- Keeping it fresh aint' easy. Long-term change to a relationship is much harder to notice. Change is normal, and can be great... but you don't want to get lazy.
- That said, 'comfortable and predictable' may not what you signed up for. Use the Law of Entropy, the Consistency Principle and Contrast Effect to your advantage.
- Get back on track with simple habit changes like a few little surprises or a new project help to freshen up your conversation (and wake up the libido).
Digging into monogamy
All your single mates may be calling you 'whipped', but being attached to someone long-term definitely has its benefits.
We're just modern chimps
In fact, humans have evolved to be one of the only animal species that practise monogamy. It's an extremely practical thing – certain hormones bring us together to fall in love, and have kids, and then other hormones kick in to keep us around for extended periods to protect the offspring from danger.
Lower stress levels
Not only will committing to a long-term relationship help buy a house, pay the bills and guarantee a steady level of affection, there are other secondary benefits.
Men typically drink less, live longer and live healthier in long-term relationships. Stress levels drop a heap. Potentially because you're not worrying about them running away if you aren’t on your A game. You’ve got an even keel and it’s predictable. So you know what to expect.
Relationships as a form of investment
Modern tech guru and philosopher Naval Ravikant views having a partner as an investment of time that gets better the longer you are together. He sees marriage as a form of 'leverage' that returns value with interest!
The more time you invest in someone, the better they know you, and you develop a shorthand that is extremely useful. You have shared values, a shared level of trust and most likely have the same dreams and aspirations. You also probably talk in code and can finish each other's sentences. That's a great thing worth keeping.
Basically, it pays to keep working on and building your relationship, even as you enter new phases.
Understanding relationship phases
A good relationship evolves relentlessly and gets more mature over time.
That generally means less sex, less overt affection and time focussed solely on each other. The 'honeymoon period' isn't just a made up thing – it signals a change in hormones and the dawning of a new phase.
Phase A: The Chemical Romance
It starts with passion. To fulfil its evolutionary mission – to pass the gene pool on – a body has to turn on the heat. At the beginning of a relationship testosterone is cranking (in male and female) and dopamine is making you feel good.
You fall in love and everything is pretty amazing.
Phase B: The Long Term
Fast forward a few years (it varies) and these chemicals start to wear off.
But they’re replaced with other hormones like oxytocin, described by many as the 'cuddle hormone'. C'mon, admit you enjoy a good snug. It’s the hormone that makes you relax and get cosy on the couch.
From here, life starts to gets in the way (e.g. mortgage, kids and bills), you can start to forgive yourself for that libido getting much less excited than it used to, because you're tired AF anyway.
You probably sit somewhere in between these two
That's completely normal, and it's important not to see getting to Phase B as the 'death' of a relationship. Instead, it represents change.
The lighthouse of change
Over long periods of time, changes in the relationship are hard to spot. You need to be a lighthouse, constantly scanning the horizon for problems. Be alert, not alarmed.
What you're looking out for is the bad kind of change – imbalance. Imbalance of attraction, of effort, of personality. If the balance strays too far from the centre (from too much effort, or lack of effort) it can become one-sided.
Balance is everything
The areas where relationships tend to lose balance are:
- Attraction balance – where one half of the relationship is more attractive (physically, socially, financially) and holds a higher status position. This can happen over time, if people don't look after their appearance and fitness, or experience change in their work or social lives.
- Situational balance – where one half of the relationship is more available or invested than the other. This can be caused by different careers, levels of independence and the split of tasks as children enter the picture.
- Personality balance – where one half of the relationship is more withdrawn, or more outgoing than the other. Personality traits like extroversion and introversion are kept for life, but can become more pronounced over time.
If you can visualise your relationship and this delicate balance, you will be able to spot areas where you or your partner are putting in, or are dragging the chain.
From there, you need to act to resolve them or communicate them. This is another kettle of fish and too detailed for this particular guide, but it's worth remembering that you can always talk to someone on our psychology partner LYSN.
'The Second Law of Thermodynamics'
One of the fundamental laws of our physical world is the law of entropy. It's also called the Second Law of Thermodynamics, if you want to sound smart to your mates.
Basically, it dictates that everything loses energy over time IF there is no added energy. Coffee gets cold, timber houses decay, and relationships falter, if no one is there to make an effort.
Laziness can mean the death of relationships, because it creates imbalance in lots of different areas. Sure, it's not always comfortable, or easy to make an effort. But relationships need sacrifice.
Areas to make an effort
- Fitness and grooming, to stay attractive to your partner. It shows you are motivated and making an effort to improve yourself.
- Time/resources devoted on small gestures (listening about their day, buying dinner, putting in your fair share of chores), to create a sense of affection. Giving, without wanting anything in return, is a peak human act.
- Time/resources devoted on big goals (planning holidays, talking about meaningful life-goals), to create a sense of forward motion. This has the double effect of giving you something to talk about, to dream about, but also gives you practical things to do. Like a mission in a video game, with a set of objectives.
- Randomness, to keep things unpredictable and exciting (this is easier than it sounds). Make an effort to do the unexpected every couple of weeks... you will go a long way to designing an amazing relationship.
- Independence, it's important to have your own world in order, to be self-contained to some degree. This prevents imbalance and means you are less dependent on your partner, should something unpredictable happen. It also invokes the ever-powerful contrast principle.
The contrast effect
AKA an ode to independence
The contrast effect is everywhere. It is one of those things that is mind numbingly obvious, but only once you start thinking about it, you'll notice it everywhere.
Contrast effects take abundance or scarcity and, once reversed, exaggerate the way our brains notice the change. Here are a few examples.
- If we go skiing, a warm shower at the end of the day feels scaldingly hot.
- A beer at the end of Dry July tastes like mother's milk.
- A cheat day on a no-carb diet makes croissants unbelievably good (true story).
In relationships, the contrast effect is well known. It comes down to being your own person, and being independent in the relationship occasionally.
"Distance makes the heart grow fonder"
Paradoxically, being apart from your partner for a while – without physical contact, or constant attention etc. – makes the love and affection feel that much stronger. It resets the relationship, without fear that anyone has been lost to the other.
Spending time away from each other makes you more interesting, gives you more to talk about and is a reminder of why you enjoyed each other’s company so much in the first place. Time for a weekend away with the boys? A day hike on your own?
Too many men fall into the trap of sacrificing their own lives to please their partner. Keep this principle in mind and you will start to reap the benefits.
Pick your battles
Being a long-termer is about putting up with your differences. And picking your battles. And the battles will look different after seven years than what they did after one.
So does it really matter if your partner prefers to change the towels every two days, or spends an extra five minutes in the bathroom? Think of your return on investment. When they are happy, you’re happy. And if there’s marginal benefit with no cost, you’re the golden ticket.
A long term strategy isn't short term
Everything today is instant.
But in long term relationships, getting something immediately (a reaction, a response) doesn’t always fly and can create resentment. Just like trading on the stock market, you need to plan for the long term. That mens avoiding rashness in your emotions (unless its impulsive, passionate sex, of course) and being mindful of the moments you are angry, or demanding, or jealous.
The 'marshmallow test' was a famous bit of social research from the 70s. They put a marshmallow in front of a child and said, “if you haven’t touched it in 15 minutes, you can have another”. It's basically a test of willpower – are you willing to go without short-term endorphins for a better result, that's further away?
This is the concept of ‘delayed gratification’ and we go on-and-on about it in our other guides (like our Purpose and Motivation guide). In short, it takes self-control and willpower to be a 2-marshmallow person.
The same goes with relationships, will you sacrifice in the short-term to reap long-term rewards?
Dealing with temptation
An extension of this idea is dealing with attention from attractive people outside the relationship. It’s very human to look sideways when you’re in a long-term thing.
Just because you’re committed doesn’t mean you’re not attracted to other people. Hell, some psychologists even think that humans would practise polyamory if it were more socially acceptable. The difference is, the freedom to act on that temptation.
Instagram makes it easy (and almost acceptable) to covertly suss out what’s out there (just don't accept their follow requests if you want to stay alive ;).
It’s risky business and you don’t want to give yourself (or anyone else) the wrong idea. You will always regret acting on those basic impulses. Have a cold shower, or masturbate if you have to.
Again, let the long-term win out over your lesser, short-term self.
Using human nature to your advantage
People are happier in relationships when they decide in their own minds that they have 'committed' and they are in it for the long haul. Robert Cialdini, in his famous book Influence, talks about the power of 'commitment and consistency'.
It is, quite simply, our nearly obsessive desire to ... appear consistent with what we have already done. Once we have made a choice or taken a stand, we will encounter personal and interpersonal pressures to behave consistently with that commitment. Those pressures will cause us to respond in ways that justify our earlier decision.
So the simple act of deciding you're with your partner for good causes you to act in ways that justify that decision, leading you to convince yourself that its a great thing.
For this to truly work, you have to be unwavering and steadfast in your decision to commit to this person. And then the load is off your shoulders in a big way!
Tactics for keeping it fresh
The element of surprise
Book a weekend away, bring home something little, or cook breakfast for your other half. Keeping things interesting and fun is going to take some creativity, but it’s going to keep you out of the boredom pits and you’ll get an awesome hit of dopamine while you’re at it.
A good way to do it is to set a calendar (on your own) every month, with:
- One random night out to a bar or restaurant (invite another couple – more conversation, and helps foster a shared sense of identity)
- One random weekend activity that's somewhere new (this takes effort)
- One small gift (they say they don't, but you know they love that stuff)
- One home-cooked meal (cookbook-level effort)
As easy as that, you're forcing yourself to put the effort in, and by hiding it from your partner, you're helping with the element of surprise.
Setting long-term goals together will give you something to work on. Common long-term goals include planning an overseas trip, saving for a deposit on a home, planning a renovation (gotta love the Australian dream) etc.
To take a leaf from the book of The Barefoot Investor, he plans monthly date nights where the couple comes together to eat and plan financial goals. Having regular date nights is an easy way to make sure you get off the couch and into the big, wide world together. Talking about the future can be energising, which leads us to our next point...
When your mates brag about how often they have sex with their long term partner, relax. They're probably fibbing.
Believe it or not, you won’t always be in the mood for sex. That comes and goes depending on work, lack of sleep and boredom. Stress levels factor in too, and men and women (and different personality types) tend to be very different in the perfect
Sex and relationship guru Esther Perel says that the purpose of sex is not just to have a dozen babies, but because it feels good. While it’s nice to be predictable, you also want your sack-time to be adventurous, spontaneous, and exciting. Send creative texts, make a game out of sex, or do something nice like run a bath or give them a massage when they least expect it.
Avoid going to bed angry
People in their ‘Golden Years’ (65+ years) suggest not going to bed angry with each other. But it’s impractical to think that you’re at your best to solve a problem when you’re tired, grumpy and stressed about work. Sleep on it and give yourselves a clean slate for the morning. It’s likely you’ve forgotten about it then anyway.
✈️ Relationship-health checklist
Before we go, check your relationship off against the following list and see areas where you can work on keeping it healthier:
- Commit or move-on
- Understand why monogamy exists
- View your relationship as an investment that matures and improves
- Always look out for imbalances
- Put effort in to avoid 'entropy'
- Stay disciplined
Your relationship changes a heap over time. And you’ll keep on finding new things about yourself and your partner. So dig your heels in, try on something new and who knows? You might surprise yourself and re-spark that flame.