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For Love … and Alchemy

If you’re worried the sizzle has fizzled in your relationship, today is the ideal time to try a new kind of chemistry experiment—one that produces lasting heat with your partner. But you need to start treating romance in a radically new way.

by Janice Holly Booth and Kristina Johnson

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What’s the secret to long-lasting romance? Is it about being truly “in love”? Or more about lust? Do we chalk it up to chemistry? And, if so, then why hasn’t science—or somebody’s fairy godmother—mixed up a quick-fix potion we can enjoy at cocktail hour? Because we all know storybook romance when we see it. A typically dashing George Clooney left this year’s Golden Globe audience slightly weak at the knees when he paid special tribute to his new wife, Amal, during his acceptance speech for a lifetime achievement award. “Amal,” he said, “whatever alchemy it is that brought us together, I couldn’t be more proud to be your husband.”

George and Amal Clooney spark a little chemistry on the red carpet at this year’s Golden Globes., Mark Ralson/AFP/Getty

Every relationship has its own unique dynamic, which needs to be shaken up every once in a while. To do that in a fun and loving way, you and your partner need to agree that it’s time to deconstruct and reconstruct your romance, and that you’re ready to make the effort together. Pour a glass of wine and consider what you most enjoy about one another and the time you spend together. Think of it as creating a mission statement for your relationship.

“Each of you draw up a blueprint for the relationship you desire,” suggests Hara Estroff Marano of Psychology Today. “Then give yourselves a finite amount of time to negotiate the elements item by item; decide which ones you both want as features of your life together. Every couple needs to do this. Then you need an action plan—identify the steps you will take toward your now-joint goals. Defining what you want, instead of inventorying inadequacies, is likely to put you both in a positive state of mind.”

Defining what you want, instead of inventorying inadequacies, is likely to put you both in a positive state of mind.

Hara Estroff Marano, Psychology Today

The advantage of stressing the positive may seem obvious. Nobody is open to change when it flows from criticism. But there’s another reason you may not be aware of. The human brain actually has a bias—negative events register faster, stronger and longer than positive ones. In fact, it takes at least five positive experiences to offset the impact of a single negative one. So if you’re focused on what you lack—affection, shared conversation, attention—it’ll be nearly impossible to make any kind of romantic connection with your partner. Making lists of what’s missing in your relationship keeps you stuck in a negative place, which hinders change. Instead, start working toward what you do want.

Over time, the day-to-day interactions in your relationship—the laughs, the hugs and kisses, those moments when you can’t stand the sight of each other—work to change the shape of the chemistry between you. “In many relationships, little resentments build up and you find yourself keeping score and pulling back, and this creates a serious downward spiral because you’re moving away from each other,” says Kristen Bell, co-author with her husband, Rob, of The Zimzum of Love: A New Way of Understanding Marriage, which offers a fresh approach to a more enriching relationship.

Zimzum, from the Hebrew word tzimtzum meaning “contraction, condensation,” refers to how God opened up a space where the world could exist and thrive. In their book, the Bells apply the “zimzum metaphor” to modern relationships: Two people meet, fall in love, and ultimately create a shared space between them where each partner can flourish. “At first you have your interests, work, hobbies, friends and your family,” Rob explains, “and then you meet someone, and they have their own center of gravity. As you get to know them, as your lives become more involved, you find yourself creating space in your life for them while they’re doing the same for you. You find yourself increasingly committed to their well-being and even making sacrifices for their well-being while they’re doing the same for you.”


Little resentments build up and you find yourself keeping score and pulling back, and this creates a serious downward spiral.

Kristen Bell, co-author of The Zimzum of Love: A New Way of Understanding Marriage

Rob says that unlike many approaches to marriage, which assume a static relationship that can be fixed by reading a book or following three prescribed steps, “Zimzum is a dynamic metaphor. It’s about an ever-changing space between the two of you and learning to navigate and adjust that space, and learning how to ask the question, ‘How is the space between us?’”

Tending to the emotional space between you will help keep the sizzle in your sauce. Your zimzum space is enriched by sharing secrets, experiences, adventures and inside jokes. Says Kristen, “All of these things help foster the exclusive bond between two people.” 

Sometimes being too settled and comfortable in your relationship can be better than baking soda at dousing romantic sparks. Esther Perel, a psychotherapist and author of Mating In Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence, says that a shared comfort zone and too much security between couples can work to stifle the romance.

If Perel’s 2013 TED talk on sex in long-term relationships is any barometer, she’s clearly on to something. Millions of people have watched her speak about how play and mystery are essential to keeping your fires burning over the long haul. Using help-seeking partners as a reference point, Perel reports that "couples who describe themselves as loving, trusting and caring complain that their sex lives have become dull and devoid of eroticism." She says we need to "reconcile our fundamental need for safety and security with our equally strong need for adventure and novelty." The clear takeaway: Spontaneity is sexy. Couples who feel they’ve lost a sense of desire and connection can benefit greatly if they embrace that element of surprise, rather than trying to tame it.

[We need to] reconcile our fundamental need for safety and security with our equally strong need for adventure and novelty.

Esther Perel, psychotherapist

Desire also needs distance, because distance creates mystery, according to Perel. That means that the time you and your partner spend apart—at the office, with friends, at the gym, running errands—can actually work to your advantage. Take note of your separate activities and how much you’re away from your partner. Then consider this: The more you’re apart, the more opportunity you have to appreciate your time together, in ways that ultimately bring you closer.

Only you can know what unexplored activities or experiences will jolt you out of the doldrums. If you’re adventurous, try something you’ve never done that pushes you both to the edge—think zip-lining or renting a spin in a racecar. If you’re not into thrill seeking, what about a road trip where you explore new territory together? Maybe season tickets to the opera. Whatever you do should create emotional excitement, which not only has the potential to stir up the ions between you, but also will help you feel more connected to each other. And that’s where it all begins.

This Beats High School Chemistry

Every couple has their own unique brand of chemistry, so there is no one-size-fits-all design to guide you through your romantic renovation. The idea is to work together to rediscover—and reignite—the spark in your relationship, and then to focus on finding fun and fulfilling ways to bring that romantic zest back to life. You’ll both want to agree on when to launch your plan (probably the sooner the better—but make sure it’s a mutual decision). Then start with the easy stuff, like taking a hike or going to a movie and then dinner to discuss it. Let that set the tone for what comes next—a heightened sense of togetherness. Savor the reminder of why you fell in love in the first place. When it comes to recharging your special alchemy, that’s the one element that matters most.