Rebuilding Romantic Intimacy
If you are in a long-term relationship, you may find yourself reminiscing about the past and asking yourself: what happened to the joy we used to feel in the honeymoon period? What happened to lying beside one another in bed, awash with peace and bliss whilst looking into each other’s eyes? Why don’t we speak as freely and as excitedly as we used to? It sounds a bit sappy, but it is experiences like these that are the hallmarks of romantic intimacy. They are the result and the product of a true connection with a significant other – a self-sustaining cycle of adoration and appreciation. All too often, we get in the way of this cycle’s natural tendency to sustain itself, and we find ourselves estranged from our partners. As this happens, you might also notice your mental wellbeing and general vivacity for life becoming compromised – this is no coincidence.
Marnia Robinson, the author of Cupids Poisoned Arrow, points out that reclaiming our ability to closely bond with our partners is a fundamental component of overall life fulfillment. This article will provide information for partners who wish to deepen their connection and enhance their mental health, and for counselors who want to help clients who are in those circumstances.
Romance: An Introduction
Before we can move forward, it is worthwhile to reflect on what romantic intimacy actually is. It is a term that has existed for many centuries – but not in the way that we might use it today.
The term is derived from medieval French vernacular, and referred to verse narratives and ballads that generally involved adventures, passion, and other idealistic concepts; consider the art movement of romanticism, and how it was used to express the emotional and imaginative nature of the human condition.
The word didn’t refer to love until the seventeenth century when courtship, chivalry, and love affairs were assimilated into the concept. Boris Shipov, the author of The Theory of Romantic Love, hypothesizes that romantic love arose in this time period in response to the church’s expectation of monogamy, and people’s desire to copulate with those that were unavailable to them; it was a product of the contradiction between sexual desire and the morality of the society at the time. Romance felt dangerous, adventurous, and passionate.
As time passed, the word ‘romance’ came to refer chiefly to courtly love; today, it is rarely used in other contexts. The current definition stands that romance is a feeling of strong attraction and affection for another person, and the courting behaviors that are undertaken in an expression of this. It has become a staple concept in the global zeitgeist (i.e. romantic-comedies, romance novels), reflecting that it is a common desire and motivation amongst humankind.
Here are three key components that are requisite for the maintenance of romantic intimacy:
1) A focus on the ‘We’
When it comes to romantic relationships, the ‘we’ is more important than the ‘I’. This means that when you think about your partner, you should be thinking about what they would like or need, rather than what you would like or need from them. Research into positive psychology has found that providing favors or services for others is more rewarding than seeking personal gains (Dunn, Aknin, & Norton, 2008). When you are with your partner, you should be thinking about ways in which your actions will make them feel good, and this in turn will bolster your own wellbeing. When you pursue what makes your partner happy, they will want to reciprocate the favor. It is this back and forth that sustains the cycle of adoration and appreciation.
2) Intimacy combines the physical and emotional
When it comes to romance there are two different types: emotional intimacy, which involves sharing thoughts and feelings, and physical intimacy, which involves engaging your bodies with one another. Emotional intimacy requires communication skills, whilst physical intimacy requires trust between partners; both are equally important for romantic intimacy to be maintained. Even though physical intimacy might be a more obvious avenue for immediate connection, it is actually the interaction of both of these types that contribute to genuine romantic intimacy. Consider the following: you have just been through a difficult day, and rather than talking about your feelings, your partner gives you a back rub – in this moment, you are made to feel relaxed and cared for. This experience is a momentary positive affective state that has arisen from physical intimacy (touch) and emotional intimacy (attending to their feelings) combining together in harmony.
3) Intimacy has an upwards trajectory
Finally, romantic intimacy needs to be propagated by people who actively pursue behaviors and mindsets that increase the overall levels of intimacy within their relationship. This means that partners need to be vigilant in building and maintaining intimacy. If this is not done, intimacy will slowly atrophy over time due to trying circumstances causing stressors that become difficult to manage. For example, if the two people in the relationship get into a fight, there may be a general sense that the issue will be resolved after time. However, if partners do not take care to repair the damage caused by this fight (for example, by apologising or offering gestures of forgiveness), resentment may build up over time, and intimacy may decline as a result. A downward trajectory of intimacy can also occur when life is too easy; partners might not actively pursue one another romantically because they are too comfortable with one another. In this scenario, partners need to renew their connection by doing new things together and finding new ways to learn about each other’s needs.
The Benefits of Romantic Intimacy
Romance has been demonstrated to facilitate a range of positive outcomes including life satisfaction, relaxation, and mental health in the long term. It encompasses feelings of connectedness in relationships and in one’s broader life. For example, studies have shown that romantic partners who are more satisfied in their relationships also report lower levels of anxiety and depression (Zaider et al., 2010).
Dr Michael Krychman, gynecologist and sexual health specialist, espouses the many physical and mental health benefits that romantic and sexual intimacy can offer us. One such benefit is a boost in oxytocin – the love hormone – which helps to lower anxiety, build trust, and facilitate a positive mood. In addition, Krychman has found that intimacy may affect your immune system and blood pressure, lessen chronic pain, and aid high-quality sleep. It has been found that those with healthy connections with their partners tend to live longer due to the positive physiological effects of intimacy (2020).
Why Romance Tends to Burnout
So, if romantic intimacy is beneficial for our health, how come the honeymoon phase tends to burn out after a few months? Well, it’s mainly to do with dopamine. This neurotransmitter is released in response to novel and rewarding stimuli, and motivates us to seek that stimulus out again and again. Anthropologically, a new relationship is interpreted by our brains as a new and advantageous opportunity to mate and propagate our genes; the problem is that this effect tends to last for about 12 months (enough time to become impregnated and ensure the safety of the offspring for a while after birth). After this, our brains say “Well, that’s done. Time to go and seek a new mate.” The result of this is that we become less infatuated with our partners, more irritated and less satisfied with them, and generally less stimulated in their company (Robinson, 2010). We feel as though our needs are ceasing to be met, and we blame our partners for this, resulting in resentment and a decrease in trust – when in fact, it is merely a neurochemical trick.
Dopamine operates in cycles of excesses and deficits – it has a ‘what goes up must come down’ principle to it. The higher the spike in dopamine, the more drastic the ensuing crash is likely to be. Since relationships are a novel and rewarding stimulus for the brain, their neurological effect could be compared to an amphetamine. Initially, these drugs are extremely efficient at producing dopamine in your brain, but as time goes on, it takes more and more of the drug to get the same effect; eventually, you reach your capacity, in which case, if you stop taking it, you will experience a dopamine deficit that is comparable to the excess received whilst taking it. This manifests in relationships because when couples start to lose interest in one another, they often decide to spice things up in the bedroom and elsewhere in order to keep the relationship novel and stimulating. This works for a while, but as mentioned, what goes up must come down.
How to Make Romance Last
What can we do about this? Stop being reliant on dopamine for relationship satisfaction, and start playing a new game. As mentioned earlier, oxytocin is our love hormone, and it bonds us to people in very powerful and lasting ways; it is what bonded us with our mothers when we were babies, it is what bonds us to our dearest friends, and sometimes even our favorite hobbies and belongings.
Oxytocin is released abundantly when partners engage in certain bonding behaviours – actions that facilitate attachment, which can include affectionate touch, caregiving, grooming, and eye contact. These are things that we all do whilst in the honeymoon phase, but cease to maintain once that initial dopamine hit has subsided; this is one cause of intimacy dissolving. Research has shown that almost all durable monogamous relationships are rich in bonding behaviors, and the mental and physical health of those involved is bolstered in response to this (Krychman, 2020). Author and intimacy specialist Marnia Robinson compiled a list of bonding behaviors in her book Cupid’s Poisoned Arrow: From Habit to Harmony in Sexual Relationships. Some of these are as follows, and it is recommended that partners set aside dedicated periods of time to engage in these behaviours:
- Smiling, with eye contact
- Skin-to-skin contact
- Providing a service or treat without being asked
- Giving unsolicited approval, via smiles or compliments
- Gazing into each other’s eyes
- Listening intently, and restating what you hear
- Forgiving or overlooking an error or thoughtless remark, past or present
- Preparing your partner something to eat
- Synchronised breathing
- Kissing with lips and tongues
- Cradling, or gently rocking, your partner’s head and torso (works well on a couch, or pillows)
- Holding, or spooning, each other in stillness
- Wordless sounds of contentment and pleasure
- Stroking with intent to comfort
- Massaging with intent to comfort, especially feet, shoulders, and head
- Hugging with intent to comfort
- Lying with your ear over your partner’s heart and listening to the heartbeat
- Touching and sucking of nipples/breasts
- Gently placing your palm over your lover’s genitals with the intent to comfort rather than arouse
- Making time together at bedtime a priority
- Gentle intercourse
Other Strategies for Rebuilding Intimacy
In addition to practicing the bonding behaviors outlined above, here are a selection of practical tips that can be enacted easily to maintain romantic intimacy in relationships:
Establish daily routines
Our brains need consistency in order to stay comfortable, and this is the major reason why we feel more upset when our routines are disrupted. We need to ensure that our daily lives are organized around each other, otherwise we will experience anxiety and irritability in the absence of that routine. If you have trouble developing new routines together, look at the previous behaviors listed above; you can use these to create an ongoing routine that provides consistency.
This is one of the most important things, especially for couples with children. One of the biggest reasons for a couple’s ability to grow close and stay close is their degree of empathy towards one another. No matter what our partner has said or done, if we can understand his or her perspective, and put ourselves in that person’s shoes, we can feel more connected to them. To maximize this effect, do not minimize your partner when you talk (e.g. “It’s not like you did it on purpose!”), but rather try to see things from their point of view (e.g. “I know it was frustrating for you; did you think about my feelings at all? Do you see why that might have hurt me?”).
This is the easiest and most effective act of intimacy you can do. It may seem silly, but studies have shown that people who cuddle together when watching TV or reading a book actually report more satisfaction with their partners than those who do not cuddle (Levine, 2020). Cuddling is a very visceral experience, and when done thoughtfully, it can be excellent for bonding.
Be nice to each other
This is another very basic way to increase cohesion in a relationship; negativity will drive away your partner much faster than any positive behavior will bring him or her in.
Tell each other what you like about the other person
Even though we’re supposed to be objective, it is still good to give each other our positives. You can do this in a number of ways; for example, if you like your partner’s sense of humor or company, tell them. When you notice wonderful things about them – their eye color, how delightful they are, or their shoes – tell them! When your partner has complimented something about you, tell them how it makes you feel. This exercise will increase feelings of love and connection; when done over the long term, studies have shown that positive feedback can even increase physical attraction in couples (Cai et al., 2018).
Hopefully, you can see the importance and simplicity of maintaining intimacy in romantic relationships. It is simply a matter of not expecting your partner to be a source of absolute joy, excitement, and novelty all the time; but rather, bonding with them in meaningful and sustainable ways. Relationships will not always be fun – they will often require a lot of work, and it is a case of choosing who you would like to do that work with. You’ll both be better off for it.
- Cai, J., Zheng, Y., Li, P., Ye, B., Liu, H., & Ge, L. (2018). The Effect of Romantic Relationships on the Evaluation of the Attractiveness of One’s Own Face. I-Perception, 9(2), 204166951876554. doi:10.1177/2041669518765542.
- Levine, B., Swan, S. H., Levine, B., Sullivan, K., Upham, B., Migala, J., . . . Pearson, C. (n.d.). Healthy Sex, Intimacy, and You. Retrieved from Website.
- Norton, M., Aknin, L., & Dunn, E. (2009). From wealth to well-being: Spending money on others promotes happiness. PsycEXTRA Dataset. doi:10.1037/e621092012-053.
- Robinson, M. (2009). Cupids poisoned arrow: From habit to harmony in sexual relationships. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.
- Shipov, B. (2019). The Theory of Romantic Love. Independent.
- Zaider, T. I., Heimberg, R. G., & Iida, M. (2010). Anxiety disorders and intimate relationships: A study of daily processes in couples. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 119(1), 163-173. doi:10.1037/a0018473.