Herrndorff/Shutterstock
Source: Herrndorff/Shutterstock

Passionate love tends to decline for couples over time, although 40 percent of couples married for more than a decade continue to report intense connection within their relationships (O'Leary et al., 2012). According to Welker and colleagues (2014), a number of factors are involved in maintaining and deepening passionate love when couples have been together for a longer time, including increasing closeness through opening up and sharing new and stimulating activities together. They note, however, that most research has focused on factors associated with increasing closeness within couples, rather than looking at activities couples can do together with other couples.

Birds of a Feather

Couples do not exist in a vacuum, but are contained within and shaped by their  network of friends (including other couples), family, workmates, and society and culture at large. As birds of a feather flock together, couples' norms tend to approach a group average, whether it be a convention of greater intimacy or of more detachment. Besides a bias toward monogamy, social forces specifically influence how relationships develop. This can make it easier for couples to grow apart and split up, especially if a lack of connection and intimacy is typical, or it could maintain a status quo of staying together in spite of a lack of satisfaction.

Unsurprisingly, under the right circumstances, the immediate social setting could increase openness and responsiveness for couples.

How Can We Build Intimacy?

Welker and fellow researchers (2014) designed a pair of experimental studies to test whether friendship between different couples could increase feelings of intimacy and connection within the couples. They wanted to see whether engaging in activities with other couples designed to create opportunities for self-disclosure would enhance experiences of passionate love, building upon prior work.

They conducted two studies to test the hypothesis that engaging in high levels of self-disclosure with other couples would increase intimacy more than activities either with groups (of couples) who did not self-disclose or than self-disclosure as a lone couple.

In Study 1, they placed couples in conditions involving variations in self-disclosure and group cohesion, so that there were four different groups — high self-disclosure plus high group cohesion; high self-disclosure plus low group cohesion; low self-disclosure plus high group cohesion; and low self-disclosure plus low group cohesion. (This is called a "2x2" design.)

In Study 2, they looked more closely at the specific impact of responsiveness and self-disclosure on changes in passionate love, using a larger sample and a similar but expanded protocol as in Study 1.

Study 1: Researchers recruited 44 couples, with an average age of about 24, that had been dating for at least one year. They were from diverse ethnic backgrounds, and were predominantly heterosexual. The average relationship length in the sample was almost three years. They were assigned in four groups to either a single couple or group setting, and either a "fast-friends" manipulation designed to elicit high levels of self-disclosure, or a small-talk condition. They did not know each other beforehand. In advance of the experiment, they completed an online version of the Eros Scale of Passionate Love, asking about agreement with statements such as "My lover and I really understand each other," and "My lover and I have the right physical 'chemistry' between us." 

In the "fast-friends" group, participants (using an activity developed in prior research, Aron et al., 1997) took turns randomly drawing slips of paper with questions requiring greater and greater levels of self-disclosure. For example, questions proceeded from asking about who they would want as a dinner guest to asking about their greatest accomplishments, to asking about regrets regarding major life experiences, increasing the emotional ante at each step. They either played this game only within their own couple, or with other couples. Afterward, they played a game of Jenga in order to consolidate the group experience.

In the small-talk condition, couples took turns answering surface questions, such as when the last time was they walked more than an hour, what they had for breakfast, and so on. Afterward, they participated in the less engaging task of sorting shuffled cards. Again, they did this either as a lone couple or with other couples.

After the experiment, they completed post-test measures of self-disclosure, passionate love, and relationship satisfaction. These measures included checking the novelty of the experience, as well as seeing how much they learned about their partners. They also completed the Passionate Love Scale and the Couples Satisfaction Index.

Survey Says...

The team found that passionate love measures were significantly higher for the group/fast-friends condition compared with the group/small-talk condition. They also found that for individual couples, passionate love did not change significantly between the fast-friends and small-talk experiments. Being in the fast-friends closeness induction group increased passionate love scores for pairs of couples, but not within individual couples. In contrast, relationship satisfaction increased for the fast-friends condition, but it didn't matter whether this was for individual couples or pairs of couples. Only self-disclosure with pairs of couples increased passionate love in Study 1.

Study 2: Welker and colleagues looked to replicate and expand the findings of the first study by using additional measures. They recruited 62 couples, with an average age of 23.5 and an average relationship length of 2.76 years. They were, again, predominantly heterosexual and from diverse ethnic backgrounds. They completed half of the items from the Passionate Love Scale online before the experiment, and half afterward. They also completed a pre-test Relationship Assessment Scale to measure relationship satisfaction, self-disclosure, and perceived responsiveness of their partners and members of other couples involved, reporting on how much they felt "cared for," "understood," and "validated" by their partner and members of the other couples. All the couples in this study participated in the group/fast-friends condition, resulting in a larger sample size to examine how group self-disclosure leads to higher feelings of passionate love.

They found that higher levels of self-disclosure predicted greater ratings of passionate love, although the effect was less significant after factoring in whether the couple started with higher levels of passionate love. This suggests that self-disclosure is more important for people who are building (or rebuilding) passion. Regarding responsiveness, they found that greater responsiveness from partners and from other couples predicted higher levels of passionate love and relationship satisfaction. This effect was not different for couples with higher baseline passionate love, however, suggesting that responsiveness is of primary importance for overall relationship satisfaction in this sample.

Women responded more strongly to self-disclosure than men did, suggesting that when men open up to women it has a greater enhancing effect on passion than when women open up to men. When researchers analyzed the combined effects in a more sophisticated statistical model, they found that responsiveness of one's romantic partner (as well as members of the other couple) but not self-disclosure, ultimately predicted higher levels of passionate love and relationship satisfaction.

Self-disclosure may be necessary, but not sufficient.

The Rub

There is a lot to say about couples communicating more effectively and having more high-quality communication. People grow closer when they open up and share with one another, and more important, are perceived as responsive to one another. Self-disclosure alone isn't enough. It's interesting that this effect was observed with only one brief intervention. If this were repeated several times, perhaps part of a semi-regular routine of social activity with other couples, the effect might be stronger before leveling out.

Understanding that the social dimension significantly enhances this effect is powerful. It speaks to the strong effect of teamwork (McEwan et al., 2017). McEwan and colleagues found in their meta-review that teamwork is enhanced in work groups by simulations, group performance, self-review, and workshops, while simple instruction does not improve teamwork. The intervention in the relationship experiment is a kind of simulation. It shows that teamwork can be leveraged for couples by having them interact in groups with other couples.

The results also speak to the deep texture of social life as a real part of each couple's intimate life together. When communities were smaller and more tightly knit, it would be more common for couples to go through life together, to share the ups and downs of relationships and family life. Today, people are more isolated in general, marriages break up more commonly, families are less likely to be a part of close communities, and the very notion of long-term monogamy is being reconsidered. This is not to take away from the many close-knit communities with couples who do spend time with other couples, and benefit in their own relationships, but the future of relationships is more uncertain on a collective level.

For couples seeking to deepen their own feelings of passionate love, a simple prescription is to meet up with other couples, partake together in meaningful conversations, and engage in an activity which builds group cohesion. I also believe that playing together is a key component, and for sure comes up with games like Jenga: Couples played a fun game together, shared in healthy competition, and enjoyed the excitement of not quite knowing when the tower of logs would collapse, along with benefiting from the focused concentration required to play. It may be that the playfulness and physiological activation of the game was a relevant part of building the sense of passion, though that was not formally looked at as a factor in the experiment, which did not specifically measure sexual satisfaction, though that presumably may have gotten a bump, too.

So consider hosting a couples night and inviting friends over whom you would like to get to know better, and pick up an intimacy-building game which is similar to the "fast-friends" condition (or get a copy of the study protocol). Try to capture the experience of the fast-friends experiment, as well as the playful team spirit of the Jenga game, and see if that enhances your passion, relationship, and, possibly, sexual satisfaction.

References

Aron, A., Melinat, E., Aron, E. N., Vallone, R. D., Bator, R. J. (1997). The experimental generation of interpersonal closeness: A procedure and preliminary findings. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 23, 363-377

McEwan, D., Ruissen, G. R., Eys, M. A., Zumbo, B. D., & Beauchamp, M. R. (2017). The Effectiveness of Teamwork Training on Teamwork Behaviors and Team Performance: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Controlled Interventions. PLOS ONE, January 13, DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0169604 

O’Leary, D., Acevedo, B. P., Aron, A., Huddy, L., & Masek, D. (2012). Is long term love more than a rare phenomenon? If so, what are its correlates? Social Psychological and Personality Science, 3, 241–249. doi:10.1177/1948550611417015

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