There are lots of great things about being in a long-term relationship: Research shows that happy couples, in many ways, have better health and overall wellbeing than their single or divorced peers. After all, a loving partner can offer companionship, comfort, and physical and emotional support when you need it.
But after years of marriage or dating, a significant other can start to feel more like a roommate than a romantic partner. Maybe you’ve grown apart, you’re busy with work and kids, or the spark’s just not there anymore. For whatever reason you’ve found yourself falling out of love, here’s how the experts suggest you find your way back in.
Be more touchy-feely
“Long-term couples don’t touch enough,” says Wendy Walsh, clinical psychologist and founder of AskALoveGuru.com, a site that matches relationship therapists with potential clients. “When we touch—especially skin-to-skin—we get a little rush of the brain chemicals that help trigger those loving feelings.” Think about how often you and your partner actually share physical contact on a daily basis. If it’s just a quick peck on the lips before and after work, make an effort to step up your game, says Walsh. She cites research showing that a 20-second hug can trigger a significant oxytocin release. “Most married couples hug for three seconds or less,” she says. “So I advise them, two to three times a day, to stop what they’re doing and hold a long, calm embrace. It can change your biochemistry, and you’ll begin to bond again.”
Sleep closer together
That same rush of brain chemicals can also come from physical contact in bed—and not just during sex, either. Sleeping skin-to-skin, whether it’s full-on spooning or even just touching toes, can have relationship benefits, too. In fact, a 2014 survey presented at the Edinburgh International Science Festival found that couples who slept the closest to each other reported having more relationship satisfaction. “Of course we don’t know if sleeping apart causes dissatisfaction or if happier couples simply sleep closer, but why not just try to get closer and see if it helps?” says Walsh. “Get the toddler or the dog out of the bed and try snuggling for at least a few minutes.”
“If you haven’t put your family and your relationship on a technology diet yet, this is the year to do it,” says Walsh. “Nothing is killing communication faster right now than guys starting at their iPhones while girls are trying to talk to them at the dinner table, or vice versa.” Science supports her claim, too: In a 2014 Brigham Young University survey of heterosexual women, 70% felt that smartphones and other devices were interfering with their love lives.
Walsh recommends forming an agreement with your partner to cut out phones and television at mealtimes and in the bedroom, or deciding together about specific times you will and will not use technology. “Otherwise, you won’t give each other your full attention, and it’s easy to become annoyed or feel disconnected.”
Take a vacation
If work and family obligations have forced you and your partner to put your love life on the back burner, schedule some time off from your regular responsibilities. Getting away may help you focus on each other (instead of distractions like the bathroom that needs repairs), but even a staycation or a long weekend at home—if you treat it right—can be enough to refresh your bond. Before you go, though, have an honest conversation about your expectations, says Alexandra Solomon, licensed clinical therapist at the Family Institute at Northwestern University. “It’s important to discuss how much time you’ll spend together, whether you want to have more sex than usual, and what you hope to accomplish in terms of your relationship,” she says. “It can feel unromantic to lay it out ahead of time, but it will reduce your chances of feeling disappointed if you both have different goals in mind.”
Locking lips can play an important role in the quality of a long-term relationship, according to a 2013 study from Oxford University. In fact, researchers found that frequent kissing was even more important to relationship satisfaction than frequent sex. “A 30-second kiss gives us a warm, fuzzy, safe bonding feeling from that cuddle hormone, oxytocin,” says Bonnie Eaker Weil, relationship counselor and author of Make Up, Don’t Break Up. “Partners can give this feeling to each other by practicing a hug and a kiss—a mini connection—in the morning before work and before bed at night.”
To relive the feeling of falling in love, says Eaker Weil, you’ve got to find new ways to trigger that rush of feel-good dopamine and oxytocin—like by incorporating novelty, excitement, and surprise into your not-so-new-anymore relationship. You may try “kidnapping” each other, she suggests, taking turns on different weekends to plan secret activity or destinations. Or try something simpler: “Date night but with something new—a new restaurant, or even new food at the same restaurant,” she says. “A weekend overnight in a new place, or a vacation without children; anything with the element of surprise.”
Be there for each other
A 2009 study from Stony Brook University found that, contrary to popular belief, it is possible to be in a long-term relationship and maintain feelings of romantic love (and not just comfortable companionship) for many years. One secret to this lasting attraction? Having your partner’s back, and knowing that your partner also has yours. Adults who feel secure in their relationships tend to have higher self-esteem, the study found, which correlates to more feelings of “intense, exclusive focus” on their partners. “Thus, having the felt security that a partner is ‘there for you,’ not only makes for a smooth functioning relationship, but also may facilitate feelings of romantic love,” the authors wrote.