couples frustrated on honeymoon

Falling in love is easy, but staying in love in a committed long-term relationship can sometimes be hard work. At the beginning of a relationship, couples typically have a lot of positive experiences such as dates and other fun activities together. Typically, people spend more time and effort to have such positive experiences in the early phase of a relationship. However, such positive couple experiences often decrease over time, as external demands such as work may take a lot of time away or the couples’ interest in each other changes.

In addition to positive experiences, every couple also has negative experiences, such as fights over money, activities, or other people to spend time with. Importantly, negative and positive experiences are largely independent of each other. While there are some couples that have a lot of positive experiences and few negatives ones, others experience few positive experiences and a lot of negative ones. In addition, there are also couples who have lots of positive and lots of negative experiences, while others experience neither and have a largely neutral relationship or do not make many experiences together. As the amount of positive and negative experiences changes over time, some couples decide to stay together, while others do not.

The loss of positive experiences in committed couples
A new review paper by researchers Danielle M. Weber and Donald H. Baucom from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill now provides an in-depth discussion of psychological research on the loss of positive experiences in committed couples and how it affects relationships (Weber & Baumcom, 2021).

In the article, the researchers make a very important point: Traditionally, couples therapy has mainly focused on reducing negative experiences such as hostile conflicts between partners. However, Weber and Baumcom (2021) suggest that the loss of positives should also be taken into account and understood as an important factor for relationship quality.

Main reasons for the loss of positive experiences in committed couples

Weber and Baumcom (2021) identified several reasons why committed couples often experience a loss of positive experiences over time.

1. Adaptive loss

The honeymoon phase at the beginning of many relationships can be pretty intensive and couples spend a lot of time together, which can get in the way of work or spending time with family or friends. Sacrificing some time together in order to take care of other social or work responsibilities can be an adaptive behavior.

2. External demands

Couples may face increasing external demands such as taking care of children or starting a career. These may also decrease the time the couple has to spend together, which results in fewer opportunities for positive romantic couple experiences.

3. Stress

Couples that experience a lot of stress, e.g. because of financial issues, have less positive experiences in their relationships.

4. Boredom

Experiences that are positive and rewarding at the beginning of a relationship can feel boring after some time if things feel too predictable and not exciting.

How couples can avoid losing positive experiences

Based on these findings, Weber and Baumcom (2021) suggested that couples’ therapy should not only target a reduction of hostile negative experiences but also focus on fighting the loss of positive experiences over time. They suggest that it is important to change behavior in the first place. So if a couple does not experience a lot of positive things together anymore, therapy should focus on creating opportunities to experience nice things together again. Thus, struggling couples should be encouraged to make time for enjoyable activities together, rather than trying to directly change their emotions. Also, the scientists suggest that it is important to identify the cause for the loss of positive experiences in the relationship.

They identified two major patterns for the loss of positive experiences in couples:

  1. Having too many external demands that limit the opportunity for positive experiences together
  2. Having too much routine, so that formerly positive experiences become “stale”

While couples with the first pattern benefit most from creating more opportunities to have positive experiences as a couple again (such as hiring a babysitter on some nights), couples with the second pattern benefit most from making novel experiences together (such as taking up a new hobby together).

A good strategy to sustain a long-term relationship

This study suggests that if you want to save a crumbling long-term relationship you should not only focus on solving hostile conflicts, but also make every effort to do something nice together. After all, having positive experiences with each other is one of the main reasons why we start a relationship in the first place. Only avoiding negative experiences such as fights will not lead to long-term happiness together.

The original version of this article was originally published on Psychology Today by Sebastian Ocklenburg. Ph.D.

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