The early days of any relationship are exciting, passionate and tend to feel a bit like magic. According to the research, this initial passion fades after about two years BUT there are ways to keep the spark.
Research has found that there tends to be a boost in happiness in the years before marriage or commitment and a gradual decline back to baseline after that commitment.
The phenomenon of waning passion is so common as to have a name – hedonic adaption. This is the tendency to become used to things we are constantly exposed to. It’s the reason food never tastes better than it does on the first mouthful, songs that have you belting out the lyrics one week, become ‘meh’ the next. With repeated exposure, things become less exciting and more is needed to replicate the initial buzz.
When it comes to negative experiences, hedonic adaption is our ally. It’s the reason pain, grief and loss become more tolerable. In the context of relationships, hedonic adaption can be trouble, underpinning a slow decline in both passionate and companionate love.
With consistent exposure, positive experiences like date nights, sex or just being together become expected and predictable. It’s human nature to long for something different and exciting, so the million dollar question (or however many dollars are saved by not divorcing) is this:
If people eventually become bored even with the exciting things, how do we stop boredom from sticking its well-combed, side-parted, pocket-protected beigeness into a relationship?
According to the research there are surefire ways to stave off boredom and keep the spark. Here are nine of them:
Understand that feeling bored is normal. Don’t take boredom as a sign that your relationship is dead. It’s not. The lack of excitement is not a reflection of you or your partner, but is a very normal stage of the relationship. Like any stage of any process, you can skip it, get stuck in it or power through the middle of it and come out beautifully the other side. What your relationship needs is some attention and some tweaking.
Mix it up.
Introduce varied experiences. The more varied the experiences that a couple share together, the longer it will take for boredom to creep in. A recent New Zealand study found that couples who spent time together in a shared activity (weekends away, exercising, hobbies, going out, cooking or cooking classes, learning something new, watching a movie) were happier, closer and less stressed in the relationship, both in the short and long term.
If there is limited opportunity to try different things, try different versions of the same thing. Different restaurants on date nights, different types of exercise together, or a different walking route will have a similar effect.
Amp it up.
Amp up the positive The more positive events and emotions a couple experiences, the slower the adaption. It seems obvious enough but here are the figures to make it concrete AND do-able:
• For every negative emotion, at least three positive ones are needed to neutralise it.
• For every negative interaction between you, share five positive ones.
Don’t criticise. Ever. The research proves what we already know: Criticism drains a relationship. Let it out and it will stalk, crouch and pounce to maim. First your partner, then your relationship. Just don’t go there.
Gently sculpt each other.
Promote each other’s ideal self. It’s called the Michelangelo effect and it works. The view of ourselves is never more beautiful than when seen through the eyes of those who love us. Studies have shown that couples can gently sculpt each other towards their ideal selves by supporting each other’s goals and acknowledging each other’s capability, and potential. What a couple think of each other can propel each person toward the best version of themselves and lay the way for closer, richer, more enduring relationships.
We all need a buzz now and then.
Do something exciting together. Couples who engage in novel and exciting activities experience greater attraction and passion for each other. When couples participate in exciting activities together (rock climbing, dancing, sharing secrets), they seem to associate the feelings that stem from the activity (enthusiasm, excitement, warmth) with the relationship itself. What is felt in response to the activity, is felt about the relationship.
Research has also found that people can mistake surges in adrenaline for sexual attraction. Activities that are charged with excitement, tension, or apprehension (e.g. sky-diving or high thrill theme park rides) have a way of increasing physical and sexual attraction.
It’s still not enough to get me jumping out of a plane … unless Shirleen from accounts offers to go with him instead … maybe … Fortunately for those of us whose self-preservation instincts are fairly uncompromising, even less exhilarating activities like hiking, watching cliffhangers, or playing sport together can boost attraction, as the arousal can be attributed to the partner rather than the activity. Phew.
Push against predictability.
Be surprising. It’s the enemy of predictability and completely lovely. The surprise doesn’t have to be big (though that never hurts). Anything out of the ordinary will do – a favourite magazine, a message on the windscreen.
Here’s the grey though – even surprises, thrills and spontaneity can become addictive. And what happens when things become addictive? More is needed to maintain the initial levels of happiness. Not to worry though – science has your back. Here’s how to short-circuit that one …
Appreciation. It’s a little bit magical.
Cultivate appreciation. This is critical in a relationship. Life-giving actually. Watch how a relationship withers without it. So often, the ending of a relationship has its messy, insidious beginnings in one partner not feeling appreciated.
Appreciation is one of those things that’s as strong in its absence as it is in its presence. A relationship will die a slow cold death without it.
When a person no longer appreciates or attends to their partner, they stop being open to the benefits of the relationship. They are also more easily drawn in to social comparisons – always a dangerous exercise. Take the person you’re with for granted and you’ll be similarly indifferent to the ways he or she makes your life better for being in it. When that happens, there’s no boost in happiness from being in the relationship. On the other hand, if you appreciate the relationship you’re in and the person you’re with you’re less likely to take your time together and your intimacy for granted.
Appreciation should be granted hero status for what it can do. Research has found that people who feel more appreciated by their partners are:
. more appreciative of their partners in return;
. more committed to their relationship;
. more likely to remain in the relationship;
. more responsive to their partner’s needs.
So appreciation is a wonderful thing – do it every day. But how do you do it from a standing start? By imagining not having it. In one study, people who were asked to contemplate what life would be like if they had never met their romantic partner reported higher relationship satisfaction than those who did not imagine life without their relationship.
Actively thinking about what life would be like without your partner in it increases appreciation, intimacy and relationship satisfaction.
For a relationship to flourish, it also needs to be fun. Even the strongest relationship can become predictable and – I’m just going to say it – boring. That in no way means the relationship has run its course or that the people in it are dull and tired. What it means is that the relationship is normal, still with all of the potential, love and richness that made it happen in the first place. With effort and attention, the predictable and the lacklustre can be turned around and the relationship brought back to one that you both love – l o v e – being in.