*Wikipedia defines “middle age” as 41 – 60, so it must be true.
Everyone in a long-term romantic relationship has a story. Each of our stories is unique. Our story begins when we were 21 (Charlotte) and 25 (Patrick). We were both coming off other long-term, serious (or so we thought) relationships, and we really didn’t know what we wanted out of a relationship or what we could offer a partner. Now, 17 years and 2 kids later, we both feel pretty lucky that things have worked out as well as they have. Back then, we had no idea what challenges we would face or how we would help each other maneuver through them. We were young and optimistic, but there was so much we didn’t know.
Due to practice and a bit of research (it doesn’t hurt that we are both researchers who study romantic relationships!), we know a little more about relationships now. However, we are still never sure what to do each Valentine’s Day (see past reflections on this matter here and here). It seems like a holiday for “new lovers,” and we’ve known each other too long to feel “new” to each other. What are those of us approaching middle age and in long-term relationships supposed to do on this holiday?
Being the nerds that we are, we decided to review some relevant research to help answer this question, and we offer a few tips in case you find yourself in a similar predicament.
Jump off the “hedonic treadmill.”
Over time, things that used to make us happy become less exciting, and things that used to make us upset tend to bother us less. Think about the new iPhone you bought last year. You were probably really excited about it last year, but now you want a new one. Or consider how crushed you were when you didn’t get promoted at work. When it first occurred, you were really hurt, but now it only sorta bothers you. This ability to “adapt” or go with the flow is what researchers refer to as being on a “hedonic treadmill” or “hedonic adaptation”.1 In other words, we tend to return to a relatively stable level of happiness – regardless of the triumphs and tragedies of life.
We adapt to our partners as well. The smile that would have made our hearts go pitter-patter in the early days of our relationship is unlikely to do so a decade into the relationship. So, for Valentine’s Day, you should stop merely going with the flow — Jump off that hedonic treadmill. How? Do something new and different. The goal is to introduce an event or behavior that is out of the ordinary. Change and novelty not only increase happiness and relationship satisfaction, but when we do new things with our partners, dopamine and norepinephrine are released in the brain.2 These are the same neurochemical experiences that take place when we first fall in love. So, this Valentine’s Day, try to recapture the early days by planning something unconventional.
When was the last time you thanked your partner for doing the things he or she does all the time? Like every couple, we have developed different “jobs” that we do around the house. One of us pays the bills (Charlotte) and one of us deals with home repairs (Patrick). Research suggests that there may be several benefits to showing gratitude to each other for doing these jobs. In fact, according to one study,3 a good Valentine’s gift would be to give your partner a “list of the reasons” you are grateful for him or her. Recognizing both the meaningful and the mundane things our partners have done not only enhances relationship quality, but also improves your emotional state. Yup, just by telling someone else that you appreciate him or her, you are likely to be in a better mood!
Buy the right gift.
A fascinating study4 examined gifts in relation to romantic relationships’ longevity. Although not the most romantic statement, they found that proper gift choices can increase the probability of the survival of that relationship. Specifically, they discovered that the best gifts were “relationship-announcement” presents – gifts that announce the relationship to the world. Think of buying each other a pair of matching watches or sending flowers to your partner’s office. The gifts most linked to relationship dissolution were different for men and women. Women should avoid buying gifts designed to enhance their own appearance. Although men might like you smelling nice, don’t buy yourself perfume for him this Valentine’s Day. Men who bought gifts to “express emotions” to their romantic partners (e.g., a really expensive piece of jewelry a month into a relationship) also tended to find themselves single. This was especially true during the early stages of a relationship when such gifts might “scare away” a new romantic partner. So it sounds like the best gifts we can buy each other are matching his or her sweaters, with one stating “I’m with him” and the other declaring “I’m with her.” This way, we announce our love to the world, we avoid expressing too many emotions, and we completely avoid enhancing either of our appearances.
When all else fails, go out to dinner.
If you are feeling older and tired (as we often are), all of the above suggestions may seem a bit too time-consuming. We’re probably biased because we happen to study eating behaviors in the context of romantic relationships,5 but there are a variety of reasons that just going out to dinner is a good idea for Valentine’s Day (of course, this does not mean that you must eat out on February 14th and subject yourself to the crowds and overpriced prix fix menus; the 13th and the 15th work just as well).
While out at dinner, you can actually take advantage of each of the previous tips. Dining at a new restaurant or even in a new town may inject your relationship with a bit of novelty. At dinner, you can make it a point to show gratitude toward your partner and discuss the things you value and appreciate about your partner. Dinner is an excellent place to discuss the gift your partner would like. As in, “maybe we shouldn’t buy matching his and her sweaters this year; what would you really like as a gift?” Talking about what you’d like for a gift can make for fun conversation and even a guessing game if you’re feeling up to it. Better yet, go shopping with your partner. Of course, just sitting down and talking with our partners can be invaluable. As one relationship scientist suggests, “communication not only reflects romantic relationships, it also defines them.”6 So, if nothing else this Valentine’s Day, no matter how new or old your relationship is, talk to your partner.
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1Lyubomirsky, S. (2010). Hedonic adaptation to positive and negative experiences. In S. Folkman (Ed.), Oxford Handbook of Stress, Health, and Coping. New York: Oxford University Press.
2Aron, A., Norman, C. C., Aron, E. N., McKenna, C., & Heyman, R. E. (2000). Couples’ shared participation in novel and arousing activities and experienced relationship quality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78, 273–284.
3Watkins, P. C., Woodward, K., Stone, T., & Kolts, R. L. (2003). Gratitude and happiness: Development of a measure of gratitude, and relationships with subjective well-being. Social Behavior and Personality: An International Journal, 31, 431-451.
4Huang, M. H., & Yu, S. (2000). Gifts in a romantic relationship: A survival analysis. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 9, 179-188.
5Markey, C. N. & Markey, P. M. (2011). Romantic partners, weight status, and weight concerns: An examination of the Actor-Partner Interdependence Model. Journal of Health Psychology, 16, 217-225.
6Vangelisti, A. L. (2002). Interpersonal processes in romantic relationships. In M. L. Knapp & J. A. Daly (Eds.), Handbook of Interpersonal Communication, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publishing.
Dr. Charlotte Markey – Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Markey’s research addresses issues central to both developmental and health psychology. A primary focus of her research is social influences on eating-related behaviors (i.e., eating, dieting, body image) in both parent-child and romantic relationships.
Dr. Patrick Markey – Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Markey’s research focuses on how behavioral tendencies develop and are expressed within social relationships, including unhealthy dieting, civic behavior, personality judgment, and interpersonal aggression after playing violent video games.