Valentine’s Day: How to keep the flame of love alive

Editorial note | Sara Algoe is a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is the founder and director of The Love Consortium

Do you remember the last time you fell in love? If you’re like most of us, you probably want to spend every moment with the person you’ve fallen in love with – sitting next to them, laughing with them at dinner, or finding time to have sex with them on extremely busy days.

We enjoy the company of the person we love. This preference for spending time with someone we love is not unique to humans – it can also be seen in primates and prairie voles. And science shows that spending time with someone we love can be good for us.

But after a few years, many of us feel settled in the relationship and other priorities start to steal our time. Maybe we’ll stay late at the office and work again. maybe children appeared; otherwise we’d rather stay up in the living room finishing a series of TV than go into the bedroom with the person we live with. But what if we could rekindle the reasons that led us to get close to that person and reclaim those minutes stolen from the rest of our lives that we loved so much?

Scientific research in the field of human behavior, accumulated over decades, suggests that it may be more difficult than you think. People settle into certain habits and, no matter how well they intend, find it difficult to change.

Recently, my colleagues and I experimented with a new approach to helping people gain more time with their loved one: working with human nature instead of against human nature. See how.

We thought that if we encouraged people to actually thank their partners when they felt grateful, it would bring couples closer together and spend more time together again. Why Gratitude? It’s a feeling that can remind us of the things we loved so much about that person when we first met them.

To that end, we’ve developed a quick technique to help people show that gratitude. Study participants were asked to make a plan to please their partner when they felt the time was right (Scientific literature in other areas of behavior, such as physical activity and recycling, shows that making a plan reduces willpower , making it easier for us to achieve what we are already motivated to do.)

It is important to emphasize that this was not a long session. The exercise lasted less than five minutes and was self-guided only once, by one of the couple members.

Creating the plan itself had an immediate positive impact—participants realized there were many things the other person did that they were grateful for. They reported feeling grateful for things like a back rub, someone making them laugh, a compliment, listening to them when they’re worried, taking care of them when they’re sick, spending time with family, making them a meal, or , even, company to watch a sports competition.

We found this technique to work throughout our five-week experiment. Participating couples increased the time they spent with their loved one by an average of 68 minutes per day compared to control group (whose couples were not encouraged to change anything during these five weeks) couples.

We know what couples did with those extra minutes of time together for 35 days. Our couples told us that they spent significantly more time doing things together, that they slept in the same bed more, or that they simply spent more time in the same room each doing their own thing, compared to the control group participants.

Some days they spent much more than an hour together, others less. I suspect they took as much time as they could, having breakfast together one day, coming home early the next instead of staying in the office working late. Sometimes they spent the whole day together. Giving thanks for the things one appreciates in the other brought them closer. And it didn’t take hours and weeks of training or learning many new skills. Gratitude set a positive movement in motion.

What do I mean by positive movement? Well, just because our partner does something that benefits us doesn’t always mean we feel grateful (Sorry, love!) Research shows that we reserve this emotional response when we feel the other person has made a grand gesture.

But when we feel gratitude, that little emotional outburst directs our attention to what we love about our partner and motivates us to show that we like it, right, often, by saying thank you. In turn, hearing a thank you makes the other person feel good about themselves and the couple. Because of these feelings, in one of the studies on romantic relationships, I was able to predict the likelihood of a spontaneous kiss later in my lab!

To make it all natural, people needed to notice moments of gratitude in everyday life and then express that gratitude. To do this, we resort to “if-then” programming. This is a technique that helps people identify opportunities to do something they already know how to do – like say thank you – and make a plan to do it when the opportunity arises. The exercise is designed to be easy to remember: “If my partner does something I like, then I will say thank you.”

In everyday life, couples do things for each other all the time, and there are many opportunities to say thank you.

It should be noted that we are still figuring out how this approach might work for everyone. In this study, it worked best for two-thirds of couples, who were already more likely to please each other in their daily lives. We must continue to work to help the other third. (The tasks did not harm their relationship, but we have no evidence that they had a positive effect.)

We also try to capitalize on the concept of authenticity. The first time my team tried to transform relationships around the idea of ​​appreciation, people had to sit face-to-face several times over the course of a month and thank each other. It didn’t work, and I think it was because we were forcing something that should come naturally.

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