Relationship funks, rough patches, and inexplicable nights spent in the dog house are not just normal, they’re neurologically necessary for long-term companionship. “If you’re looking to extend the honeymoon period past its neurological expiration date, you’re going to be disappointed,” neuropsychologist Amy Serin, founder of the Serin Adult & Child Psychology Center in Arizona, told Fatherly.
“It’s not necessarily sustainable.”
After the birth of a child, 67 percent of couples become less satisfied in their relationships. But even childless couples experience more or less the same natural declines a few years after marriage. Serin suspects that’s because new love and long-term love show up very differently in the brain, regardless of whether kids come along.
Falling in love first floods the pleasure centers of the brain with dopamine, adrenaline, and norepinephrine. While dopamine might make lovers euphoric, adrenaline and norepinephrine are associated with the brain’s fight or flight responses, which is why love at least initially makes people a little nuts. This high, however, is only sustainable for a couple of years. “When we look at brain scans of people newly in love and ask them about it, you see the pleasure centers light up. Then when you ask three years later, they’re still in love and their brain will light up in areas associated with bonding and attraction instead,” Serin says, adding that there’s still activity in the pleasure centers, just not as much.
Anxiety from the comedown could compel certain personalities to seek conflict just to jumpstart that adrenaline, Serin says. This can make the difference between a plateau in relationship satisfaction and a full-blown rough patch. Still, in both scenarios, it’s often difficult to pinpoint where those feelings of unease started, especially when there are no other obvious conflicts in the relationship. More likely is that chemical changes in the brain, such as a drop in serotonin levels, looks similar to people with obsessive-compulsive disorder, which can exacerbate anxiety.
That doesn’t mean you can’t do things to make a relationship funk feel better. Engaging in novel experiences together by trying new things and exploring different places can help pull couples out of these lulls, Serin recommends. It’s also important to note that, even though couples without children go through similar peaks and valleys, this can be especially hard on sleep-deprived, stressed-out parents. But when moms and dads can adapt to their evolving relationships, it’s good for their brains, their relationships, and their babies.
“That’s not to say you shouldn’t have expectations for relationships to be trusting, loving, and stable,” Serin says. “But when you have an infant or young child, adjust your expectations to this tremendous change.”
“It’s a really great opportunity for growth.”