Monday, February 8, 2010

It's All Chemistry to Me

A couple months ago I wrote a blog post titled "Why It's Important to Cheat on Your Spouse." It was a tongue-in-cheek perspective on how to put the "spice" back in your marriage. I suggested remembering your spouse as the person they were when you first met. Seemed to make sense to me: after all, who doesn't remember that amazing spark you felt when you first met the person you were destined to share a roll of toilet paper with? I figured that a little mental "time travel" back to when you first met your DH or wifey could, perhaps & with a little luck, bring back that spark.

And so lo! As I was reading this morning's paper (yes, I am one of the few who still subscribes to a daily paper) and came across an article that completely solidifies my rather nebulous assertion that it's all about the spark. "Why I Get a Kick Out of You" (above-the-fold, Health Section, LA Times) details how scientists have found a cocaine-like reaction in the brain when love "works its magic." So that heart-pounding-head-thumping-hands-sweating-inability-to-think-clearly condition that overwhelms when you meet "the one" is actually on par with illegal drugs! (well, that explains alot...)

Study participants (whom had been in romantic relationships at least one month but no more than 17 months) were put into MRI machines to scan their brain while they were shown pictures of their romantic partner. In case after case, the part of their brain which houses the reward and motivation systems was flooded with dopamine--with the attendant side effects of excessive energy, losing sleep, euphoric feelings and separation anxiety.

All of this was sort of "no duh" to me. After all, most of us have experience that obsessive passion that comes with the beginning of a new relationship. But what struck me about the scientific study, however, was that when they studied the brains of people who had been married for 20 or more years, 30% of those in long-term relationships had similar output of dopamine.

So you can look at it in a couple of ways: 30% of people are just as passionate about each other as the day they met (or at least one of the partners is; the study didn't specify if both felt that way about each other), 70% of people have fallen somewhat "out of love" with their husband or wife, or their love has changed through the years from passionate to companionable.

Those 30% are really lucky. I wonder if they realize how lucky? I'm a romantic by nature, but after a decade+ of marriage, I wondered if it was possible for anyone to even remember what it was like to be "in love"--much less feel it every single day. When I read that it is still possible after years of marriage and its attendant ups-and-downs to be just as in love with the person as the day you said "I do," well, I decided I want me some of that!

So how do you take a so-so marriage out of the doldrums? Is there even a way to regain the passion? I wish the study had said whether or not those 30% who are still madly in love with their spouses had ever gone through a patch when the thought of being single again held particular appeal. Since it didn't, I'll have to go on my gut instinct that those people really just chose well--and figured out a way to work through conflicts without jeopardizing their relationship.

So back to taking the marriage out of the doldrums (I've always loved that word, no idea why). According to the article, the people who were still passionately in love were still dong those "little things" you hear so much about. Yeah, blah-blah-blah. We've all heard it. But it is surprisingly difficult to keep those "little things" going after you've been committed to someone for a while.

So here's your cheat sheet, as it were:
  • Call or text during the day to say hi.
  • Pick up a thoughtful gift "just because."
  • Listen and be supportive.
  • Use a kind voice when speaking to each other.
  • Do things together--even taking a walk in the evening strengthens the bonds between couples.
  • Take a class together, just for fun. The excitement you'll feel about learning something new may transfer to your spouse, helping you recapture what brought you together in the first place.
  • Know and respect what your spouse values: their careers, their spiritual beliefs, their political leanings, their hobbies and interests.
  • Be a friend to your spouse
  • And sex! Sex! So important to a relationship--perhaps the most important thing. The hormones oxytocin and vasopressin are released during sex. And these two hormones are what causes humans to bond with each other.
Personally, I'd add another: spend time with couples you know who are in the 30%. Of all my friends, I can think of three right off the bat who have the sort of marriage I've always envied. So with luck, by spending more time with these friends, both my hubby and I will see how they interact with each other and perhaps learn a bit about how to keep the passion in a relationship, through years and kids and finances and illness and all the other things that turn red-hot chemistry into lukewarm mush.

So while I am putting my own advice to work ( i.e.: remembering what it was like with my husband when we first met) I'm going to also put into practice some of the suggestions from this morning's article. Like most couples I know, my husband and I are committed for the long haul--but wouldn't it be nicer if that long haul was filled with passion, excitement and joy, rather than just that shared roll of toilet paper?

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