Reinventing Date Night for Long-Married Couples

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cartoon book cover on true loveThe New York Times ran the following article. Our comments follow.

Long-married couples often schedule a weekly “date night” — a regular evening out with friends or at a favorite restaurant to strengthen their marital bond.

But brain and behavior researchers say many couples are going about date night all wrong. Simply spending quality time together is probably not enough to prevent a relationship from getting stale.

Using laboratory studies, real-world experiments and even brain-scan data, scientists can now offer long-married couples a simple prescription for rekindling the romantic love that brought them together in the first place. The solution? Reinventing date night.

Rather than visiting the same familiar haunts and dining with the same old friends, couples need to tailor their date nights around new and different activities that they both enjoy, says Arthur Aron, a professor of social psychology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. The goal is to find ways to keep injecting novelty into the relationship. The activity can be as simple as trying a new restaurant or something a little more unusual or thrilling — like taking an art class or going to an amusement park.
es simply walking back and forth across a room. Other couples, however, take part in a more challenging exercise — their wrists and ankles are bound together as they crawl back and forth pushing a ball.

Before and after the exercise, the couples were asked things like, “How bored are you with your current relationship?” The couples who took part in the more challenging and novel activity showed bigger increases in love and satisfaction scores, while couples performing the mundane task showed no meaningful changes.

Dr. Aron cautions that novelty alone is probably not enough to save a marriage in crisis. But for couples who have a reasonably good but slightly dull relationship, novelty may help reignite old sparks.

And recent brain-scan studies show that romantic love really can last years into a marriage. Last week, at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology conference in Albuquerque, researchers presented brain-scan data on several men and women who had been married for 10 or more years. Interviews and questionnaires suggested they were still intensely in love with their partners. Brain scans confirmed it, showing increased brain activity associated with romantic love when the subjects saw pictures of their spouses.

It’s not clear why some couples are able to maintain romantic intensity even after years together. But the scientists believe regular injections of novelty and excitement most likely play a role.

“You don’t have to swing from the chandeliers,” Dr. Fisher said. “Just go to a new part of a town, take a drive in the country or better yet, don’t make plans, and see what happens to you.”

--by Tara Parker

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Novelty: a red herring?

Desire for new experiences is a healthy aspect of a person with healthy levels of dopamine. However, there's another factor that interferes with our dopamine levels in our romances. Orgasm equates with a big rise in dopamine followed by a big drop afterward (as prolactin shoots up, suppressing dopamine). Orgasm, cocaine use, alcohol use, smoking all work on the reward circuitry's dopamine levels the same way: a high followed by a low that distorts perceptions and feelings.

One's partner looks very attractive when one is highly aroused (and dopamine is surging), but often very unappealing during the low dopamine phase, which can influence one's outlook for days after intense passion. (Sexually satiated rats show fewer testosterone receptors for up to a week, and testosterone and dopamine levels are linked.) This neurochemical reality may be behind the push/pull attraction/repulsion dynamic so often seen in intimate relationships, where great passion is often followed by mysterious distance and hurt feelings or attraction to a novel partner. Also see: Even great sex can end in post-coital blues.

All this means that boring, largely asexual relationships are perhaps a protective mechanism to prevent the passion-distancing cycle outlined above.

Striving to raise dopamine with novel activities (kinky sex and watching porn are more colorful versions of this same strategy recommended in this article) is a superficial solution that doesn't address why the sexes create emotional distance in the first place. Pleasant novelty is a fine thing to add to the mix, but if the attraction between couples fires up their passion side, they may find themselves mysteriously creating emotional distance again.

Biology wants us to mate furiously, stay bonded for a bit (ideally) and then move on to a new mate, to create more genetic variety. This is why no mammals are sexually monogamous. Yet, do we want to keep trashing our most nurturing relationships and the stability of our families to carry out this evolutionary program?

Wouldn't it be wiser to learn to keep our dopamine levels at ideal levels (the "right" levels of dopamine equate with healthy curiosity, optimism and desire for new experiences) in the bedroom? My husband and I found that this is what Taoist lovemaking seems to achieve. We think the reasons for this have to do with how the brain's reward circuitry works.

The research about the couples who stay in love may be a bit deceptive. In the article I read about it, Keeping Love Alive, the people mentioned were all middle-aged when they got together (except for an Asian woman 20 years younger than her middle-aged husband). I suspect those couples were probably engaging in less passionate, less frequent sex, which means they weren't tripping the "emotional-separation" switch in the same way the average youthful couple does during the addictive, honeymoon phase of a relationship.

Maybe the solution for lasting harmony is available, but very unfamiliar: less passion, more balance in the reward circuitry, and, as a result, more loving affection. Dining in a new part of town may be a bit of a red herring.