Why Couples Need to Play More

A proven (and exciting) way to deliver long-term benefits to long-term partners.

Posted Feb 09, 2015

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Valentine’s Day puts a lot of pressure on couples to spice up their relationship. It’s the one time of the year where our culture almost forces us to take a magnifying glass to our relationships and consider whether they are romantic enough, sexy enough, hot enough…are they enough?

For people in couples who have been together a long time, the prevailing feeling might be that, although you really love your partner, the novelty and excitement that you felt when you were first together has dwindled a bit. It turns out that this decline in feelings of passion and heat toward your partner are both totally normal, and can be heightened by simply enjoying each other’s company in new and exciting ways.

When we are in the early stages of love, we are often experiencing what psychologists refer to as passionate love (e.g., Fisher, 1998; Hatfield & Walster, 1978). This type of love is very intense. We are highly motivated to be close to our partners—emotionally and sexually, we are preoccupied with thoughts of our partner, and our moods can be drastically impacted by how we think our partner feels about us. We are euphoric when they love us back, and devastated when we fear they don’t. These early stages are also associated with increased activity in areas of the brain that process a neurotransmitter called dopamine, which is involved in both motivated behavior and our experience of reward (e.g., Aron et al., 2005). Essentially, we are motivated to pursue the object of our affection—and find great reward in doing so.

For better or worse, however, these feelings tend to fade over time (e.g., Baumeister & Bratslavsky, 1999; Sterberg, 1986) and, to the extent that the relationship successfully continues, can be replaced by a less intense version of love called companionate love. Now, companionate love is a wonderful thing—it’s affectionate and warm, and it’s based on feelings of respect and friendship. However, many individuals in long-term relationships at least occasionally long for the days when they felt so much more passionately about their partner.

As it turns out, researchers have identified an easy way to get a boost in your feelings of passionate for your partner, as well as your satisfaction with your relationship in general, even if you’ve been together a long time.

Are you ready for the secret?

It’s simple: Do things together. But, the key is that not anything will do, you should do things together that are new for both you—and get your hearts racing.

Arthur Aron and his colleagues (2000) conducted several studies examining whether specific features of the time couples spend together are associated with increased feelings of satisfaction and passion. They found, on self-report measures, that couples who reported doing new and exciting things together generally were more satisfied in their relationships than couples who did more mundane things. So, they conducted several experiments to further test this idea. In several studies with participants who had been together anywhere from 2 months to 15 years, they found that doing a new activity that was also physiologically "arousing"—meaning that it got their heart-rate and respiration up a bit—predicted increased relationship satisfaction and increased feelings of passion for the partner, compared to couples who completed surveys side by side. How long the couples had been together didn’t change this effect.

So, if you want to spice things up this week, or any time of the year, try doing something new together. Play together! Take dance lessons, or ride a roller coaster—anything that is new to you (thus combating the boredom of a long-term partnership) and exciting (arousal that you can then apply toward your partner). These new and exciting activities don’t have to be extravagant or expensive; they just have to bring you closer to your partner and inject a little passion back into your relationship!

Good luck and happy playing!

Aron, A., Fisher, H., Mashek, D. J., Strong, G., Li, H., & Brown, L. L. (2005). Reward, motivation, and emotion systems associated with early-stage intense romantic love. Journal of neurophysiology, 94(1), 327-337.

Aron, A., Norman, C. C., Aron, E. N., McKenna, C., & Heyman, R. E. (2000). Couples' shared participation in novel and arousing activities and experienced relationship quality. Journal of personality and social psychology, 78(2), 273.

Baumeister, R. F., & Bratslavsky, E. (1999). Passion, intimacy, and time: Passionate love as a function of change in intimacy. Personality and social psychology review, 3(1), 49-67.

Fisher HE. Lust, attraction, and attachment in mammalian reproduction. Human Nature 9: 23–52, 1998.

Hatfield, E., & Walster, G. W. (1978). A new look at love. Lantham, MA: University Press of America.

Sternberg, R. J. (1986). A triangular theory of love. Psychological Review, 93, 119-135.