When you’re young, you gossip about the couples that are having sex. When you’re older, you gossip about the ones that aren’t.
Keeping love alive isn’t easy. And when I was researching my new book Plays Well With Others, well, I learned a lot of very harsh truths about the current state of marriage.
While I had no desire to write a “Romantic Necronomicon” that would drive readers mad (or just make them mad at me) I do cover a lot of difficult stuff that most relationship books wouldn’t touch without a HAZMAT suit. (I am not liable if the book damages your eyeballs.)
So what do we do? How do we keep love going? This post is an excerpt from the love section of the book and it covers two of the four things that science recommends to make love thrive. Post-pandemic, many of us need this information more than ever. It’s not hard to do. And best of all, it’s fun.
This is just a taste. There’s much, much more in the book (and awesome bonuses for preordering.) Any retailer and any version of the book qualifies for the bonuses. Grab a copy at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Books A Million, Indiebound or Bookshop.
Okay, let’s get to it…
Romantic love requires a defibrillator. Something that keeps the heart going when it stops or gets wonky. We want the magic back. That idealization from early love. And we can get it. We saw in the MRI data some couples do maintain it for decades. But how?
The idealization of early romantic love is not under our control. That’s why it feels like a fairy tale. But we’ve seen it often fades, and entropy can be equally inexorable. To renew love, we must be proactive and deliberate. We can’t wait for the magic; we must make magic. Lucky for us, love can be built and sustained.
In a 2002 study, Karney and Frye found that overall relationship satisfaction has more to do with recent feelings. Unsurprising, but just how important are those recent emotions? Eight times as important. We want to bootstrap a feedback loop for those emotional memories.
But how? You don’t just “choose” to feel warm and fuzzy about your partner. Here’s where the concept of “self-expansion” comes in. The most commonly cited reason for divorce isn’t fighting or affairs; 80 percent of couples said it was losing closeness. We often talk about feeling like we’re growing, learning, and expanding ourselves as a result of love, but it turns out this is actually one of the creators of love. Arthur Aron and Gary Lewandowski found that when couples do stuff that makes them feel they are learning and becoming better, it increases closeness. Just like boredom kills love, when we feel our partner is helping us become a better, more interesting person, we love them all the more.
Doing things together that are stimulating and challenging stretches our self-concept wider and provides a buzz. The angle of attack is simple: never stop dating. You did all kinds of cool stuff together when you first fell in love. You probably saw that as a result, not the cause of romance, but it’s both. “Quality time” together won’t do diddly if you’re merely making more time to be bored together.
The research is clear here: you need to do exciting things. It’s the antiboredom EpiPen. Researchers did a ten-week study comparing couples who engaged in “pleasant” activities versus those who pursued “exciting” activities. Pleasant lost. Couples who went out to dinner or a movie didn’t get nearly the marital satisfaction boost that those who danced, skied, or went to concerts did. Another study Velcro-strapped partners together and had them complete an obstacle course. Huge increase in relationship satisfaction. We need interaction, challenges, movement, and fun. Psychologist Elaine Hatfield said it best: “Adrenaline makes the heart grow fonder.”
But how does this increase love? It’s due to the criminally underrated concept of emotional contagion. When we feel excited, we associate it with what’s around us, even if that thing is not directly responsible. When we feel partner = fun, we enjoy their presence more. And that lets us be somewhat lazy by letting environments do the work for us. Go to a concert. Get on a roller coaster. You want a fairy tale? Great. Go fight a dragon together.
In fact, any strong emotion can increase love. People often reference Stockholm syndrome, the phenomenon of hostages coming to sympathize with their captors. It’s real. And what many people forget is that after the actual 1973 event in Stockholm, two of the hostages actually got engaged to the criminals. This is why some people stay in toxic relationships. Though they may not realize it, to them, the drama and fighting are preferable to another night watching TV.
Not only do “self-expansion” activities improve relationship satisfaction, but studies show that they also increase desire. Couples who did exciting stuff were 12 percent more likely to be intimate that weekend than those who did typical stuff. And speaking of sex: have it. Only 58 percent of women and 46 percent of men are happy with the current amount they’re getting. (Yes, they’re getting an F in sex this semester.) Denise Donnelly of Georgia State reports that lovemaking less than once a month is a harbinger of misery and separation. And a low-intimacy relationship isn’t just a result of unhappiness, it’s also a cause. Let those hormones do the happiness work for you. It’s fun. (I do not need data to prove that.)
Excitement, learning, experiencing, growing. This allows you not only to feel better in the moment but to collect emotional memories. Scenes for your story of love. Researcher John Gottman says when fondness and admiration leave a relationship, you’re on your way to splitsville. And when those feelings are gone, he advises therapists to terminate treatment. The patient cannot be saved.
Want a concrete way to get started? Go out with your spouse and pretend it’s your first date. This isn’t just some cheesy advice from Aunt Barb: it’s been tested. To fall in love again, redo the things you did falling in love the first time.
What we’re really doing here is going deeper and learning more about your partner to build closeness. A 2001 study found couples who really open up to each other are nearly two-thirds more likely to say they have a happy union. As Casanova once said, “Love is three-quarters curiosity.” And Gottman’s research backs him up. The happiest couples understand a lot about their partners. He calls this deep knowledge a “love map.” Knowing how they like their coffee, the little worries that bother them, what their biggest hopes and dreams are. This info not only increases closeness but also reduces conflict by what Gottman calls “preemptive repair.” We all have concerns and sensitivities, rational or not, and when you’re aware of those, you can avoid them before they become an issue.
So look up from your smartphone and get to know your partner better. Knowing how they like their coffee is good, but the real value here is in understanding the personal, idiosyncratic meanings they have of things. What does love mean to them? Marriage? Happiness? Dig for their unique perspective on stuff like what “being fulfilled” entails. When you know that your partner sees the completion of household chores as an important expression of caring, then it’s not a mystery why they’re getting upset—and you can do something about it.
(If you’re enjoying this, preorder the book.)
Dan Wile once wrote, “Choosing a partner is choosing a set of problems.” But when you take the time to get to know somebody, you can see the emotional reasons why things don’t mean to them what they might mean to you. That understanding can change “difficult problems” into “lovable quirks.” When you know they leave the lights on in the bathroom sometimes because of a childhood fear of the dark, the lazy idiot becomes a sympathetic human with acceptable foibles.
And, more important, Gottman says that understanding people’s idiosyncratic meanings is how you overcome those recurring problems. What does gridlock on an issue mean? It means this is tied to something important to them. Values. The same thing causing you all that grief can be a door to a deep insight into your partner. If you know what something really means to them, maybe you can find something that honors both of your visions of life.
Or maybe you can at least respect each other’s position instead of thinking they’re trying to sabotage your happiness. Like Gottman said, dealing with those perpetual problems is about regulation, not resolution. And that works a lot better when you’re honestly able to tell them “I don’t agree, but I see why you feel that way.”
Expanding on meaning, talking about dreams and values may sound saccharine, but it’s crucial. You’re on a journey together, so it’s kinda important that you both wanna head in the same direction, eh? What’s their ideal life? Their ideal self? These are big questions, but if you start answering them, the smaller stuff starts falling into place and that crazy person you live with can start to make sense. All couples argue about money. Why? Because money is all about values. It’s a quantification of what’s important to you. Get closer to an understanding of their values, and the money problem magically gets easier to deal with.
You don’t want to just “get along.” God, how low a standard is that? Do all the above right and you get on the path to shared meaning. To having your own secret language. An emotional shorthand. Silly stuff infused with rich personal meaning. Those inside jokes, things you say that are crazy to everyone else but mean so much to the two of you. This is when couples truly can’t bear to be apart, because they have a shared identity, a shared story, because the other person is inextricably a part of their future progress, future goals, and how they will become their ideal self.
And that unique culture should be supported by unique rituals. A big part of making this special culture of two and cementing a shared identity is infusing the day-to-day with that special meaning. These aren’t the big, exciting moments of expansion; they’re the little things. Mealtimes, bedtime, vacations, date night, partings, reunitings, scheduled snuggling appointments, and celebrations are all perfect moments for having a special, weird something that sets your love apart.
A good concrete one to start with? At the end of the workday when you reunite, you each take a turn sharing the good news of the day. And both of you support and celebrate what the other says. Repeated studies have shown this can boost happiness and relationship satisfaction. UCSB professor Shelly Gable has found that how couples celebrate can actually be more important than how you fight. Again, like Gottman said, in many cases, if you increase the positive, the negative doesn’t matter quite as much…
Okay, enough excerpting. There’s a lot more in the book about how to boost the positive in your relationship – and how to reduce the negative. I even explain why love is so insane – and why that is essential.