When I was a college student, for two or three years I had a male friend I’ll call Mike (no, that’s not his real name!). Mike and I played music together, worked out in the gym together, and generally hung out a lot together. One day, as we were strolling through the pedestrian zone of our city, the two of us, both passionate pianists, talked about grand pianos. I said I’d like to own a Bösendorfer grand piano by the time I was 40. (Just in case you’re wondering, it didn’t happen.) He started arguing passionately with me that the piano brand of choice was Steinway, and not Bösendorfer. I was surprised --why was it so important to him which instrument I was going to put in my house in 15 years?
I didn’t realize it until a few weeks later, but what had happened was that our relationship had changed without my noticing - at least from his perspective. He was seeing us as a couple in the future, and thus MY grand piano was also going to be HIS grand piano so that the brand question indeed was one that needed settling.
What happened to the relationship between Mike and me is something that inadvertently happens in EVERY long-term relationship, be it the relationship with your significant other, with dear friends, or with family members. Relationships change and generally do so very slowly, to the point of the changes being unnoticeable.
This probably doesn’t come as a surprise. We all know that the honeymoon phase of a romantic relationship does not last forever. If all goes well, at some point, everyday life takes over and the couple settles into a long-term relationship. In fact, marriage even leads to rather significant personality changes over the first year or two: For example, both husbands and wives experience a decline in agreeableness (which essentially means they tend to argue more!), and husbands become more conscientious (good thing, I say!).
More worrisome is that over the first couple of years, more than 10% of people experience a rather steep decline in relationship satisfaction after they have settled into married life. And in about one out of five couples, those feelings are not mutual and one partner in the relationship is a lot happier than the other.
So, what can you do to keep your relationship happy when it moves beyond that honeymoon phase?
Here are a few things you can do:
1. Put your partner first
Yes, life is demanding. You’ve got your job, hobbies, friends, kids, and other obligations. It’s easy to postpone date night with your partner or tell them you’ll help with the laundry tomorrow but not today. But make sure you know how your partner is doing and make time to help them when they need you. Take them at least as seriously as you would any other person, and don’t punk out on them just because it’s so easy to do. If you don’t put your partner first, your partner will know it; you will know it; and the quality of your relationship will suffer.
2. Appreciate your partner as a person
When you first got together with your partner, it probably was really easy to tell others what you liked about your partner. Is it still easy? What DO you like about your partner? Don’t take them for granted! Tell them what you like about them and make a point of delighting in their strengths and good habits.
3. Love them as they are
There will be some bits of your partner that you may find annoying but that are just part of who they are. For example, my family lives in Germany and thus Bob is stuck with a lifetime’s worth of vacations in Germany, whether or not he wants to go (I hear that there are other places worth visiting!). But it is what it is, and he knew from the outset that my family lived there. So, even though the situation may be annoying from time to time, he’s making the best of it.
4. Talk to each other!
Our personalities change as we get older and have different life experiences. Don’t grow into strangers! Stay in tune by talking with your partner. And talk about meaningful things, not just what happened on a given day or in a given week. Remember the old days when you could talk day and night? See if you can find out something about your partner you did not know.
5. Spend time together and maybe develop hobbies together
Talking is great but doing can be equally nice! One good way of staying connected with your partner is to find something that interests you both and to spend time together. Do you both like learning languages? Are you interested in learning how to brew beer or tour the wineries in the area? Or how about volunteering for the town’s animal shelter? Find something you both love and can connect over.
6. Give the other some space to develop and grow
Once the honeymoon phase is over, you’ll want to spend some time with others and invest some time into your own personal growth. Help your partner do the same. Encourage them to take up a hobby they like. Then, don’t be a grouch when they want to spend some time with their newfound (or old) friends. I love practicing karate and kung fu, and Bob is happily playing the cello and violin. If you have something you really enjoy, you’ll be a happier person and it will have a positive impact on your relationship as well!
If you're interested in more information on personality change after marriage and relationship satisfaction, please see:
Lavner, J. A., Weiss, B., Miller, J. D., & Karney, B. R. (2018). Personality change among newlyweds: Patterns, predictors, and associations with marital satisfaction over time. Developmental psychology, 54(6), 1172.
Lorber, M. F., Erlanger, A. C. E., Heyman, R. E., & O’Leary, K. D. (2015). The honeymoon effect: does it exist and can it be predicted? Prevention Science, 16(4), 550-559.