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Thursday, Feb. 2, 2017 12:13 am

Get off my yawn

Amy Alkon
I’m a 61-year-old guy who’s been married four times. I love the security and acceptance of marriage, but after several years, either my wife du jour or I will get bored and we’ll agree to move on. Clearly, I like being a husband, but I do a poor job of remaining one. Can I change that? – Chairman of the Bored

So, you just want the security of marriage with all the excitement of dating somebody new – which is kind of like wanting a latex hood and ball gag that are also a comfy old pair of slippers.

Though, no, you can’t have it all, you might manage to have a good bit of it all – the security and the excitement – by bringing in the neurochemistry of the chase when you’re in the cuddly-wuddly long-term attachment stage. This probably sounds complicated, but it’s basically the brain version of how your freezer can serve as both an ice cube manufacturing area and a makeshift morgue for Squeaky the hamster until you can give him a proper burial.

It turns out that the goo-goo-eyed “Granny and I are still so in luvvv” and the bug-eyed “Wowee, that’s new and exciting” can have some brain parts and neurochemicals in common. Social psychologist Arthur Aron and his colleagues did a brain imaging study of couples who were still passionately in love after being married for 10 to 29 years. Surprisingly, the results looked a lot like their previous results on couples who’d just fallen madly in love, with intense activity in regions of the brain “associated with reward and motivation.”

The neurotransmitter dopamine is a central player in this reward circuitry. Though dopamine is still widely known by its outdated nickname, the “pleasure chemical,” current research by neuroscientist Kent Berridge suggests that it doesn’t actually give you a buzz (as opioids in the brain do). It instead motivates you to do things that might – like eating cake, smoking a doob, and making moves on that girl with the hypno-hooters.

Dopamine-secreting neurons are especially on the alert for what researchers call “novel rewards” – any yummy, sexy, feel-good stuff you haven’t tried before. Neuroscientist Wolfram Schultz finds that “unpredictable rewards” may be even three or four times as exciting to us as those we’re used to.

The problem is, when there’s nothing new on the horizon, there’s no reason for your dopamine to get out of bed. In other words, there’s a neurochemical explanation for why your marriages often go dullsville. But, there’s also good news: Aron and his colleagues note that “if partners experience excitement” from, say, “novel and challenging activities” that they do together, “this shared experience can reignite relationship passion by associating the excitement with the relationship.”

Obviously, these should be unanticipated good experiences – like alternating who plans date night and surprising each other with the week’s event – not having your spouse find you in bed with the cleaning lady. You might also try to delight your spouse with small unexpected gestures every day. Ultimately, you should find bringing in surprise much more fun than simply hoping the relationship won’t die – kind of like a paramedic just staring down at a heart attack victim: “Not lookin’ good, dude. Hope you didn’t have any big weekend plans!”


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