By JAN HOFFMAN
THEIRS is a seasoned marriage, 16 years and counting. They are middle-aged. Life is that modern-crazy haze: two girls in the windstorm of year-end school activities, the puppy that must be walked twice daily, the live-in mother-in-law. They both work long hours. Standard recipe for a drive-by relationship.
At the gala celebrating the crowning achievement of his career, he showed her off to cheering throngs: “How good-looking is my wife?”
In his lock-step schedule, he sets aside daily “Michelle time.”
And last weekend, he fulfilled a promise to her. They got all gussied up and flew to New York, took a limo to dinner and a Broadway show, then flew home. Date night, just the two of them. Michelle and Barack. And their security detail.
From longtime marrieds-with-kids, the sounds of romance envy: Groan. Growl. Whimper. Sigh.
“I’m jealous,” said Emily Giffin, the Atlanta-based writer of “Love the One You’re With” and other chick-lit novels. Home stats: married seven years to a corporate executive, three children under 6.
Last date with husband? She’s thinking, she mutters. “We don’t have a date night, I have to say,” Ms. Giffin said. A lame excuse? Her husband’s beloved Pittsburgh Penguins are in the Stanley Cup finals. “But I flew to New York alone and went out with my friends while he stayed home with the kids,” she said. “Does that count?”
While some commentators were grousing about the presidential date’s undisclosed cost to the taxpayers, news of the romantic evening prompted many wives to glare across the breakfast table, trying to remember the last time their husbands made a fuss over them.
Elbowed sharply in the side, husbands felt betrayed by the commander in chief. On “The Daily Show,” Jon Stewart reviewed the Obamas’ glamorous foray and screeched, “How do you compete with that?” He warned Mr. Obama, “Take it down a notch, dude!”
But relationship experts are applauding the first couple for giving life to the modern fantasy that longtime spouses can still be passionate about each other. Intentionally or not, the Obamas have become ambassadors for date night, a term that is a creature of these times. A generation ago, when Saturday night rolled around, parents simply went out. Now parents need to be prodded to date each other, as if they’re singles: take a break from the children, already!
“The Obamas really are products of the culture,” said Christine B. Whelan, a sociologist at the University of Iowa who studies the American family. The Obamas exemplify what sociologists call the “individualized marriage,” she added, where a thriving relationship is marked by love and mutual attraction, not just duty to family and social roles.
“As a society, we want to think a husband might still have his hand on his wife’s knee under the table after 15 years of marriage,” said Dr. Whelan, author of “Why Smart Men Marry Smart Women.” “That’s not necessarily bad, but it adds extra pressure.”
Joy Behar, a host on “The View,” whose marriage ended after 17 years, said nothing killed their sex drive like talking politics. So she said she understood the constraints on the first couple’s chemistry.
“And with a mother-in-law in the house?” she said. “Now that’s a real lust-corrector!” The president’s schedule posed unique marital challenges, she noted. Every day Mr. Obama has to weigh competing demands, Ms. Behar said: “Musharraf or Michelle? That’s a tougher thing for him than the average Joe. So it’s really meaningful when you watch them together.” She added, in a tone of wonderment, “He actually looks like he desires her.”
Some wives said, wistfully, that the White House also gave the Obamas restorative marital powers not available to average Joes and Josephines. Rita Rudner, the comedian, who met Mr. Obama last month at a fund-raiser for Senator Harry Reid, carped, “He just uses Air Force One to impress her. Because they usually fly Delta.”
Lisa Wolfe, a writer in New York, married for 17 years to a man named Joe, said of Mr. Obama: “He comes in like an action hero to save the country, and that’s hot. Plus, she’s got stylists and always looks great and is doing important work, too. So they’re getting each other at their best. I’d have a lot more pizzazz left for my husband, too, if we moved into the White House and my mother was on hand to baby-sit 24-7.”
Some husbands had their story and were sticking to it: emphatic cluelessness. Mark Hyman, a conservative television commentator, said his first reaction to the Obamas’ date night wasn’t envy, but bewilderment over how they managed to schedule one. He and his wife, he said, could scarcely keep up with coordinating weekend activities, scattered across Baltimore, of their three children, ages 7, 10 and 13.
“We’ve had family date nights,” offered Mr. Hyman, doing the math to figure out he has been married 15 — no, 14 — years. “A Jonas Brothers concert?”
Husband. Wife. Together. Alone? “Sometimes we talk about going to a film together,” he said, “but by the time we agree on one, it’s out on DVD.”
In some households, attention to the Obamas’ example was being paid. Eileen O’Connor, a Washington lawyer with five daughters, believes the “Yes We Can” message, marital version, is penetrating even her 19-year marriage. “Every time my husband hears about them on the news,” she said, “he looks at me out of the corner of his eye.”
So, first-class seats for two on a flight to New York? Not exactly.
“But late at night as he’s about to walk the dog, he’ll say, ‘Why don’t you come with me?’ ” Ms. O’Connor said. “That’s our Michelle time. Or maybe once a month we’ll walk to the local bistro for a glass of wine and hors d’oeuvres.”
After an hour, she said, “We look at each other and say, ‘O.K. We’re done!’ ”
She and other married friends have discussed the Obamas’ efforts to keep their marriage a priority. Ms. O’Connor’s husband, John Bilotta, seems to be taking the hint: Since Mother’s Day, he has been sending her flowers weekly.
As he was running family errands, Mr. Bilotta, a corporate media consultant, said in a phone interview: “It pops up on my BlackBerry on Tuesdays: ‘Send flowers to wife.’ ”
Although most spouses cannot create fairy-tale evenings on the order of Mr. Obama, couples could learn from his model, said Arthur Aron, a social psychologist who studies long-term relationships. Studies show that “couples who do things that are novel, challenging and exciting do a lot better,” said Dr. Aron, a professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Even a picnic could suffice, he said.
Other couples cautioned against reading too much into what could be a staging of matrimonial contentment. “You never know what couples are really like,” said Ms. Rudner, who has been married 21 years. “I used to be jealous of Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston.”
And then there are those longtime couples who, prompted by the Obamas’ date night, looked across their breakfast tables last week and liked what they saw. Tracey Ullman, who stars in the Showtime series “State of the Union,” recalled that in December, her husband took her to Paris for their 25th anniversary and gave her a special ring.
“He wanted to get me a necklace,” Ms. Ullman recalled, “but my daughter, Mabel, said, ‘You’ve been married to her for 25 years, Dad! Haven’t you noticed, she doesn’t have a neck?’ ”
True, Ms. Ullman said: “I really don’t. But Allan has never noticed. He just said to Mabel, ‘But she has a lovely neck!’ ”