couple making out in bed

Most sexual relationships follow a predictable pattern. You meet, you click, and suddenly you’re madly in love…but not forever. Depending on the relationship, the hot-and-heavy period typically lasts from six months to rarely more than a year. Then sexual frequency declines and you become “an old married couple.” Some people accept this, while others become wistful wondering how the embers might be coaxed back into flame.

Fortunately, erotic heat can be re-ignited in many ways. Authors Barbara and Michael Jonas have compiled hundreds of ideas from real couples in The Book of Love, Laughter, and Romance. The Jonases themselves do this with “surprise dates.” However, before I describe surprise dates, I must discuss dopamine.

Mad Love

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, a compound involved in communication among brain cells, especially in the realm of emotions. When people fall in love, dopamine levels soar. High levels of dopamine make people feel energized, exhilarated, and obsessed. They have difficulty sleeping and lose their appetites—all attributes of falling madly in love. In addition, as dopamine rises, so does testosterone, the hormone that fuels sexual desire in both men and women. Heightened libido is, of course, a hallmark of mad love.

But those feelings don’t last long. Brain scans tracking people in relationships from newly in love to old married couples show that dopamine levels stay high for an average of seven months, then decline, marking the end of the hot-and-heavy period. But as this happens, levels of two hormones rise, oxytocin and vasopressin, which are associated with attachment, affection, security, trust, and contentment with a long-term partner.

Long-term attachment can feel wonderful, but if you miss erotic heat, you can re-create it by raising dopamine. How? By focusing on each other, by cultivating novelty in your relationship, and by doing new and exciting things together.

One Plans, the Other Plays Along

Which brings me back to surprise dates. They begin when you schedule one day together, or at least, a major part of the day. Surprise dates include three elements: togetherness, fun, and at some point, sex. One person takes responsibility for planning the date, and tells the other when to meet and what to wear. The activity is something both enjoy, or something new that the planner would like to try and thinks the other would like. The other person commits to participating with an open mind. That’s all there is to it.

Surprise dates recreate the early days of a relationship when couples focus intently on each other and do things that say, “You’re very special to me.” That raises dopamine. Having fun together, and especially trying new activities, also raises dopamine. And as surprise dates approach, the non-planner anticipates them and wonders what they’ll involve, which also tweaks dopamine. Finally, as surprise dates unfold, the erotic temperature rises, and by the time the couple repairs to their bedroom (or to a hotel or some other place), they’re ready to have some horizontal fun.

Schedule surprise dates to fit into your lives, say, one a month. Take turns planning them. Scheduling in advance is crucial. In new relationships, high dopamine levels make people focus intently on each other, as in, “All I think about is you.” But as dopamine levels decline, that obsessive focus tends to evaporate, and if couples value special time together, they must schedule it.

It’s also crucial for one person to take responsibility for each surprise date. The planner invests creative energy in the relationship, focusing on what the other might enjoy. As the date unfolds, the planner shows the other “you’re special to me.” Meanwhile, the non-planner gets to anticipate the fun…while thinking of the next surprise date, which is that person’s responsibility. Lavishing attention on each other and having fun together create the mood for love, so making love fits right into the picture.

Surprise dates are not new. They’re a standard element of couple counseling. Therapists often urge couples to make time for each other, and enjoy new experiences together, for example, romantic get-aways—approaches very similar to surprise dates. Therapists may not explain the role of dopamine, but creative novelty boosts it, and coaxes the erotic embers into flame. Maybe that’s why, when people fall in love, they often say, “We have great chemistry.”

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