By Amy Alkon
Q: I’m a 40-year-old man who can’t seem to keep a relationship going for more than a year. There’s never bitter fighting or betrayal. I just gradually lose interest. I can’t blame my girlfriends—most of whom are pretty exciting people. I’m the problem, but why? And can I change?—Frustrated
A: Ever gotten new carpeting? The first month, it’s, “No shoes and no drinks whatsoever in the living room!” A few months after that: “Oh, we don’t use glasses anymore. Just splash red wine around and drink right off the rug.”
In the happiness research world, the psychological shift behind this is called “hedonic adaptation”—“hedonic” from the Greek word for pleasure and “adaptation” to describe how we acclimate to new stuff or situations in our lives. They rather quickly stop giving us the buzz they did at first, and we get pitched right back to our baseline feeling of well-being (Yeahwhatevsville). Bummer, huh? But there’s an upside. Psychologists Timothy Wilson and Dan Gilbert explain that hedonic adaptation is part of our “psychological immune system.”
There’s another possible bummer at work here, per your longing for less wilty love. You may be more “sensation-seeking” than most people. Research by psychologist Marvin Zuckerman, who coined the term, finds that this is a personality trait with origins in genes, as well as experience, reflected in strong cravings for novel, varied and intense sensations and experiences.
If this is driving you, basically, you want it new, you want it now, and all the better if it’s a little life-threatening. In other words, some benefits of a committed relationship, like deeply knowing another person, may end up being deeply boring to you.
Research by psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky finds that three “intentional activities” help keep hedonic adaptation from overtaking a relationship—appreciating, injecting variety and incorporating surprise. Appreciating simply means regularly reviewing and “savoring” what’s great about your partner and what you have together. Bringing in variety and surprise means filling the relationship with “unexpected moments” and “unpredictable pleasures,” big and small.
Be honest with women about your befizzlement problem. When you find one who’s up for the challenge, get cracking with her on keeping the excitement alive. Be sure to do this both in romantic day-to-day ways and, say, with the perfect romantic weekend for a guy like you—one that starts with the valet at the spa opening the trunk, removing the hood over your head and cutting the zip ties so you can go take a sauna.
Q: Two years ago, I met this beautiful, intriguing girl. I gave her my number, but she never called. Last week, she texted out of the blue. Weird! My friend said she probably had a boyfriend until now. Do women really hoard men’s info in case their relationship tanks?—Wondering
A: Consider the male BFF. A woman may not consciously think of hers as her backup man. But should her relationship go kaput, there he is—perfectly situated to dry her tears. Um, with his penis.
There seems to be an evolutionary adaptation for people in relationships—especially women—to line up backup mates. It’s basically a form of doomsday prepping—except instead of a bunker with 700 cans of beans and three Hellfire missiles, there are two eligible men on the shelves of a woman’s mind and the phone number of another on a crumpled ATM receipt in her wallet.
Evolutionary psychologists Joshua Duntley and David Buss explain that in ancestral times, even people “experiencing high relationship satisfaction would have benefited from cultivating potential replacement mates” in case their partner cheated, ditched them, died or dropped a few rungs in mate value.
Duntley and Buss note that female psychology today still has women prepping for romantic disaster like they’re living in caves and lean-tos instead of condos and McMansions. For example, in research on opposite-sex friendships, “women, but not men, prioritize economic resources and physical prowess in their opposite-sex friends, a discrepancy that mirrors sex-differences in mate preferences.”
Getting back to this woman who texted you, she probably saw something in you from the start but was otherwise encumbered. So, yes, she’s likely been carrying a torch for you, but for two years, it’s been in airplane mode.