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This week: How do you keep your relationship from fading into boredom? What’s the secret to keeping the spark making your long-term relationship feel as fresh and hot and alive as when you first met?
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Hey everyone, Harris O’Malley from doctornerdlove.com and this is Ask Dr. NerdLove, made possible by my generous patrons at patreon.com/DrNerdLove, and I am here today to YOUR questions about love, sex, dating and self-improvement. If you’ve got a short dating advice question you’d like to have answered, share it in the comments and maybe you’ll see YOUR question featured on here.
This week’s question comes from Justinian — no last name — who asks: “I keep having issues in my relationships where things start off hot and heavy but it just all falls apart after a while and we both get bored. How do I keep the spark in my relationship alive?”
So, I love this question, because — as a lot of you may have noticed — we put a lot of focus on how to get INTO a relationship, but not quite as much about how to keep that relationship going, once you’re in it.
Now to be fair…
TO BE FAIIIIIIR…
Part of this is because a lot of my audience wants to develop the skills that let them find a partner; even people who’ve been in relationships can find it daunting to find a new one when the previous one has ended.
But another part is because we tend to focus a lot on the beginning of a relationship, less so on what it takes to make a relationship work. And for the first six or so months of a relationship, it feels incredibly easy — you’re too busy fucking on every surface that might plausibly hold your weight to think too much about what makes a relationship work.
But that part of the relationship always fades. In fact, one of the most common issues that people face in a relationship is that the sexual attraction and desire tends to die down… often faster than we expect.
However, that doesn’t mean there’s something wrong. There’s actually a biological reason for this. When we first start dating a new partner, especially once we start sleeping with them, our brains kick into overdrive and crank out huge amounts of dopamine. We are literally getting high from being with them. It’s part of why, for the first six months to a year, we often can’t keep our hands off each other. It’s quite literally addicting.
And like every addiction, you stop getting the same high from it after a while.
Part of the problem is that humans are a novelty-seeking species and we are incredibly adaptable. We can get used to just about anything… including things that makes us feel good. And when it comes to sex and relationships, not only do we start getting used to the dopamine that comes from sex with a new partner, our brains actually stop producing as much dopamine with every encounter with that same partner… but put us with someone new and that dopamine production ramps right the hell back up again.
This happens regardless of how we feel for our partner. It has nothing to do with our connection to them or the quality of our relationship. It’s just part of being a mammal.
Now I’m not going to get into a discussion about monogamy vs. ethical non-monogamy or polyamory; that’s a topic for a video in and of itself. But despite what may seem like a biological inevitability, there’s more to keeping a relationship alive and exciting than pure biology.
In fact, the biggest killer of relationships isn’t the sex slowing down… it’s BOREDOM. One of the most common mistakes that people make when it comes to relationships is that they don’t put in the effort. It’s easy to say — especially at the beginning — that the attraction all comes down to something inherent, that you’re just good looking or well-built or what-have-you, and that isn’t the case. Attraction isn’t just in who you are, it’s in what you do.
And in a relationship, it’s easy to fall into a rut where what you *do* falls by the wayside. You quit putting in the effort because hey, you won, you got the girl or the boy or the non-binary person of your dreams, roll credits, now you don’t need to put in the same level of effort that you did at the beginning. And that’s a mistake. A lot of the courtship behavior, the little things we do at the beginning of a relationship are part of what keeps things vital and interesting. When those start to fall away, that tends to sand down a lot of what made the relationship exciting or special at first.
And it’s never just one thing; it’s the death of a thousand cuts. You don’t put quite as much effort into presenting your best self for your partner, you don’t do the little things you used to, to show them that you care or that you were thinking of them… even the things you do together start to become just routine, instead of something special.
So the first step to keeping the spark in a relationship is absurdly simple: make an effort. Treating your partner like you’re still in the first months of dating — even if you’ve been together for years — is huge. When you do this, you’re showing your partner that you care, that you want to do your best to maintain to the level you were at when you first met them because you like how it makes them feel and you feel like they deserve that. And that inspires them to do the same for you.
Or at least it should; if your partner isn’t willing to meet you at your level when you’re putting in the work, that may be a sign that you two aren’t right for each other anymore.
But if you want a great example of a couple that doesn’t settle, all you have do do is look at Gomez and Morticia Addams. They’re a couple who — even after two kids — never let their standards slip and still treat each other like they’ve just started dating. Continuing to flirt with your partner, even if you’ve been together for years, is a huge part of keeping things hot.
But putting the work in and keeping your game sharp isn’t just about making sure you keep dressing well for them or flirting with them and wooing them like you just met.
Though that is important.
It’s ALSO about putting that effort into the physical side of your relationship. Like I said before, we’re a novelty-seeking species, and part of what makes the sex so amazing at the start of a relationship is the newness of it. But that newness will ALWAYS fade as you get to know each other. However, the fact that your lover is becoming familiar to you, doesn’t mean that the thrill has to fade or that the excitement goes away. The key is to find new ways to thrill and excite each other. Part of why passion fades is that people fall into the pattern of having sex the same way, at the same time, in the same places.
Making a point of shaking that up adds a new level of excitement because there’s a new element involved, which helps break the old patterns. One of the benefits of, say, getting a hotel room for a romantic evening is that because hotels are, in their way, liminal spaces. It’s a place that’s new and different and not YOURS, which can often prompt you to be open for trying new and different things, or feeling like you can ask for things that you might feel weird about trying in the context of your own home.
Plus, there’s a bit of a thrill in the idea of blatantly getting a hotel room just to fuck.
Exploring other possibilities, including watching porn together, adding some forms of kink to your sex-life… little things that shake you out of your routine or add something new or different or a complication can make things more exciting and help you recapture the initial thrill the two of you had together.
And don’t underestimate the erotic charge that can from restrictions or complications — things that make it harder for the two of you to bang out. Part of what often makes sex exciting, especially when you’re young, is simply the effort of trying to find a place to HAVE it. Putting barriers or restrictions on what you can do or where you can do it forces you to get creative, AND triggers the part of your brain that goes “Wait, I can’t have it? GIVE IT TO ME NOW!”
But speaking of boredom… another core reason why passion fades and couples start to drift apart is that they’re just… there. The spark fades and gets harder and harder to reignite because of the banalities of life start to set in. No matter how much of a scorching hot couple you may be at the start, the basic necessities of everyday life mean that it’s incredibly easy to start getting stuck in the rut of the day to day.
And let me tell you, that kicks in faster than you’d expect, especially if you move in together. The novelty of living with your partner fades in the face of making grocery lists, making sure you have enough toilet paper and trying to sort out who’s taking out the trash and changing the litter box this week. The status quo ALWAYS sets in and once you get into those ruts, it’s hard to get out of them. It takes a lot of concerted time and effort to break out of a rut and STAY out, and it takes much less energy to stay in one… which is part of why it’s so easy to fall back into them.
The way you avoid this is very simple: get in the habit of always having something for the two of you to look forward to. Having something coming up that you’re looking forward to keeps you from falling into a rut because it gives you something to move toward, something that’s always going to be that break from your usual pattern.
When you start getting in the habit of making sure you always have upcoming plans, you cut a lot of the boredom and tedium out of your relationship. This could be anything from a special dinner or night on the town, to a trip together somewhere. By keeping these plans on your schedule, you makes sure there’s always something for the two of you to look forward to on the horizon.
Sure, you’re never going to fully get away from the basic banalities of life — that’s just part of living — but knowing that you’ve got this fun thing coming up means that you have something you’re both excited for. And in addition to the pleasure of the event itself, you have all of that lovely antici…
Which, incidentally, is why scheduling sex — as unromantic as it may sound — is great for your relationship. Not only does it guarantee that you’ve carved out time for it, but it’s something you two can look forward to and get excited about as the time draws closer.
And like I said, you can start getting into the habit of this almost as soon as you start dating by simply making plans for your NEXT date while you’re still on your current one, instead of just trying to wing it and figure things out later. Making plans NOW keeps that momentum going and gives you more time to get excited instead of running headlong into the problem of not being able to see each other and losing steam.
Starting this when you first start dating makes it much easier to keep it going as your relationship progresses, instead of trying to shoehorn it in later. It’ll feel much more natural and organic and it’ll simply become part of your relationship together.
The last thing to consider is deceptively simple, and yet couples NEVER do this: stop running your relationship on autopilot. Often part of the reason why relationships start to feel stale or less fulfilling is that a lot of couples run their relationships by the “standard” rules… even when those rules aren’t a great fit.
Just because certain practices are considered typical doesn’t mean that you need to do them. A lot of relationships would last longer if, for example, the people involved didn’t sleep in the same bedroom… or live in the same space, for that matter. The idea that, if you’re in a relationship, you NEED to sleep in the same bed, for example, is a case of tradition that may not work for many folks. Many people need their time apart, no matter how much they love their partner.
Having your own place — a place that is uniquely and specifically yours — to retreat back to and get time on your own can be huge for making a relationship work. If you’ve got the room, everyone having their own bedroom can make the difference between a relationship that lasts and one that falls apart.
Hell, nobody says you have to live together. If you can make it work, there’s no reason you couldn’t, say, live in both sides of a duplex or have adjoining apartments. Again: this is something that comes down to “if you can make it work”, but there’s no rule saying you two HAVE to move in together, even if you’re in a committed, long-term relationship.
That’s the great thing about relationships: you can make whatever rules you want. It’s up to the two of you; if the “traditional” way of doing things is a bad fit, then make up your own.
Having your own rules, rituals and traditions can be what makes the difference between a relationship that falls apart… and one that stays fresh, vibrant and vital for life.