(Everyone loves the fabled “honeymoon phase” of a relationship. So then why do we choose to be monogamous and what are we supposed to do when it’s gone?)
Don’t you love the beginning of a relationship?
The first date. The first kiss. The first time you talk on the phone for more than ten minutes. The first time you see each other naked. The first time you meet each other’s family. The first time you start sharing plates at dinner. The first Saturday you lay in bed together all day. The first lingering Sunday brunch.
Then that all goes away. The novelty fades. You no longer get a little thrill each time he texts you. Seeing her naked becomes normal and no longer a blessing. You start to frequent the same restaurants. She stops wearing makeup. He leaves dirty laundry at your place.
According to the built-in psychology of “hedonic adaption”, humans tend to return to their baseline level of happiness after an adjustment period of something positive or negative happening to them. That’s why studies show that people that win the lottery or become paralyzed will return to their original level of happiness once they pass that emotional spike. This also means, contrary to what you believe, getting a new boyfriend or girlfriend isn’t going to make you a happier person. If you’re not happy in the first place, then you’ve got other things to work on. But this hedonic adaption phenomenon is why we crave things like surprise and variety, we need that occasional spike.
So it’s natural that once you’re in a relationship that the “honeymoon phase” will pass and the ensuing sobriety will be a harsh reality — you will return to your baseline level of happiness. And according to hedonic adaption, it’s natural for both partners to have their minds wander to the thought of cheating. He gets a new secretary. She fawns after the new spin teacher. Even though there’s evidence that monogamy is unnatural in the human animal, we have evolved to a society where that’s the norm. So assuming that monogamy is the way to go, even though we will constantly crave the variety of a new partner, why do we commit ourselves to one person?
Think back to all the “honeymoon phases” you’ve had in your past relationships. For the first couple months you were a pretty useless member of society. You went to work then came home and all of your free time was spent having sex, drinking wine in the park, and smashing ice cream on each other’s nose. You didn’t go to the gym. You never saw your friends. You stopped working on your novel. As the New York Times article “New Love: A Short Shelf Life” points out, “if we obsessed, endlessly, about our partners and had sex with them multiple times a day — every day — we would not be very productive at work or attentive to our children, our friends or our health.” We need to take off those rose colored glasses at some point, otherwise we would just stumble around the planet as if fresh from a lobotomy.
The way to combat this adjustment period is to simply be aware of its existence. Know that the intoxication of the “honeymoon phase” will fade and in that period of detox you may “mistake the natural shift from passionate love to companionate love for incompatibility and unhappiness.” As great as the beginning of a relationship is, there are other amazing phases that we have to look forward to. So don’t lose hope yet or give in to the temptation of another for a temporary reward (i.e. cheating). If you want to have a successful committed relationship, then a large part of it is having faith that what you’re building is eventually going to be amazing, so commit to it and don’t look back.
[Photo: The bar at Olive & Thyme in Toluca Lake, California.]