When Jana Dolnik and her husband, Ladia, signed up for horseback-riding lessons, they never expected that their new hobby would come with an added bonus: sparks to rekindle their decades-long marriage. As Jana watched Ladia tenaciously grappling with his new challenge, she realized that even after 29 years of marriage, her husband still had some surprises. And suddenly she could recall the spirited and intelligent man she’d chosen to marry so long ago.
“He looked so happy,” says the 57-year-old doctor from Palo Alto, Calif. “I was astounded. And, oh my God, you should see him on a horse — he looks so good.”
Experts say that shared challenges and exciting diversions are what make relationships hot long after the wedding gown has been packed up and stored away. And the opposite, boredom and a dull, daily routine, can kill a marriage, squashing intimacy and romance.
In fact, couples who say they are bored tend to grow increasingly unhappy, according to a study published this month in Psychological Science.
Most research on long-term relationships has focused on eliminating problems such as conflict and tension, explains the new study’s lead author, Irene Tsapelas, a researcher in the psychology department at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. But surveys have suggested that boredom may be even more corrosive to a relationship, she adds.
For the new study, Tsapelas and her colleagues followed 123 couples who applied for a marriage license from Wayne County, Mich. It was the first marriage for all of them. The couples were interviewed about their relationships after seven years of marriage and again after 16 years. They were asked about their marital satisfaction and a series of relationship questions, such as: “During the past month, how often did you feel that your marriage was in a rut (or getting into a rut), that you do the same thing all the time and rarely get to do exciting things together as a couple?”
The researchers found that boredom at the seven-year mark strongly predicted future unhappiness and loss of intimacy nine years later.
Such a strong association over so long is surprising, says study co-author Arthur Aron, a professor of psychology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. The researchers also found that bored spouses had higher tendency to divorce than couples who still found each other entertaining after seven years.
Bored and ready to bolt
People often show up in Dr. Barbara Bartlik’s office ready to bolt from a marriage because they’re bored. “I tell them that changing partners isn’t going to fix the boredom,” says Bartlik, an assistant professor of psychiatry at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center. “I tell them, ‘Make yourself more exciting instead of blaming your partner. Better yet, see if you can’t find something that you’re both passionate about that you can share.’”
Science has proven that love doesn’t have to die, says Helen Fisher a research professor in the anthropology department at Rutgers University and author of “Why Him? Why Her?: Finding Real Love By Understanding Your Personality Type.”
Amazingly, Fisher says, the same area of the brain lit up in both groups: the ventral tegmental area (VTA), a brain region linked to feelings of reward and satisfaction. The VTA marks an experience as either rewarding or exciting by upping the levels of a neurotransmitter called dopamine.
By sharing novel or exciting experiences with your partner, you’re duplicating some of the brain chemistry that fires up at the beginning of a relationship, Bartlik says.
“If you do something a little scary — like ride a roller coaster — you’ll get a surge of adrenaline,” says Bartlik. “And that will make you feel sexier.”
For those who want to keep love’s fires burning, Fisher has three simple-sounding suggestions: “Marry the right person, have sex with them regularly, and go out and do novel, exciting things with them.
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What kinds of activities does Fisher suggest?
“Anything that’s new or interesting — or even slightly dangerous — will help sustain feelings of romantic love,” she says. “And it will certainly kill feelings of boredom. I don’t mean you need to swing from the chandeliers, but a little bit of nude swimming after dark might do the trick.”
For the less adventuresome, Fisher has some tamer suggestions. “You might try riding bicycles with your spouse after dark and stopping for dinner someplace you’ve never been before,” she says. “Or you might take a train without deciding beforehand where you’re going to get off.”
Linda Carroll is a health and science writer living in New Jersey. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsday, Health magazine and SmartMoney.
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