If you’ve ever been in a long-term relationship—or are in one now—you know it takes work to keep it fun, interesting and moving forward. It’s common to feel things are getting stale or routine.
A recent study showed that both men and women lose interest in sex with their partners over time, but women experience more of a drop in interest when living with a partner or after the first year of a relationship.
When the excitement of a new relationship wears off, what holds two people together? Often, a team of researchers found, it comes down to two things: threat mitigation—staving off the forces that threaten to break you up—and relationship enhancement—wanting to improve and deepen your relationship.
Brian Ogolsky, an associate professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, sought to identify “macro-motives,” the driving forces behind couples’ attempts to stay together. So he and his team looked at more than 1,100 pieces of research on relationship maintenance to identify trends.
Some couples experience easy sailing—if you’re lucky, not many obstacles to a happy relationship will pop up. But others navigate rough seas—doing long-distance, experiencing job loss, cheating, jealousy, family conflict, and more. Couples that navigate these hardships together stay in their relationships longer, the researchers found.
“Threats to the relationship come from all kinds of different places,” Ogolsky said in an interview with U of I. “Generally, there are many threats early in relationships that can cause problems, but that is not to say that these disappear later. We know couples cheat in the long-term, people end up in new work places and in new situations where possible alternative partners show up, conflicts arise or a lack of willingness to sacrifice time for your partner emerges.”
Ogolsky pointed out that couples must navigate threats together, rather than individually. The communication that comes with working through conflict can bring a couple closer in itself.
Relationship enhancement, continuing to improve and nurture your relationship just for the sake of it, also keeps couples together. This includes spending meaningful time together, making plans together, trying new things to change your routine and communicating though difficulties. In that recent sex study, both men and women said communication helped them keep the spark alive, and the ones who found it easy to talk about sex were less likely to be disinterested in their partner.
Just because navigating conflicts can keep a relationship in tact doesn’t mean it’s possible to weather every storm. If something happens in a relationship that you can’t forgive, or can’t work out as a couple, you’re not obligated to stay together.
Before you close the door, however, you might want to consider couples counseling. Research shows that 70 percent of couples who start the process benefit from it, but many who would benefit from it don’t start.
Every relationship is different—take actions that make you and your partner the happiest you can be.
“Relationships have ups and downs. I never go into my work saying people should stay together or they should break up,” Ogolsky said. “Relationships are individualized, a unique pairing of people that comes with a unique history. What we are talking about here are processes that exist across different kinds of couples, some of which work very well for some people, some of which may not work for some people.”
Katie Moritz is Rewire’s senior editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores, rock concerts and pho. She covered politics for a newspaper in Juneau, Alaska, before driving down to balmy Minnesota to help produce long-standing public affairs show “Almanac” at Twin Cities PBS. Now she works on this here website. Reach her via email at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz and on Instagram @yepilikeit.