How Do Couples Stay Happy in a Relationship? Science Has an Answer

Joseph Hart and Melissa Allen on a 'bellyaking' run. (Courtesy Joseph Hart and Melissa Allen)

This story was originally published June 1, 2017.

Melissa Allen and her boyfriend, Joseph Hart, were back from playing “Breakout, ” a game that required them to be handcuffed to a bench in a locked room. Provided with clues hidden in locked boxes and drawers, they were then given an hour to escape.

But they were running out of time, stuck on a message about looking at things through a different lens. Melissa says: “Then it suddenly dawned on us!"

They had to look through a camera to read a secret message, hidden in the text of a newspaper. That gave them the key to solving the final riddle, and the answer contained the combination to the door lock.

Out they went, with seven seconds to spare.

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“It was really great,” says Melissa. “I felt like we were working together as a team.”

Melissa and Joseph, who live in Asheville, North Carolina, didn’t play the game just because it sounded fun. Melissa had told me they'd been feeling disconnected for months. Having read up on the topic of attraction and relationship satisfaction after my own failed relationship, I suggested they do something exciting together. While that may seem like somewhat pedestrian advice, it's also what the research suggests for rekindling a romantic flame that had nearly burned itself out.

‘I Knew I Wanted to Date Her’

The arc of Melissa and Joseph's relationship may seem familiar. The two had met five years ago. Joseph, without the benefit of even a conversation between them, was immediately smitten.

“I thought she was beautiful,” he says. “Like almost too perfect to be human. I knew I wanted to date her.”

Melissa was slower to warm up to the idea. She was already seeing someone, and Joseph had been nowhere on her romantic radar. But when he discovered Melissa's relationship had ended, he seized the opportunity and asked her out.

Eight months later, they were living together.

They’ve now been together for a year-and-a-half. But that initial attraction has started to fade.

“We probably don’t spend as much time together as we used to,” Melissa says.

Whether that’s the cause or the effect of feeling less connected, she can't say.

Physical Excitation and Romantic Interest

Melissa's earliest memory of Joseph is from the day she decided to run a half-marathon on the gym treadmill and saw him working as a trainer.

While most people know that initial romantic interest is highly influenced by physical appearance, what is less well-known is that attraction is also influenced by our own bodily state. When we are physically aroused — not sexually, but through stress, excitement, or exercise — we may find others more romantically appealing than we would under calmer circumstances.

Joseph and Melissa at a marathon. (Courtesy Joseph Hart and Melissa Allen)

The first study demonstrating the effect of physical arousal on attraction was published in 1974. Social psychologists Arthur Aron and Donald Dutton sent a women to stand in the middle of the Capilano suspension bridge, near Vancouver. The bridge, long and narrow, spans a 230-foot-deep canyon and sways when people cross it.

“You walk over it and you’re a little scared,” Aron says.

In the study, the researchers had a woman stop men in the middle of the bridge to fill out a survey. After they did, the woman gave each man her name and phone number.

Then Aron and Dutton sent the same woman to stand in the middle of a shorter, sturdier bridge in the same park and repeat the process.

The results? The men who met the woman in the middle of the swaying suspension bridge were four times more likely to call her up afterward than those who met her on the sturdy bridge. The researchers concluded that the higher rate was evidence the men from the suspension bridge were more attracted to the interviewer.

“The idea is that you are physiologically stirred up when you meet this person,” Aron says. “And because you associate the feeling of arousal with that person, you think, “Oh, I’m attracted to her… that's why I’m stirred up.’ ”

Aron says the phenomenon — which he calls misattribution of arousal — has been replicated in other contexts, in both men and women. In one study the effect was induced by having participants run on a treadmill to increase their heart rate; another study documented greater physical attraction in nonromantic theme-park visitors exiting a roller coaster. Arousal-attraction effects have been found in animals, as well. Male prairie voles, known for lifelong mating, were found to be more likely to pair bond with the first female they encountered if they were first put into a tub of water and forced to swim.

While physical excitement can stir initial romantic interest, other types of activities can help couples add a jolt happiness to their existing relationship.

How to Add the Happy

In the early ‘90s, Aron and his colleagues conducted a study with 53 married couples. They had the pairs rate activities like skiing, hiking, and attending a play as either “exciting” or “pleasant.” The researchers then assigned each couple, over a 10-week period, to engage in only the exciting or only the pleasant activities for 1.5 hours each week.

At the end of the 10 weeks, questionnaires filled out by the couples who did the exciting activities showed a small but statistically significant increase in their level of marital satisfaction. Those who did the pleasant activities actually showed slight decreases. (It’s perhaps telling that activities couples commonly participate in together, such as visiting friends, watching a movie, and eating out, tended to be placed in the “pleasant” bucket.)

Aron and his colleagues replicated the effect in a more rigorous experiment in the lab. Couples came into the laboratory and completed a seven-minute activity together. Half of the couples went through an obstacle course on their hands and knees, velcroed to each other at the wrists and feet and having to carry an object without using their hands. The other half of the couples completed a mundane ball-rolling task.

Researcher and partner test out a challenging obstacle course for a study on relationship satisfaction. (Courtesy Arthur Aron)

Results from the study showed the couples who completed the exciting activity reported increased feelings of passionate love and relationship satisfaction immediately afterward, whereas those who performed the mundane task showed no increase. The couples who completed the exciting activity also used more positive language with one another.

While the researchers did not measure whether those immediate positive effects lasted, Harry Reis, a social psychologist at the University of Rochester who studies romantic relationships, says taking on exciting activities could have “long-term carryover benefits.” In fact, a 2013 study found that after a four-week intervention, couples who jointly took part in regular exciting activities not only reported higher relationship satisfaction afterward, but also maintained some of that added happiness four months later.

Both Aron and Reis are quick to point out that the long-term benefits of undertaking exciting activities are not due to physical excitation. Physical excitement has short-term effects on our physical attraction. But the longer-term relationship benefits observed in these studies come from the novelty and challenge that the activities provide, the researchers said.

The activity doesn’t have to be physically arousing at all to see the effects on overall relationship satisfaction, Reis says. “You could get the same effects from doing something cognitively challenging.”

A 2014 study from Western Washington University, for instance, showed relationship benefits to completing a challenging puzzle. Reis explains that when people take on difficult activities together, they are learning, and they associate the accompanying satisfying feeling with their partner.

Aron says that challenging activities give us a sense of individual growth, what he calls “self-expansion,”and he thinks that could be critical for staying happy in a relationship.

The results from the Western Washington puzzle study also showed that the difficulty level of an activity matters. Couples in the study were assigned either an easy, moderately difficult or really hard puzzle. Only the couples who did the moderately difficult puzzle showed an increase in self-reported relationship quality. Couples who did the easy puzzle or the really hard puzzle gained little to no benefit.

So picking an activity that is too easy and provides no opportunity to gain new skills likely won’t have a significant impact on the relationship, Reis says.

“You want to feel like you are growing with your partner. Going to the movies or the mall probably won’t cut it.”

Likewise, an activity that’s too difficult won’t help, because it’s frustrating.

Aron says he takes his own findings to heart. He and his wife have been together for as long as he’s been conducting research — 40 years. He says they keep a list of activities they want to try together, and they plan on taking an improv class later this year.

So What About Melissa and Joseph?

Well, they recently went “bellyaking” together, a sport in which participants paddle themselves head-first down a river while lying on plastic, form-fitting kayaks. It was something neither of them had ever tried before.

“Afterward I felt this positive kind of connection,” Melissa says, adding she thinks the research on maintaining relationship satisfaction is pointing to a true phenomenon. “There’s definitely a difference in how it makes you feel about your partner. For me it was a feeling of bonding. And a nervous excitement for both of us, knowing that he wasn’t great at it and I wasn’t great at it, but that we both were trying it together.”

Doing exciting things won’t save a relationship overnight, Reis cautions. He recommends scheduling regular date nights and using other strategies, such as practicing respect, validation, and responsiveness, as well.

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But Melissa and Joseph believe that finding time for challenging activities has been an important part of rebuilding their connection. And they say they are looking for more exciting things to do in what they hope will be a long future together.

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