I have a question about relationships, especially the early stages.
That dopamine and oxytocin rush, that joy of discovering a new person and getting to know them, the excitement of exploring new bodies and new tastes in bed, the passion and effortless joy of early romance. All great. I love that.
And yes, everyone is putting on their best face at the start, but as things continue in this mould and we discover each other’s quirks and start to open ourselves up to each other more, it often feels like a punishment at best or a cruel joke at worst.
Because all that good stuff I mentioned at the start goes. Sometimes I get dumped, but not always. But certainly everything I love in the first paragraph is taken away — the big pyjamas replace the sexy lingerie; instead of discovering new things about each other, we settle into watching the TV we both like on sofa together; instead of romantic dinners, it turns into taking turns cooking of the same set of a few dozen meals, and so on.
As opposed to “effortless joy”, things move into the “routine warmth” mode. And whilst rationally I want to be satisfied with that, the relationship at that point often feels just like “good friends/housemates with occasional sex on the side”, and I find myself getting so very bored and wanting to get out and date again to get some novelty and excitement back in my life.
My friends have often told me that this is “real love” compared with infatuation, and it can be so much more fulfilling than the honeymoon period, but I don’t understand how at all. It feels to me like some cruel joke of attraction. Now, like I said, rationally, having a good friend and a housemate and a sexual partner all wrapped up in one person is clearly a good thing, but GOD, it’s dull and so much worse than the “honeymoon” period. I even tried long-distance relationships, where I hoped that only seeing each other two days a month meant that we would “use up” that budget of excitement slower, and “the good bit” would last longer (spoiler: it didn’t. I never said it was a great plan, but I’m running out of ideas!)
So how do I learn to accept that things will always turn dull in the long run, and not yearn for a new person, a new set of interests and drives, a new body, a new life, to discover and explore to get that “effortless joy” back?
There’re a few things happening here, HO, and it’s a mix of the biological, the psychological and the emotional. On the biological side, there’s what’s known as the Coolidge Effect. This was named for a famous (if apocryphal) story about President Coolidge and his wife visiting a farm that was supposed to be the model for new and efficient agriculture practices. The president and Mrs. Coolidge were being given tours of different parts of the farm, and when Mrs. Coolidge came to the chicken yard, saw that there was a rooster who was banging away at one of 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,” she replied. When the President reached the chicken yard, his tour guide relayed his wife’s message. Coolidge asked his guide: “Does the rooster mate with the same hen every time?” “Oh no,” said the guide, “it’s a different hen every time.”
“Excellent. Tell Mrs. Coolidge.”
Here’s how that applies to sex and the honeymoon period in relationships. We’re a novelty-seeking species, and our brains are built in a way that encourages us to seek out novelty, especially sexual novelty. When we’re with a new partner, our bodies go into overdrive, pumping out oxytocin and dopamine straight to the pleasure centers of the brain. But we’re also a very adaptable species, and we’re especially prone to hedonic adaptation; any sensation, no matter how pleasurable, becomes just our new normal over time. And as we stay with our partner, we start to produce less and less dopamine and oxytocin during sex. When we meet someone new, then the level of production ramps back up again.
However, that doesn’t mean that we’re supposed to just hit it and quit it. Part of what happens is that we switch from “fuck like greased weasels on meth” to “get cozy and nest”; the passion fades to become a more intimate sort of connection. The kind of connection that, amongst other things, encourages support and comfort and stability… qualities you want if, say, you’re trying to raise a family. So while that initial excitement may fade, that doesn’t mean that the love fades, just the chemical effects of infatuation and novelty.
But biology isn’t destiny, and that drop-off in oxytocin during sex doesn’t mean that passion is doomed to fade. Sex is one way that we generate oxytocin. But so is good conversation, physical touch, laughter and physical excitement. One of the reasons why the honeymoon comes to an end isn’t just because of the Coolidge effect but because we settle in, we get comfortable and we start to become more familiar with our partners. In fact, as I just said to I Feel Like An Ass, Esther Perel talks extensively about how the loss of mystery and the comfort of familiarity create a paradox of relationships. The comfort helps us bond emotionally, but can dampen our ardor; because our partners become known to us, they’re less of a mystery and we feel less of that excitement of the new.
Now there are a lot of ways of avoiding this — up to and including choosing to not live together — but one of the best and easiest ways to avoid that loss of passion is to make sure you continue to have sexual adventures with your partner. The idea of “we settled down and now we don’t have crazy sex any more” is, unfortunately, incredibly common — so much so that the idea of the sexually adventurous long-term couples tend to be comedy fodder in pop culture. We’re expected to laugh at the middle-aged couple who turn out to be kinksters or swingers or who go off to Hedonism II or other sexually charged vacations. But in reality, those are the couples who are keeping their relationships alive and vital; they don’t have to reignite the spark because the spark never went out for them.
This is why a big part of keeping the passion in your relationship is that you don’t fall into the trap of thinking that the adventures are over. Maybe that means you give yourself artificial restrictions, so you don’t get into the routine of sex at the same time, in the same place, and in the same manner. Maybe it means you explore different fantasies or kinks or toys to your repertoire. Regardless of what you do, it requires being an active participant in your relationship, instead of hoping that it’s not going to start to fade this time.
Just as importantly: you get more by giving more. One of the unspoken truths about relationships is that our partners mirror us, and vice versa. Part of the reason why we tend to settle into comfortable, but less glamorous, routines is that we choose to allow it to happen. We start to take things for granted. We don’t dress up the way we used to, we don’t do the little things we used to for our partners because it made them smile, we don’t flirt the way we used to and so on. Because we don’t keep that little edge we used to have… our partners follow suit. And it becomes a reinforcing cycle; we get a little more comfortable and so our partners get a little more comfortable, so we let things relax a little more.
Now, it’s easy to get sidetracked by who did what first, or who triggered it. But the truth is that who did it first ultimately doesn’t matter. What matters is deliberately choosing to break the cycle by not letting yourself get comfortable and give up the things that you used to do in the early days of the relationship. When you make a point of living up to the promise of the early days of the relationship, that in turn encourages your partner to do the same. And when you both continue to treat your relationship as though you’d just started dating, you turn that into the same self-reinforcing cycle.
This is why, if you want to keep your relationship vital, it’s important to channel your inner Gomez and Morticia Addams. Part of why they’re such a beloved and iconic couple — and both relationship goals and role-models — is because they never stop putting in the effort for one another. Because they treat their relationship — even after decades of marriage and two kids — as though they were still newlyweds, they keep the spark alive. They continue to flirt, to seduce, tease, dress up and celebrate their relationship. They, in short, never let a day go by where they don’t make the other feel like the most sublime, desirable creature ever to slither over the earth.
With all that having been said: the fact that things ease and people relax over the course of a relationship isn’t a bad thing. There’s a lot to be said about the easy, comfortable intimacy of a couple that have seen each other at their weirdest or least kempt and love each other madly regardless. And sometimes a quiet, low-key relationship is exactly what folks crave; they don’t want fireworks and roses, they want a partner to share the couch and watch The Great British Bake-Off with. And that’s just as beautiful and valid too.
Of course, there’s also a third option, HO. You could decide that you ultimately prefer short term relationships. While I realize that we as a culture celebrate long-term relationships, the length of a relationship isn’t what makes it a success, nor is it a marker of the quality of the connection. Relationships that don’t last for decades, or that end with one or both partners dying in the saddle are just as valuable, just as valid and just as wonderful. If the New Relationship Energy is important enough to you that it’s a priority for you, there’s absolutely no reason for you not to lean into it. Choosing to have a series of shorter, more intense relationships is a viable and legitimate choice.
Just make sure that, if that’s what you choose, that you and your partner are on the same page.
Dear Dr. NerdLove:
This might sound odd, but my son is 17 and is apparently going through his first big breakup of his first serious relationship. He’s been dating her since his freshman year, and she is 2 years older. It is likely due to the age difference/life experience difference, since he’s still in school and she’s graduated and working and lives on her own.
He’s my oldest and his dad and I both had kind of terrible dating/relationship histories before we managed to find each other. That means I don’t really know how to coach my kid through this without giving him unhealthy advice. My experience isn’t really a great place to start, unless I want to say “oh, DO NOT do this.”
What I’m managing to do right now is get him to focus on self care, acknowledge his emotions and not suppress them, and find things to do to fill the time he would have been spending with his ex. I’m not speculating on her motives, or trying to give him advice about anything beyond, communication and listening. He wants to stay friends with her, if that’s possible.
Is there anything else? I want him to not hate her. Angry, ok, that’s fine, but I want him to understand that often relationships just change too much for people to stay together. I want them to be able to be friends if it’s possible.
It doesn’t help that we live in an area that it’s hard for nerdy folks to find each other, and both of them are pretty nerdy.
I’m sorry your son’s going through this, NM. The first breakup is always the hardest, in no small part because you have no idea what to expect. It can feel like the end of your entire world, especially when you’re 17 and everything feels like it’s of Earth-shattering importance.
When it comes to trying to support him and help him through this… well, this is good news/bad news sort of situation. The bad news is that he’s probably not going to listen to you or believe you. After all, part of the prerogative of the young is to believe that they invented love, dating, relationships and the like; there’s no way an Old like us could possibly understand how they feel.
The good news is: he’ll still hear what you’re saying. And even if he doesn’t accept it now, it’ll still sink in.
So, off the bat, I want to let you know: you’ve been giving him all the right advice. The best thing he can do right now is give himself space and time to feel the fuck out of his feels and let himself be sad and upset about this. A relationship ended; that’s something that should be mourned. Similarly, prioritizing things that make him feel better — not “less sad” but make him feel like he’s doing positive things for himself and his life is an important part of recovering from a breakup. This is why one of the things I tell people who’re having a hard time after a breakup is to work on themselves. Sometimes that means hitting the gym and getting in shape. Other times, that means using that pain as fuel for other activities; maybe this is a time for him to throw himself into a new hobby or attack some dream or goal he’s had. Reconnecting with friends and making sure he has a solid team supporting him is also important. It’s a reminder that even though this all sucks, he’s still got people in his life who love and care for him and have his back. All that is going to be key to beating back that feeling of “why am I such a loser” or “she broke up with me and that means nobody could love me or care for me.”
But the next thing I tell people is possibly the most important: he needs distance and space from her. I understand that he wants to stay friends; that’s a noble goal and it speaks well of him… assuming that he means it. But he can’t be friends with her right now. The pain is going to be too present, the wounds too fresh, and he’s still going to be in the same mindset of when he was dating her. He still has the patterns he developed while he was in a relationship with her, and he’s going to fall back into those without thinking. But those patterns were for a person and a time that no longer exists; falling back into them will be akin to someone forgetting that they lost a limb and reaching out with the phantom arm they no longer have. He’s going to need that time apart — without contact — so that he can reset things and come to friendship with her as a new relationship, rather than carrying the expectations of the old.
This is one of the reasons why I advocate taking the Nuclear Option — where you unfollow, mute or block your ex on social media, delete their number and texts and otherwise excise them from your life. You need that time away from them, and it can be entirely too easy to fail your Wisdom save and try to get back in contact before you’re ready. Just as importantly though, is that blocking or unfollowing her on social media means that he isn’t getting served up reminders that he’s been dumped every time he looks at his phone. Breakups are hard enough; when you’re constantly having your ex thrown into your face, it’s even harder. It’s bad enough when you’re tempted to look up her Instagram or TikTok to see what she’s up to or if she’s dating someone else yet. It’s even worse when it just comes to you through your notifications. By muting and unfollowing her, even if he doesn’t actually unfollow or block her, then he’s protecting himself from the pain. He’s also putting an extra barrier between him and checking her relationship status; it won’t prevent him from looking if he’s determined, but each extra step makes it easier to resist the impulse.
But the one thing I think he needs to hear most is, likely, the thing that he’ll believe least: “this too, shall pass”. It’s easy to look back on our breakups with the benefit of hindsight and know that yeah, we got over it. But when you’re in the middle of it — especially when its your first and you’re soaking in a stew of hormonal chaos, as all teenagers are — it feels like this is what the rest of your life will be like. Letting him know that this pain is temporary, that it will fade and he will feel better is important. He won’t listen. He’ll be convinced you have no idea what he’s going through. He’ll swear up and down that this loss is too great and this pain is eternal. But it will fade. He will feel better. And that’ll be ok.
As a wise man once said: “You grieve. Then you continue with your life. And at times the fact of her absence will hit you like a blow to the chest, and you will weep. But this will happen less and less as time goes on.” It sounds a little cold, but it’s true; the pain will ease. It always does. You just have to keep moving forward and keep finding reasons to move on with your life while you wait. Time is the great healer, whether we realize it or not.
You’re doing a good job NM. Your son’s gonna be fine, especially with you in his corner.