Long-standing marriages need adventure, excitement

How exciting are the things you and your partner do together? Good question. It may be a better question than you think. Life with "Stick-in-the-Mud." I've counseled with couples where one partner is described as a regular "stick in the mud." The...

How exciting are the things you and your partner do together? Good question. It may be a better question than you think.

Life with "Stick-in-the-Mud." I've counseled with couples where one partner is described as a regular "stick in the mud." Their children are adults and live far away. In this case, Stick-in-the-Mud, the husband, is content. Way too content.

The routine is simple. Go to work. Come home. Eat. Watch TV. Fall asleep.

There is too much TV. Weekends are filled with too many football, baseball or basketball games. Too much staying at home. Not enough conversation. His wife can't pry him out of the house for a movie, a vacation or even a drive. No trips to see the grandchildren. Suggestions for change fall upon deaf ears.

Stick-in-the-Mud's spouse, "Wants-to-Go," is lonely. She wants attention and interest. She wants to feel loved. She wants companionship. She needs something more than what she is getting. She is becoming unhappy.


Wants-to-Go tries going out with friends, talking on the phone, shopping, joining a group, but feels empty and bored. Her conversations at her work are OK but do not satisfy her needs. The empty nest is emptier than she realized. She was too busy with the children and other responsibilities to notice how sterile her marriage had become. Now she is getting a glimpse of the future and doesn't like it.

Worse yet, Stick-in-the Mud becomes critical and resentful of Wants-to-Go being gone so much. He wants her home but for reasons she fails to understand. He tries to put her on the defensive and make her feel guilty for things that she is doing to preserve her sanity.

Have I made this scenario desperate enough? How about adding a dose of irrational jealousy in the equation? There - now the situation is desperate enough. How do you think Stick-in-the Mud is going to react to a request to go for counseling? After all, he comes by his name naturally.

Excitement and relationship satisfaction. Psychologists Arthur and Elaine Aron from State University at Stony Brook, N.Y., have studied the factors that keep couples in long-term relationships close. They believe the courtship and honeymoon phase of a relationship is exhilarating and expansive.

Couples are getting acquainted. They spend long hours in conversation, explore each other's lives and worlds and engage in intensive risk-taking. Each grows personally because of the association. As his or her partner becomes familiar and predictable, the honeymoon period wears off. The breath-taking period of rapid expansion is over, and they settle into a period of gradual decline in relationship satisfaction.

The Arons have an antidote. They've found in their research that when couples in long-term marriages spend more time together doing self-expanding activities, they increase their satisfaction in the relationship. Their theory is that doing things together strengthens bonds and brings closeness to couples if the activity is exciting.

In the early phases of a relationship, the relationship itself provides enough excitement and satisfaction. Exciting activities don't contribute that much. However, with long-term marriages, exciting activities contribute significantly in predicting marital satisfaction.

What kind of activity is exciting and self-expanding? The Arons identify two key aspects: novelty and arousal. A novel activity provides new information and experiences. Novel activities are generally arousing. Examples of new or exotic activities might be attending a musical concert or play, studying nature, bird watching, going on a cruise, etc.


On the other hand, arousing experiences are not always novel. High physical exertion and sensory stimulation help create a sense of alert expansion and competence. Bicycling, dancing, riding horses, roller skating or hiking - high-level activities that cause excitement - are some examples cited by the Arons.

Research findings. In an experiment, married couples were assigned to one of three groups. The first group received an assignment to spend 1½ hours a week over a period of 10 weeks doing activities from a list of activities each partner had independently rated as "exciting." The second group was assigned to choose activities from activities rated as "pleasant." A third group was composed of couples on a waiting list who received no instructions to spend extra time together.

At the end of 10 weeks, the exciting-activity group experienced a significant increase in relationship satisfaction compared with both the pleasant-activity and the control group. Just spending extra time together didn't increase relationship satisfaction, but participation in exciting activities did. A follow-up laboratory study confirmed this result and showed that the effect was much greater for those couples who had been together for longer periods.

Well dear, how about it? For the sake our marriage, shall we go hang gliding or mountain climbing this weekend? Seriously, those activities aren't on our list, but others are. Nevertheless, Stick-in-the-Mud and Wants-to-Go, may I make the following recommendation? Plan one evening out a week for 10 weeks, do exciting activities, and see if you don't feel better about each other.

Val Farmer is a clinical psychologist specializing in family business consultation and mediation with farm families. He lives in Wildwood, Mo., and can be contacted through his Web site, .

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