In my last post, I talked about the inherent challenges of a monogamous relationship over long periods of time. Here in 'Murica, our relationship ideal is to find the perfect soul mate, fall hopelessly in love, and spend the rest of our lives burning with passion. Indeed, that's what usually happens...
...for about nine to twelve months give or take a season or two.
Eventually the cocktail of excitatory chemicals wears off. The white-hot passion fades a bit and is replaced with a feeling of bonding and intimacy. Evolutionarily-speaking, this cycle probably led us to procreate (via lots o' sex), then bond enough to remain a couple until our offspring are viable enough to leave the nest.
It's a good system. It serves the purpose.
Unless, of course, we introduce the "until death do us part" thing.
After around five to eight years (on average), that oxytocin-induced bonding we experienced begins to fade a bit. That was the gist of the previous article, and the point of this article on lifelong happiness. The author's drawn-out main point is pretty clear- the toxin that kills relationships is boredom.
Unfortunately, we're not taught to deal with boredom in relationships. If a relationship isn't as exciting as it once was, society tells us to be more romantic. Flowers. Candles. Dinner at a fancy restaurant.
Here's the problem. We think romantic gestures are what spark passion, but they don't. They're merely the medium we choose to use when we're seducing and courting each other at the beginning of a relationship. That novelty and excitement is what we crave, not teddy bears hugging heart pillows.
Those romantic gestures may produce a temporary positive effect because we've been classically conditioned to respond to them with excitement. That wears off quickly, however, because it's the same old person using the same old tired tricks. The gestures are just a band-aid covering up the real problem: Boredom.
So how do we cure this boredom?
Simple. We do exciting shit.
When we engage in exciting activities as a couple, our brains get a surge of epinepherine and dopamine. It makes our heart race, get butterflies in our stomachs, our palms get sweaty, and most importantly, we experience a flood of dopamine that makes us feel really, really good. Not coincidentally, this is the same physiological effect that occurs when we first fell for our partner. Our brains misattribute this effect. Instead of attributing the feelings to the activity, we attribute it to our partner. The excitement of the situation makes us think we're feeling that flame from the early days of the relationship.
This is the reason the other alternatives I discussed occur. Affairs are exciting and fill that need for excitement. Same deal with divorce. Swinging injects sexual novelty, which kills boredom. Polyamory introduces the feelings of falling in love, which also kills boredom. The drug I discussed would also kill boredom, though it's not FDA approved yet.
If none of those are viable options, you'll have to choose my second option from the previous post- spice things up. This is where we have to think excitement, not romance. Excitement derives from the fight or flight response, so we need to do something that's a little bit dangerous. It could be physically dangerous or socially dangerous. If it scares you, even just a little bit, it will be effective at curing the boredom of long-term relationships.
Instead of a candle-lit dinner, how about bungee-jumping? Instead of a picnic in a park, how about paintball? Instead of a day at a spa, how about renting some motorcycles for the day? Basically stop thinking "lame" and start thinking "scary."
The author of the linked article mentions the idea of habituation, which means we get used to our significant other. No matter how funny, attractive, or skilled lover they may be, we get used to them. Habituation is boredom. When people say "relationships are hard", this is the "hard" they're talking about. It's hard work continually coming up with new shit.
When Shelly and I quit our jobs and started traveling, we were in a perpetual state of excitement. Everything was new and awesome; it was amazing. Eighteen months later, even the most scenic vistas produced a "Meh" response. The novelty wore off, habituation crept in. We had to change things up.
So how do you go about continually searching for new, exciting stuff to do?
Play this game:
Once a month, take turns planning a surprise activity to do as a couple. It can be anything that's close enough to your comfort zone that nether of you panic, but far enough outside your comfort zone that it will be scary. The planning partner can give vague hints, but the secrecy of the activity adds an important element of mystery. The anticipation is a form of seduction, which is one of the first things to die in a typical relationship.
The schedule of the game is important because it's easy to let excitement-seeking slide when schedules get too busy. Each member of the couple will have two months to plan each "adventure date", which is more than enough time to brainstorm and plan.
How many of you that aren't ridiculously happy in your present relationship realize the problem is boredom? You still love your partner, but you secretly (or not so secretly) crave excitement? If that's you, give the game a try. You won't regret it. ;-)