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.
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.
The theory is based on brain science. New experiences activate the brain’s reward system, flooding it with dopamine
and norepinephrine. These are the same brain circuits that are ignited
in early romantic love, a time of exhilaration and obsessive thoughts
about a new partner. (They are also the brain chemicals involved in drug addiction and obsessive-compulsive disorder.)
studies of love and marriage show that the decline of romantic love
over time is inevitable. The butterflies of early romance quickly
flutter away and are replaced by familiar, predictable feelings of
But several experiments show that novelty —
simply doing new things together as a couple — may help bring the
butterflies back, recreating the chemical surges of early courtship.
don’t really know what’s going on in the brain, but as you trigger and
amp up this reward system in the brain that is associated with romantic
love, it’s reasonable to suggest that it’s enabling you to feel more
romantic love,” said the anthropologist Helen E. Fisher, of Rutgers,
who has published several studies on the neural basis of romantic love.
“You’re altering your brain chemistry.”
Over the past several
years, Dr. Aron and his colleagues have tested the novelty theory in a
series of experiments with long-married couples.
In one of the
earliest studies, the researchers recruited 53 middle-aged couples.
Using standard questionnaires, the researchers measured the couples’
relationship quality and then randomly assigned them to one of three
One group was instructed to spend 90 minutes a week
doing pleasant and familiar activities, like dining out or going to a
movie. Couples in another group were instructed to spend 90 minutes a
week on “exciting” activities that appealed to both husband and wife.
Those couples did things they didn’t typically do — attending concerts
or plays, skiing, hiking and dancing. The third group was not assigned
any particular activity.
After 10 weeks, the couples again took
tests to gauge the quality of their relationships. Those who had
undertaken the “exciting” date nights showed a significantly greater
increase in marital satisfaction than the “pleasant” date night group.
the results were compelling, they weren’t conclusive. The experiment
didn’t occur in a controlled setting, and numerous variables could have
affected the final results.
More recently, Dr. Aron and
colleagues have created laboratory experiments to test the effects of
novelty on marriage. In one set of experiments, some couples are
assigned a mundane task that involves 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.
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.
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.”
Via New York Times