In the following selection from a recent New York Times article (12.01.12), psychology professor Sonya Lyubomirsky (Univ. of CA, Riverside) examines why new, passionate love, a state of intense longing, desire and attraction inevitably morphs, in time, into companionate love, a less impassioned blend of deep affection and connection. She also proposes a powerful antidote to familiarity.
Human beings are, as more than a hundred studies show, prone to hedonic adaptation, a measurable and innate capacity to become habituated or inured to most life changes. Hedonic adaptation is most likely when positive experiences are involved. It’s cruel but true: We’re inclined — psychologically and physiologically — to take positive experiences for granted.
Sexual passion and arousal are particularly prone to hedonic adaptation. Laboratory studies in places as far-flung as Melbourne, Australia, and Stony Brook, N.Y., are persuasive: Both men and women are less aroused after they have repeatedly viewed the same erotic pictures or engaged in similar sexual fantasies. Familiarity may or may not breed contempt; but research suggests that it breeds indifference.
There are evolutionary, physiological and practical reasons passionate love is unlikely to endure for long. If we obsessed, endlessly, about our partners and had sex with them multiple times a day — every day — we would not be very productive at work or attentive to our children, our friends or our health. Indeed, the condition of being in love has a lot in common with the state of addiction and narcissism; if unabated, it will eventually exact a toll.
Evolutionary biologists believe that sexual variety is adaptive, and that it evolved to prevent incest and inbreeding in ancestral environments. The idea is that when our spouse becomes as familiar to us as a sibling — when we’ve become family — we cease to be sexually attracted to each other.
It doesn’t take a scientist to observe that because the sex in a long-term committed monogamous relationship involves the same partner day after day after day, no one who is truly human (or mammalian) can maintain the same level of lust and ardor that he or she experienced when that love was uncharted and new.
When married couples reach the two-year mark, many mistake the natural shift from passionate love to companionate love for incompatibility and unhappiness. For many, the possibility that things might be different — more exciting, more satisfying — with someone else proves difficult to resist. Injecting variety and surprise into even the most stable, seasoned relationship is a good hedge against such temptation.
Although variety and surprise seem similar, they are in fact quite distinct. It’s easy to vary a sequence of events — like choosing a restaurant for a weekly date night — without offering a lot of surprise. In the beginning, relationships are endlessly surprising: Does he like to cook? What is his family like? What embarrasses or delights him? As we come to know our partners better and better, they surprise us less.
Surprise is a potent force. When something novel occurs, we tend to pay attention, to appreciate the experience or circumstance, and to remember it. We are less likely to take our marriage for granted when it continues to deliver strong emotional reactions in us. Also, uncertainty sometimes enhances the pleasure of positive events. For example, a series of studies at the University of Virginia and at Harvard showed that people experienced longer bursts of happiness when they were at the receiving end of an unexpected act of kindness and remained uncertain about where and why it had originated.
Such reactions may have neuroscientific origins. In one experiment, scientists offered drinks to thirsty subjects; those who were not told what kind of drink they would get (i.e., water or a more appealing beverage) showed more activity in the portion of the brain that registers positive emotions. Surprise is apparently more satisfying than stability.
The realization that your marriage no longer supplies the charge it formerly did is then an invitation: eschew predictability in favor of discovery, novelty and opportunities for unpredictable pleasure. A marriage is likely to change shape multiple times over the course of its lifetime; it must be continually rebuilt if it is to thrive.
Research shows that marital happiness reaches one of its highest peaks during the period after offspring have moved out of the family home. The nest may be empty, but it’s also full of possibility for partners to rediscover — and surprise — each other again. In other words, an empty nest offers the possibility of novelty and unpredictability.
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Sonja Lyubomirsky is a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, and the author of the forthcoming book The Myths of Happiness: What Should Make You Happy, but Doesn’t, What Shouldn’t Make You Happy, but Does.