Passion is a fickle fellow in relationships.
Posted December 19, Reviewed by Ekua Hagan. In fairy tales, marriages last happily ever after. Science, however, tells us that wedded bliss has but a limited shelf life.
InAmerican and European researchers tracked 1, people who got married and stayed married over the course of 15 years. The findings—confirmed by recent research—were clear: Newlyweds enjoy a big happiness boost that lasts, on average, just two years. Then the special joy wears off and they are back where they started, at least in terms of happiness. When love is new, we have the rare capacity to experience great happiness even while being stuck in traffic or getting our teeth cleaned. We are in the throes of what researchers call passionate lovea state of intense longing, desire, and attraction.
In time, this love generally morphs into companionate lovea less impassioned blend of deep affection and connection. The reason is that human beings are, as more than studies show, prone to hedonic adaptationan innate—and measurable—capacity to become habituated or inured to most life changes, positive or negative. With all due respect to poets and pop radio songwriters, new love seems as vulnerable to hedonic adaptation as a new job, a new home, a new coat, or any other novel sources of pleasure and well-being, though the thrill of a new material acquisition generally fades faster.
Hedonic adaptation is most likely when positive experiences are involved. We move into a beautiful loft. Marry a wonderful partner. Earn our way to the top of our profession. How thrilling!
Research examines how much we actually need passion.
For a time. Then, as if propelled by automatic forces, our expectations change, multiply, or expand and, as they do, we begin to take the new, improved circumstances for granted. Sexual passion and arousal are particularly prone to hedonic adaptation.
Familiarity may or may not breed contempt, but research suggests that it does breed indifference. The second is intimate. The third is routine. There are evolutionary, physiological, and practical reasons why passionate love is unlikely to endure for long. If we obsessed, endlessly, about our partners and had sex with them multiple times a day—every day—we would not be very productive at work or very attentive to our children, our friends, or our health.
10 ways to rekindle the passion in your marriage
Why, then, is the natural shift from passionate to companionate love often such a letdown? Because, although we may not realize it, we are biologically hard-wired to crave variety.
Variety and novelty affect the brain in much the same way that drugs do—that is, they trigger activity that involves the neurotransmitter dopamineas do pharmacological highs. Evolutionary biologists believe that sexual variety is adaptive, and that it evolved to prevent incest and inbreeding in ancestral environments. We may love our partners deeply, idolize them, and even be willing to die for them, but these feelings rarely translate into long-term passion.
And studies show that in long-term relationships, women are more likely than men to lose interest in sex, and to lose it sooner. When married couples reach the two-year mark, many mistake the natural shift from passionate love to companionate love for incompatibility and unhappiness.
For some, the possibility that things might be different—more exciting, more satisfying—with someone else proves difficult to resist.
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Injecting variety and surprise into even the most stable, seasoned relationship is a good hedge against such temptation. Researchers instructed each couple to select one of these activities each week and spend 90 minutes doing it together.
Although variety and surprise seem similar, they are in fact, quite distinct. In the beginning, relationships are endlessly surprising: Does he like to cook? What is her family like? What embarrasses or delights him? As we come to know our partners better and better, they surprise us less.
Surprise is a potent force. When something novel occurs, we tend to pay attentionto appreciate the experience or circumstance, and to remember it.
We are less likely to take our marriage for granted when it continues to deliver strong emotional reactions in us. Also, uncertainty sometimes enhances the pleasure of positive events. For example, a series of studies conducted by researchers at the University of Virginia and at Harvard showed that people experienced longer bursts of happiness when they were at the receiving end of an unexpected act of kindness and remained uncertain about where and why it had originated.
Such reactions may have neuroscientific origins. In one experiment, scientists offered drinks to thirsty subjects; those who were not told what kind of drink they would get showed more activity in the portion of the brain that registers positive emotions. The realization that your marriage no longer supplies the charge it formerly did is then an invitation: Eschew predictability in favor of discovery, novelty, and opportunities for unpredictable pleasure.
It has to constantly move forward or it dies.
The good news is that taking the long view and putting in the hard work has calculable benefits. Again, research surprisingly shows that marital happiness reaches one of its highest peaks during the period after offspring move out of the family home.
In other words, an empty nest offers the possibility of novelty and unpredictability. Whether this phase of belated marital joy can last, like the initial period of connubial bliss, for longer than two years is still unclear.
Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph. The pursuit of calm can itself become a major stressor, especially if you've already tried the standard prescriptions. But there is a path through this conundrum.
Sonja Lyubomirsky Ph. How of Happiness. Why the Passion Goes Out of Relationships About the Author. Read Next. Back Psychology Today.
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