Here’s the unhappy truth about long-term relationships:
Over time, as couples get used to each other, they have less sex.
There, I said it. Sad but true. In fact, as Sonja Lyubomirsky has noted, the amount of time two people have been together as a couple is a better predictor of decreased sexual frequency than the biological ages of the people in the relationship.
In his classic book “What You Can Change and What You Can’t,” Professor Martin Seligman is even more explicit:
“The sad fact is that the passionate attraction that so consumed them when they first courted dies down as they get to know each other well. In time, it becomes an ember. Often, an ash. (2007)”
Seligman uses the term ‘Acedia’ (from the Greek, roughly translated as sloth and neglect) to describe this phenomenon. He argues Acedia, or sexual decline in otherwise healthy couples, should be recognized as a common and costly disorder that demands more research into understanding and preventing it.
So what does Positive Psychology say about keeping the passion alive?
In his book Flourish, while being highly critical of most psychology-as-usual approaches to relationship counseling, Seligman describes Dr. John Gottman as his favorite marriage researcher (2012). Along with the work of Sonja Lyubomirsky, some of the best tips are summarised below.
Soften Your “Start-Up”
All couples have disagreements. But what damages a relationship most is how quickly the arguments turn nasty.
Gottman’s research has shown couples who become very hostile very quickly during disagreements are far more likely to break up. Nobody wants to live in a war zone. So Gottman uses the term ‘soften your start-up’ to encourage us to stay calmer for longer during disagreements. The ability to discuss sensitive issues while remaining calm is a basic, entry-level requirement of a successful relationship (2018).
Interestingly, when an individual makes a deliberate effort from the outset to remain just a little calmer when going into a tense conversation, they usually find they can stay in complete control. This is because the very decision to stay calm involves the pre-frontal cortex. And once activated, this ‘human’ part of the brain inhibits the more primitive midbrain.
Sometimes volatile people doubt their ability (or anyone else’s) to do this.
“You haven’t heard how he/she pushes me. What if I lose it?”
To which a therapist may suggest: “How would you go staying in control if there were a million dollars in it for you?”
“Well, that’s different!”
The therapist agrees, “yes, very different. Your relationship is worth more.”
Even Neanderthals can master anger management if they really want to.
In the mornings, as you and your partner are about to go your respective ways for the day, ask about their plans for the day ahead. Find out one noteworthy thing they have planned. (If you don’t live with your partner this can also be done over social media).
Then, when you catch up at the end of the day remember to ask questions about how it went. Show that you remembered. Show that you are more interested in keeping up with the events in their life than the Kardashians. And when they answer you make sure you listen as if nothing else matters.
Enhance Your Love Map
Your ‘love map’ describes how much you actually know about your partner. We all like to feel appreciated and understood. We all like to know we are harder to replace than a set of used golf clubs.
So how well do you actually know your partner? How would you do being tested on your partner’s favorite music or movie, their dreams for the future, favorite interests and people? Start by learning more about their likes and dislikes.
Think of the most important person in your life. Each week try to find out something new about them. For example:
- Who is currently their best friend?
- What is their favorite song or TV show?
- What is the biggest problem they are they currently facing?
- What are their life dreams?
- Which relatives do they like or dislike most?
- What is the best or the worst thing that happened in their childhood?
- What is their favorite holiday destination?
If you do this over time your partner will soon realize there is one person on the planet who truly understands them: – you!
Listening To Good News vs Bad News
Traditionally it was assumed supporting your partner means providing a shoulder to cry on. Positive Psychology takes a different view. As Sonja Lyubomirsky explains:
“The surprising finding is that the closest, most intimate and most trusting relationships appear to be distinguished not by how the partners respond to each other’s disappointments and losses but how they react to good news (2013).”
Imagine that your partner is having a great day. They just got a promotion at work or passed an exam. They’re excited and can’t wait to tell someone.
In Positive Psychology the term ‘capitalizing’ is used to describe listening actively and constructively to someone’s happy news. We might call it “listening generously,” that is, allowing the spotlight to shine on the other person. It’s not a competition. The moment belongs to them.
Next time your partner has a good news story say…
- “That’s great, tell me more.”
- “Wonderful, when did it happen?”
- “Nice job, how did this all start?”
As an example, a colleague of mine recently told me about a minor drama. The family dog had died and the children were, of course, heartbroken. Facebook was awash with all the usual messages of sympathy and support.
However, a few weeks later when she replaced the pet she hesitated before posting the update. Something told her to wait.
“What if people think we replaced the dog too soon? Should we have given the kids more time to grieve? Perhaps we should have gotten a different breed?”
People are generally good at offering a shoulder to cry on. But they greatly underestimate the damaging impact, the ‘slap in the face’ feeling when they treat our good news with indifference or negative judgments.
If you want to be genuinely closer to someone you care about, work on being their greatest cheerleader, not nit-picker in chief.
If you do this consistently enough, in the future whenever something good happens in their day you will be the first person they will think of.
Mix Up The Kindness
Traditional relationship advice has often told people to perform more acts of kindness. Sometimes this works. Sometimes there is an improvement in affection and relationship satisfaction. However, the improvement is usually short-lived. Soon the new kindness becomes the new normal and staleness returns.
So we need to mix kindness up a bit.
For example, making breakfast for your partner every day for a month could spice things up for a while. But if you regularly perform a different act of kindness each time, as if to keep your partner guessing, the element of surprise maintains freshness.
So shake up your routines. Blend kindness with spontaneity and novelty. Perform acts of kindness, big or small, but remember to try different acts. Surprise your partner with ‘kindness ambushes.’
Touch doesn’t have to be sexual.
The occasional hug, an incidental hand on the arm, a squeeze of the hand. Simply touching your partner’s shoulder as you pass by.
These gestures can be so incidental they go seemingly unnoticed. But they are registered, either consciously or unconsciously. Touch registers in the brain lowering stress hormones such as cortisol and increasing oxytocin (the cuddle hormone*). Incidental touch builds trust, bonding, and intimacy.
A Take-Home Message
Chris Peterson famously said ‘other people matter (2012).’ And yes, I understand your partner leaves their towel on the floor, watches tedious reality TV, wastes money, snores, embarrasses you in public, and thinks your family members are morons (be honest, they are).
Well sunshine, none of us are perfect and loneliness is everything it’s cracked up to be.
So unless a relationship contains deal-breakers like abuse, infidelity or reality TV, there are simple things you can do now to deepen and strengthen your relationship.
Stay calmer during disagreements, take an interest in your partner’s day, learn more about their likes and dislikes, celebrate their good news, mix kindness with spontaneity, and introduce more physical touching. Do all this and let nature take its course.
Note: This valentine’s day the author and his long-suffering wife celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary.
*The nonapeptide oxytocin reduces stress, pain, blood pressure. It stimulates mood, intimacy, positive social interactions and increases orgasms in both sexes.
- Gottman, J. (2018). The seven principles for making marriage work: A practical guide from the international bestselling relationship expert. Hachette UK.
- Lyubomirsky, S. (2013). The myths of happiness: What should make you happy, but doesn’t, what shouldn’t make you happy, but does. Penguin Press.
- Peterson, C. (2012). Pursuing the good life: 100 reflections on positive psychology. Oxford University Press.
- Seligman, M. E. P. (2007). What you can change and what you can’t: The complete guide to successful self-improvement. Free Press.
- Seligman, M. E. P. (2012). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. Free Press.