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If you’re married and want to stay married, beware hedonic adaptation

New Love The Myths of Happiness

A month ago, I read an article in the NY Times, New Love: A Short Shelf Life by Sonja Lyubomirsky. (Her new book, The Myths of Happiness: What Should Make You Happy, but Doesn’t, What Shouldn’t Make You Happy, but Does comes out in a month or so.)

I didn’t expect to learn anything new. I’ve been married 39 years and for the past dozen or more, Robbie and I seem to have figured out how to stay in love.

The good news… is that if couples get past that two-year slump and hang on — for another couple of decades — they may well recover the excitement of the honeymoon period 18 to 20 years later, when children are gone. Then, in the freedom of the so-called empty nest, partners are left to discover one another — and often their early bliss — once again.

That’s us. The problem? Hedonic adaptation never goes away.

… human beings are, as more than a hundred studies show, prone to hedonic adaptation, a measurable and innate capacity to become habituated or inured to most life changes.

Hedonic adaptation is most likely when positive experiences are involved. It’s cruel but true: We’re inclined — psychologically and physiologically — to take positive experiences for granted… Sexual passion and arousal are particularly prone to hedonic adaptation… Familiarity may or may not breed contempt; but research suggests that it breeds indifference.

A few years ago, we learned the importance of injecting variety into our weekly date nights. But Lyubomirsky contends that variety is not enough:

Although variety and surprise seem similar, they are in fact quite distinct. It’s easy to vary a sequence of events — like choosing a restaurant for a weekly date night — without offering a lot of surprise… Surprise is a potent force. When something novel occurs, we tend to pay attention, to appreciate the experience or circumstance, and to remember it. We are less likely to take our marriage for granted when it continues to deliver strong emotional reactions in us.

And a surprising thing about surprise:

And studies show that in long-term relationships, women are more likely than men to lose interest in sex, and to lose it sooner. Why? Because women’s idea of passionate sex depends far more centrally on novelty than does men’s.

So what to do?

The realization that your marriage no longer supplies the charge it formerly did is then an invitation: eschew predictability in favor of discovery, novelty and opportunities for unpredictable pleasure.

Okay then.