How to Put the Spark Back in Your Relationship

How to Put the Spark Back in Your Relationship

A couple?s guide to reigniting passion

A couple kiss while holding a string of glowing fairy lights.Photo by Allef Vinicius on Unsplash

So you?ve been in a relationship for years now. You love your partner deeply, but lately you?ve noticed a change in the chemistry between you.

Once upon a time, you both enjoyed marathon lovemaking sessions. Now they?ve been replaced by quiet nights in front of the TV.

Your conversations seem more stilted and repetitive. That ?spark? you had when you first got together seems to be fading away.

You?re not about to give up, but there?s no denying the truth. Romantic passion is starting to dwindle. The question is: can you re-ignite it?

According to psychologists and relationship experts, the answer depends on how willing you are to try.

Your mindset makes a difference

Research published in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology investigated the effects of people?s beliefs about passion on their relationships.

Results showed that holding ?decay beliefs? about passion ? in other words, believing a decline in passion is irreversible ? is associated with lack of commitment, lowered investment, and pursuing romantic alternatives to your partner.

Moreover, holding pessimistic views about the possibility of reviving passion can cause cracks to appear even early on in a relationship: ?Even a modest cool-off of initial passion may cause alarm and doubts about the future.?

On the other hand, the researchers argue, there is evidence to show that passion between long-term couples can be increased with conscious effort.

For this reason, they contend:

?Maintaining the belief that passion can revive as opposed to being unrecoverable appears to be a reasonable view. It may prevent individuals from leaving their [otherwise satisfactory] relationship unnecessarily.?

Fluctuating passion is totally normal

Plenty of research confirms it?s reasonable to expect at least some decline in passion as couples transition through various stages in their lives. It?s not something that should take us by surprise.

In his book The Erotic Mind: Unlocking the Inner Sources of Sexual Passion and Fulfilment, psychotherapist and sexologist Jack Morin writes:

Rare are couples who don?t experience dry spells, especially in today?s two-career, high-stress households.

The way a couple responds to these fluctuations has a greater effect on the long-term viability of their relationship than the dry spells themselves.

So, once passion does start to subside, what can we do to put the spark back in a relationship ? apart from simply hoping that intense desire will return?

1. Plan new, exciting activities to do together

Evidence shows engaging in new, exciting activities helps couples to feel more in love with each other. Psychologists such as Elaine and Arthur Aron have suggested such activities help recreate the arousal and exhilaration of the early relationship years.

At the start of a relationship, couples frequently have intense conversations that include elements of risk-taking, vulnerability, and self-disclosure. It?s thought that new relationships are exciting partly because they are associated with rapid personal growth (sometimes called self-expansion).

However, once the couple know each other well, they risk falling into boredom and stagnation if they do not continue to experience shared self-expansion.

Lovers enjoy new forms of self-expansion when they engage in novel pursuits together, choosing activities that extend beyond simply getting to know each other.

Crucially, because they are shared experiences, these positive developmental milestones continue to be associated with the partner who simultaneously participates in them.

Drawing on this concept, one study in Journal of Personal and Social Relationships investigated 53 married couples.

After 10 weeks, those who had spent 1.5 hours per week doing ?exciting? activities together such as attending concerts, hiking, and going dancing reported a greater increase in marital satisfaction than couples whose shared pastimes were considered more ?pleasant? than ?exciting? (for example, visiting friends and eating out at restaurants).

In their book Marital Therapy: Strategies Based on Social Learning and Behavior Exchange Principles, psychology professors Neil S. Jacobson and Gayla Margolin similarly recommend couples seek out ?novelty and variation?, instead of merely repeating activities they find comfortable and familiar.

The shared new activities do not need to be physical. Any activity that ?stimulates a new cognitive response or strong emotional reaction provides a context for a rewarding exchange between the spouses.?

2. Establish a healthy sense of independence

As well as taking part in new activities together, it?s important for partners to enjoy rich, fulfilling lives apart.

It?s necessary to maintain activities, interests, and friendships outside our long-term relationship, so we can recreate some of the healthy distance that breeds desire.

One of my co-workers has been married for more than two decades. Some time ago, I asked her what she felt had kept her relationship going strong over the years.

?I think it helps that my husband and I are not together all the time, even though we live together,? she replied. ?Many evenings, I?m out seeing friends, and my husband will be off playing sport. Then we get together later and talk about our day. Spending time apart, as well as together, helps us keep things fresh.?

Psychotherapist and New York Times bestselling author Esther Perel would probably approve. In her book, Mating In Captivity, she recounts her advice to a client, Beatrice.

Case study: Beatrice and John

Beatrice?s initially passionate relationship with her partner John had reached an erotic impasse. Sexual desire was waning.

During therapy, it became clear that in her eagerness to be close to John, Beatrice had ?matched her interests to his, given up most activities that didn?t include him, and stopped seeing her friends.?

Unfortunately, these actions produced the opposite of their intended effect.

?It?s hard to feel attracted to someone who has abandoned their sense of autonomy,? writes Perel. ?Maybe John can love her, but it?s much harder for him to desire her.?

To resolve this, Perel encouraged Beatrice to get back in touch with her friends and cease organizing her life around John: ?You?re so afraid of losing him that you?ve alienated yourself and lost your freedom. There isn?t a separate person here for him to love.?

Acting on this advice, Beatrice found her own apartment, sent in her application for a Ph.D. program, took a trip with her friends, and started earning her own money.

Gradually, Beatrice and John created a healthy space between each other, one wherein ?desire could flow more freely.? As Perel explains:

With too much distance, there can be no connection. ? But when people become fused ? when two become one ? connection can no longer happen. There is nothing more to transcend, no one to visit on the other side, no internal world to enter.

Separateness is a precondition for connection: this is the essential paradox of intimacy and sex.

This is particularly important for long-term couples to remember.

In the early stages of falling in love, our sense of separateness is dominant, and we aim to overcome it by growing closer. In any deeply intimate relationship, we take joy in blending the essential parts of our lives.

However, that does not mean we should blend all of them. Especially in the later stages of a relationship, there is a risk of so completely losing touch with our former separation that we begin to feel trapped.

To counter this, it?s necessary to maintain activities, interests, and friendships outside our long-term relationship, so we can recreate some of the healthy distance that breeds desire.

Otherwise, warns Perel, when we fail to cultivate separateness, we extinguish the very mystery and novelty on which desire thrives:

?It is too easily assumed that problems with sex are a result of a lack of closeness. ? But when intimacy collapses into fusion, it is not a lack of closeness but too much closeness that impedes desire.?

3. Recall original sources of attraction, and build new ones

According to Morin, successful long-term couples use a combination of strategies to prolong attraction over time.

The first strategy is ?to stay in touch with the original attractions that brought the lovers together in the first place.?

Because ?attraction?s biggest enemy is the tendency to stop paying attention?, he encourages couples to take it upon themselves to be actively receptive to each other?s positive qualities.

For example, passionate lovers ?focus on specific physical features that continue to be arousing, even when both of their bodies have seen better days.?

They also take notice of ?behaviors and attitudes that continue to turn them on.? By complimenting each other with affirmative statements, they can ?bolster each other?s sense of attractiveness.?

The second strategy involves ?recognizing new sources of attraction as the relationship evolves.?

If the characteristics that brought a couple together have changed or disappeared with time, it?s helpful for lovers to ?learn to see each other with new eyes?, making a conscious effort to ?find new sources of attraction as old ones fall away.?

By learning to see our partner through new eyes instead of holding on to the past, over time we can learn to discover multiple sources of attraction within the same person.

Case study: Mark and Richard

To illustrate this, Morin describes a dilemma one of his clients, Mark, faced.

When Mark first met Richard, his partner, he was intensely attracted to Richard?s ?youthful good looks, playful sense of fun, and flair for adventure ? all of which contrasted with Mark?s more serious, conservative nature.?

In childhood, Mark had taken on a semi-parental role, caring for his younger sister from a relatively early age. For this reason, Mark saw his carefree partner as someone who knew how to enjoy himself in a way Mark had never learned to.

As the years went by, however, Richard changed dramatically. He ?achieved an advanced degree, established a new career, earned more money, and became dominated by his responsibilities.?

Although Mark was proud of his partner?s accomplishments, he missed the youthful ways that had once balanced his own seriousness.

When Richard joined Mark in therapy, it became clear that he too ?had lost some of his original attraction ? but in a different way.?

Richard was ?no longer interested in big brother types; he wanted Mark to be attracted to him as a fellow professional and a peer.?

Like many couples, Mark and Richard were struggling to adjust their original attractions to match new realities. Before leaving therapy, Mark experimented with ?trying to be more playful and adventuresome himself, instead of looking for these qualities in his partner.?

When he ceased to rely on his partner to counter the one-sidedness of his youth, Mark found it easier to appreciate Richard?s new level of maturity and confidence for what it was.

Couples who remain committed to their partnerships ?accept both old attractions and new ones?, writes Morin. The characteristics that generate attraction are not static and inflexible, but rather dynamic and evolving.

By learning to see our partner through new eyes instead of holding on to the past, over time we can learn to discover multiple sources of attraction within the same person.

Psychologists such as Elaine Hatfield and G. William Walster have written at length about the way romantic passion tends to dwindle over the years.

Similarly, Morin tells us that ?the reduction of erotic zest is a natural occurrence.?

However, the good news is that a decline in passion is by no means irreversible. In fact: ?creative use of learnable skills helps keep passion alive.?

There are plenty of strategies you can use to put the spark back in your relationship. Specific ideas we?ve covered in this article include:

  • partaking in new, exciting activities together
  • ensuring you have rich, fulfilling lives apart
  • remembering what originally attracted you to each other, as well as celebrating each other?s attractiveness in the present

Now that you?ve read about some techniques for reigniting passion, can you implement them in your own relationship?

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