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How Exciting Activities Can Enhance Romance

Research reveals how excitement sparks attraction.

Can couples spice up their relationship by engaging in exciting activities together? Research says yes. In a variety of contexts, excitement enhances emotional arousal.

Relational Stimulation Sparks Satisfaction

John M. Malouff, et al. (2015) examined the different ways that couples maintain relational excitement.[i] They had 103 adults who identified as being in an exciting romantic relationship explain how they keep the excitement in their relationship.

Their responses were compiled to create a model of how couples could keep the excitement in their relationship. As described by the authors, the model includes “exciting activities that are passionate, adventurous, playful, sexual, spontaneous, and romantic, along with three relationship-maintaining activities: communicating effectively, joint activities, and autonomy.”

The model was tested in a second study with 104 adults, who rated their own relationships using the three identified variables of relational maintenance, excitement, exciting activities, and relationship satisfaction. Results showed that exciting activities and relationship-maintenance were significantly associated with both excitement and satisfaction—which served to provide at least preliminary support for the model.

Arousal and Affiliation

The good news is that couples do not need to strap on parachutes or snowboards in order to spice up their relationships. Apparently, all they need to do is head to the movies.

Brett Cohen et al. in a study entitled “At the Movies” (1989) explored differences in behavior between couples who viewed different genres of movies together.[ii] They found that as compared with observations before the movie, couples who watched a highly arousing movie together were more likely to engage in affiliative behaviors such as touching and talking afterward than couples who watched a low-arousal movie. Couples who watched the arousing movie also affiliated significantly less when arriving than when leaving the movie.

Which movies did they watch? The high-arousal movie was 52 Pickup—a suspenseful movie about murder and blackmail, containing nudity and gratuitous violence, and the low-arousal movie was True Stories—described as a mock documentary about America´s middle-class, without nudity or violence. Both were playing concurrently playing in theatres, allowing the researchers to observe the couples arriving and leaving both movies.

Excitation Transfer

Apparently, the arousal-attraction dynamic is not limited to romantic partners. Feeling excitement can enhance attraction to strangers as well.

Cindy M. Meston and Penny F. Frohlich, in a piece entitled "Love at First Fright,” (2003) explored the impact of emotional arousal on attraction.[iii] In their study, researchers approached amusement park patrons as they were either waiting to board or had just finished a roller-coaster ride. Patrons were shown a photo of an opposite-sex individual of average attractiveness and asked to rate the person in terms of attractiveness and desirability as a dating partner. They were also asked to rate the attractiveness of their roller-coaster seatmate.

Patrons who were seated next to a nonromantic partner rated the person in the photo as higher in attractiveness and dating desirability when questioned after finishing the ride than before boarding. Patrons seated with a romantic partner, in contrast, did not express any differences in ratings whether approached before or after the ride.

The authors discuss their findings within the context of excitation transfer theory, which holds that “residual excitement from a previous arousing stimulus or situation may serve to intensify a later emotional state.” They note that nervous system arousal can be invoked from a wide variety of activities from fear, to exercise, to anxiety-provoking films.

Their study contributed to existing research by examining the role of arousal on attraction for both men and women, but also examined the impact of the roller coaster ride on attraction to a seatmate with whom one is already involved. Why wasn't a romantic partner rated as more attractive after the ride compared with before?

Meston and Frohlich suggest that perhaps partners simply look less attractive with messy hair and “post-anxiety expressions,” or perhaps established couples have a greater awareness of arousal source than individuals riding with a nonromantic seatmate. They also considered the possibility that people riding with romantic partners would be afraid their partners would find out how they rated them, and thus scored them high in attractiveness both before and after the ride.

Apparently adrenaline and excitement stimulate attraction, as well as enhance interaction. Perhaps on your next date night, you and your partner should ride your bikes to the movies... and skip the documentary.


[i]Malouff, John M., Susan A. Mundy, Tamika R. Galea, and Vicole N. Bothma. “Preliminary Findings Supporting a New Model of How Couples Maintain Excitement in Romantic Relationships.” American Journal of Family Therapy 43, no.3 (2015): 227–37.

[ii]Cohen, Brett, Karen Place, and Gordon Waugh. "At the Movies: An Unobtrusive Study of Arousal-attraction." Journal of Social Psychology 129 (1989): 691-93.

[iii]Meston, Cindy M., and Penny F. Frohlich. "Love at First Fright: Partner Salience Moderates Roller-Coaster-Induced Excitation Transfer." Archives of Sexual Behavior 32, no. 6 (2003): 537-444.