7 Ways to Keep Love Alive and Make an Old Relationship Feel New

a collection of lit candles arranged in the shape of a heart, viewed from above
Image by srgpicker / CC BY

When you first start dating someone, everything is new and exciting. And then after a while, even a great relationship has a way of becoming routine. Even predictable.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Here are 7 ways to make an old relationship feel shiny and new:

1. Don’t Stop Dating Each Other

Whether you’ve been together 30 years or a week and a half, you should never stop dating your partner. It can be tempting to skip this if you’re pressed for time or money. But don’t. Even if it’s an hour a week to reconnect or cook and enjoy a meal together, it’s important to set aside time and attention to focus on one another and stay in touch with what you like about them.

If it’s a longer distance relationship or someone you see less often, then a more significant date night (or even weekend) might be in order.

In any event, it’s important to make best use of your time together.

Whatever you do, wear something nice or different. And call it a date.

2. Focus More on Bringing Out the Good than Fixing the Bad

Wouldn’t it be great if we could turn loving feelings up and down like a dial? Maybe something like the mood organ in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

It might not just be science fiction. As I wrote previously, a recent study by Langeslag and van Strien found that despite participants feeling like loving feelings are largely uncontrollable (in keeping with the rest of us), they were nonetheless able to use cognitive reframing techniques to achieve either increased (up-regulation) or decreased (down-regulation) feelings of love. Participants who focused on positive aspects of a person or imagined future positive outcomes of a relationship were able to feel more love and those who focused on negative aspects or imagined future negative outcomes were able to feel less love, with self-reported findings confirmed on EEG.

There’s often important work to be done in relationships. However, if we spend a lot of time focusing on problems and what we find deficient about our partner, even if we’re trying to make things better, we become negatively primed to see the worst in them and relationships.

Of course, problems crop up, and we need to address them. But make sure you’re vastly outnumbering those with positive comments (and if you can’t think of positive things easily about your partner, maybe they’re not right for you). There have been many studies demonstrating the importance of this: For example, Heaphy and Losada’s research found an ideal ratio of 6 positive comments to each negative one.

3. Let Your Partner Be a Mystery, Give Them Some Space

They say that you don’t truly appreciate what you have until it’s gone. Sadly, though, while on-again, off-again works for romantic movies and reality TV, radical shifts in status can be deeply destabilizing in real life (emotionally, financially, logistically).

That said, it’s important to allow your partner to remain somewhat mysterious to you, even if you’ve been together for years.

As Esther Perel writes in Mating in Captivity:

Passion in a relationship is commensurate with the amount of uncertainty you can tolerate…When we peg ourselves and our partners to fixed entities, we needn’t be surprised that passion goes out the window.

Our willingness to engage that mystery keeps desire alive. Faced with the irrefutable otherness of our partner, we can respond with fear or with curiosity. We can try to reduce the other to a knowable entity, or we can embrace her persistent mystery. When we resist the urge to control, when we keep ourselves open, we preserve the possibility of discovery. Eroticism resides in the ambiguous space between anxiety and fascination. We remain interested in our partners; they delight us, and we’re drawn to them.

The grand illusion of committed love is that we think our partners are ours. In truth, their separateness is unassailable, and their mystery is forever ungraspable. As soon as we can begin to acknowledge this, sustained desire becomes a real possibility. It’s remarkable to me how a sudden threat to the status quo (an affair, an infatuation, a prolonged absence, or even a really good fight) can suddenly ignite desire. There’s nothing like the fear of loss to make those old shoes look new again.

Of the threats to the status quo that Perel mentions, absence is one that seems to work very well without a lot of collateral damage.

Spending even a brief time apart (for example, while a partner is away on a trip) can work wonders in helping you look at each other with fresh eyes.

Polyamorous folks in particular may find a partner’s new infatuation or relationship with another similarly helpful (more on that in #6 below).

4. Do Something New and Exciting Together

One of the cool things about human beings? When something exciting happens, we associate the experience with the person (or people) we’re with — whether or not they caused it.

Psychologists call this the “misattribution of arousal.” A classic study by Dutton and Aron found that participants who crossed a rickety bridge were more  4 times more likely to call an attractive female researcher who provided her phone number at the conclusion of the experiment than those who had crossed a more stable bridge. Three additional clarifying studies from Dutton and Aron suggested evidence for participants misattributing their arousal from the bridge for arousal (and attraction) for the woman.

This effect has been replicated many times, including a later study by Allen, Kenrick,  Linder, and McCall that found that it doesn’t even matter if you know that it’s something else that’s exciting you — you’ll still associate the excitement of that experience with the person you’re with.

This carryover effect is the reason why they do things like helicopter rides and bungee jumping on television dating shows (e.g., The Bachelor).

You can use the same reality TV hacks to thrum up excitement. If it works for meddling TV producer types, why not use those powers for good?

You don’t have to sky dive (but if you can, more power to you). Do something that gets your blood pumping. Take a dance class. Ride a rollercoaster.

My personal favorite for exciting dates? So far, it has to be hiking up to a glacier.

5. Be Supportive of Each Other

It might just be the ultimate of relationship cliches: “The best relationships are ones when your partner is also your best friend.”

The trouble is that people are often unclear what this partner as best friend thing means in practice.

Many seem to think it means that you can say or do almost anything around them. Not a bad start. But while it’s important that you can be authentic with your partner, that close bond can unfortunately all too often devolve into a “we’re basically roommates” situation.

What’s crucial in nourishing that underlying friendship is less than “letting it all hang out” and more being actively supportive of one another.

This isn’t always easy.

Sometimes the things your partners wants might lead them temporarily away from you. But you should still be supportive.

In monogamous relationships, this could be supporting their decision to take their dream job or grad school opportunity on an opposite coast even though you can’t follow them for a while. Or something smaller, like accepting their friendship and desire to spend time with someone you might not personally like.

For polyamorous people, this is often about being a good metamour to your partner’s other partners. And understanding that their love for someone else doesn’t take away from their love for you.

6. Compersion, Compersion, Compersion: Benefit From Your Partner’s New Relationship Energy

This one is specific to polyamory but important.

I had read all about New Relationship Energy (NRE) before diving in to polyamory. Those new, shiny feelings that happen when you first start dating someone. When your partner feels NRE for someone new, it can be deeply terrifying. Especially when you’re new to polyamory and in a relationship that was previously monogamous and not yet Poly Road Tested.

So when I converted a previously monogamous relationship to a polyamorous one all those years ago, I was prepared for New Relationship Energy.

But what I wasn’t prepared for? Getting a freaking rush off my partner’s new happiness in other relationships. I call this New Relationship Empathy. I like this because I really do feel fundamentally that compersion (happiness at the happiness of others, often called “the opposite of jealousy”) is just a very specific kind of empathy, an empathy that runs counter to our cultural expectations.

But I definitely have enjoyed seeing my partner excited to be pursuing new things.

What’s more: I consistently find that it infuses my comparatively older relationship with its own New Relationship Energy.

Now, this isn’t a universal experience (for everyone, all the time). But it happens. And it’s fantastic when it does.

To improve your chances of experiencing New Relationship Empathy, focus on becoming as secure of a person as you can as well as cultivating compersion. A few easy ways to develop feelings of compersion are gratitude journaling and practicing random acts of kindness (see “No One is Stealing Your Toys”). With these exercises, and particularly with random acts of kindness, consistency and frequency and repetition are the big keys… not the size of the gestures themselves. The brain likes patterns.

And for those looking for a way to make that practice paying it forward a little more fun, Sneaky Cards  makes a game out of random acts of kindness, where you become a sort of kindness ninja, creeping around, doing good deeds, passing the cards on to your next target. Pretty cool.

7. Remember that Old Relationship Energy Is Just as Magical as New Relationship Energy

And there’s one final thing to keep in mind: Older, established relationships have different energy than new ones. But they’re just as alive.

Martial arts master Bruce Lee, of all people, drew a fabulous analogy:

“Love is like a friendship caught on fire. In the beginning a flame, very pretty, often hot and fierce, but still only light and flickering. As love grows older, our hearts mature and our love becomes as coals, deep-burning and unquenchable.”

It reminds me of camping — when you want to build a cooking fire, you start with one that burns hot and bright, but it’s the coals you really want to do your nice even cooking. And this takes a bit of time. So once the intensity has burned away, that’s when the real magic begins.

But it’s subtle. And if you don’t know what you’re looking, if you don’t know how valuable or important those coals are, you can overlook them. And think the fire has burned out.

It can be a delicate balance between security and excitement, but loving someone you’re with? It’s well worth the effort.

 

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3 Comments

  1. Thank you! I feel like the maintenance of long-term relationships is sort of undercovered in the poly how-to, so it’s been part of what I’ve focused on writing about.

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