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Secret to Lasting Romance

Hadley Finch intro: Secrets to lasting romance are
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Discover the impact of self expansion in
sustaining romance courtesy of WSJ.com article

The Secret to Lasting Romance? Doing New Things
Researchers have tips for how couples can
reconnect through spelunking, stargazing, sharing
music and other activities.

Studies find that people who feel excitement in
their relationships are less tempted by

Written by David Robson

When the weather warms, the weddings start. It’s
the season for celebrating new love and big
romantic promises. But as couples exchange their
vows and pledge their commitment, many
underestimate how challenging it can be to make
relationships last. The statistics paint a grim
picture. In the U.S., 13% of all first marriages
end within five years and around 30% end within 20
years, according to census data. It’s one thing
to fall in love but quite another to maintain it.

Is there a secret to contented monogamy? According
to a growing body of research, the answer isn’t
to buy flowers or make a restaurant reservation
(though these things never hurt). Instead, we need
to make sure that our relationships are still
encouraging us to learn, grow and become better
versions of ourselves. Essentially, our strongest
bonds broaden our sense of what is possible—a
phenomenon psychologists call “self-expansion.”

This theory of love originates with Arthur and
Elaine Aron, psychologists who also happen to be
married to each other. In a 1995 paper published in
the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,
they asked hundreds of first- and second-year
undergraduates—people “with a high expected
incidence of falling in love”—a series of
questions over the course of 10 weeks, including
the open-ended, “Who are you today?” Students
who were in love offered a list of personal
characteristics that grew about 20% over the course
of the semester. By contrast, students who
weren’t in love offered a shrinking list of
personal attributes over the same period,
indicating a loss of self-esteem.

Self-expansion comes with blissful ease in the
first flush of romance, when conversations are full
of curiosity, animated storytelling and discovery.
Part of the thrill of falling for someone is how it
can feel like we are constantly learning something
new about the world and even about ourselves.
What’s more invigorating than being seen and
appreciated by a fresh set of adoring eyes?

The challenge is maintaining this excitement, this
crackling feeling of promise and possibility, when
we’ve heard all the stories and met all the
friends. We may blame our romantic lethargy on our
partner’s flaws, but the real problem is usually
that we miss that exhilarating sense of novelty.
We’re not just tired of our partners, we’re
tired of ourselves in the partnership, particularly
when so much of our time is spent haggling over
chores and other obligations.

Here the research is clear: Self-expansion isn’t
simply a luxury of youthful courtship but an
essential feature of any satisfying long-term

Researchers typically ask couples questions such
as, “How much does being with your partner result
in you having new experiences?” and “How much
do you see your partner as a way to expand your own
capabilities?” Partners who respond favorably are
consistently less tempted by infidelity. In a 2020
study published in the journal Frontiers of
Psychology, people who were prompted to see their
romantic relationships as exciting and novel were
less likely to react to photos of attractive
strangers than those who were simply reminded of
their love for their partners, according to fMRI
brain scans.

Couples who see their partners as sources of new
experiences have more desire for sex with each

If I think of my relationship with my partner, whom
I met when we were both undergraduates 19 years
ago, I see a kind of symbiotic growth. His
infectious interest in literature inspired me to
read more widely, which helped nudge me to become a
writer. His passion for food helped transform meals
into sources of pleasure, not just sustenance. When
I am critical of someone, he helps me respond with
greater compassion; if I am too timid, he persuades
me to be braver. Although we often disagree, my
partner’s opinions refine my views, and I am
usually wiser for the dispute.

In return, my fascination with science helped to
open his mind to the mysteries and wonders of our
world. We often marvel together at the small
miracles of evolution at zoos, aquariums and
botanical gardens, and I’m all too eager to talk
about the latest theories of human origins and the
“hard problem” of consciousness. I introduced
him to the music of Joni Mitchell, whose song
“All I Want” could be a self-expansion anthem:
“All I really really want our love to do/Is to
bring out the best in me and in you too.”

Keeping this energy, this dynamic give-and-take,
requires effort. It isn’t enough to simply make
time for each other. We need to think about how we
are spending this time. Drinks and dinner are
perfect activities when you are getting to know
someone, but they may not properly nourish a more
established relationship. To feel closer to your
partner, research shows it is better to add a dose
of the unexpected. This can mean ice-skating,
stargazing, mountain-climbing or taking a cooking
class. Couples are more likely to discover
something new if they experience something
unfamiliar together.

In one randomized controlled trial published in the
journal Couple and Family Psychology in 2013,
researchers at the University of New England in
Australia encouraged 50 couples to try new
activities together for at least 90 minutes a week
over four weeks. Without any other relationship
counseling, this intervention significantly
increased feelings of romantic satisfaction between
partners compared with a control group that went
without this advice. These feelings were still
apparent at a follow-up assessment four months

Relationships that offer opportunities for personal
growth can also improve our health by buffering the
effects of stress. In a survey of nearly 400
Americans published in the journal Personal
Relationships, Sarah Stanton at the University of
Edinburgh found that people who believed their
romantic relationship would lead them “to gain
more insights, experiences and/or knowledge from my
partner” were significantly less likely to report
a range of physical symptoms, such as stomach
problems, dizziness, skin rashes or colds.

These effects extend to the bedroom, too. In a
series of studies published in the Journal of
Personality and Social Psychology in 2019, Amy
Muise at York University in Canada found that
couples who saw their partners as sources of
insight, excitement and new experiences had more
desire for sex with each other. Simply sharing new
experiences and activities increased physical
desire in long-term partnerships.

To appreciate these findings, we need to set aside
assumptions that love is a matter of destiny and
frustrations are a sign of incompatibility. We are
better off when we embrace the idea that romantic
love is a dynamic process that evolves as we grow.
So when things start to feel stale—as they
inevitably do now and again—a candlelit dinner
may not be the antidote. To keep things fresh, why
not try something different? An adventure spent
caving or bungee jumping or on a riverboat casino
may not go exactly the way you hope, but you will
feel closer for having gotten through it together.

David Robson’s latest book, “The Laws of
Connection: The Scientific Secrets of Building a
Strong Social Network,” will be published by
Pegasus on June 4.

How will you use this news to sustain a lasting love?

Hadley Finch

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