The Relationship Fix

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Can the "Novelty Habit" Boost a Couple's Commitment?

True or false? Couples that play together stay together.

Do couples who seek out exciting experiences together have a better chance at a lasting relationship?

A recent article in the New York Times cites research that supports this idea. Dr. Arthur Aron theorizes that "self-expansion," the desire to grow and change, is critical to boosting a couple's level of commitment. By "self-expansion" in a relationship, he means that you see your partner as a source of exciting experiences, a support for becoming a better person, or a way to expand your own capabilities.

Anthropologist Helen Fisher has reached similar conclusions. She says, "Research shows that novelty--taking risks or trying something new--can trigger the release of dopamine in the brain. I'm not just talking about novelty in the bedroom (although that would be a good start). You can get the same effect from sampling a new type of cuisine together or riding the roller coaster at an amusement park."

I'm not sure if "exciting experiences" belong in the same basket as "personal growth," but let's assume for now that the researchers are right: "Couples who explore new places and try new things will tap into feelings of self-expansion, lifting their level of commitment."

O happy day! So often we're told we must "work" to keep our relationship together, and now it seems that we can "play" to do the same.

While some couples might grumble at changing certain relationship patterns, few would object to creating the "novelty habit," as I'm dubbing it. Most couples would be attracted to the idea of incorporating one or more zesty or atypical experiences into the week's routine. And the result is a twofer--you get both a satisfying sense of self-expansion AND you bond more closely with your partner.

So how could you and your partner develop the novelty habit? (Question to self: Is "novelty habit" an oxymoron?)

Well, one possibility is to experiment with a new activity every weekend (or week). You could plan it jointly or take turns. The choices would be endless, but here are a few get-started ideas:

• Take a walk in a different part of town.
• Go to a museum, a park, or a historical site. Take a walking tour.
• Take public transportation, bike, or walk to a restaurant or coffee shop. Eat, sip, talk.
• Take a day-trip.
• Go to a free lecture, concert, or event.
• Don't plan anything and see what happens.
• Teach your partner a new skill--or learn a new skill from him/her.
• Volunteer.

My partner and I do quite a few of these on a regular basis already. I had thought we were just having fun together, but now I realize we are "self-expanding" and "bonding" as well. No wonder these activities feel so good! Who knew?

I doubt that the "novelty effect" could substitute for the basics--a relationship built on mutual acceptance, respect, and spark.  And if one of you is eager to try bungee jumping while the other would like to sample a new variety of tea, you could have a problem.  There's also something to be said for the comfort and pleasure of a routine. The sense of obligation to provide novelty could itself become--horrors!--a bore.

Still, it seems that the couple that plays together stays together. Leaving sexual novelty aside (please!), what exciting, self-expanding, and challenging activities keep you and your partner growing ever closer together?

(c) Meg Selig, 2010

I am the author of Changepower! 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success (Routledge, 2009), reviewed here.  For more tidbits on motivation, habit change, willpower, and similar topics, please like me on Facebook and/or follow me on Twitter.

Sources:
Helen Fisher, "Real Aphrodisiacs to Boost Desire," O, the Oprah Magazine, Dec. 17, 2009.

Parker-Pope, Tara, "The Science of a Happy Marriage," http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/05/10/tracking-the-science-of-...

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