Relationships are full of tension. One of the biggest tensions is between safety and mystery. In the early days of a new romantic relationship, mystery predominates. We’re drawn in by the unknown parts of the other person. We’re curious about who they are, what makes them tick, and what it would be like to be intimately connected to them. The mystery that surrounds new love is one of the things that drives passions and keeps the early part of the relationship lively and interesting. And, although we love the thrill of these mysterious early days, we humans aren’t necessarily comfortable living in that place forever.
We also like familiarity, safety, and intimacy. We want to get to a place where our relationship is safe, predictable, and secure. Ironically, of course, once a relationship finds this kind of safety and security, it runs the risk of becoming boring and mundane. All the great things we value about its solidity and security also become the things that make it less interesting and “fun.”
Romantic Love is a Modern Dilemma
Relationships didn’t always operate with this sort of tension in place. For much of recorded history, most marriages were economic unions completed to further the financial security of two families, lock in social bonds among close kin, or otherwise solidify the socio-economic position of two families. Romantic love as the basis for marital union is a very new concept in human history. As such it presents a very real problem in long-term relationships, because romantic love relies on the maintenance of mystery – the idea of there still being more to discover about your partner. When intimacy leads you to a place where no more mystery remains, the relationship struggles to remain exciting and fun. Research continues to show that couples who maintain some level of mystery and excitement in their relationship while keeping baseline levels of security and intimacy are more satisfied than couples in relationships where the level of mystery is relatively low.
Don’t Be Fooled By the Illusion of Safety
This may seem like bad news, but it’s actually quite the opposite. A lot of couples end up in relationship troubles because they think they’ve run out of new things to discover about one another. Partners can be lulled into a false sense of really knowing each other and of having nothing left to explore. But we change through the course of our entire lives. I know I am not the same person I was 10 years ago, and that’s certainly true of my wife as well. Each of us has grown and changed. Indeed, if we were to meet each other today, we would have to start our relationship in a very different place from where we started it originally. But long-term relationships are in danger of succumbing to two problems:
- One or both partners takes for granted the changes in the other. They fail to value the changing landscape of their partner’s thoughts and emotions, and thus fail to recognize that they aren’t with the same person they met many years before.
- The couple relies too heavily on the intimate safety of the relationship and does nothing to maintain the mystery and adventure. This leads to a sort of mundane repetitiveness that lulls one or both partners into believing there is nothing interesting left in the relationship.
Of course, both of these problems are self-made and can be dissolved with the right steps, but it takes work. Relationship habits are often deeply ingrained and they do not disappear quickly. Balancing intimacy and mystery is a fine art that couples must develop over years of trial and error. Those who do it successfully experience rich and lively relationships and will still find new fascinations with their partner decades later.