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There are lots of great things about being in a long-term relationship: Research shows that happy couples, in many ways, have better health and overall wellbeing than their single or divorced peers. After all, a loving partner can offer companionship, comfort, and physical and emotional support when you need it.
But after years of marriage or dating, a significant other can start to feel more like a roommate than a romantic partner. Maybe you’ve grown apart, you’re busy with work and kids, or the spark’s just not there anymore. For whatever reason you’ve found yourself falling out of love, here’s how the experts suggest you find your way back in.
Be more touchy-feely
"Long-term couples don’t touch enough," says Wendy Walsh, clinical psychologist and founder of AskALoveGuru.com, a site that matches relationship therapists with potential clients. "When we touch—especially skin-to-skin—we get a little rush of the brain chemicals that help trigger those loving feelings." Think about how often you and your partner actually share physical contact on a daily basis. If it’s just a quick peck on the lips before and after work, make an effort to step up your game, says Walsh. She cites research showing that a 20-second hug can trigger a significant oxytocin release. "Most married couples hug for three seconds or less," she says. "So I advise them, two to three times a day, to stop what they’re doing and hold a long, calm embrace. It can change your biochemistry, and you’ll begin to bond again."
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Sleep closer together
That same rush of brain chemicals can also come from physical contact in bed—and not just during sex, either. Sleeping skin-to-skin, whether it’s full-on spooning or even just touching toes, can have relationship benefits, too. In fact, a 2014 survey presented at the Edinburgh International Science Festival found that couples who slept the closest to each other reported having more relationship satisfaction. “Of course we don’t know if sleeping apart causes dissatisfaction or if happier couples simply sleep closer, but why not just try to get closer and see if it helps?” says Walsh. “Get the toddler or the dog out of the bed and try snuggling for at least a few minutes.”
"If you haven’t put your family and your relationship on a technology diet yet, this is the year to do it," says Walsh. "Nothing is killing communication faster right now than guys starting at their iPhones while girls are trying to talk to them at the dinner table, or vice versa." Science supports her claim, too: In a 2014 Brigham Young University survey of heterosexual women, 70% felt that smartphones and other devices were interfering with their love lives.
Walsh recommends forming an agreement with your partner to cut out phones and television at mealtimes and in the bedroom, or deciding together about specific times you will and will not use technology. “Otherwise, you won’t give each other your full attention, and it’s easy to become annoyed or feel disconnected.”
Take a vacation
If work and family obligations have forced you and your partner to put your love life on the back burner, schedule some time off from your regular responsibilities. Getting away may help you focus on each other (instead of distractions like the bathroom that needs repairs), but even a staycation or a long weekend at home—if you treat it right—can be enough to refresh your bond. Before you go, though, have an honest conversation about your expectations, says Alexandra Solomon, licensed clinical therapist at the Family Institute at Northwestern University. “It’s important to discuss how much time you’ll spend together, whether you want to have more sex than usual, and what you hope to accomplish in terms of your relationship,” she says. “It can feel unromantic to lay it out ahead of time, but it will reduce your chances of feeling disappointed if you both have different goals in mind.”
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Say thank you
When you fall into habits in a relationship, you may take for granted the nice things your partner routinely does for you. And even if you do notice them, do you let him or her know you’re thankful? Gratitude is important, says Walsh. “Put a note in his briefcase letting him know you appreciate that he gets the dry cleaning every week,” she says, “or touch her on the arm and thank her for bringing you Starbucks every day.”
Solomon suggests keeping a gratitude journal, and writing down three things every day you’re thankful for—whether it’s related to your relationship or not. “It can foster a sense of wellbeing and openness that can improve your connection with your partner.”
Locking lips can play an important role in the quality of a long-term relationship, according to a 2013 study from Oxford University. In fact, researchers found that frequent kissing was even more important to relationship satisfaction than frequent sex. “A 30-second kiss gives us a warm, fuzzy, safe bonding feeling from that cuddle hormone, oxytocin,” says Bonnie Eaker Weil, relationship counselor and author of Make Up, Don’t Break Up. “Partners can give this feeling to each other by practicing a hug and a kiss—a mini connection—in the morning before work and before bed at night.”
Compliment each other
When you’ve been in a relationship for a long time, it’s easy to focus on the negative, says Walsh—which can lead to nagging, hurt feelings, and dissatisfaction on both sides. Instead, she says, try to focus more on the good things and less on the bad. “To use a garden analogy, water what you want to grow; don’t water the weeds.” Letting your partner know what you love about them—whether it’s physical, intellectual, or emotional—can actually help you see him or her in a more positive light, says Solomon. “When I have couples in therapy who are growing apart, I make sure they start our time together by sharing some compliments back and forth.”
To relive the feeling of falling in love, says Eaker Weil, you’ve got to find new ways to trigger that rush of feel-good dopamine and oxytocin—like by incorporating novelty, excitement, and surprise into your not-so-new-anymore relationship. You may try “kidnapping” each other, she suggests, taking turns on different weekends to plan secret activity or destinations. Or try something simpler: “Date night but with something new—a new restaurant, or even new food at the same restaurant,” she says. “A weekend overnight in a new place, or a vacation without children; anything with the element of surprise.”
Cultivate your own interests
Falling in love with someone isn’t all about what happens when you’re together; a lot of it has to do with what you’re doing on your own, says Solomon. “People become passive in their relationships when they become disengaged, and one of the main reasons they become disengaged is because they’re not satisfied with their own lives.” That’s why she encourages clients to make sure their lives contain something they feel passionate about individually—something their partner doesn’t necessarily share. “Say you love horseback riding,” she says. “If you come home from a ride feeling energetic and alive, you can bring a fuller, more engaged self to your relationship, as well.”
Observe your partner’s passions
Likewise, Solomon says, it’s important for your partner to have a passion, as well. And if you want to remember why you fell in love in the first place, find a way to witness your loved one in his or her most passionate state. “I have a friend who’s married to a fisherman, and while she’ll never share his love for fishing, she’s happy to navigate his boat and just honor his talent and watch him in his element,” says Solomon. “She gets to see him being alive and excited, and that’s really the best way to see your partner.”
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Create something together
Once you’ve got your individual passions figured out, it’s also helpful to have something you can both pour your love and attention into. “The couples who last the longest tend to be the ones who create something together,” says Walsh. Often that something is children, she adds, but it can also be a business, a charity, or even a home-remodeling project. “Look for something you are both interested in—not just something you’re into and you think your spouse can get on board with,” she says. “When you work together on something you care about, you can see your partner in a different light.”
Go on double dates
You don’t need to spend all of your couple time one-on-one. In fact, inviting friends along once and a while can help you and your partner reaffirm your love for each other. In a 2014 Wayne State University study, people who went on double dates with other couples they were close with said they felt more affection and romantic feelings toward their partners. It turns out that watching your other half interact with friends can help you remember what you love about him or her, say the study authors—and praising each other in front of other people (bragging about her new promotion, or telling stories about what a good cook he is) can be a turn-on for both of you, too.
Stare into each other’s eyes
In 1997, psychologist Arthur Aron published a study suggesting that any two people could fall in love by asking each other a series of 36 questions, then staring into each other’s eyes for four minutes. In January, writer Mandy Len Catron wrote in the New York Times about trying the experiment herself with a former college acquaintance. “I’ve skied steep slopes and hung from a rock face by a short length of rope, but staring into someone’s eyes for four silent minutes was one of the more thrilling and terrifying experiences of my life,” Len Catron wrote in the newspaper’s Modern Love column. There’s no guarantee Aron’s method will work for everyone, but it did for her—she and her test subject soon fell in love.
Flirt with each other
Staying happy in a long-term relationship requires balancing two basic needs, according to Solomon: “We crave security and knowing somebody’s got our backs no matter what, but we also crave excitement and novelty and mystery,” she says. “The challenge is trying to have both of those things met by the same person—and one way couples can do that is by flirting with each other like they’ve just met.”
Flirting can be different for every couple, but anything affectionate, sexually suggestive, or playful can fit the bill. And while it may feel awkward to send an inappropriate text to the person you’ve been married to for years, it can help add excitement to a romance that feels stalled, says Solomon. “They key is finding a way to do it so you both feel comfortable and you’re having fun.”
Work out together
Breaking a sweat with your sweetie may increase your physical attraction, as well as your emotional bond. Research has found that after being physically active together, couples reported more relationship satisfaction and being more in love with their partners—and that physical arousal (elevated heart rate, heavy breathing, etc.) can often elicit romantic attraction. Eaker Weil recommends hitting the gym together, or finding a class or activity you can both enjoy. “It could be dancing or Jujitsu—anything that involves high energy play can cause a rush, and bonding toward your partner.”
Engage in pillow talk
In 2013, University of Connecticut research found that couples who disclosed positive feelings to each other after sex reported more relationship satisfaction than those who didn’t. This may be part of the way committed couples maintain their closeness and their romantic bond, the researchers say.
For an even better relationship boost, spend a few extra minutes after sex chatting and snuggling. Couples who engaged in post-sex affection (such as cuddling and caressing) during a 2014 University of Toronto study were generally happier with their sex lives and relationships overall, even three months later. “The findings suggest that the period after sex is a critical time for promoting satisfaction in intimate bonds,” the authors wrote.
Don’t play games
If you’re feeling distant from your partner, you may think that putting on a sexy dress or doubling up on your sessions in the weight-room is the best way to get his or her attention and jump-start your flagging romance. And that may work—but it could also backfire: “If he or she doesn’t read your mind or notice that you’re trying to impress him or her, you could end up feeling worse and resentful,” says Solomon. Instead, Solomon suggests sitting down to talk honestly about how you feel. “Say something like, ‘I don’t feel particularly connected to you right now, and I have some thoughts about what I’d like to do differently to make us feel closer,’” she says. “That way, it’s less of a test that your partner passes or fails—you’re in it together, and you’re both making an effort.
Redefine date night
Scheduling regular time to be by yourselves as a couple, away from your work and home responsibilities, can help you stay connected and remember what you love about each other. But that doesn’t have to mean getting all dressed up and going out to a fancy dinner—it can be as simple as taking a walk together every night and discussing your day. “Going on a date can be the time you look at your partner not as a co-parent or a co-homeowner, but as the person you built your life with,” says Solomon. But couples should decide what’s romantic to them, she adds. “It doesn’t have to look like an episode of The Bachelor, with high heels and candles and roses. For some people it looks like Subway sandwiches on the beach, and for some people it looks like sitting at Barnes and Noble playing chess.”
Be there for each other
A 2009 study from Stony Brook University found that, contrary to popular belief, it is possible to be in a long-term relationship and maintain feelings of romantic love (and not just comfortable companionship) for many years. One secret to this lasting attraction? Having your partner’s back, and knowing that your partner also has yours. Adults who feel secure in their relationships tend to have higher self-esteem, the study found, which correlates to more feelings of “intense, exclusive focus” on their partners. “Thus, having the felt security that a partner is ‘there for you,’ not only makes for a smooth functioning relationship, but also may facilitate feelings of romantic love,” the authors wrote.
Adjust your expectations
Even with all of these tips, says Walsh, no relationship will be perfect—and that’s the most important thing to remember if you’re feeling dissatisfied with your love life. “We live in such a sexualized culture, people come in thinking something’s missing if they’re not having 50 Shades of Grey sex and swinging from the chandeliers,” she says. Before you decide your romance isn’t good enough, she says, remember that all long-term unions have ups and downs, and that love can be felt and expressed in many different ways. “A lot of people end up in therapy because their expectations don’t match the reality of their life, and they’re hoping to change their environment,” Walsh says. “Sometimes, what they really need to change is their outlook.”
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