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 relationships experts to share their best advice to fan the flames of your long-term relationship, whether you're married, cohabiting, or otherwise.
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. "During early romance, we’re getting all kinds of great, pleasurable experiences that are giving us a bit of a hit of dopamine," says psychologist Marsha Lucas, Ph.D. in an interview with Men's Health. "After you’re married and the thrill has settled, those big, constant hits of dopamine taper off, and like coming down from a high, it can feel like a huge letdown.”
That said, 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," Cassandra LeClair, Ph.D., communications studies professor at Texas State University, says. For example, while 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?" Dr. LeClair adds.
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," Dr. 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, using "I" statements that focus on behavior, rather than the person, helps create an open, non-judgmental 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.
Find ways to demonstrate you care. The best part is that it doesn't have to mean a grand gesture. "Leave love notes or take an extra 5 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," Dr. LeClair suggests. "Take note of the little things that they do, and let them know you appreciate them."
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. According to a Johns Hopkins School of Medicine blog post, the dreaded sex slump occurs around a relationship's three- or four-year mark. “Intimacy breaks down at this stage because couples don’t talk about their sex life,” writes Dr. Chris Kraft, Director of Clinical Services of Sex and Gender Clinic, and clinical/research psychologist at Johns Hopkins. “And, couples aren’t as intentional about connecting with each other as they were earlier in the relationship.”
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 describes 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?").
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. 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 [t]akes you out of automatic mode and allows the other person to be fully seen. This naturally heightens desire," says licensed psychologist Dr. Poonam Sharma, and author of Strong Women, Strong Love.
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), create a positive feedback loop that encourages couples to maintain the relationship, writes social psychologist Amie M. Gordon, for Psychology Today.
"It is such a fundamental human need to know that we are seen and valued by our people," Darshana Avila, relationship expert, and erotic wholeness coach 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.
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 and 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.
"The ability to passionately pursue independent interests reflects a strong sense of an individual self on the part of both partners in the relationship," Elisabeth LaMotte, therapist and founder of the DC Counseling & Psychotherapy Center, says in an interview with HuffPost. "And a strong sense of self is conducive to a healthy level of intimacy. Interestingly, couples with different interests may surprise themselves to discover and develop a shared interest (like hiking or bird watching) later in life.”
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 says, 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."