One of the hardest things that people face over the course of a long-term relationship is that the initial spark – what many in the polyamory community call “new relationship energy” – fades. It’s an entirely natural part of settling into a relationship; the initial honeymoon period fades and what was intense and exciting becomes calmer and placid. That initial rush of passion that had you banging out on every flat surface in the house and made every vaguely empty space a potential fuckstop starts to wane and you’re finding yourselves passing on fucking like greased weasels on meth in exchange for catching up on Almost Human and getting an early night’s sleep and the dawning realization that you have become everything you swore you never would. Suddenly you’re not having sex like you used to and despite what the advice column cartels will tell you, no amount of offering to do the dishes or help out with the laundry is going to bring back that mad intensity that you had at the very beginning.
For many couples this sudden realization that that you’ve crossed the sex/sleep threshold is a mark that your relationship is now in a permanent downward spiral and the only thing that’s left is shuffling through Costco together like a pair of consumerist zombies looking for a bulk discount on everything that you’re going to be using to fill the void that was your relationship.
The death of passion in a long-term relationship is one of the biggest killers of relationships because we associate it with being bored. It’s the age old joke that sleeping with the same person for the rest of your life is the equivalent of eating the same frozen hamburger for every meal for all eternity while all of your single friends are zipping out to gastropubs and eating multiple delicious entrees in combinations that stand in defiance of the laws of God and Man.
It’s enough to fog over all those times you ranted about how much you hated the dating scene and you begin to reminisce the days when we were single and the world was our surprisingly open-minded oyster. Except… it doesn’t have to be that way.
While that initial honeymoon stage of the relationship does fade in order to form a bond that is deeper and more intimate as the two of you become closer and intertwine your lives together, it doesn’t mean that you can’t still live it up like a couple of horny teenagers at the start of a slasher movie. A long term relationship doesn’t mean that you’re doomed to watch the spark fade away. You just have to know how to rekindle it.
Keep The Thrills
One of the biggest mistakes that couples make is that they put the emphasis in their long-term maintenance on romance – date nights at romantic restaurants for candle-lit dinners and soft music, trying to remind themselves of what it was like when things were new.
But while this may remind you of those lovey-dovey moments from early in your courtship, it’s actually not what you want to bring the spark back to your relationship. This isn’t to say that romance is bad, but when it comes to rekindling passion, you don’t want “sweet” or “romantic”. You want excitement, and you’re not going to get that by trying to recreate soft-focus montages from romantic comedies.
Bringing the thrill back to the relationship means bringing actual thrills back. You want to do things that get your heart racing, kick your adrenal glands into overdrive and get your central nervous system engaged. Humans are very bad at actually understanding the source of our emotions, a tendency known as misattribution of arousal. We feel the physical effects – increased heart rate, nervousness, cold sweat, shaky limbs – first and backfill the explanation for them afterwards. The physiological feeling of fear is identical to the feeling of having a crush on somebody – the exact feeling you’re hoping to recapture for your sweety. Moreover, there’s a direct correlation between stimulation of your central nervous system and sexual arousal – meaning that that things that excite you are going to excite you if you know what I mean and I think you do.
So skip the romantic dinners for dancing, rock climbing or chugging some coffee and hitting some roller-coasters instead.
See Other People
There’s an apocryphal story about President Coolidge and his wife visiting an experimental government farm that specialized in developing new approaches to efficiency. The president and Mrs. Coolidge were taken on separate tours, and when Mrs. Coolidge came to the chicken yard, she noticed that the rooster was vigorously mating with the hens. “How often does that happen?” she asked her guide. “Oh, dozens of times per day,” he replied. “Well be sure to tell that to the President when he comes by.” When President Coolidge was brought to the chicken yard and his wife’s message had been relayed, he asked “Does the rooster mate with the same hen every time?” “Oh no,” said the guide, “it’s a different hen every time.”
“Please tell that to Mrs. Coolidge,” replied the President.
It’s an old joke but one with a kernel of truth in it: mammals have an instinctual need for novelty when it comes to sex. Male rats, after having mated with the receptive females housed with it will show a decreased interest in sex, even when the females are still interested. However, adding a new female rat instantly revived the male, who would proceed to immediately mate with the new female. Subsequent experiments found that the Coolidge effect was present in females as well; introducing a new male into the mix would cause the female to have renewed interest in sex.
One of the things that makes long-term monogamy incredibly difficult is that our bodies literally work against our best intentions; the dopamine spike from sex with the same partner decreases over time but spikes with a new one. As a result: we don’t get the same rush. That’s why the sexual encounters in the early stages of a relationship are firestorms of excitement that culminate in orgasms that blow the top of your head off: your body is reacting to the novelty of a new partner, and settles down as you become more familiar with one another. As a result… we get a little bored, even when we have an intense emotional bond with our honey,
Obviously, the answer is “open relationships for everyone!” I’m only partially joking; couples who have opened up their relationships have reported increased levels of desire for their primary partner as well as greater sexual satisfaction. Not only are both partners benefiting from the increased dopamine incurred from having new sex partners, but they’re taking advantage of a quirk of our primate ancestry known as sperm competition. When a male ape believes that his mate has had sex with another male, he’ll have an even more intense orgasm with a greater volume of ejaculate in an attempt to flush out the competitor’s sperm and replace it with his own.
Of course, open relationships and polyamory aren’t for everyone, nor are they inherently any better or worse than traditional monogamy. Beating the Coolidge effect doesn’t mean that the only solution is to sleep with other people. One of the ways of overcoming the drop in sexual interest is to build up sexual excitement elsewhere and redirect into the actual relationship – that is, getting all hot and bothered and bringing it home to your partner. This doesn’t mean going out and making out with a stranger and coming back to your snugglebunny to actually get the payoff, just that you build up your sexual tension and arousal elsewhere.
One method is to watch porn together; the variety offered by online porn can trigger the novelty switch, even when the actual pay-off is with your long-term partner. Other options might include taking a girls (or guy’s) night out to go party and flirt with strangers, a trip to a strip club or even social dancing where switching partners is expected (such as in swing dancing) can get you charged up… before you head home with your honey and tear each other’s clothes off.
Part of the thrill of new relationship energy is the novelty of getting to know one another; there are always new and intriguing layers to uncover when you’re just starting out as a couple. Part of a long-term relationship means that over time, you’ve gotten to know your partner on an incredibly deep level, almost as well as you know yourself. As a result, it can feel as though there’s nothing new; you know each other so well that you can practically read one another’s minds and predict their reactions with 100% certainty.
So how do you overcome this level of familiarity and bring back that feeling of seeing her for the first time?
By facing down difficult tasks together. Psychologists at the University of North Carolina studying long-term relationships have found that couples who overcame difficult trials that challenged their skills felt closer and more attracted to one another than those who simply spent time together. It was the rush of overcoming a difficult trial that helped bring couples closer together by incorporating their partner’s skills and abilities into their own. Much like how arousing the central nervous system can be misattributed to sexual arousal, the glow of satisfaction from beating a challenge gets partially misattributed to the presence of one’s partner. By successfully challenging yourselves, you begin to condition yourselves to associate those feelings with your partner, not just the thrill of accomplishment.
Working together as a team to overcome trials forces you to communicate in new ways and opens you both up to new sides of one another that you don’t see often, if you’ve seen them at all… not to mention helping you both find new depths to yourselves. So whether you train together to beat a zombie race, enter a swing dance competition or join a bowling league, working together to overcome adversity (even if it’s not real) helps add novelty and satisfaction to your relationship, bringing the two of you even closer together.
Sometimes the secret to bringing the spark back is to take a break from one another.
Now before you start wondering just what’s allowed when you’re on “a break”, this doesn’t mean that you’re putting your relationship on hold, nor does it necessarily mean that you’re spending enforced time away from one another. While having alone time – even separate vacations – can be important for maintaining a happy relationship, what I’m talking about is interruption.
Interruption can be a powerful technique, especially for reviving and maintaining the spark of passion in your life. By taking a break from one another, you’re disrupting the expected pattern of your routine. It causes a reset of expectations – making things feel more intense, while also setting your brain on edge as it waits for the expected conclusion.
So practice a little deliberate blue-balling in your love life. Have an intense make-out session in the kitchen in the morning right before leaving for work, leaving both of you hot and bothered with no chance to pop before you both get home. Give your partner a foot massage while you watch TV together, then stop in the middle, only to come back to it a little later. Find the activities that you share and enjoy together and disrupt it, so that you’re eager to get back to it later on. Let the tension build until it’s almost unbearable and you’re both absolutely gagging for the release of completion… then marvel at just how much more you enjoy the conclusion.
Have More Sex
“Hang on Doc,” I hear you cry. “I’m reading this because our sex life is deader than the chances of a Firefly reunion; how does having more sex fix this?”
Well I’m glad you asked, Mr. Straw Man.
Sex has a lot more benefits than just getting your rocks off. To start with, a partner-assisted orgasm increases oxytocin and dopamine levels in the brain which help solidify emotional bonds, lessen anger and increase feelings of contentment – all of which serve to help alleviate some of the causes of dissatisfaction with your partner and your relationship in general.
For another, not having sex can become a habit, and a hard one to break. Because we live in a sex-negative culture, we believe that the only “good” sex is sex that happens spontaneously. If you actually plan to have sex, then it’s not as “real” and doesn’t mean as much as when you and your honey are just so horny that you can’t keep your hands off one another.
This attitude is bullshit and relationship poison. When you’re in a long-term relationship, life has a way of leaving you with little time for spontaneous fucking; if you want to get the feeling of being a pair of randy teenagers with insufficient adult supervision, then you have to make a point of clearing out your schedules so you can have sex. If it’s so important that its lack is hurting your relationship together, then it’s important enough to make time for it.
Now, part of getting the new relationship thrill can come from recreating other aspects of the early days of your relationship: when you couldn’t wait to get your hands on one another, but you couldn’t just throw down. You had to find a time and place; you couldn’t go to her place because her roommates were always around and your place was barely fit for human habitation, never mind happy-fun-naked-time. So give yourselves artificial restrictions that you have to overcome. Set arbitrary rules: you’re going to have sex, but you can’t do it at night, in your place or in a bed. Putting obstacles in your way and having to find creative ways around them not only injects some novelty, but it creates new challenges and interrupts usual pattern of “sex at night, in your bed, right before you go to sleep”. Breaking up the routine and having to devote some actual creative thought to it triggers higher levels of dopamine and heightens your anticipation.
Before too long, you’ll find that the tides of passion that had rolled out of your relationship have rolled back in, even stronger than they had before, bringing that new relationship energy back with it.