Ile Saint Louis, Paris, France
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By Eric Barker
April 16, 2014

As Daniel Jones, author of Love Illuminated, explains: we spend youth asking “How do I find love?” and midlife asking “How do I get it back?”

Anyone in a relationship or who plans on being in one needs to know how to keep love alive over the long term.

But how do you learn the secret to this? Everyone is happy to explain “how they met” but few give the details on “how they stayed together.”

So let’s look at what science has to say.

“Happily Ever After” Ain’t Easy

Aside from being the epitome of lazy writing, “happily ever after” is not simple.

Ty Tashiro explains that couples in their first year of marriages score 86% for marriage satisfaction. By the seventh year, it’s under 50%.

The Science of Happily Ever After: What Really Matters in the Quest for Enduring Love

Yes, about 50% of couples get divorced. Another 10-15% separate but do not file paperwork. And 7 more percent are chronically unhappy.

So the real stat is two-thirds of marriages do not live “happily ever after.”

Via The Science of Happily Ever After: What Really Matters in the Quest for Enduring Love:

Why is marriage so hard over the long term?

One of the main reasons is what science calls it “habituation.” Which is a fancy way of saying we get bored.

Early on, when a couple can finish each other’s sentences it’s romantic. But over time “predictable” is a huge negative.

Chris Rock gets the point across humorously in this video (NSFW):

Robert Greene, author of The Art of Seduction, explains that surprise is key to romantic feelings:

So is there any way to bring those tingles back?

Yes. Here’s how.

What You Can Learn From Arranged Marriages

“Arranged marriage! AGH! Weird!”

Hold on a sec. We can learn something here. What do researchers find when they compare at 50 arranged marriages and 50 “love” marriages?

Love marriages start out happier — but that declines quickly.

Arranged marriages start out less happy, but after 10 years, they’re happier than love marriages. And stay that way.

Via The Art of Choosing:

What’s the secret behind the long term success of arranged marriages?

They have to work at it.

They don’t passively rely on “magic” and intense emotion. They have to spend a lot of time thinking about how to make it work.

Via Love Illuminated:

Research shows expecting a fairy tale relationship is a prescription for disappointment.

Via 100 Simple Secrets of Great Relationships:

Feeling like it’s all magic means it’s out of your control — and that without that initial magic, it’s hopeless.

The happiness of arranged marriages means a couple can make magic if they try.

So you need to actively keep the marriage happy. How do you do that?

Don’t Fix The Bad. Increase The Good.

Look at your spouse as something you purchased “as-is.” Research shows trying to change them doesn’t work:

John Gottman, researcher and author of The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, says 69% of a couple’s problems are perpetual.

These problems don’t go away yet many couples keep arguing about them year after year.

Via The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work:

So if you can’t change them and they won’t change you, how can you reduce the bad stuff?

You can’t. But you don’t need to.

The best relationships are more about increasing the good than reducing the bad.

Divorce may have less to do with an increase in conflict and more to do with a decrease in positive feelings.

Via Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being:

Okay, so you need to increase the good times. What’s the best way to do that?

(This part is exciting. I mean, literally.)

Forget Romance. Think Excitement.

Think a pleasant date night is all it takes to keep love alive?

Researchers did a 10 week study comparing couples that engaged in “pleasant” activities vs “exciting” activities. Pleasant lost.

Via For Better: How the Surprising Science of Happy Couples Can Help Your Marriage Succeed:

Why would doing anything exciting have such a big effect on a relationship?

Because we’re lousy about realizing where our feelings are coming from.

Excitement from any source will be associated with the person you’re with, even if they’re not the cause of it.

As happiness researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky explains, excitement experienced mutually brings the tingles back.

Via The Myths of Happiness: What Should Make You Happy, but Doesn’t, What Shouldn’t Make You Happy, but Does:

So no boring, lame date nights. Go do something exciting. Go dancing together or anything else you can both participate in as a couple.

Sum Up

Keeping love alive can be tricky. You need to actively work at it and it’s more important to increase the good then to reduce the bad.

And the best way to do that is by increasing excitement.

So you’re hopping on roller coasters and going white water rafting — but what do you need to do when you’re there?

Pretend you’re on your first date.

Studies show pretending time with a romantic partner was a first date makes it more enjoyable for you and for your partner:

Why? On first dates we make an effort to impress. And we’re full of hope.

Love means being a little delusional (Some researchers even think love might qualify as a mental illness.)

Thinking your partner is better than they really are makes for longer, better relationships.

Via The Science of Love:

Letting yourself be a little crazy — crazy for your partner — pays off.

What’s Next?

Other posts you should read on improving marriage, love and romance:

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This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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