If you’re feeling like the romance in your life is deader than that single rose from Valentine’s Day, you’re not alone: A recent survey from legendary British publisher of bodice-rippers, Mills & Boon, found that 76 percent of adults in England want more romance in their lives.
But with such an apparent dearth of romance, there must surely be some miscommunication: Can it be that no one even agrees on what romance is in the first place? With this as our working theory, we went on a mission — asking everyone from neuroscientists to certified Love Doctors — to find out what “romance” means these days, and where we can find ourselves some.
That Tingling Feeling
To get an idea of how the feelings associated with romance are born, we first turned to the research of two Harvard associate professors, Richard Schwartz and Jacqueline Olds. According to their studies — as told to Scott Edwards in On the Brain, Harvard’s neuroscience newsletter — when you’re starting out in a new relationship, your brain is flooded with dopamine and other chemicals that ignite obsessive, reward-seeking behaviors (not unlike the effects of drugs and alcohol). This is what gives you those butterflies in your stomach, sweaty palms and inability to craft a coherent text message whenever you think of your “one true wuv.”
But as your relationship stretches into Year Two, the professors continue, your brain stops releasing dopamine. Instead, it starts releasing “oxytocin and vasopressin … hormones that deepen feelings of attachment and provoke feelings of contentment, calmness and security.”
In other words, from a chemical standpoint, as your relationship matures, your brain replaces the anxiety and stress chemicals of highly exciting-yet-volatile relationships with chemicals that elicit feelings of calm and fulfilment. Those whizz-bang fireworks of romance simmer down to a gentle but steady glow of love and companionship — just like your mom always warned you.
Being creatures of habit and long-term relationships, romanticism doesn’t fit very well into the human equation. After all, imagine trying to raise children or getting literally anything done if you’re constantly being swept off your feet, engulfed in the latest dopamine dump every time your partner walks into the room. That’s why it’s important not to get bummed out if you’re in a long-term relationship and feel romantically flaccid: Your brain is just doing what it’s evolutionarily mapped out to do, which is settle down and reproduce, rather than swoon.
That said, just because the chemicals in your brain killed whatever romance once existed in your relationship, that doesn’t mean it’s gone forever. In a 2011 study conducted at Stony Brook University, researchers found that the intensity of that initial love can remain for decades into relationships. The study gave MRIs to participants who were either in decades-old relationships or brand-new relationships, and found that the same patterns of dopamine reward systems lit up in both cases. The passion and intensity, they found, was still there for older couples: What was missing were the areas associated with obsessiveness and anxiety — or as you might experience it, the rush.
“We call it the rustiness phenomenon,” Olds told On the Brain. “Couples get out of the habit of sex, of being incredibly in love, and often for good reasons: Work, children, a sick parent. But that type of love can be reignited.” All it takes, they claim, is just another key-bump of romance — a little excitement and novelty to trick your brain into activating its reward circuit.
“Finding new and exciting things to discuss and to engage in as activities can keep the romance alive,” says J. Kale Monk, author of Relationship Maintenance: A Review of Research on Romantic Relationships. “This isn’t to say that we need to go on new and exciting vacations or try new and expensive restaurants: Couples can find affordable activities in their community or in their homes that foster their curiosity and excitement.”
Before you go robbing a bank together to keep your relationship alive, though, Monk cautions that you’re not going to plunge back into sweaty-palmed obsession with a random foot rub, since no amount of sharing new experiences will bring back the rush of chemicals associated with a brand new romance. But again, this is for the best: Monk, echoing our earlier sentiments, says simply, “Thank goodness, because people would never get anything done!”
Monk’s words also reflect the findings of the Stony Brook study, which found that feelings of obsession were negatively correlated with long-term relationship satisfaction.
Love for Grown-Ups
Perhaps, then, those people missing romance are merely misguided: They actually miss the obsessiveness of the early days of a relationship, the relentless need to be with that person all the time, but it’s clear how that would end up being detrimental to the lifespan of their relationship. Think about it: If you’re in Year Six of your relationship and your significant other is still nervously carving your name into their notebook 1,000 times, that’s not going to make you feel giddy so much as it will make you question their mental health.
Again, this doesn’t mean long-term relationships are doomed to being dull, romanceless marches to the grave, it’s just that romantic advances in long-term relationships are more complex than a passionate “u up?” text at 2 a.m. The sole purpose of a romantic gesture in a new relationship is to lead to more obsessive feelings (and/or sex…yeah, probably just sex), while a romantic gesture in a 20-year relationship needs to fulfill a whole bunch of necessary functions: Reinforce your commitment to the relationship; acknowledge that you’ve been with, invested in, and listened to this person for 20 long years; demonstrate that you understand their needs and desires; and then calculate all the above to find something new to experience together.
Unsurprisingly, that takes work. “It’s pretty easy today to be distracted by work or what’s happening on social media, but actually turning toward your partner, listening and responding supportively to their interests is vital,” says Monk. Say your wife tells you that all of a sudden she loves dark chocolate, even though you swear she’s hated it this whole time — buying her some fancy dark chocolate shows that you actually listen to her and care about the things she likes. This will mean far more than tickets to an expensive Caribbean cruise (lol no not really, but still, the chocolate’s a nice gesture).
Marni Feuerman, a couples therapist in Boca Raton, Florida, confirms Monk’s research. “When people ask for romance, they’re generally asking for courtship, surprise or mystery from the person they love — something out of the ordinary from the daily grind,” she says. “This helps keep the spark alive in long-term relationships, but it’s exciting at any stage of a relationship. The primary reason people want romance is that they want to feel cherished and desired.”
It’s the same idea that pops up again and again: When people talk about romance, they’re really talking about instances that yank us out of our dead-eyed routine, that remind us we’re not alone, that we exist and that someone recognizes us and chooses to be with us. It’s the excitement of something new paired with the deeper evidence of listening and knowing your partner that makes up the skeleton key to romance. Buried in the constant barrage of work, news, kids, commuting and the other thousand responsibilities of adulthood, a simple reminder that you and your partner are in this together — presented with a sprinkle of novelty — is all it takes.