Why is keeping positive energy and good feelings so challenging in long term relationships? What happens to us that we cannot keep the new relationship energy alive? Why does the honeymoon have to end so quickly? These are core questions that most people with an intimate partner relationship begin to ask themselves at some point or another. We love the energy and joy from new connections. They excite us and keep us focused. We can feel the energy that another is sending our way. But, often, just as we are starting to believe this relationship is going to be a solid foundation, something shifts.
Once we start to believe that we know another and the magical hold of mystery starts to fade, we make space for other parts of our life to reemerge and take root again. Priorities start to reshift. Other relationships begin to get more space and time again. We reconnect with the parts of us that we knowingly (or unknowingly) put aside to explore this new connection. As a result, we become a bit less intentional. We start to operate with greater assumption. We begin to realize that our other person is doing the same. There is a gradual refocusing away from the work of relationship as we try to integrate the connection into our wider worlds.
Maybe it is the first argument or the missed phone call saying someone was going to be late that we start to notice that the energy is softening. We tell ourselves that it is okay because overall, everything is fine. This is the natural arc of relationship. Slowly over time, perhaps months – or years, we find ourselves focusing on all the complexities of our life and the relationship is the space that takes the most sacrifice. We make assumptions that it is just the way it is, or that the relationship is not being impacted with the intensity that it truly is. This continues until a point when we feel dissatisfied with our connection and struggle to get the intimacy back.
Now, I do not want to be all doom and gloom, but this is what we should expect when we are not maintaining a focus on our connection. If we did not take care of our car, it would break down. If we did not watch our budgets, we could take some strong financial hits. Anything of value requires time and attention. Our relationships are no different.
There is a concept called Social Exchange Theory (See footnote). Social exchange tells us that we invest in relationships to the degree that we feel we will get a solid return on investment. I want to get back what I think is adequate and appropriate for the amount of effort (emotional cost) I put in. That makes sense. We would not invest in anything without a return! What we hope for is that our partner is doing the same, but not because they feel obligated and/or trapped, but because they are getting a value out of this connection. If this exchange is done effectively, there is a growing sense of reciprocity. A flow is created. When it does not happen, we begin lower our expectations. We assess our own value based on the level of investment our partners are giving us. If our partners are not investing at a rate that feels gratifying for us, we can begin to feel less worthy.
Beyond getting a meaningful return on investment, we also want to see an increase over time. The more we invest, the more return we want. If the growth of return is not substantial, we begin to feel stagnant. In other words, relationship energy begets more relationship energy. Mutual investment begets more mutual investment. It is like watching a tennis match or volleyball game. It is more fun to play and watch when the volley back forth goes for a while. The ball will eventually drop but the excitement of the game will continue with hope for an extended volley again. So, what will it take you to get a great volley going?
Sprecher, S. (1998). Social exchange theories and sexuality. The Journal of Sex Research, 35(1), 32–43.
To learn more about how create a meaningful exchange of relationship energy, contact Dr. Elliott at [email protected]