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Relationship Revival

Denver Times columnist Doug Brown wasn’t ready to give up his favorite sweatpants, but after his wife, Annie, declared them a libido-killer, he agreed. After all, when you commit to making love every single day for 101 days, little things really do count.

Even before embarking on this challenge, the Browns, both in their late 30s, considered themselves a happy couple. But like many happily partnered people who have been together awhile, they felt like their romance was getting a little stale. Two feisty young daughters, two jobs and 14 years of marriage had left them less focused on the sizzle of their intimate connection — a situation to which most people in long-term partnerships can readily relate.

Whether it’s stress, time pressure or just the effects of always-there familiarity, most long-term partnerships reach points where the romance could use a boost.

As it turned out, the Browns’ experiment delivered far more than they bargained for. In Just Do It: How One Couple Turned Off the TV and Turned On Their Sex Life for 101 Days (No Excuses!), Doug Brown explains how daily intimacy not only renewed their physical connection, it significantly deepened their emotional one and increased their daily pleasure in living. It inspired them to take yoga classes, go on more short vacations and even commit to buying a house.

So what to do if your own connection feels flimsy and your passion a bit predictable? A 101-day lovefest might not be what you have in mind, but many experts suggest that taking some initiative to renew your bond in other ways can yield unexpected rewards. Here, relationship experts explain why romances tend to cool over time and how you can help revive the energy and passion you’d both like to enjoy for the long haul.

Why Things Cool

When a long-term relationship falls into a holding pattern, a variety of factors may be at play. Some of the change is simply chemical, explains scientist and anthropologist Helen Fisher in her book Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love.

During the rush of new romance, we’re high on dopamine, which the reward centers in the brain churn out in response to novel stimuli. But as relationships stabilize we’re more influenced by oxytocin and vasopressin. These calming hormones deepen our bonds and increase our sense of loyalty and security, but the sensations they produce can feel flat compared with the who-needs-sleep-or-food dopamine high we felt in earlier days.

There are also the inevitable challenges that emerge when a relationship survives its early flame phase: the reality of shared household responsibilities, work demands that keep partners apart or exhausted, maybe the arrival of a new baby, or negotiations around stepparenting. Having one or both partners faced with a choice between intimacy and much-needed sleep can also take romance down a notch.

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. 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. “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.

“Emotionally intelligent couples are intimately familiar with each other’s world. The more you know and understand about each other, the easier it is to keep connected as life swirls around you.”

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.

Feel the Love

Five right-now suggestions for renewing your relationship.

  1. Redecorate your room. Clear the clutter, kick out the TV, and create an appealing, intimate environment. In Just Do It: How One Couple Turned Off the TV and Turned On Their Sex Life for 101 Days (No Excuses!), Doug and Annie Brown turned their bedroom into a “love den,” stocking up on candles and luxurious sheets and removing unromantic distractions from the walls and dresser tops.
  2. Set the alarm 30 minutes earlier. This guarantees a window of uninterrupted time with your partner every morning, for talking or cuddling.
  3. Schedule a weekly date. Protect it with your life. And use it to enjoy yourselves, not to pay the bills.
  4. Start working out together. Doug and Annie Brown joined a yoga class and found it far more inspirational for romance than a night on the town. What’s more, exercise stimulates dopamine and enhances romantic attraction.
  5. Renew a shared interest from your early courtship. Did you used to ride bicycles together? Go to the dog park? Ice skate? Marital therapist Willard Harley, PhD, suggests that we fall in love with the people with whom we have the most fun, so it’s worth the time and effort to head out — even when it might be “easier” to stay at home.
Courtney Helgoe

Courtney Helgoe is the Experience Life features editor.

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