Four’s Company

Some people get married because they’re tired of going out all the time, while others do it so they can have someone to go out with all the time. For couples who don’t see eye to eye, there is only one social ritual that placates both: the double date, where the two can be together and out in the world simultaneously. And yet double dates, like wedding toasts, tend to bring out the worst in everyone. Your girlfriend flirts recklessly with the other guy, someone says something wildly inappropriate, the restaurant is subpar, or your new friend’s husband turns out to be an intolerable ass. If dating is hell, double dating is double hell.

The most common double date tends to be dinner and a movie—because it exempts both couples from having to cook and because it decreases the conversation time. “To me,” says Jon, 37, a screenwriter, “the dinner-and-a-movie double date is completely life-denying. You can’t drink as much as you usually would at dinner, and by the time you get to the movie, at least two of the four people are too tired to see it. There is no excitement and no sense of possibility, even the way there might be out on the town with your spouse. A better alternative would be going to a bar, each of you picking somebody up, and then saying, ‘Would you like to come to dinner with me and my husband?’ At least that way you’ve got some discovery.”

Of course, there is one irrefutable perk to a double date: It lets you flirt, safely, in front of your lover, which can be a turn-on. “Double dates are really a way of dating other people without dating other people,” says Jon. “But if you do this too early in a relationship, then you have to worry about her liking the other guy better, and it can turn into a case of sour grapes.”

Some people push double dates for business reasons, while others do it because they are under the mistaken impression that they are married to somebody interesting. “I love to see my friend Jane without her husband, Tim, because he’s boring,” says Rose, 38, a film executive, “but if I want to see her, I have to see him, and then my boyfriend’s invited and suddenly it’s a double date. I learned that if I want to see her alone, I have to make it a lunch date.”

My friend Lisa, 36, a stay-at-home mom, has been anti-double-dating since a bad experience early on in her marriage, when she was expecting their first child. “We took this one couple, a male friend of his and his fiancée, out to Jean Georges to celebrate their engagement. We had spent a lot of money on them, and afterward the men were walking in front and we were walking behind. I was chattering on nervously. We walked past a jewelry store and I made some joke about wanting to get a bigger and bigger stone for my engagement ring as the years went by. She made a face of disgust, and walked up to join the men. I was left eight months pregnant, lumbering along, alone.”

For the next seven years, she tried never to double-date with her husband Ben’s friends, especially when she didn’t like their wives. And he accepted it, although it bugged him. Recently, however, she’s made a conscious effort to start socializing with him again. “You’re a plant without water if you’re not in the world,” she admits. “And you need to see your spouse outside the drudgery of building a life together. You see your husband being witty on a double date and you feel like, Oh, yeah. He’s not just that boring guy who demands dinner every night.

A month ago, Jake and I went out with Lisa and Ben. It wasn’t bad. We drank two pitchers of margaritas, and although it was awkward at first, after a while everyone loosened up. It was like a first date, except with four people, and no one went home with someone they weren’t already sleeping with.

Yet Lisa and Ben’s most frequent dating partners are a gay couple. They go to movies together, and out to dinner. “It’s nice not to have to talk about our kids’ schools, what great mothers we are, backhandedly about how much money our husbands make, or where we vacation,” says Lisa. “They’re more self-deprecating, less competitive, and more emotionally generous.” And if her husband gets more flirt action than she does, that’s not so bad either.

Four’s Company