5 Tips for Recharging Your Relationship

Often, research shows, the problem isn't our connection; it's our minds.

Posted Sep 30, 2014

You may have heard that the "seven-year itch" for long-term couples has been shortened to three, or even just two. For many couples, the so-called "honeymoon period" doesn’t extend very far beyond, well, the actual honeymoon: Too soon, what begins as passion and excitement fades into routine or even resentment.

In some cases, couples just aren't compatible and probably shouldn’t have gotten together in the first place. Others really do grow apart and just don’t connect anymore. But many well-matched couples simply need to adjust to the realities of being in a long-term relationship—and to the nature of the human brain.

One of the biggest obstacles to sustaining relationship satisfaction is a phenomenon called hedonic adaptation—our tendency to adapt, or habituate, to things that we are exposed to repeatedly. For example, nothing tastes as good as the first bite of chocolate cake, and even the most exciting purchases tend to become less thrilling once we get used to them.

When it comes to negative experiences, hedonic adaptation is a gift: it helps us endure pain, cope with stress, and come to terms with loss. We may never fully recover from major negative life events, but our suffering does tend to ease over time as we adjust to a new reality.

When it comes to positive experiences, however, hedonic adaptation is not our friend. Research suggests that both passionate and companionate love tend to decline over time, and that although couples tend, on average, to experience a boost in happiness around the time of their marriage, this happiness tends to return to a baseline after only a few years. Major life events—buying a home together, having a child—may provide boosts in happiness, but these also tend to be temporary. And in some cases, people actually feel less happy after they adapt to a positive event than they did before the event occurred.

Why might this be?

According to the Hedonic Adaptation Prevention (HAP) model proposed by Kennon Sheldon and Sonja Lyubomirsky, hedonic adaptation produces declines in happiness for two main reasons:

  1. Major positive events, like starting a new relationship or getting married, tend to be associated with a multitude of other smaller positive events, like first kisses, deep conversations, and making new friends through your partner. These events are all associated with boosts in positive emotions. But as these positive events become less frequent, couples are likely to experience fewer boosts in happiness.
  2. As positive events become more expected and predictable (date night every Friday, etc.), they may begin to feel less special and exciting, and our standards for what constitutes quality time together may increase. Just like an addict needs more and more of a drug to get the same high, we may find that we need bigger and better activities to maintain satisfaction. As a result, we may fail to appreciate the everyday things that were once were so thrilling to us, like holding hands or cooking a meal together.

This may all sound disheartening, but there is hope.

First and foremost, just being aware of the power of hedonic adaptation can help you avoid blaming yourself for the lack of excitement in a relationship (e.g., worrying you’re not as attractive anymore) or, for that matter, blaming your partner (e.g., the “grass is greener” syndrome). People often mistakenly believe that the solution to their relationship problem is to trade in for a new and seemingly more exciting partner, not realizing that the same process of hedonic adaptation is likely to occur with the new person as well.

Once you recognize that hedonic adaptation is just part of human nature—and not something you or your partner is doing wrong—you can take conscious steps to counteract it.

Here are a few strategies that research suggests may be effective:

1. Intentionally cultivate positive experiences and emotions.

We often think of positive experiences, especially positive romantic experiences, as being beyond our control. Either a spark is there or it’s not, and there isn’t much we can do about it. This may be true to a point, but we have more influence than we realize.

Before spending time with your partner, take a moment to consciously set your intention for the interaction; then, behave in the way you want to feel. Shower your partner with kisses when you meet, and express affection and support even if inside you’re feeling tired and stressed and not really in the mood. You may be surprised by how quickly your feelings shift.

Another way to increase positive experiences (and reduce negative ones) is to replace criticism with validation of your partners’ best self. In addition to behaving the way you want to feel, try treating your partner as the person you want him or her to be—the “best self” you know he or she is capable of being. Criticism tends to wear people down and make them hopeless about change, but positive validation of your partner's good qualities and potential may make them more likely to behave accordingly—and to feel good about the relationship.

2. Add more variety and surprise to your routine.

It’s easy to fall into the same comfortable patterns, especially when we’re tired and have limited time, but research suggests that variety is an essential ingredient in counteracting relationship boredom. Adding variety can be as simple as trying new restaurants or recipes, or taking a class together. Research shows, for example, that couples randomly assigned to engage in new and exciting activities together subsequently experienced greater passionate love for each other.

In addition to varying your activities, it can be helpful to make them more spontaneous. You could surprise your partner with an impromptu weekend trip or give a thoughtful gift without it being their birthday or anniversary. Be careful, though, because variety itself can become addictive, and no matter how adventurous you are, there are only so many variations available. Eventually, even the most adventurous and surprising activities may start to feel a little routine. That’s where the next tip comes in…

3. Appreciate the little things (and the big things).

At the end of the day, the reality is that no long-term relationship is going to have the same amount of novelty and spontaneity as a new relationship. But they do have many wonderful qualities that get lost in the background and are easy to overlook. Research suggests that taking the time to notice the things we appreciate about our partner—and to let them know—is vital to satisfaction.

One way to increase appreciation is to consider what life might have been like if you’d never met (known as “mentally subtracting”), or what life might be like now if something were to happen to him or her. If you are prone to anxiety, it may not be helpful to dwell too long on such what-ifs, but for many, a little bit of fear isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it can help put things in perspective and keep you from taking your partner for granted. Another appreciation-building exercise research has shown to be especially effective is to take the time every day to list 3 (or more) things that you’re grateful for in general, as well as specifically about your partner and/or your relationship. You can also build appreciation by making an effort to bring your attention to the present moment when you’re spending time with your partner rather than allowing yourself to be distracted.

4. Take breaks.

Sometimes we assume that to improve our relationship we need to spend more time together, not less. But taking breaks is one of the more direct and effective ways to counteract hedonic adaptation. Long-distance relationships, although grueling, tend to resist hedonic adaptation—time apart leads partners to miss each other and appreciate their limited time together even more. But you don’t have to be in a long-distance relationship to cultivate feelings of longing—even just a few days apart once in awhile can do the trick. You can also take shorter breaks: Research shows that brief interruptions in pleasurable activities, such as getting a massage or listening to a pleasant song, can “reset” adaptation and increase overall pleasure. The same may be true for enjoyable relationship-specific activities.

5. Beware of unhealthy barriers to adaptation.

Unfortunately, dysfunctional or abusive relationships can counteract adaptation. The ups and downs, uncertainty, and drama of such relationships may increase feelings of passion, but this type of passion is neither healthy nor sustainable, as it depends on continued negative experiences. People in these types of relationships may feel an inexplicable pull towards their partner that feels stronger than the feelings they experience in more stable relationships; as a result they may mistakenly believe that the tumultuous relationship is superior, despite its faults. (See my previous post, "How To End a Bad Relationship For Good.")

The bottom line: Even the strongest, most genuine, most transcendent feelings of passion and love are subject to hedonic adaptation. If you feel the passion starting to fade, don’t jump to the conclusion that the relationship is the problem. More likely, it’s just the way our brains are wired. And the good news is that simply being aware of this tendency goes a long way in keeping it from derailing our relationships and happiness. If we take it one step further and try to trick our brains into not succumbing to adaptation, or at least to resetting it, we may find the honeymoon period really can last forever. 

Further reading:

Jacobs Bao, K., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2013). Making it last: Combating hedonic adaptation in romantic relationships. Journal of Positive Psychology, 8, 196-206.

Copyright Juliana Breines, Ph.D.