your budget allows for a week-long, kid-free vacation with no holds barred, I hope you’ll do it. If you have a standing weekly date with your spouse, I think that’s awesome. If your date nights come semi-annually, I think that’s awesome, too.

But, if in your current season of life, dating your spouse means sharing a no-bake cheesecake straight from the pan while watching true crime documentaries after the kids FINALLY go to sleep, I hope you’ll do that and know the date doesn’t matter nearly as much as the one you’re with.

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Mandy McCarty Harris

Mandy McCarty Harris lives in Northwest Arkansas with her husband, young daughter, three dogs, and eleven backyard chickens. She writes about living happily in the messy middle of life. She can be found on Facebook, Instagram, and at HappyLikeThis.com