“Reconciling the erotic and the domestic is not a problem to solve, it is a paradox to manage” psychotherapist Esther Perel states in her book, The State of Affairs. I hear the frustration in my client’s voices when they first enter my office, looking at me as they slowly place their relationship in my hands. They start with the presenting issue and describe for me the source of motivation for therapy. When sharing their current challenges, I hear a lot of “we have communication issues”, “we fight about everything”, “there’s no time for sex”, “all he wants is sex”, “she never wants to have sex”, etc. But then I stop them and ask them to tell me about the evolution of their relationship. There’s a long pause. It takes a couple some time to step away from their present dynamic in order to reflect on who they were years ago.
Ideally, couples want both what they had then and what they have now. They want the romance, the unfamiliar other, the newness of the relationship, the anticipation of the sex, and all the other undiscovered elements that come along with a nascent relationship. Over time, they begin to appreciate the comfort of being able to show up as their authentic, true selves. They enter a new chapter, trading in candlelight and romance for sweats and Netflix. And although reaching that stage of the relationship signifies closeness, remaining in that stage of a relationship consistently, creates distance. To keep the flame burning bright, the couple must remain cognizant of balancing both. Exiting the honeymoon stage means love is now a verb. Each person needs to consciously take action when (or ideally before) they go from fire to ember.
When spontaneity doesn’t show up as organically as it used to, the couple has to consciously show up instead. Here are 10 things you can do to maintain the relationship “spark”:
- Be intentional
When couples are in the honeymoon stage, everything they do and say is driven by the neurochemicals. As biological anthropologist Helen Fisher studied, not only is there a surge of “feel good” chemicals when we are falling in love, but the neural pathway responsible for negative emotions such as fear and judgement is deactivated. The couple is in a stage of pure bliss making it effortless to be open, attentive, and sexually active. However, once the attachment is established and the novelty of it all has dissipated, that’s when it’s imperative to do and say things to keep the momentum going. Continue the ritual of kissing one another goodbye and embracing each other when you reunite, sending a thoughtful message midday, making reservations, expressing what you love about one another, etc. Falling in love might be out of your control but staying in love requires work.
- Change it up
Don’t allow yourselves to fall victim to routine. We all have a schedule we like to adhere to but when life becomes monotonous, so too does your perception of your relationship. One way to make things interesting is having a date night midweek. Sure, it’s more convenient to go out on a Friday or Saturday night, but meeting after work for dinner is a great way to break out of the usual “how was your day”, “my day was fine” exchange. This way, you’re creating time to really talk. So, sit down with your significant other and start brainstorming ways to mix things up. One way to get started is thinking back to the dating period; what did you do for fun? In what ways did you feel connected?
- Turn off the distractions
After a long day of work, some people turn to the television, tablet, or phone for decompression time. Most people need down time to transition from work-mode to home-mode but once that transition is made, take some time to reconnect with your partner. A great way to do this is to plan on going to bed about 20 minutes earlier than usual. Before dozing off, fill each other in on what’s been going on in your inner worlds. Dr. John Gottman refers to this exchange as the Stress-Reducing Exercise. By keeping one another updated, validating each other’s experiences, and expressing empathy, the couple is building on their emotional attraction for one another which in turn, increases physical attraction.
- Take a walk down memory lane
Every now and then, bring up fond memories you have with one another. Look back on adventures you went on, your first date, the first time you said “I love you”, your wedding day, etc. Thinking about the special moments you’ve shared also brings up those special feelings. An added bonus is remembering something you used to enjoy and then planning to do it again.
- Take care of yourself
Self-care is one of the most important elements to keeping the desire alive. Think about the things that make you feel good, energize you, and boost your confidence; never stop doing those things. Bottom line, if you don’t feel good about yourself physically, emotionally, and mentally, it’s going to be very difficult to feel good about your partner and your relationship. Make sure your cup is full.
- Make sex a priority
Life definitely gets busy especially with kids. Making sex a priority means talking about and scheduling it if necessary. When I ask my couples to schedule time to have sex, they tell me it’s not spontaneous, sexy, or fun. Think back to the beginning of your relationship. When you dressed up, made dinner plans, flirted, and approached your significant partner with sexual energy, weren’t you thinking that intimacy was part of the evening? It was always planned but most couples don’t set the stage up for it the way they used to. If it feels more spontaneous, plan a fun night and let that be the indicator of what is going to happen next. It’s also important to be flexible about when you have sex. If you’re too tired at night, try it in the morning or afternoon. Finally, TALK about your sex life. The only way you can learn more about each other’s bodies, likes, and dislikes is through communication.
- Experience new things together
Arthur Aron, a professor of psychology at Stony Brook University found that a major way to maintain that “spark” in the relationship is to experience new things together. Aron and his colleagues found that couples who jointly engage in new and/or exciting activities were more satisfied with their relationships. Go to places you’ve never been, try new foods, travel to foreign countries, take classes, etc.
- Set personal goals
The whole point of dating is to learn more about another—their dreams, passions, what drives them, what feeds their soul. And if what they share speaks to us, we’re enthralled. Sometimes as two people become closer, the relationship begins to take priority and the things that feed the individual’s soul are put on hold or simply neglected. Holding on to who you are while also holding on to your significant other can be challenging at times but if you manage it, you’re providing both the known and the unknown, leaving constant room for exploration.
- Set boundaries
Similar to setting personal goals and self-care, setting boundaries for yourself is important. Pay attention to your needs, your feelings, and your energy level. When there’s a lot of giving to the other and not enough giving to the self, resentment builds. This applies to others outside of the relationship too—friends, family members, co-workers, etc. In order to fan the flame of your relationship, you’ve got to have the energy to do so. Set boundaries and make sure your needs are met before saying yes, especially if you really mean no.
- Communicate the good and the bad
You know how in the beginning of the relationship everything that person did was special or beautiful? And how you had to tell them? Even the silliest things like the way they held their coffee cup. You couldn’t help but say “I love the way you hold your cup”. Over time the frequency of those admiring comments dwindles. And not because you no longer admire your significant other and all of their cute quirks, but because “(s)he already knows”, as I hear often. Even if your significant other knows what you love about them, keep sharing. Never stop sharing. We have no problem acknowledging the negative and communicating the changes we’d like made but the positive is often unacknowledged. We don’t create enough space for it when we’re too busy improving and resolving conflict. This becomes a problem when one or both begin to feel unappreciated or unimportant, ultimately killing desire and connection.
Written by Y.K., MA, LMFT, CST-Candidate
*Disclaimer: this is not meant to act as or replace therapy in any way. To schedule a therapy session please call Houston Relationship Therapy at 1-800-913-9613.