One of the advantages of a long-term relationship is the familiarity and comfort that develops as a couple – staying in for a cosy movie on a Friday night, building routines together, going to that favourite restaurant, feeling known and understood.
But if there is too much familiarity and routine in your relationship, this can lead to a significant drop in passion over time.
These observations are related to a theory called Hedonic Adaptation.
Hedonic Adaptation in Relationships
Hedonic Adaptation is the process where, after a surge in happiness and elation following positive events (eg. a job promotion or an exciting holiday), over time we naturally come back to our baseline of pre-existing happiness and wellbeing. This can also work in the opposite direction where, after a negative event (such as job loss or break-up), we eventually make our way back up to our previous levels of happiness.
The theory also appears to hold true for intimate relationships. That is, after a surge in happiness and passion at the beginning of a new relationship, people generally adapt to this arrangement, and over time the passion reduces and happiness comes back to the baseline.
“Cycles of adaptation” are also seen in relationships – this is where exciting changes, such as an engagement, marriage (or other form of ceremony), pregnancy, holidays, or period of separation, lead to another increase in happiness and passion. But again, drops off in time.
Due to this trend of hedonic adaptation (in intimate relationships and elsewhere), researchers have been interested in whether there are ways to better understand this process, and ways to combat or slow down the process. This is called Hedonic Adaptation Prevention (HAP).
HAP in Intimate Relationships
There appear to be two dominant ways that our adaptation to positive events plays out:
- The effect of positive events lessons over time.
- Our aspirations increase over time.
In the context of relationships, this means:
- The nice things that caused passion and intimacy at the beginning of a relationship become less exciting.
- We may keep up some of the lovely things done in the early stages of a relationship – lovemaking, buying gifts, going out to dinner – but these things are no longer novel, they are predictable.
- Our aspirations for what constitutes positive events and positive change in a relationship increases over time, and we can take for granted the positive events that are occurring.
- These aspirations may become unrealistic or unreasonable as the relationship goes on.
Strategies for combating or slowing down hedonic adaptation therefore rely on deliberately creating positive events and positive emotions, decreasing negative events and negative emotions, and being mindful of our aspirations.
Strategies: Variety and Appreciation
Like many areas of life, the key strategies I am about to discuss require a simultaneous process of striving for change whilst also appreciating what you already have. If we simply appreciate, then things do not change. And if we are always seeking change, then we don’t enjoy the journey. The magic is in the balance between the two.
With this in mind, here are several strategies aimed at addressing hedonic adaptation in relationships:
Balancing Variety and Familiarity
During the initial phases of a relationship, it is not the dates, gifts, romantic notes or lovemaking experiences themselves that causes the passion and excitement. It is the fact that these experiences are new adventures. And new adventures create positive emotions to share together, the revelation of new knowledge about a partner, and interesting new topics to discuss.
It is therefore important not just to spend quality time with your partner, but to actively pursue novel activities.
While going to your favourite restaurant is a nice ritual, novel activities have the potential for more positive emotions, greater feelings of wellbeing and raised levels of passionate love.
But you don’t need to be doing new activities all the time – this would take away the benefits of familiarity and comfort and leave you no time for nice couple rituals which are also important. So you might like to choose something new to try once every couple of weeks or perhaps once a month.
These novel activities could be just as a couple or they could also include friends or family, or involve meeting new people. The activities could be indoors, outdoors, local or far away. They could be culinary, sporty, leisurely, cultural or anything else that appeals.
If you’re having trouble coming up with ideas, there are often interesting events advertised in the newspaper, you can search for activities online, ask friends or family members for ideas or observe what other couples are up to.
Maintain Reasonable Aspirations
If we have a natural tendency to increase our relationship aspirations and expectations as we experience positive events, then trying to regulate this is important. High expectations of your partner is a positive thing – you do want your partner to be respectful, to invest in the relationship, to meet a range of your needs, etc. – but only when these aspirations are reasonable, not continually growing and growing.
To minimise this growth in aspirations, couples can try to be mindful of this process. In particular, noticing when feelings of entitlement or deservingness arise. When this occurs, we can aim to shift these thoughts towards appreciation instead. For example, the thought “I expect flowers once a month” could be softened to “It’s lovely that my partner buys me flowers once a month.”
Cultivate Appreciation and Gratitude
To further help with rising aspirations, and to capitalise on positive events, relationship appreciation and gratitude can be fostered. There are a variety of ways to cultivate appreciation and gratitude. Following are some simple ideas:
- Develop a gratitude practice – for example, toast each other on a Sunday night and discuss what you are grateful for in your relationship, write down 3 things each day that make you grateful in your life, or write an appreciation letter to each other.
- Savour positive experiences – after a positive events, reflect together on what you enjoyed and why the event was meaningful.
- Say thank you – notice when you have taken something for granted, and express appreciation to your partner.
- Enjoy the familiar – notice the day-to-day rituals and routines that make your relationship comfortable and enjoyable.
- Celebrate your relationship – use special events (eg. anniversaries, birthdays, holidays) to celebrate your relationship and discuss the positive aspects of your relationship.
- Reminisce together – talk about positive experiences from the past.
Take small breaks
Long-distance relationships appear to naturally abate hedonic adaptation. This is likely due to the high amount of variety that continues to occur with limited time together, as well as increased appreciation as the next reunion is anticipated.
Therefore, having small periods of separation in a relationship may help to “reset” adaptation, especially for couples co-habitating. This could be in the form of weekends away, small holidays with family or friends, taking up business travel opportunities, and having some interests or hobbies that you do independently.
Combat Negative Experiences
Not only is it important to increase positive events and emotions, but also to minimise negative events and emotions. But it is impossible to avoid all negative experiences, and it is actually helpful to have some experiences that make you uncomfortable. A good example of this is couple conflict, which is needed to manage differences, address unhelpful behaviours and work towards change.
So rather than avoiding negative experiences, couples can take a joint responsibility to reduce the impact of these experiences. Some suggestions for doing this are:
- Learn conflict management skills which help you both to remain respectful and helpful during difficult conversations.
- Support each other through difficult times – this may be through a combination of emotional support and pragmatic support.
- Avoid blaming, criticism, defensiveness and “the silent treatment” – these are toxic forms of communication.
- Even during difficult times, reach out to your partner and maintain connection – this can feel counterintuitive, but a simple hug or “I love you” can take the edge off conflict. It can remind each other that you do still care despite the discomfort.
If this post relates to you and your relationship, perhaps you’d like to pick one of the strategies above to discuss with your partner and give a try over the next week or so.
In Part 2 of this series (coming soon) I will discuss how these concepts relate to a couple’s sex life.
Dr. Alice Hucker
Clinical Psychologist & Sex Therapist
References for article:
Jacobs Bao, K., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2013). Making it last: Combating hedonic adaptation in romantic relationships. Journal of Positive Psychology, 8, 196-206.
Armenta, C., Bao, K. J., Lyubomirsky, S., & Sheldon, K. M. (2014). Is Lasting Change Possible? Lessons from the Hedonic Adaptation Prevention Model.