Even when we’re getting along well, we can easily fall into intimacy-defeating habits — like watching TV in bed, or using up all our conversation time discussing shared responsibilities or financial concerns, or failing to take as much care with our grooming habits as we once did.
Indeed, the habits of togetherness can routinely lead to more distant emotional patterns, says David Schnarch, PhD, author of Passionate Marriage: Keeping Love and Intimacy Alive in Committed Relationships (W. W. Norton, 1997). Schnarch points out that, in many cases, the longer we stay with our partners, the more we hesitate to “rock the boat” with novel activities or self-revelation that might cost us our partner’s devotion. We start feeling compelled to be predictable just to keep things stable.
The problem with this risk-averse approach, Schnarch explains, is that we get caught in a cycle of “self-presentation,” trying to be who we think our partner wants and needs, rather than self-revelation, which is what was so exciting about being in love in the first place — exposing our raw, sometimes contradictory emotional selves to our partners. Since the science of romantic attraction is largely premised on risk and reward, this self-imposed predictability can eventually cool even the hottest romance.
Taking risks with and for our partners produces a powerful chemical effect. Fisher’s fMRI studies show how much the brain loves new stimuli, and she’s seen couples married for more than 20 years test as high on romantic passion for their partners as high school seniors. Fisher suspects that the couples that maintain their passion over time have found healthy ways to create novelty in their relationships, both emotionally and physically.
Renew Your Passion
If novelty and exposing our deeper selves are the keys to more fulfilling relationships, how can we achieve these goals in our daily life?
Marital expert John Gottman, PhD, says resilient couples keep in tune with the details of their partner’s life: his or her likes and dislikes, daily routines, and deep dreams. “Emotionally intelligent couples are intimately familiar with each other’s world,” he writes in The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (Crown, 1999). “The more you know and understand about each other, the easier it is to keep connected as life swirls around you.”
Make sure you set aside time for a daily check-in with your partner — and not just about household responsibilities or to vent about your workday. Find out what and how he or she is doing. Also, make sure you maintain time (at least weekly) for more far-ranging conversations, during which you can discuss your visions and intentions. Weekly “date nights” help create space for this.
A deep emotional connection also needs regular affirmation. Gottman’s studies show that maintaining a ratio of five positive statements to every negative one keeps a couple in what he calls “positive sentiment override.” Making appreciation the rule and not the exception helps a couple keep their emotional storehouse full of good mutual feelings. As a result, normal arguments and irritations will be less likely to damage their relationship. Take every opportunity to affirm what you like about your partner, both with actions and words.
While a foundation of trust and security is critical to the long-term health of your relationship, rekindling a romantic fire may also require a little playfulness and uncertainty. If your lovemaking has become routine, for instance, you may want to take a deliberate break. Fisher points out that when gratification is delayed, dopamine kicks in and increases the brain’s focus on a potential reward. A little anticipation can stimulate the brain to more thoroughly enjoy the pursuit — and the reward.
Finally, before finding fault with your partner’s appearance, be sure to take a good look at your own efforts to keep yourself attractive, healthy and happy. “Both sexes are attracted to happy partners,” Fisher notes. “This may be because we naturally mimic those around us.”
Trade in your sweatpants for a silk robe. If you’re ornery after work, schedule your workouts then, or stop at a cafe on your way home and read a book for half an hour to shift your state of mind. The efforts we make to please our partners tend to have far more impact than our efforts to change our partners to please us.
The good news is that entering a down-phase in your relationship can be exactly the motivation you need to develop the skills required to sustain a deeper connection with your partner. And over time, only real intimacy can deliver the thrill of true romance over and over again.
Courtney Helgoe is a freelance writer in Minneapolis.
Next: Five right-now suggestions for renewing your relationship.