At the start of a romantic relationship, every activity can seem like an adventure that brings partners closer together. Over time, however, many couples find that the novelty and exhilaration of a new relationship slowly gives way to simple comfort or even boredom. Why do some couples remain happy together, while others gradually find their relationship getting stale?

A new study, published in the September issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, suggests that to keep our relationships strong, we should find activities that challenge and excite us, then make a habit of performing them with our partner.

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In the study, James Graham, a professor of psychology at Western Washington University, gave couples two Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs), which beeped at random intervals throughout the day. The beep prompted each partner to complete a short survey on the type of activity in which they were engaged, who they were with, and how satisfied they felt with their relationship.

Graham found that participants reported greater relationship satisfaction when they were engaged in what he describes as “activating” experiences with their partners, such as attending cultural events, sex, and exercise.

What’s more, he found that for many of the couples, the longer their relationship lasted, the less they tended to engage in these activities. And the less they engaged in these activities, the lower their relationship satisfaction.

In explaining his findings, Graham argues that challenging activities provide partners with the chance to refine certain skills or develop new ones. In the process, they may feel a sense of “flow”—that mental state we achieve when we’re engaged in tough yet rewarding activities.

At the same time, these challenges help partners expand their sense of who they are and what they’re capable of. When a couple engages in these activities together, Graham believes, each partner’s feelings of “flow” and “self-expansion” becomes associated with one another, so that they grow together—and grow closer as a result.

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