A Hug May Save Your Marriage

1. Set a course for adventure

Like that earworm of a 1970s theme song promises, love is exciting and new—at least in the beginning. But a couple of decades in, it can get harder to be surprised and delighted by the person who constantly “forgets” to unload the dishwasher you stacked and ran, or who goes on all-day marathon training runs while you’re home cooking their carb-rich pasta dinner. The key to reigniting that “Ooh, they’re really something!” feeling may be watching your old dog try new tricks.

In 2019, Amy Muise, PhD, assistant professor in the department of psychology at York University in Toronto and director of the SHaRe lab (that’s Sexual Health and Relationships), published a study concluding that, in her words, “engaging in novel activities with a long-term romantic partner can reignite feelings of passion from the early stages of a relationship.” Over the course of 21 consecutive days, 118 couples ranging in age from 19 to 74 logged their activities and filled out questionnaires rating how satisfied they felt with their relationship at that moment. Those who said yes to the statement “Can you think of something specific that you did with your romantic partner today that resulted in you feeling a sense of excitement, a greater awareness of things around you, an expansion of your sense of self, and/or an increased knowledge of yourself and the world around you?” reported feeling greater satisfaction with their relationship, plus an increased sense of desire for their significant other. When asked to describe the “self-expanding” activity they’d done together, responses ranged from going on an outing to completing a household job (“We painted our apartment together”). In other words, nothing earth-shattering, just more intentional.

An earlier study by psychologist Charlotte Reissman, published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, found that couples who tried an exciting new 90-minute activity each week for 10 weeks described themselves as happier in their relationship than those who spent the same amount of time in pursuits each of them identified as “pleasant” but not novel or exciting. The participants chose the activities themselves, and the only requirements were that it be something outside their regular routine that each person was eager to try. (Yes, perhaps it’s time to succumb to pickleball.) Drawing on these studies, psychologist Eli Finkel suggests in his book The All-or-Nothing Marriage that couples “pursuing such activities every week or so can yield significant benefits for [their] relationship.”


2. Get a little handsy

Reach out and touch that special someone—in a G-rated way. It turns out that giving your partner a literal pat on the back can also act as a vote of confidence for your relationship. In a 2016 study on affectionate touching by psychologists Brett K. Jakubiak of Syracuse University and Brooke C. Feeney of Carnegie Mellon’s Relationships Lab, the researchers had couples watch a 10-minute clip of a TV show and instructed them to either touch their partner “in a warm, comfortable, and positive way,” such as holding their hand or putting an arm around their shoulder, or to sit near them but not to touch them or reciprocate any physical affection. Once the video ended, the pairs who had physical contact reported feeling more secure in their relationship than those who hadn’t—even when they knew the gesture was mandated by the researchers.

Scientists are starting to think that the benefits of caresses aren’t just a case of faking it until you make yourself feel affectionate; biology may come into play as well. As Finkel notes, “Research demonstrates that affectionate touching also increased spouses’ levels of oxytocin, a hormone linked to affiliation, especially in the context of supportive interaction with a loved one.” In other words, a well-timed squeeze may leave you with a hugger’s high.

3. Make it a double

Date, that is. Nobody’s dropping their keys in a bowl at the start of the night—we’re talking good, clean drinks or dinner with another pair. “It’s not just that it’s fun to go out with another couple,” says psychologist Richard Slatcher, director of the Close Relationships Lab at the University of Georgia. “It’s really good for your relationship.” He’s got the data to prove it. In an innovative study with Keith M. Welker of the University of Colorado at Boulder, couples went on a 45-minute date that involved playing a game (such as Jenga) and answering questions that invite self-disclosure, like “What in your life are you most grateful for?” Some couples had the date alone; others double-dated with a couple they had never met before. All participants reported feeling closer to each other after discussing the probing questions, but the ones on the double date said they felt more romantic passion for each other afterward than the pairs who went out alone. The reason for that, says Slatcher, is “the responsiveness of the other couple; it’s a subtle cue that they like us as a couple or that they like my romantic partner. And in turn, I feel better about my own relationship, my own partner—I think, Oh yeah, they are pretty great.”

Double-dating with random strangers may sound like the premise of a bad reality-TV show. But “the whole point of this experiment was to show that this is a causal effect, because all the previous research looking at couple friendships was correlational,” explains Slatcher. “It could have been that, for example, happy couples were seeking out other couples rather than couple friendships being inherently beneficial.”

For a captive “audience” IRL, plan your own double (or triple) date with friends, or just pay attention when your partner is talking to new people in a group setting. In that scenario, Slatcher says, don’t forget to ask new acquaintances questions—“not just as a follow-up to them saying something, but ‘What kind of music do you like?’ ‘How’d you two meet?’ It’s really important to have a balance where you are being responsive but you’re also talking about interests, things you like to do.”

Post-pandemic, our social skills may be rusty. But there are proven benefits to getting out there and socializing as a couple: You won’t just meet new and interesting people; you’ll also rediscover an old and fascinating person.

4. Invest in other partners

New pals aren’t the only ones who can benefit your marriage; the ride-or-die besties you’ve had forever can lift up your relationship as well. In The All-or-Nothing Marriage, Finkel suggests “outsourcing” some of the task of keeping us happy to friends, in order take the pressure off our spouses—recommending, as he puts it, “satisfying some of our social needs outside of marriage.”

This doesn’t mean that your spouse can’t be one of your best friends—just that they shouldn’t be your only friend. He writes, “A growing scientific literature investigates the value of having a diversified social portfolio—one in which we have various significant others in our lives who relate to us in distinct ways and help us meet distinct needs.” This doesn’t just point to increased psychological and physical health overall, whether you’re married or single. A nine-month study Finkel conducted with Elaine O. Cheung, then at Northwestern University, indicated that, as he writes, “[it] also promotes one’s own and one’s partner’s happiness in the relationship,” and even “predicted a decreased likelihood of breakup.” If you can count on the running buddy you work out with, the soul sister who provides emotional scaffolding, the cheerleader who wants to hear every detail of your work triumph, your spouse doesn’t have to do all those things, all the time—which means keeping your friends close may keep your partner closer.

5. Ask Alexa to play Marvin Gaye once a week

Because when it comes to getting it on, frequency matters. But more is not always better. A 2016 study headed by Muise demonstrated that couples who got physical once a week reported higher levels of relationship satisfaction—but increased sexual activity on top of that did not lead to greater contentment. (This means trying the tantric lotus position one night and streaming White Lotus together the next few evenings are both excellent for keeping things humming happily along.) Research also indicates that, as Slatcher says, “when a couple has sex, they have an afterglow where they feel more emotionally connected to their partner and more satisfied in their relationship for a full 48 hours, which is a pretty long window.” All the more reason to have a standing—or reclining—weekly appointment with your one and only.

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