The anticipation of a text, the spark of a first kiss, the need-to-have-you-right-now sex—there's little to dislike about the beginning of a relationship. In fact, it seems the only thing not to like is the fact that the newness doesn't last forever, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing.
Long-term relationships, whether you're married or not, can bring an element of stability and comfort to one's life. What begins as the honeymoon stage where everything feels wonderful and potential red flags are ignored, naturally progresses to the stage where your true selves are revealed and commitment is formed. Relationships are continually evolving experiences that both parties are responsible for shaping and investing in. Along the way, however, life can seem to complicate maintaining and renewing that spark—from raising children to major or unexpected changes at work (such as a layoff or a promotion that means more travel) or a partner's health, it may seem like the cards are stacked against you.
Still, there's a way to have the best of both worlds—the passion of new love and the benefits of a long-term relationship. We asked relationship experts Cassandra LeClair, Ph.D., Poonam Sharma, Ph.D., and Darshana Avila to share their best advice to fan the flames of your long-term relationship, whether you're married, cohabiting, or otherwise.
Meet the Expert
- Cassandra LeClair, Ph.D., is a communications studies professor at Texas State University, motivational speaker, and author of Being Whole.
- Poonam Sharma, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist with over 25 years of experience in the industry. She is the author of Strong Women, Strong Love.
- Darshana Avila is an intimacy and relationship expert and erotic wholeness coach.
As you settle into a cozy groove with your significant other, it's natural to feel a little nostalgic for your relationship's initial stages. We all know that the honeymoon stage of coupling is hard to top, so it's only natural that its absence can be sorely missed as the romance matures.
One way to keep things fresh is to stay curious about your partner. "When you are first getting to know someone, you are excited about all of the unknowns. Each disclosure represents a new possibility, and it feels invigorating to learn more about one another," LeClair says. But just because you've already learned so much of your partner's intricacies, doesn't mean there isn't more to discover. For example, you may know your partner's favorite food, "But have you asked them why it is their favorite? Do they have special memories tied to it?"
Similarly, intentional communication with your partner helps illuminate a path forward in times of conflict. "Clear communication can help us understand areas for future growth," LeClair says. "When your partner tells you what they need and want, do not take it as a criticism that you were doing things wrong. Look at it as an opportunity to love them in a way that feels good to them."
When communicating with your partner, use "I" statements that focus on behavior rather than the person. It creates an open, nonjudgmental environment for productive dialogue.
Keep Dating Each Other
Novelty is key here, so it's important that you and your partner continue to seek new shared experiences, whether low-key (trying a new restaurant) or something more adventurous (traveling to a foreign country). According to a New York Times article, new experiences activate the brain's reward system, flooding the brain with dopamine and norepinephrine—the same chemicals responsible for those euphoric highs of early romance.
A simple way to revive those emotions and stimulate the happy chemical production is to find ways of demonstrating you care. The best part is that it doesn't have to mean a grand gesture. "Leave love notes or take an extra five minutes to have a long goodbye in the morning. If you see something that reminds you of your partner, take a picture and send it to them," LeClair suggests.
"Take note of the little things that they do, and let them know you appreciate them." If you're at a loss for inspiration, just think about what small acts of care or romance would brighten your morning or add a jolt of excitement to your day. Chances are your partner will feel the same.
Turn Toward Bids for Connection
This might seem like a no-brainer, but physical intimacy can be difficult to maintain as time passes, and home and work demands take over. Sadly, routine is rarely the spice of life—or of a love life for that matter. According to a Johns Hopkins School of Medicine blog post, the dreaded sex slump occurs around a relationship's three- or four-year mark.
That said, it's important to be intentional with each other throughout your relationship. One way to do this is to lean into (rather than ignoring or turning away from) what relationship researchers at The Gottman Institute describe as "bids for connection." Bids for connection can range from bids for sex ("I read about this new bedroom technique recently and thought we could try it") to affection ("Will you hold my hand?") to attention ("Can we check in with how things are going between us lately?"). In short, maintaining a sense of openness and curiosity is essential to sustaining mutual satisfaction within a long-term relationship.
Even long-term couples have much to learn about each other when they are mindful, rather than distracted or passive, listeners. That means putting down the smartphone or turning off the TV during conversation or suspending the urge to judge or come up with a solution to your partner's concerns (remember openness and curiosity are key!). Instead, strive to focus on their experience—listen to what they're saying as much as how they're saying it and why.
"Fully engage your partner when you are talking, kissing, or touching each other. Being fully present takes you out of automatic mode and allows the other person to be fully seen. This naturally heightens desire," says Sharma. You'll quickly noticed that full immersion in your shared experiences with your partner, rather than just a distracted presence, will elevate each moment in ways you may have not thought possible—breathing new life and spectrum of possibility to even the most mundane tasks.
Appreciating your partner for who they are as well as what they do (like take out the trash because they know you hate doing it) creates a positive feedback loop that encourages couples to maintain the relationship.
"It is such a fundamental human need to know that we are seen and valued by our people," Avila says. In a long-term relationship, our partner is one of the most important people in our inner circle. "When we know that what we're doing is valued by another, naturally we'll tend to do more of it. So expressing gratitude and showing appreciation for your partner is also a way to encourage more of what you enjoy about who they are, how they show up, [and] the ways they love you," Avila says.
And the positive effects are two-fold. Not only will your partner feel seen and appreciated, but you will become increasingly more aware of all the wonderful contributions your partner brings to your life. Where gratitude flows, energy grows.
Pursue Individual Hobbies and Interests
It's important to maintain your individuality and pursue the things you're interested in, even when all you may want to do is be glued to your partner's side. Whether you're into learning a new language while they're training for a marathon, having your own 'thing' will give you something new to talk about and bring new energy into the relationship.
This will also ensure that you remain true to yourself and aren't sacrificing or abandoning any parts of yourself for your partner, something that can cause resentment later on. In order for the relationship to mature and evolve, it's important that each half of it also grows individually.
Remember, Love Is a Verb
It's one thing to say "I love you," and another thing entirely to express that in different ways every day you choose to be in your relationship. What romantic comedy films often neglect to show after the on-screen couple realizes they want to be together for the long haul are the day-to-day negotiations of navigating a union where two individuals with different life experiences, hopes, and dreams co-create a life together.
"Love in action is going to look different for different people because we don't all love in the same ways. For some, love in action is cooking a meal and doing the dishes. For others, it's time spent in deeply meaningful conversation together," Avila says. The key to understanding how to "do" love, Avila adds, is focusing on "getting to know the ways that you love and want to be loved and also knowing this about your partner so you can take action from there."