For many couples, there is a precipitous decline in relationship satisfaction after a few years. The "romance" is gone. Attachment may be there, and the relationship is OK, but how can we increase relationship satisfaction in a long-term partnership? Novel and arousing situations increase dopamine, which increases activity in our reward system, and novel and arousing activities increase relationship satisfaction. That's it in a nutshell. But some of the details are fun to know:
For decades psychologists have been working on how to make our relationships the best they can be. One of our chief collaborators, Dr. Art Aron, formerly of Stony Brook University, has spent a lot of time analyzing this question.
He and Dr. Elaine Aron have developed the “Self Expansion Model” as a way of understanding love and relationships. The basic idea is that there are two fundamental human drives. One is for survival and the other is the drive to expand ourselves. Self-expansion includes: exploration, acquisition (of everything from “things” to knowledge, to status and experience), and increasing our personal efficacy, particularly with regard to achieving goals.
Self Expansion and Novelty
The Self Expansion Model offers insight into the rush and excitement of the early stages of a relationship. When you enter into a relationship, you literally increase who you are. You take on/share in your partner’s perspective on the world in addition to your own, their social status, their resources. In fact, so much self-expansion takes place in the early stages of a relationship that it very likely contributes to the rush and excitement we feel that makes that time so special.
The self expands to the point that we start to include our romantic partner in the self. So much so, in fact, that the neural activity recorded when one thinks about a close other is similar to thinking about oneself. In one of our studies, the more the person included the other in their sense of self, the more the VTA, or dopamine-related system, was activated.
Self-expansion partly explains why the first few months or year of a new relationship feels so utterly intoxicating. So how can we keep that going, even a little bit?
While there are many things that can influence happiness in a long-term relationship one stands out that every couple can work on: novelty. Doing challenging, exciting, new things with your partner has proven both in and out of the lab to be one of the single most effective ways of keeping the spark alive.
This doesn’t mean you and your partner need to learn hang-gliding. It may be something as simple as walking in a new part of town, trying a new restaurant, or giving bowling a try. Maybe taking a class together. The point is to do something novel and challenging-- self-expanding.
In a laboratory experiment, the novel and challenging condition was simple and funny:
The couples had their ankles and wrists tied together with velcro and they had to crawl on a mat across a large room together, over a barrier (rolled up mat), balancing a pillow between them, in less than a minute. For the control group, first one rolled a ball to the center of a mat, and then the other did; it was not a challenging task at all, even mundane, but they were doing something together. Both groups were given a relationship satisfaction questionnaire right after the task. The people in the challenging condition answered that they were a lot more satisfied with the relationship than did the people in the mundane task condition. This finding has been followed up by questionnaire studies in the field, and by having couples keep diaries of their activities. You can hear about it in the video "Novelty."
Interestingly, doing different things early in a relationship (less than a year together) has almost no benefit. The relationship itself is novel enough. But after the relationship is established – often around the one year mark – the benefits of new and challenging experiences together are enormous. And they last. Studies have followed couples for years and found that novel activities have huge benefits for the relationship.
In the "Novelty" video, Dr. Aron makes another important point. When we go to the movies, plays or the opera together, even if we do it often, we are getting caught up in the exciting, arousing life of the actors and the plot. Each movie or play or opera is a novel experience together. So, going to the movies a lot can produce a novel experience each time. Adding a challenge to that makes it even more effective. Maybe you both have to work really hard to set aside the time for it! Just getting to a Broadway play can be a challenge.