In our previous show we talked about the neuroscience of romantic love. Today we’re going to address the behavioral side of things to help you rekindle the passion in your marriage.
Dating can be one of the most exciting times in any relationship: it’s when you’re constantly thinking about each other, finding out so much about each other and forming that deep connection. But what makes dating so awesome? How do men and women come at it differently? And how can a married couple make this come alive in their marriage again?
What Makes Dating & the Early Stages of Love so Enjoyable?
Last time we looked at our brains and how there are pleasure and reward systems built right into them. You’ll recall we talked about romantic love (which is out front during the courtship or dating phase of a relationship) and partner attachment (which is the steady, committed love of lasting marriages)
Romantic love is linked to systems in the brain which “reward” you with strong feelings of pleasure whenever you think about or spend time with your spouse[i]. This motivates you to want to spend time with your spouse or girl/boyfriend at the start of a relationship. Typically this phase of love lasts 12-18 months[ii], but can last an entire lifetime[iii]. We talked about extending that last time.
Self-expansion theory, developed by husband and wife researchers Arthur and Elaine Aron, speaks to this situation[iv]. In their view romantic love is a period of rapid self-expansion by including the beloved in your sense of who you are.
During the very early stages of the relationship you learn a lot about your beloved and get to grow as a person and experience new things by integrating aspects of your spouse into your own life. The rate at which you can do this declines after the initial period of the relationship: you start to run out of new things to learn about your spouse.
So dating is the most exciting phase of a relationship because you’re getting to grow as a person by getting to know your spouse, and this inevitably starts to taper off the longer a relationship lasts. The other side of the coin is the concept of habituation: the longer you do something/spend time with someone, the more you get used to it/them, and the less rewarding the time becomes[v]. Sniff.
Intimacy and sex then play into these early stages of love and then marriage. For those that are new to our podcast, we speak out of a Christian worldview and we practice and hold the value that extramarital sex is not only wrong, it’s unhelpful. On the ‘unhelpful’ point, we’ve noted before that the best sex is happening inside of marriage so we not only have moral reasons for asserting this value, but research-based evidence to support the benefits as well.
Back to our point. Let’s talk about how intimacy works. Remember that when we look at intimacy, we mean the whole enchilada, not just sex.
This is interesting. According to a study by Baumeister et al in 1999[vi], passion is a function of changes in intimacy.
So when intimacy is stable (either low or high), passion is low. But when intimacy is increasing, passion is high.
Intimacy is often increasing fastest at the start of the relationship, as you become more comfortable disclosing information about yourself and generally become closer. “As relationship partners gain an understanding of each other’s innermost thoughts and feelings, the rate of intimacy growth may taper off over time as they have less to learn about each other and the rate of engagement in novel relationship activities diminishes[vii].”
This intimacy growth during dating makes the start of a relationship a lot of fun. But sex comes into the equation once we get married too.
The frequency of sex (although not necessarily quality of sex) is highest at the start of the relationship. In later years it becomes less frequent, and as the research this points out this is often due to less interest, higher rates of dysfunction and difficulty, and major life events like having children[viii].
Sounds like a gloomy picture. But just stay with me. And let me say too, that having less sex is not necessarily a bad thing if you are both satisfied with the quality and quantity.
We’re going to look at how to get the excitement back into your marriage but first let’s just look at some gender differences. Just so we’re managing expectations.
Gender Differences in Romance and Dating
Men tend to fall in love more easily, and report higher scores on measures of romantic love than women in the early stages (first few months) of relationships[ix]. Later on the scores balanced out. Men also more likely to say “I love you” first in a relationship[x].
Men have more traditionally romantic beliefs: they are more likely to think that you fall in love at first sight and that love overcomes all boundaries like race, social class etc. That surprised me because — pardon the stereotype — I thought women would be more prone to this from reading romance novels.
Men place a higher emphasis on sex in the early stages of relationships, but this was at least partly because they were “less aware of the emotional aspects of their relationship[xi]”. Very interesting. I would add (and here’s my values coming through again) that this is another feather in the cap of waiting for sex until you’re married because it compels men to become more emotionally engaged to fill their intimacy needs.
Both men and women experience similarly high levels of passion at the start of the relationship, but this declines particularly strongly for women as the relationship goes on[xii].
What about our perceptions and our definitions of love? Perceptions of what love is were actually similar between men and women. Both placed importance on the value of companionate love, but men placed higher value on passionate love[xiii].
So we have these dynamics going on and we are seeing some gender differences and some similarities. I don’t know how many we are socialized for vs. biologically programmed for, but there you have it.
Reigniting the Passion in Your Marriage
Now we want to talk about how to get the excitement back in your marriage. To help you really go deep on reigniting the passion in your marriage, we’ve got a superb guide that really gives you the how-to of how this whole intimacy, passion, and sex thing works together.
How to Get the Excitement Back
Many of the things that make the start of a relationship so passionate and enjoyable can naturally decline as the relationship progresses, but they don’t have to.
So we want to talk about several areas that you can work on in order to keep your marriage spicy or else bring back some heat. Again, we go deep on this in our bonus guide for the patrons of our show. [KEISHA MAKE THE BOLD ITEMS BELOW H3 HEADERS PLEASE]
Such as joint leisure of professional activities, jointly supporting a cause, travels, etc. Gaining new experiences as a couple allows spouses to learn more about each other, increasing intimacy and self-expansion, both of which increase passion[xiv].
Doing novel and exciting things together also activates the same reward-pleasure systems in the brain as romantic love, so can boost romantic love by associating these feelings with the partner. It also counteracts the effects of habituation/boredom. So, shake it up a little. Try doing something you haven’t done before: together. It doesn’t especially matter what it is but aim for something that has elements of excitement and/or novelty.
Researchers have studied this. Aron et al[xv] surveyed couples for relationship satisfaction before and after completing an assault-course while tied together at the ankle. More exciting than your standard psychological test! Taking part in this exciting and novel activity increased reported relationship satisfaction compared to doing a more mundane physical activity.
Increasing frequency of sex increases intimacy and passion[xvi]. It also activates the same brain areas as romantic love[xvii]. In a previous post we looked at how emotional intimacy is the key to the best sex, but the link goes both ways. I was thinking Verlynda and I should set up a sex challenge for our readers, … after we try it first, of course.
If passion is caused by changes in intimacy[xviii] then increasing intimacy will increase passion. A study in 2011[xix] tested this on a day-to-day level by asking 67 couples to keep daily dairies and reports on intimacy. Daily changes in intimacy predicted relationship passion, sexual frequency and sexual satisfaction for both men and women.
Intimacy can be increased through self-disclosure and shared experiences. But it is also to do with how the partner responds when you self-disclose: responding with sympathy and making the partner feel validated increases intimacy and makes you more likely to want to self-disclose in the future[xx].
Share something with your spouse. Maybe there’s something from your childhood or youth that you haven’t shared yet. Something personal. Or just something you’ve been worried about that’s going on right now that maybe you need to bring your spouse in on.
Higher rates of self confidence and self-esteem are moderately linked to higher rates of romantic love in long-term relationships as they allow “an intense, exclusive focus on a partner but not possessiveness or jealousy”. Being confident in yourself lets you feel love more strongly, without any elements of fear or unworthiness.
This is also supported by the fact that romantic love in older couples does not have the obsessive or insecure components that can characterize love in younger couples[xxi]. Maybe choosing some self-esteem building activities or lifestyle changes would be helpful for you.
This one is to do with your whole orientation when it comes to what motivates your actions. There are two motivation systems for behavior in relationships:
- Approach: desire for positive outcomes like fun, intimacy and growth
- Avoidance: desire to avoid negative outcomes like conflict.
Think about this in terms of your posture in your relationship. Are you all about chasing the good things or is your mindset focused on just avoiding the bad? Maybe you’ve defaulted to avoiding for a while and it’s time to switch to approach tactics.
Adopting positive or “approach” based goals within the relationship, taking actions to improve the quality of the relationship by increasing fun, intimacy and personal growth, increases passion and sexual desire on a day-to-day basis and buffers against reductions in sexual desire long-term[xxii].
I see this in the couples I work with — we do a lot to de-escalate the conflict and they are very successful. And I really believe in letting couples find their way into this but sometimes it’s like that kick-them-out-of-the-nest feeling where I’m thinking “OK, you have this! Start having fun with each other again!”
This effect was especially strong for women, suggesting that actively pursuing a better relationship is more directly linked to passion and sexual quality for women[xxiii]. So think about how you can add more approach tactic back into your marriage too!
So, there are lots of great ideas for maintaining or restarting the fun and passion in your marriage. Again don’t forget to become a patron to get the additional guide. The old stereotype that marriage becomes dull and passionless after a few years doesn’t have to be true at all. Start working on it today and soon you’ll find that you can re-capture all the excitement and sense of adventure from when you were first dating.
[i] A. Aron, ‘Reward, Motivation, and Emotion Systems Associated With Early-Stage Intense Romantic Love’, Journal of Neurophysiology, 94.1 (2005), 327–37 <https://doi.org/10.1152/jn.00838.2004>.
[ii] Helen E. Fisher, Arthur Aron, and Lucy L. Brown, ‘Romantic Love: A Mammalian Brain System for Mate Choice’, Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences, 361.1476 (2006), 2173–86.
[iii] Bianca P. Acevedo and others, ‘Neural Correlates of Long-Term Intense Romantic Love’, Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 7.2 (2012), 145–59 <https://doi.org/10.1093/scan/nsq092>.
[iv] Arthur Aron and Elaine N. Aron, Love and the Expansion of Self: Understanding Attraction and Satisfaction (New York, NY, US: Hemisphere Publishing Corp/Harper & Row Publishers, 1986), x.
[v] Susan Sprecher and Susan S. Hendrick, ‘Self-Disclosure in Intimate Relationships: Associations with Individual and Relationship Characteristics Over Time’, Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 23.6 (2004), 857–77.
[vi] Roy F. Baumeister and Ellen Bratslavsky, ‘Passion, Intimacy, and Time: Passionate Love as a Function of Change in Intimacy’, Personality and Social Psychology Review, 3.1 (1999), 49–67 <https://doi.org/10.1207/s15327957pspr0301_3>.
[vii] Harris Rubin and Lorne Campbell, ‘Day-to-Day Changes in Intimacy Predict Heightened Relationship Passion, Sexual Occurrence, and Sexual Satisfaction: A Dyadic Diary Analysis’, Social Psychological and Personality Science, 3.2 (2012), 224–31 <https://doi.org/10.1177/1948550611416520>.
[viii] Rubin and Campbell.
[ix] Zick Rubin, Letitia Anne Peplau, and Charles T. Hill, ‘Loving and Leaving: Sex Differences in Romantic Attachments’, Sex Roles, 7.8 (1981), 821–35 <https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00287767>.
[x] Angel Brantley, David Knox, and Marty E. Zusman, ‘When and Why Gender Differences in Saying “I Love You” among College Students’, College Student Journal, 36.4 (2002), 614.
[xi] Patricia A. Frazier and Ellen Esterly, ‘Correlates of Relationship Beliefs: Gender, Relationship Experience and Relationship Satisfaction’, Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 7.3 (1990), 331–52 <https://doi.org/10.1177/0265407590073003>.
[xii] Michele Acker and Mark H. Davis, ‘Intimacy, Passion and Commitment in Adult Romantic Relationships: A Test of the Triangular Theory of Love’, Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 9.1 (1992), 21–50 <https://doi.org/10.1177/0265407592091002>.
[xiii] Beverley Fehr and Ross Broughton, ‘Gender and Personality Differences in Conceptions of Love: An Interpersonal Theory Analysis’, Personal Relationships, 8.2 (2001), 115–36 <https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1475-6811.2001.tb00031.x>.
[xiv] Acevedo and others.
[xv] A. Aron and others, ‘Couples’ Shared Participation in Novel and Arousing Activities and Experienced Relationship Quality’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78.2 (2000), 273–84.
[xvi] Rubin and Campbell.
[xvii] Fisher, Aron, and Brown.
[xviii] Baumeister and Bratslavsky.
[xix] Rubin and Campbell.
[xx] Rubin and Campbell.
[xxi] Acevedo and others.
[xxii] Emily A. Impett and others, ‘Maintaining Sexual Desire in Intimate Relationships: The Importance of Approach Goals’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94.5 (2008), 808.
[xxiii] Impett and others.