By Amy Alkon
Q: I’m in my first serious relationship. It started off super hot and sexual. Now, a year in, it’s lovey-dovey and cuddly. Not that my boyfriend and I don’t have sex. We do, and it’s still good. But we no longer sext or send cute selfies, and the butterflies feeling is gone. Is it all downhill from here?—Worried
A: Once you’ve been together for a while, you may still have vivid fantasies running through your head during sex, like the one where you get to the dry cleaner’s before closing time.
The Declaration of Independence proclaimed that we have a right to “the pursuit of Happiness,” but it doesn’t get into actually having it, which, as you’ve discovered, can be a bit of a bore. This makes biological sense, considering that there are stages in attraction and bonding and a cocktail of biochemicals behind each. Dopamine, a neurochemical that researchers associate with wanting, “novelty-seeking,” and focused attention, is a star player when you’re in chase mode (aka “infatuation,” “attraction,” or, more descriptively, “Who knew you could get a callus down there?”).
However, evolution is no fool, and it realized that we couldn’t spend all of our time chasing each other around whatever passed for the kitchen table back when “the man cave” was an actual cave. So bonding hormones—oxytocin and vasopressin—eventually take charge. And that’s why, a year into a relationship, you may be doing “unnatural acts” in the bedroom, but they probably involve things like dusting the miniblinds.
Going from hot sexts to ho-humming along is a result of “hedonic adaptation.” “Hedonic” comes from a Greek word for pleasure, and hedonic adaptation describes how we quickly acclimate to changes in our circumstances—positive or negative—to the point where they no longer give us the boost (or kick in the teeth) that they first did. Research by social psychologist Philip Brickman and his colleagues suggests that we each have a happiness “set point,” and we keep getting pulled back to it. A fascinating example of this is their finding that people who won big in the lottery were (of course) stoked at first, but ultimately, they ended up being no happier than victims of crippling accidents.
Happiness researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky finds that people in relationships can resist hedonic adaptation, but it takes “ongoing effort” to bring in variety. She’s talking about varied experiences and, especially, varied surprising experiences. Surprise, Lyubomirsky explains in The Myths of Happiness, delivers “strong emotional reactions.” Remember strong emotional reactions? They’re a little hard to come by once you can close your eyes and draw a solar system of your beloved’s every birthmark, freckle and mole.
The good news is that, even now, you can bring surprise into your relationship; you just need to stage it. Try to inject it into every day, and maybe take turns planning a weekly secret date night—secret from the person who isn’t the planner—so at least one of you is surprised. You might also take turns planning separate sextracurricular activities, on the same model. Without this extra effort, sex may still be fun, but the only way it’s likely to be surprising is if one of you tries to sneak out the window afterward.
Q: When I was in my youth, a lot of women I knew fell for bad boys. I’m now a man in my 60s, entering retirement. Amazingly, I’m finding that even women my age prefer bad boys. What’s this about?—Nice Guy
A: Since older women often end up dating much older men, this leads to the question, what’s the profile of the elderly bad boy? Cheating at bingo? Swearing on the golf course? Shotgunning Ensure?
Some older women—just like the younger ones—go for bad boys because they don’t think much of themselves and feel most comfortable with someone who seems to share their view. But even older women who aren’t emotional shipwrecks can be drawn to the aging delinquent. It turns out that a bad boy’s unreliability has a neurological upside. Neuroscientist Wolfram Schultz finds that unpredictable “rewards” seem to be the most satisfying for the brain—maybe even giving us three or four times the buzz of the experiences that we see coming.
So, as a nice guy, the thing to be is exciting and unpredictable—without the downside of the deviousness, thieving and unreliability. Use the element of surprise—even by hiding small presents (tiny chocolate bars) or funny notes around her house (as opposed to a bag of unmarked bills). Ultimately, even thrill-seeking women prefer a man who says, “Quick, grab your suitcase. I’m taking you to Paris,” and not, “Quick, duck down. The cops are here, and they have a warrant.”