You may think the secrets to happily-ever-after stem from the heart, but actually all those warm and fuzzy feelings are generated by the brain. “Through evolution, the brain has developed three different chemical systems—sexual attraction, romantic yearning, and attachment—to ensure human beings meet the right match and sustain that connection over time,” explains Helen Fisher, PhD, research anthropologist at Rutgers University and author of Why We Love. “The first draws you to a person; the next motivates you to focus your attention on him; the last enables you to tolerate and stay with a mate long enough to rear children.”
While these three love criteria come in stages, the intensity of each one, especially the first two, will wax and wane over the course of a relationship. After all, you can’t really sustain those rip-each-other’s-clothes-off urges forever. But in order to have a happy, healthy union, most people want to have all three in varying degrees. The really good news: “Although the intense butterfly feelings will probably never be as strong as they were in those first few months, there are ways to bring back some of that excitement,” says Fisher.
Take the following quizzes to see if your current relationship has what it takes to go the distance. Answer “yes” to the questions in each section and you’ve likely met your match. If some of these clues aren’t ringing true at the moment (the first two criteria might only apply to the early stages of your romance), don’t despair; we’ll tell you how to fan the flames in an effort to make your bond stronger.
1. Sexual Attraction
- Do you ever get all tingly when you think about your sexy romps with him?
- Do you like wearing sexy clothes for him, excited to see how he’ll react?
- Do you get goose bumps all over your body when he looks you up and down?
When you first start sleeping with someone, you’re so hot for each other, it’s almost painful to drag yourselves out of the bedroom. Sure, getting along, sharing common interests, and doing fun things together matters...but not nearly as much as getting naked. Well, you can thank your hormones for that. “The excitement and rush of having a new sex partner causes your dopamine and norepinephrine levels to peak as your brain and body buzz from the novelty of it,” explains Fisher.
While those uncontrollable carnal cravings are somewhat short-lived, physical desire is crucial to a healthy relationship. Some lovebirds are naturally lusty for each other over the long term, but most have to put in extra effort to keep the thermostat high. “It’s important that at least some of the sexual attraction is alive in your relationship—otherwise, you’re really more like best friends than boyfriend-girlfriend,” says Robert H. Phillips, PhD, a clinical psychologist at the Center for Coping in Hicksville, New York. “But you can tap into that lust for your mate by replicating the newness that you probably had in the beginning.”
To trick your mind into feeling that raw passion, try being more spontaneous and unpredictable in bed. “Any kind of excitement—even danger—drives up dopamine levels in the brain, increases testosterone in the body, and revs up the sex drive,” says Fisher.
Mind you, that doesn’t mean you have to do the deed while hanging off a 10-story building. But you could incorporate some new positions or even go to a hotel for the night. “The change of venue will make it feel like an adventure of sorts, giving the sexual encounter more of that first-time feeling,” Fisher adds.
Another way to give your libido a boost is to plan sexy encounters that allow you both to push the erotic envelope. Use these opportunities to explore more experimental moves, like incorporating food into your passion play or even adding a sex toy to your routine. “This creates sexual anticipation of what’s to come, which not only makes the sex more explosive but also increases your desire,” says Carole M. Pasahow, a sex therapist in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, and author of Sexy Encounters: 21 Days of Provocative Passion Fixes. By making it a hot habit, you keep that thread of X-rated excitement alive in the relationship.
2. Romantic Yearning
- Does everything feel like it would be more fun with him there?
- Do you find yourself daydreaming about the cute things he does?
- Do you still get excited when you know you’re going to see him soon?
Similar to the first stage, romantic love is also all about intense yearning. This is when nothing and no one seems to exist except the object of your affection. “There is a physical and mental craving associated with early passionate love that almost feels like a chemical imbalance,” says Scott Haltzman, MD, clinical assistant professor in the department of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University and author of The Secrets of Happily Married Men. In fact, there really is a chemical surge. “Dopamine and other natural stimulants in your body elevate, causing you to lose your appetite and making it hard to sleep,” says Fisher. “These hormones also cause you to focus all of your attention on that one person, which is why you may think obsessively about him.” So when people say they’re “crazy in love,” they’re not kidding.
After a while though, as with sexual attraction, every couple falls back down to earth. In addition to losing some of that “I’m so happy to see you” gushiness, you may start to feel like you’ve slipped into a routine. The solution: Start dating again. “When you were courting each other, you may have gone on interesting excursions or tried out new cuisines, which boosted your feel-good chemicals and made the relationship more fun and exciting,” says Fisher. The point being, get off the damn couch and start doing different things together again!
Not sure where to start? Agree to have a date night (or day) once a week where you do something neither of you has ever tried, whether it’s eating Indian food or rock climbing. Also, don’t wait for an anniversary to do something special. “Plan a romantic dinner out at least once a month complete with a relaxing postdate bath for two,” suggests Pasahow. You may even want to spend a couple of days apart beforehand to increase the anticipation of seeing each other.
It’s pretty common to experience the first two stages with a lot of people you date. That’s why it’s so easy to fall hard—and fast—for Mr. Wrong so often. All those feel-good chemicals are coursing through your body, screaming “I want that man now!” But over time, the initial high wears off and feelings of real attachment begin. This is when you really start to bond. And once again, your brain produces chemicals—in this case, oxytocin and vasopressin, along with endorphins—that fuel the love.
3. Long-Term Attachment
- Do you feel calmer and happier than you’ve ever been with anyone else?
- Do you call each other first with big news, whether it is good or bad?
- Would you give up a night with the girls to cheer him up after a very bad day?
“These chemicals make you feel calm and less anxious,” explains Fisher. That’s why couples who’ve been together for a while fall into a comfort zone where they feel a sense of commitment and closeness. Your heart may not go pitter-patter every time you see your man, but you’re also not constantly waiting by the phone for him to call. “People who are happiest in serious relationships describe themselves as feeling like close friends,” says Dr. Haltzman. “A strong couple will act as a team, working toward the same goals and sharing the ups and downs of life.”
Spend enough time with your boyfriend and you’ll probably bond naturally, but you need to maintain that sense of “us.” So get into the habit of sharing things, whether it’s telling him how your boss chewed you out or about that embarrassing high school prom incident. “Communication is key to strengthening your connection,” explains Phillips.
That doesn’t mean you have to recount every second of your life or push him for constant “talks” (that will make most men head for the hills). You just want to keep each other clued in to what you’re thinking and feeling. “The more you both express yourselves, the better you’ll understand each other and the better you’ll be at working out differences, overcoming obstacles, and finding common ground,” explains Phillips. Without those love skills, the relationship could crumble at the first sign of trouble.
Still, a twosome won’t thrive on all talk and no action. “The couple that plays together is more likely to stay together, so build up a library of fun things that you can do as a twosome, like making out or taking cooking classes,” says Phillips. “You also may want to include each other in activities that are important to you as individuals.” Meaning: If he’s a huge basketball fan, accompany him to a few games, or if you’re into running, invite him to tag along one morning. “You’re opening up your private life to your partner and bringing him more into your world, which is essential to a committed relationship,” Phillips adds.
Affectionate, nonsexual gestures can have a powerful partnering effect as well. “Regularly holding hands, sitting close, and cuddling help sustain the hormones oxytocin and vasopressin, which create feelings of attachment with your mate,” explains Fisher. Once you and your man have that couple connection—combined with a sizzling sex life and romantic attitude—you’ve achieved the sacred trifecta of long-lasting love.