Being in a long-term relationship means you see a shared life with someone. The problem is that you and your partner likely have a different definition of what “sharing” means. So, I’ll see a couple and the husband thinks he’s doing plenty, but his wife feels like he’s not pulling his weight. Then the wife feels short-changed, unappreciated and like she has to control everything or it doesn’t get done. And I’ve then got a husband who feels like he’s unappreciated (it seems like nothing he ever does is enough), he feels short-changed (because she’s not having enough sex with him) and he doesn’t feel trusted (because she keeps “reminding” him about things).
Day after day, year after year of this and some feelings start to dominate: resentment, boredom, loneliness, anger and frustration. This leads to feeling disconnected and ultimately to feeling like you’ve fallen out of love. But hey, isn’t this what happens in all relationships, especially after you’ve been together a long time?
What if I told you that you definitely could fall back in love with your partner? What if I told you that it’s NOT inevitable, after many years together, to fall out of love with your mate? What if I told you that there’s actual research showing that you can feel completely in love even after 20 years of marriage?
Our Brain in Love
Helen Fisher, biological anthropologist and Senior Research Fellow at the Kinsey Institute, has studied brains in love for decades. She believes there are three basic types of love: sex drive; romantic love; and feelings of deep attachment for your partner.
Dr. Fisher’s research shows (by way of fMRIs), that when we have those in love feelings, we have activity in a tiny spot at the base of brain called the ventral tegmental area (VTA). The VTA is part of your brain’s reward system so part of what we call your lizard or reptilian brain. This part of the brain is way below your rational, conscious thoughts. This deep level of your brain is all about pleasure, the motivation to pursue and acquire rewards, wanting, and focused attention and craving.
Another region of the brain affected is the caudate nucleus. This is an area associated with how the brain learns and how it stores and processes memories. In relation to being in love, it’s also in charge of reward detection and expectation.
As if that’s not enough, brains in love also show activity in what are called A10 cells. These cells make dopamine, a neurotransmitter in charge of things like pleasure and stimulation and spray it to other areas of your brain.
This is all why many neuroscientists compare being in love to being addicted to drugs because that intense feeling of being “in love” activates the same systems in the brain as drugs like cocaine. Dopamine activates the reward circuit, which makes love a highly pleasurable experience similar to the euphoria associated with use of drugs or alcohol.
All of this brain chemistry is why, when you fall in love, your partner becomes super special to you. Everything they do is unique and has distinctive meaning. You start to focus on this person, often to the detriment of everything else in your life.
When things are going well you’re soooo happy and when things are bad, you likely become depressed and upset. Either way, at this point, the other person is all you can think about and you feel an intense energy in relation to them. You end up with a powerful craving for an emotional connection and likely can’t wait to hear words like, “I love you” or “You’re all I can think about.”
Again, the majority of these feelings are caused by that dopamine increase which stimulates these ancient brain networks associated with craving, wanting, and intense focus and motivation around the other person.
Why you chemically fall out of love
When we’re in that initial burst of romantic love, it lowers the levels of a neurotransmitter called serotonin. Serotonin is another contributing factor in all that single-minded concentration and obsession with your partner. These feelings can also cause you to be blind to your partner’s annoying or undesirable traits in the early stages of your relationship. In other words, you don’t see him chewing with his mouth open or how she farts in bed, your brain chooses to focus only on the qualities you like.
After you’ve been in love for some time, however, you develop a tolerance to these pleasurable chemicals, including this serotonin, and voila! There are all those annoying traits on full display!
Related to this, being in love deactivates the neural pathway responsible for negative emotions. So, your ability to make critical assessments of your partner shuts down. This is the physiological basis for the old quote, “Love is blind.” When we’re falling out of love, we start to see the “negative” that was always there, but that we were ignoring or couldn’t see!
As you see your partner how they really are, disillusionment sets in to a degree. As the years go by and you have children, a mortgage or the other stresses and components of building a life together, these new “faults” take on an even greater space in your brain because you’ve got more invested now which means more to lose! So, things that weren’t such a big deal in the beginning, seem like a bigger deal now.
Regaining the Spark
Let me say again, that you do NOT need to fall out of love. There doesn’t have to be any inevitable downward slide in your relationship. Let me tell you about research by Helen Fisher and her colleagues as well as studies done at Stonybrook. When they’ve compared fMRI scans of couples who say they’re still in love after 25 or 30 years of marriage with those of newly in love couples, they found that “the pattern of activity in the participants’ dopamine reward systems was the same as that found in the brains of participants in early-stage romantic love.”
You don’t have to fall out of love! You can get that in love, butterflies in the stomach, rush of focus and euphoria again (or for the first time for some of you out there).
If your relationship has transitioned from passionate, romantic love into either compassionate love or a feeling of being completely out of love, there are things you can do!
Tip #1 Build Intimacy the way your partner likes
Women and men experience “together time” differently. Women get a feeling of emotional closeness from face-to-face speaking. Women want to anchor their gaze with their partner and feel that undivided attention. Biological anthropologists note that this comes from hundreds of thousands of years of women having babies and looking into their eyes as they breast fed, spoke to them, and taught them. This is how they created that special bond.
In the same way, women would sit in circles with other women as they washed, cooked, crafted and sewed and they would have conversations while looking at one another over their work. They sat in a circle so they could all see one another and bond.
Women want to do this with the men in their lives. I’ve had countless women in my office who were dumbfounded that their partners didn’t realize that texting was not enough and getting flowers or gifts didn’t help them feel closer to their mates.
Men, it might sound trite, but it’s true. Give your partner your undivided attention with direct eye contact if you want to build trust, intimacy and that spark.
Now, this isn’t going to work for men to get that “in love” feeling. In their eons-long history, men have built their emotional closeness and intimacy from side-by-side doing. Once again, biological anthropologists believe this comes from millions of years of hiding behind a bush next to one another and staring at the animal they wanted to take down and kill together. You can’t throw a spear at a deer or hit a buffalo’s head with a rock if you were looking at your hunting partner. As Helen Fisher says, “For millions of years, men faced their enemies but sat side-by-side with their friends.” In fact, in studies of men bonding with one another they’ve found that when one man looks up, the other actually looks away.
Women need to understand this about their men. Look for ways to stand next to your man in life. How do you approach things as a team? How do you support him in what he needs to “get done?” As much as you need that direct talk, he needs the sitting next to him while he watches something on TV or going in the car with him when he runs an errand and being part of his problem-solving and tackling things.
Tip #2: Get naked
Harvard researchers Richard Schwartz and Jacqueline Olds (who also happen to be married) have studied love for decades also and they identify something they call the “rustiness phenomenon.” Olds says, “Couples get out of the habit of sex, of being incredibly in love, and often for good reasons: work, children, a sick parent. But that type of love can be reignited.” Sexual activity activates the brain’s reward circuit, making couples desire each other more.” She said, “That alone may be enough to bring some couples back to those earlier, exhilarating days, when all they could think about was their newfound love.”
Sexual activity and touching also increases oxytocin and vasopressin levels. These hormones are all about bonding and attachment and have big roles in pregnancy, nursing, and mother-infant attachment.
They’re also released during sex and skin-to-skin contact. Oxytocin deepens feelings of attachment and makes couples feel closer to one another after having sex. Oxytocin, known also as the love hormone, deepens feelings of attachment, makes couples feel closer after sex, and triggers feelings of contentment, calmness, and security.
Dr. Luis Garcia of Rutgers University also believes that having sex is a good way to reignite those earlier feelings. He points to a number of studies that show that sexual satisfaction and satisfaction with the relationship are correlated with one another. Studies have consistently found that having a satisfying sexual life is a key trait of people in successful long-term relationships.
This is tip #2 for a reason because I want you to work on Tip #1 and bonding first. As I’ve said multiple times, men like to have sex to feel close and women need to feel close to have sex. So, let’s get close and then let’s make getting naked a priority.
Tip #3: Think of them lovingly
Dr. Lucy Brown, neuroscientist at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine has been involved with many studies looking at the fMRIs of people in love. One of the things she’s noted is that all those areas in the brain we discussed earlier that light up when we’re in love also light up when participants simply looked at pictures of their partner and thought loving thoughts!
If you’re looking to get that spark back, reach for a picture of your partner or even one of the two of you that you love and consciously think loving thoughts about your person. If it’s a picture of the two of you laughing at a party, think of that day and the fun you were having. Take yourself back to a time that you felt in love and play that like a movie in your head while you look at the picture. Practice this for just three minutes per day, every day for a week and you’ll begin to feel differently about your partner.
Bonus: This is also reprogramming your RAS!
Tip #4: Love is a verb
Remember that love is also a verb which means doing, not just sitting. Change the routine – don’t just watch TV every night. Take a dance class together once a week, take a woodworking class together, get a trainer and do a couple’s workout, go to your local Buddhist temple and meditate together. Find something new to do together: novelty or newness is one of those things that also lights up these “in love” brain circuits.