We tend to think of excitement as the opposite of calm, and that can be a dangerous way of thinking–especially in relationships. To many of us, excitement describes a series short-lived emotions like anger, fear, and passion. In contrast, we see calm as a resting state in between these bursts, a filler in between stimulations.
Our memories reinforce this. When we think back on our lives, we don’t remember quiet evenings in, we remember the wild nights. Thinking back to childhood, we recall moments of intensity – good and bad – instead of the vast majority of our lives, during which nothing much at all happened… or at least so it seems.
This way of thinking is commonly applied to romantic feelings, as almost anyone who has been in a long-term relationship knows. Extreme passion is usually associated with “young love”—whether that passion means declarations of undying romantic love, frenzied physical encounters, or heated screaming matches. Most mature adults accept that the intense feelings of emotional and sexual arousal are eventually traded for long term stability.
All of this may be a bit depressing to your inner romantic. But it doesn’t have to be.
Throughout my years as a Houston Marriage Counselor, one of the many factors I see undermining the stability of long term relationships is some variation of this: “The thrill is gone.” If unchecked, this thought can fester into resentment.
It may be unconscious, but secretly we begin to hold our partners responsible for the lack of stimulation in our lives. And resentful thoughts often become destructive actions, like infidelity or divorce.
How can you avoid this all-too-common path that ends in ruin? Once tactic is to change the way you think about excitement.
Change the Way You Think about Excitement with Houston Relationship Counseling
Robert E. Thayer was a psychology professor at the California State University of Long Beach who sought to apply new dimensions to the way we think about arousal. The common , if unspoken, assumption places energy and excitement on one end of a spectrum and fatigue and boredom the other. At any given point in the day, our minds exist somewhere along the spectrum – we are bored and unstimulated after a half hour in traffic, for example, but our heart skips a beat when the car ahead suddenly slams on the brakes.
The spectrum applies to positive emotions, too. Watching the final moments of a tied championship game makes the heart beat faster, but when the commercials come on, the heart slows down and we start to get bored once again.
But this two-dimensional view of excitement and boredom becomes problematic when applied to romantic relationships. If our hearts stops leaping into our throats when we see our partner (as the heart eventually always does) then we mustn’t we be… bored?
You can see how this natural train of thought becomes destructive. Thayer, in his 1978 paper “Toward A Psychological Theory of Arousal” described two separate dimensions of arousal that help describe the amount of stimulation a person feels at given moment. He proposed that there were two spectrums: energy vs. fatigue and tenseness vs. calm.
Thayer’s Theory, Explained
Thayer’s theory basically divides our state of being, moods, and feelings into four groups: tense fatigue, calm fatigue, tense energy, and calm energy. Thayer viewed calm energy as the ideal state.
The feeling of boredom could called calm fatigue. Waking up at 3 AM and reflecting on everything wrong with your life is an example of tense fatigue. Tense energy might describe the feeling of speeding through traffic when you’re late to an important meeting. Calm energy, though, is what you might feel after an early morning run.
That’s a pretty good feeling, isn’t it?
It’s important to remember that Thayer is a describing a spectrum, and everyone feels varying degrees of fatigue, energy, tension, and calmness throughout their lives. It’s also important to think of the energy-fatigue spectrum not only in terms of how much sleep you’ve gotten that week (although that is certainly a factor) but by how engaged your body and mind feel by what is happening at a point in time.
Take a moment to stop and examine how you feel at this particular moment.
Are you content, full of hope for the future? Or are you tense, riddled with anxious energy about an upcoming deadline? Maybe you’re bored and unhappy from staring at a screen all day. Maybe you’re just plain tired and you’ll probably go to bed soon.
What Does Thayer’s Theory Mean for My Relationship?
Tense energy doesn’t necessarily describe negative feelings. In fact, it may be thrilling, like a rollercoaster or scary movie. But it’s an unstable state. After a time, we become adjusted to the feeling of this particular brand of excitement. For example, imagine watching a 10 hour horror film. After about two and half hours, no monster movie would feel quite as scary, and by the third hour most people would feel positively sick of the whole film.
Likewise, tense energy can also describe the early stages of romance – your palms sweat, your heart beats faster, and you’re painfully aware of everything you say and do. The first time you make love, you might feel like you’re flying down the highest hill of a rollercoaster. Every time you see the object of your infatuation, in fact, you feel like you’re on a rollercoaster.
Fast forward to five, 10, or 20 years later, though, and you might find yourself wondering where that feeling went.
If you view the more developed stages of a relationship through the lens of our original, one-dimensional spectrum, you might think to yourself, “I am no longer thrilled, so I must be bored.” But through the lens of Thayer’s spectrum we realize our relationships have been infused with a new, more stable kind of vitality – Thayer’s ideal state of calm energy.
This state doesn’t mean we aren’t excited. On the contrary, happy long-term couples are filled with hope for the future and appreciation for the present . They have traded what was once a tense, temporary state for a happy and long-lasting one. So the next time you start to wonder if you’re bored with your mate because you’re not getting all those excited, fluttery feelings that used to appear – think about it this way: it’s not that they’ve disappeared, it’s that you have transcended them and moved to a higher plane in your relationship.
Want to talk more about your relationship? Contact a Houston marriage counselor today to set up a consultation. And, if you want to experience a comprehensive and powerful committed love relationship education in a single weekend, check out the Imago Couples Workshop.