The secret to keeping the romance alive: It’s not all about roses and chocolates

In my last post, I reported on a study by researchers at Stony Brook University that suggested that romance can survive in long-term relationships. That’s great news, but what if you’re in one of those long-term relationships and the romance isn’t what it used to be? Are there ways to rekindle the romance even after 10+ years? Well, science comes to our rescue again with a resounding, “YES!” And the data suggests that increasing the romance and satisfaction in your relationship has less to do with things we think of a traditionally “romantic” and more to do with things that are new and challenging.

Arthur Aron, Ph.D., a social psychologist at Stony Brook University, has spent the last 25 years studying interpersonal relationships, including how some couples are able to keep romance alive in their long- term relationships. His research shows that couples who engage in novel and challenging tasks together report higher levels of relationship satisfaction and increased intimacy compared to those who stick to only familiar and routine activities. These novel and challenging tasks don’t even have to be anything obviously romantic. For example, in one of his studies he asked married couples to spend 7 minutes rolling a ball across a room to each other (no candles and roses there). To increase the level of challenge and novelty of the task, he had half of the couples do the task while their wrists and ankles were tied together. Those couples reported higher levels of relationship satisfaction after the activity than those who did the activity while they were not bound. Aron suggests that engaging in these more exciting and challenging activities together (ok, so rolling a ball across the room isn’t all that exciting, but…) translates into us feeling our relationships are more fun and exciting. “That exhilarating feeling may come from another source, but it’s still associated with your partner,” says Aron.

Given the romance-boosting potential of trying new and challenging activities together, here are 5 suggestions of ways to rekindle the romance in your long-term relationship (It’s probably not a bad idea for those in new relationships too!)

1. Hit the books. Nearly all community colleges offer a wide variety of relatively inexpensive non-credit classes that are open to anyone in the community. Whether it be trying your hand at pottery or taking a stab at Shakespeare, classes can be a great way to learn something new together.

2. Let’s get physical! Try taking up a new physical activity. Anything from taking dancing lessons to joining a kickball team together could work. And try doing something where you’re both novices (remember—novelty is part of the key), so don’t join the softball team if your partner is Babe Ruth!

3. Use your hands. Building something together can be a great way to tackle something new and challenging, especially if the two of you spend most of your time using those parts of your body that sit above your shoulders. Maybe the two of you have always wanted to build that front porch swing together or maybe you could even make this a way to support a great cause by volunteering to work on a Habitat for Humanity house together.

4. Parli Italiano il mio amore? Maybe a long vacation in Paris or Istanbul isn’t the cards for you right now. However, for only the cost of a class at a community college or a Rosetta Stone program, you and your partner can dream of exotic locales together by learning a new language. And who knows, maybe you’ll finally take that trip to Italy together once you’re mastered some basic Italian.

5. Tackle the classics. Is there that one great classic book that you somehow got out of school without ever having read? Maybe you were playing hooky while others were reading Moby Dick or maybe the Cliffs Notes of the Scarlet Letter just seemed a whole lot more appealing to your 18-year-old self than reading the actual book. If that’s the case, you and your partner could commit to tackling your own great white whale of a classic together. Maybe you decide to read a chapter a week, or a chapter a month—doesn’t matter. Then each week or month discuss what you’ve read over a nice dinner or glass of wine. What matters is that by doing something challenging and new together you’re not only increasing your chances of taking home the big prize a pub quiz this week, but you’ll also be increasing the romance in your relationship (speaking of pub quiz, join a pub quiz team together– that could be a six item, if I were going to sneak another one in there).

So next time your relationship could use a little spark, skip the champagne and flowers, and instead stretch yourself with tackling a new challenge together.

Jenna LeJeune, Ph.D

Author: Jenna LeJeune, Ph.D

Jenna is a clinical psychologist who specializes in working with people who struggle with relationship and intimacy difficulties and with those who have a trauma history. Her research focuses on developing compassion-based interventions targeting stigma, shame, and chronic self-criticism.

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