Two Hidden Ways to Sustain Romance and Intimacy

New research finds two overlooked sources of long-term vitality and connection.

Posted Jul 29, 2016

Aleksandar Karanov/Shutterstock
Source: Aleksandar Karanov/Shutterstock

The 18th century Zen poet and teacher Hakuin wrote, “Not knowing how near the truth is, we seek it far away.” That describes the relentless and often fruitless search for new truths that promise to sustain emotional and sexual intimacy with your partner. But sometimes the most important information is right in front of you—it's so obvious that you don't see it. 

Here’s an example found in new research on couples’ relationships from the University of North Carolina. The study revealed that couples who feel and express appreciation for each other, and who take time to share in moments of joy, tend to experience more ongoing, positive connections with each other. Opportunities for this are found in many of our small, everyday moments, but they’re often overlooked or ignored.

According to lead researcher Sara Algoe, the findings point to the significance of “the little things,” which have big impact on relationship longevity and well-being. We know from many other studies on this subject that positive relationships are associated with greater overall health.

In a summary of the research, Algoe points out that one partner's expression of gratitude reminds the other partner that he or she is a good relationship companion. Couples who express gratitude toward each other in those small moments report that their relationship is stronger and more positive, and that they are more flexible in their interactions with each other.

"Whenever you have an interaction with your romantic partner,” Algoe explains, “that feeling you have when you walk away sets the stage for the next interaction with that person.” Expressions of appreciation and gratitude show that such interactions “…can help connect people and build these upward spirals of mutual love and support."

There are many ways for couples to build these connections in many small ways; for example, sharing humorous moments and laughing together.

“People who spent more time laughing with their partner felt that they were more similar to their partner," said Algoe. "They had this overlapping sense of self with the other person. We also found that the more people laughed with their romantic partner, the more they felt they were supported by that person."

Building and sustaining long-term intimacy is complex. It requires developing your own self-awareness and collaboration with your partner, especially around differences of outlook and life goals that emerge over time. But recognizing and practicing little “truths” that are hidden in plain sight contributes to stronger, sustained intimacy as both partners change and grow.