By Ginny Graves, Health
Amid all the recent whiplash-inducing developments in the world (pandemics! politics!), one thing has remained stable: People continue to fall in love. Even with the outbreak of COVID-19, applications for marriage licenses actually surged in some parts of the country in February and March last year. Those newlyweds may be on to something. A number of surveys have found that married people are, by and large, happier than non-married people. But as any knot-tier knows, lifetime partnerships aren’t simple, nor are they static. “Our love relationships are always evolving,” says Helen Fisher, PhD, senior research fellow at the Kinsey Institute and author of Anatomy of Love. We asked Fisher and other experts for advice on how to keep the happy in happily ever after as the anniversaries tick by.
The season of sizzle
The first year or two of a relationship is marked by some heady factors: daydreaming about your partner; seeing the best in him or her (imaging studies show that the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, the brain region linked with fault-finding, is abnormally quiet when you’re falling in love); and having sex, sex, and more sex—an activity that promotes bonding. “Genital stimulation triggers dopamine, a chemical in the brain’s reward system that’s associated with pleasure, and orgasm releases a flood of oxytocin and vasopressin, which promote attachment,” explains Fisher. “That mix promotes this feeling of mildly obsessive love.”
Common pitfall: Now that your brain is hijacked by love chemicals, it’s easy to miss red flags, says Lisa Marie Bobby, PhD, founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching in Denver. “If you are eager to find a life partner, it can be tempting to ignore pings of concern about your partner, whether it’s major differences around values, or substance-use issues, or mental health [challenges],” says Bobby. Thinking intentionally about what you want in a long-term partner—and identifying the deal breakers—can help you stay committed to your own needs, if not your partner.
Helpful habit: Work on your communication skills, says Camille Lafleur, PhD, assistant professor of marriage and family therapy in the graduate program at Oklahoma Baptist University in Shawnee. Before you have a conversation, write down the key message you want to convey, she suggests. And try not to rush when you’re talking: “Share one or two thoughts at a time, then pause to see if [your partner] understands your true intention, and really listen to his or her response. Listening and being heard are fundamental for a happy partnership,” says Lafleur.
After a few years of couplehood, the early euphoria wanes a little, but in its place is something better: a sense of trust. “You’re revealing your secrets, hopes, and dreams, which builds intimacy,” says Bobby. As you share every facet of your life, you come to understand each other more clearly, and, often, care for each other more deeply.
Common pitfall: When the love goggles come off, you may see things about your partner you don’t like—and vice versa. It’s easy to become disenchanted, because we think our soul mates are supposed to be perfect and relationships aren’t supposed to have problems, says Lafleur. In reality, all relationships, like all humans, are a mixed bag of good and bad. “Ask yourself: ‘Is this behavior or pattern something we can talk about and work through—and if so, how?’ Successfully working through problems deepens trust,” says Lafleur.
Helpful habit: Remind yourself of the things you adore and admire about your partner. “In the beginning, you may have loved his or her spontaneity and creativity, but when you’re at the stage where you need to clean out the garage, those traits can be frustrating,” says Bobby. Fisher’s research shows that couples in happy long-term relationships naturally minimize what they don’t like about their partners and focus more on what they do.
The intermittent storms
Every couple has conflicts, Fisher says, and they often strike during challenging times—when work is demanding, financial stress is high, or you’re raising kids. “Regardless of what you’re fighting about, at the core of every conflict are similar themes—feeling uncared for, disrespected, or devalued,” says Bobby. “Helping your partner understand those underlying reasons why you’re upset can reduce the conflict.” Be specific, suggests Amanda Pasciucco, a marriage and family therapist and clinical sexologist in West Hartford, Connecticut. “You can say, ‘I’m feeling angry at you because you went out with your friends instead of helping me around the house. The story I’m telling myself about that is that you don’t care.’ ”
Common pitfall: Be careful not to show contempt. Eye-rolling, ridicule, mockery, and sneering communicate a lack of respect—the foundation on which healthy relationships are built, says Eva Van Prooyen, a marriage and family therapist in Santa Barbara, California. Research suggests contempt is the single most important predictor of divorce. That’s how toxic it is.
Helpful habit: Practice kindness. Surprise your partner with small gifts, lend a hand with tasks, or spend time together doing something he or she enjoys. “Unexpected kindness triggers the brain’s reward system, which is connected to romantic love,” says Bianca Acevedo, PhD, a research associate in psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. And say several nice things to your partner every day, adds Fisher. “It lowers their cortisol and yours.”
Here’s some hopeful news: Researchers at Pennsylvania State University and Brigham Young University found that marital quality improves after 20 years. While shared activities dwindle in the first two decades, happy long-time couples start doing more fun stuff together again, like visiting friends and going on walks. Discord declines as well.
Common pitfall: Boredom can settle in. “After many years, couples are often comfortable—but they might also be bored or living largely separate lives,” says Acevedo. “To reconnect and reawaken excitement and passion, do new things together, whether it’s taking a cooking class or dance class or going on a hiking trip. Novel experiences can rekindle the spark.”
Helpful habit: Remember to touch each other often. “Hold hands under the dinner table, walk arm in arm, kiss, hug, snuggle on the couch while you’re watching TV, have sex,” says Fisher. “Maintaining physical connection is one of the best ways to sustain feelings of love and attachment.”