Relationships move through stages. When we are first together, we find ourselves infatuated and seeking romance from the other person. But in a long-term relationship, romance looks different over time. It might not continue to be the late-night phone calls, impulsive drives to the beach, or roses all over the bedroom floor. It might become something different—about the development of other levels of intimacy, in particular the type of intimacy that meaning making brings.
The stages of a relationship.
When we enter into relationships, it's generally due to feelings of romance. Our relationships move through stages, the first being infatuation. This is where we tend to be at our most romantic—we minimize the negative characteristics of the other person, and we tend to maximize their good. We put on a good face. We woo. We are wooed. It is during this stage that we usually associate romance. Things are exciting and novel. Even impulsive.
And then, over time the relationship shifts. The romance doesn't last at that intensity forever.
At some point, all couples who choose to move forward in some capacity together face a life stressor. Some of these stressors are positive and exciting: They choose to move in together, get engaged, have a baby, or start a new job. While these might be desired changes, they also add new responsibilities, identities, and conundrums to be solved. At other times, the stressors they face together are not welcomed: There might be a job loss, an illness, a difference that can't be negotiated, or financial stress, to name a few.
When couples experience their first stressors, they move into a realization phase. They start to see who their partner really is. And they either choose to progress or end the relationship.
Sometimes, this realization moves into tension—a constant power struggle toward getting the other person to think, behave, or desire just as you do. Again, some couples will end their relationship, and others will work through these tensions moving forward into the next stage of their relationship: the acceptance stage.
It's in this stage that not only do we see who our partner is, but we also accept them. And, because of that, we navigate our challenges and tensions differently with each other.
Where's the spark?
The downside here is that some couples start to live as "roommates" once they reach the acceptance stage, and they really miss the infatuation stage, yearning for excitement, novelty, and newness again. And, often, they try to re-enter that infatuation stage by doing the types of things that would have been romantic then—only to recognize they don't feel as sustaining now.
While the special dinner might be fun, the next day still feels the same. While the impulsive trip to the beach might be exciting and make for good sex while there, they get home to find that they still aren't having sex here.
When couples are in this place, though, there is good news: They are making these efforts because they want to feel connected. They want to feel a spark. They want to feel alive together, again.
And yet, they are approaching it in the wrong way. What I see with the couples that I work with is that those in long-term relationships have the biggest spark when they seek their romance in meaning making.
The power of meaning making.
Meaning making—that is, seeking meaning together as a couple—becomes its own special type of intimacy that couples in long-term relationships can share. In Emily Esfahani Smith's book The Power of Meaning, she explores four drivers of meaning:
The way I see these pursuits create "spark” within long-term relationships is as follows:
When people help each other to feel safe and seen, they can take more risk. This allows for more play and more fun. It also allows for more vulnerability. Seeking meaning making through making sure your relationship is a place that you both belong can be powerful.
When couples have a united purpose, they get to feel excited and proud together about what they do and accomplish. For example, this might look like having a united purpose in raising children together—my husband and I have so much fun raising our son together. And, together, we experience so much intimacy when it comes to planning things for him, being proud of him, and just experiencing the privilege of being a parent.
This might also look like having a purpose in a common passion—for example, if you're both environmentally conscious, perhaps you work to clean up your local waterways together. Having purpose and focus together is invigorating.
We find so much meaning in stories. And our relationship gets to be a powerful part of our story. For example, if your story was one of heartache and pain prior to meeting your partner, and you find that you feel safety, security, and love now, it can be romantic, helpful, and meaningful to reflect on how much your partnership has added to your life.
A wild amount of closeness and intimacy comes from sharing transcendent, awe-inspiring experiences. Staring at the night sky together and feeling completely blown away. Having amazing sex. Meditating together. Being moved by art or music. All of which is meaningful and also incredibly romantic...might I even say sexy?
The bottom line.
If you're in a long-term relationship and looking for a spark, you don't need to go back in time to when you first met. You can move forward by looking at who you both are and how, together, you can create incredibly meaningful lives—full of belonging, purpose, stories, and transcendence.
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