To keep a fire ablaze, you tend to it. You position the logs just right, add kindling, and fan the flame. Paying close attention to and caring for the fire keeps it from burning out. As a marriage and family therapist and relationship researcher, I understand how much our relationships are like those fires; here lies the secret to keeping the spark alive in your relationship.
With the exciting novelty of a new relationship, you are fascinated by your partner. You may spend hours just staring at them, feel compelled to be with them 24/7, and experience frequent urges to give them gifts or love notes. In other words, in a new relationship, you are driven to be attentive towards your partner and nurture the relationship. Thus, intimacy and passion grow exponentially in these early months.
It is a common misconception that when we “fall” out of love, that it is something out of our control that happens to our relationship and extinguishs a passion that once burned brightly. When loving feelings fade in a relationship, people say that they “just don’t feel the same way that they once did” towards their partner. They often attribute the demise of passion to some fault of their partner or believe that fondness and affection inevitably dwindle over time. However, neuroscience research shows that the brain regions associated with early-relationship passion can stay just as active 20 years later in a relationship. Passion doesn’t just die out.
The truth is, in a long-term relationship, it takes intention, energy, and work to keep the love alive. When the novelty has worn off, you can get used to your partner’s presence and it can be easy to fall into a habit of taking them for granted. The time that you once spent daydreaming about your partner and gazing into their eyes is now spent preoccupied with the stressors of life and handling the pressures of work and family. It is natural for the obsessive thoughts and compulsive urges of new love to wane (in fact, this is necessary for you to get everything else done in your life!). However, the problem of dimming passion arises when you forget the law of keeping the spark alive: you must tend to a fire to keep it from burning out.
Then how do we tend to our relationships to keep them thriving? Pioneering love researcher John Gottman found a crucial difference between couples who were bound for later divorce or passionless marriages and those who were destined to have happy, loving marriages. He videotaped married couples for a week in an apartment “laboratory.” The fate of the marriage lay in spouses’ responses to “ bids for connection,” little moments in which a partner subtly attempts to gain the attention of their spouse. Bids could be asking questions (“Did you read the news today?”), noting observations to start a conversation (“Wow, that cloud looks like Trump’s head!”), or initiating affection (trying to hold hands); a bid for connection is any ask for a response from a partner. Couples who later divorced or stayed in unhappy marriages responded to bids for connection 33% of the time and ignored the others. Those who went on to have fulfilling marriages responded to their partner 86% of the time in these little moments.
This research shows that to keep the spark alive in your relationship, you need to tend to your partner in everyday moments with attention and care. Here are some concrete tips on how to turn toward your partner to nurture the passion in your relationship, to reignite that early-relationship fire:
1. Respond to “Bids for Connection” to Nurture your Flame
When your partner attempts to connect, no matter how small the bid, respond with full concentration and interest. If your partner says, “The worst thing happened at work today,” tune in to them and show them that you care by asking questions about what happened and how they’re feeling, empathizing with their emotions, and offering them comfort in whatever way they would like. Over time, failures to respond in these little moments can build a sense of being unseen and unimportant, leading to dissatisfaction and distance that smothers the passion in a relationship quicker than the worst of conflicts.
2. Give Your Full Attention to Breathe Life into Your Relationship
Passion fades when you fall out of the habit of treating your partner as if they are the center of your world. Give your partner your full attention when you are with them in conversation and shared activities. Life is full of distractions, but being with your partner can be a refuge from all the hassles of life, if you practice mindful listening.
To practice mindful listening with your partner, listen deeply to their words and body language. Allow all other thoughts that come into your mind to pass as you re-focus on your partner. Listening in this mindful way can encourage your partner to open up, leading to a stimulating conversation. Mindful listening can also help you see your partner with “beginner’s eyes,” letting go of your automatic expectations and breaking your relationship out of what you’re “used to.” A conversation in which you don’t fully engage cannot be an engaging conversation, just as a relationship in which you don’t fully give your attention cannot be interesting or passionate.
3. Get Curious to Learn Something New About Your Partner
With the mundane, repetitive rhythm of real life, we can fall into a pattern of thinking we know everything about our partner. However, there are mysteries about the way that your partner thinks, feels, and experiences life that you don’t know yet. Spend some time with your partner asking questions about your past, feelings, and ideas to open the door to the unknown. The Gottman Intimacy Card Deck is a great resource to find questions that will help you learn new things about each other and connect on a deeper level, just like you did when you were first dating!
Like a pile of ash, some marriages these days are cold, grey, and lifeless. However, the fate of your relationship is in your hands. You have the power to keep the fire burning. If you nurture your relationship with full presence and responsiveness to your partner (even in the little moments), you can reignite the embers of your love and enjoy a strong relationship that will keep you warm even in dark times.
Previously published on medium
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