Episode 72: How to Reconnect with Your Partner

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MATT LIEB With quarantine or sheltering in place, there’s kind of like, you know, I think this is true of a lot of couples where you’re discovering kind of like all of the space that you guys are taking up in each other’s lives now is like tripled because neither of you are going out to go to work or whatnot. And so you have to find other things to do.

MATT LIEB We were working six days a week, sheltering in place, so we were at each other’s throats for a little bit.

FRANCESCA FIORENTINI Yeah. And I will say that in this moment, a lot of us are going to like our happy place. And I found you, like, you’re constantly on your phone.

MATT LIEB mean, you know, I’m definitely someone who zones out.

FRANCESCA FIORENTINI If you’re not doing that or you are doing that. And then you’re listening to your World War One podcast.

MATT LIEB Yeah.

FRANCESCA FIORENTINI Because you are a 68 year old man.

MATT LIEB Yep.

FRANCESCA FIORENTINI And I found like I was third rank on all those like I was the third tier. You know, relaxing activity one, phone game. Relaxing activity two, podcast. Relaxing activity three, maybe Francesca.

MATT LIEB Right, yeah.

DACHER KELTNER Many of us are sheltering in place with our partners, wives, and husbands. And that can really help—or not. The emotional challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic can take a toll even on the strongest relationships. So this week, we’re looking into how to bring a bit more excitement and connection into our romantic relationships without having to go out. Our guests today are Francesca Fiorentini and Matt Lieb. Francesca is also host of Newsbroke on AJ+ and the special “Red White and Who?” on MSNBC. Matt’s also a writer, and the co-creator of Newsbroke. Francesca and Matt, thank you both for joining me on The Science of Happiness.

MATT LIEB Absolutely. Thanks for having us.

FRANCESCO FIORENTINI Yeah. Thank you.

DACHER KELTNER Can you tell me how you guys met?

MATT LIEB The comedy scene in San Francisco.

FRANCESCO FIORENTINI Yeah.

MATT LIEB Yeah, we are both stand up comedians, and I think the first time I saw Francesca was a Sunday night at the Punch Line Comedy Club. That was the first—

FRANCESCA FIORENTINI Did I get up that night?

MATT LIEB No, no.

FRANCESCA FIORENTINI That makes sense.

MATT LIEB Yeah, but I saw you there and you were very pretty.

FRANCESCA FIORENTINI Pretty and married. Pretty married.

MATT LIEB Yeah, she was pretty married at the time and, yeah, and I think I recommended her for a project that I was working on with a screenwriter friend of mine. And then we became friends through that. And then one day you hit me up—

FRANCESCA FIORENTINI Returned the favor, asked him to join AJ+ because we were launching a comedy show. So when we were working together, I developed a very big crush on Matt because he’s thoughtful and talented and very funny and also oblivious, very, very oblivious.

MATT LIEB I don’t pick up signals.

FRANCESCA FIORENTINI Did not pick up any flirtation.

MATT LIEB Yeah.

FRANCESCA FIORENTINI Whatsoever. Any, any attempts to look nice in the office.

MATT LIEB No, it was kind of nice because of the fact that she uh—

FRANCESCA FIORENTINI Was married maybe?

MATT LIEB No, not even that. Because you guys were separated. But it was like you were so out of my league that it was very comforting because I was like, “Thank God, I don’t even have to try.”

FRANCESCA FIORENTINI This is true. Suffice it to say it was a secret for a while. Yeah. We’re also.

MATT LIEB Yeah we had a secret office relationship.

FRANCESCA FIORENTINI I also definitely had a divorce long before then.

MATT LIEB Yeah. Yeah. She was getting divorced.

FRANCESCA FIORENTINI Everything above board. And what else? Let’s talk about happiness.

MATT LIEB But yeah. And we’ve been in love ever since. What can I say?

DACHER KELTNER On that note, let’s turn to the happiness practice you guys chose to do for our show, ‘Exciting Activities for Couples.’ So you each made a list of things that you’d be interested in doing—things that are new and hopefully fun … but also realistic and manageable—and then you do some of them for 90 minutes a week for about a month. So what did you do?

MATT LIEB You know, our choices were limited based on the pandemic, you know, we’re sheltering in place here.

FRANCESCA FIORENTINI Sure. We can’t be passionate. What do you expect?

MATT LIEB Yeah, no, no. There’s no romance in the end of the world. There’s only brute survival skills.

FRANCESCA FIORENTINI Built a lot of fires.

MATT LIEB Uh huh.

FRANCESCA FIORENTINI Ok, so what did we choose? We, for exciting activities, we chose making music together so, yeah. Not, that’s no, like, a euphemism for love-making. It was literally making music. Matt?

MATT LIEB Yeah. I play guitar and Francesca has a beautiful singing voice.

FRANCESCA FIORENTINI It’s okay.

MATT LIEB No, you do. You actually do have a very good singing voice. And so we’re both huge fans of Radiohead. A lot, in fact, a lot of our activities were centered around our love of Radiohead. Yeah. I could only be in a relationship with a Radiohead fan.

DACHER KELTNER Which songs did you guys cover?

MATT LIEB So we played a few together. We played “Idiotec.” A song called “I Will.” Which is off of the Hail to the Thief album. We also taped a couple of them. And kind of because we did such a good job harmonizing with each other that we’re like the world has to see us. Yeah. So we put it on Instagram. And that was cute.

Matt and Francesca sing Idiotec.

FRANCESCA FIORENTINI It was nice. It was nice to do it also when we didn’t record ourselves. So we could just, we luckily have a small patio and we sat there, as like, the sun was setting and just, you know, played in the dusk. And that was quite nice.

MATT LIEB It was very nice.

DACHER KELTNER What else did you guys do?

FRANCESCA FIORENTINI The other activity we did was super exciting.

MATT LIEB Very exciting.

FRANCESCA FIORENTINI A thousand piece puzzle.

MATT LIEB We put together. Well we haven’t actually finished the puzzle because it’s a thousand pieces.

DACHER KELTNER What’s it of?

FRANCESCA FIORENTINI It’s a thousand piece HD photograph, Nat Geo photograph, of a hundred butterflies.

MATT LIEB Yup. Yeah. So most of it is just black space. And then there are just first of all—

FRANCESCA FIORENTINI There’s just black space and then there’s hell.

MATT LIEB I mean honestly like butterflies all look the same. And it’s, it’s crazy because we would like find a few like outlier butterflies first and be like, “Oh there’s a weird yellow one. Let’s do that.”

FRANCESCA FIORENTINI Like, “I’m going to collect the reds.” Well guess what? They’re all red.

MATT LIEB They all have red and orange. Every single one. And so.

FRANCESCA FIORENTINI We immediately opened it. We’re like, “No. This is BS. We’re not doing this”.

MATT LIEB We can’t do this. But we stuck it through.

FRANCESCA FIORENTINI And by hating it together—

MATT LIEB Yeah. Our mutual hate brought us together more than our mutual love. And I think that’s sweet.

FRANCESCA FIORENTINI That’s what puzzles are all about.

MATT LIEB Yeah.

FRANCESCA FIORENTINI On Thursdays we’ll do the puzzle. And also happens to be when Radiohead releases a new live recording of a concert.

MATT LIEB Of a concert they did. We’ll watch a full Radiohead concert. And, you know, while we’re while we’re putting together 100 butterflies. And it actually it’s come to a point where I’m excited about it. Like, I’m actually number one, because we’re making progress on the puzzle, which I thought we would never do. And number two, because I love Radiohead and so do you.

DACHER KELTNER That’s awesome. So singing, puzzles …anything else?

FRANCESCA FIORENTINI Another one which we attempted one week and did not do the next week.

MATT LIEB Well we did it, the first week we did it.

FRANCESCA FIORENTINI Was —

MATT LIEB—make love.

FRANCESCA FIORENTINI Make love.

MATT LIEB Three nights in a row.

FRANCESCA FIORENTINI We did it one week and the next week we kind of failed.

MATT LIEB Well the next week we did it three times, but it was every other day.

FRANCESCA FIORENTINI Yeah. And I got to the point where I was like, “Man, we should just do it tonight so that tomorrow. Yeah. We don’t have to start from zero.” Right. We don’t have to have more.

MATT LIEB We did a lot of bargaining where like, “OK, we have to do it again tonight because otherwise we start from zero again and then we have to have sex three more times.” Which is you know, I mean, you know, ask anyone who’s been in a long term relationship. It is something where you’re where you’re like three nights in a row, what? What the hell? What are you guys 16?

DACHER KELTNER What struck you about doing these practices in terms of what surprised you or what was hard or what new delight did they bring to you?

MATT LIEB For me personally, especially being stuck inside, having something kind of novel to look forward to, it’s been nice because, you know, especially when you’re you know, when it’s not pandemic times and you’ve been in the relationship for a while and you’re going to work and you’re, you know, coming home, there’s like a routine that kind of builds up that you can have a hard time breaking out of. And so you have to find other things to do. And I think at the beginning of this, when we didn’t have these practices, it did feel a lot like, I would just be like, I’m going to go. I’m going to go to my apartment or I’m going to you know.

FRANCESCA FIORENTINI He has a separate apartment.

MATT LIEB I have my own apartment that I don’t sleep at.

FRANCESCA FIORENTINI That’s kind of important.

FRANCESCA FIORENTINI But yeah, no, I, I think or it’s like, “Well, let’s just watch, you know, more Downton Abbey.” We watch Downton Abbey now. We’re those people now.

MATT LIEB Yeah, it’s a great show.

FRANCESCA FIORENTINI It took a quarantine for me to act like my mom and, hey, but you know.

MATT LIEB I mean, like we do everything together, being that we’re stuck inside. So like, it’s something that’s not going to the grocery store, you know, it’s something that’s not washing dishes or doing housework or, you know, doing laundry and, you know, fixing things around the house. It’s not writing together and, you know, producing episodes of our show.

FRANCESCA FIORENTINI It’s also something that has no outcome.

MATT LIEB It has no outcome, yeah.

FRANCESCA FIORENTINI The other thing that’s really funny is if you work really well with your partner, you guys are always scheming on, like, what you want to do, like now doing something that has zero bearing on anything is really nice.

MATT LIEB It’s not strategic—there’s no career benefits from either of us learning Radiohead songs, or…

FRANCESCA FIORENTINI We’re going to start a cover band, probably.

MATT LIEB Probably not.

DACHER KELTNER I don’t know man. I’m ready for the pitch.

MATT LIEB I mean, I think we’re the Radiohead cover band that America’s been waiting for. They’re like…

FRANCESCA FIORENTINI …what if Radiohead was American?

MATT LIEB What if Radiohead, but worse?

DACHER KELTNER You think you’ll take any insights from this practice forward once we’re back out in our regular lives?

MATT LIEB I mean, I think so. Number one having a day, at the very least, having a day, where there’s an activity that we do together. It’s almost like that was the closest I’ve ever gotten in a relationship to a version of a date night, you know what I mean? Like having a set date night. Yeah. Like, I’ve never had that before. And, you know, usually with me, you have to kind of, you know, slowly wean me into things because I’m very set in my ways.

FRANCESCA FIORENTINI But when he found out there was an opportunity to talk into a microphone publicly about it, he was like, I’m there.

MATT LIEB Oh, yeah, yeah. As soon as I heard there was a podcast. I was like, oh, well, I love podcasts. I do two of my own. I got a Soprano’s Rewatch podcast. Just doing a little promotion, babe. Is that alright? But no, for me, I think that taking kind of like—for me Thursday. Having a Thursday, you know, be our night, whether or not it’s like doing a puzzle or if it’s something new that we find.

FRANCESCA FIORENTINI We don’t have kids. And so I’m really like—

MATT LIEB We have a cat.

FRANCESCA FIORENTINI It’s just so funny to me that, like, not funny, but it was as if we’re trying to find time, like we don’t have kids. We have a cat.

MATT LIEB We have nothing but time

FRANCESCA FIORENTINI We are kids. We have careers that, you know. So it’s just like I can’t imagine how much more difficult it is. But I will say that, yes, having something that is totally out of the ordinary where you couldn’t fall into a groove if you wanted to is nice and is a challenge in and of itself.

DACHER KELTNER How is this time together and doing these practices sort of nudged you in a way to rethink perhaps where you’re going to find delight and excitement in your relationship?

FRANCESCA FIORENTINI I mean, I think that we often think about where we can go with our partners, like, okay, where’s the next vacation? I will often, like, buy a trip on miles, a year in advance so it’s like affordable and do all this work to, like, make that moment in the future the moment that will be sweet that we will remember then.

MATT LIEB Let’s be romantic in six months.

FRANCESCA FIORENTINI Exactly. Let’s be romantic in a year. And, and now you can’t do that. And I think that is actually a huge challenge because I think we’ve all been on a vacation with an ex, alright. I’m going to say it, like we’ve been on that romantic vacation. It actually wasn’t that good because we ourselves were not as intimate as we wanted to be, whether it’s emotionally, physically, whatever. And so I don’t know. I mean, I think it’s there is something really cute about, I was thinking, like, “God, I have so many books I need to read.” Like reading aloud to one another could be another activity that I would love to do. But yeah, having things be much smaller. And much more. Kind of, I don’t know.

MATT LIEB Intimate.

FRANCESCA FIORENTINI Smaller and more intimate. Like making everything smaller, thinking smaller rather than thinking bigger when it comes to love. We always think bigger when how can I propose this person in a helicopter…

MATT LIEB Exactly.

FRANCESCA FIORENTINI …while repelling down off of, I don’t know.

MATT LIEB How much are people who do skywriting.

FRANCESCA FIORENTINI Yeah. Exactly

MATT LIEB Yeah. You’re always trying to think of like the biggest, most, you know, gaudy version of romance. But when you’re stuck inside you have to kind of make do with what you have. You kind of have to MacGyver your romance and it’s cute.

FRANCESCA FIORENTINI Dude. When we finish the puzzle. Is it on the other side going to say, will you marry me, Francesca? Because if it does, I will.

MATT LIEB Goddamn it.

FRANCESCA FIORENTINI And if it doesn’t, I won’t.

MATT LIEB Well. Oh, my God. The amount of work I would have to do. That would mean I would have to complete the puzzle alone and then write it and then undo the puzzle, but put the pieces back to where we have them at this point.

FRANCESCA FIORENTINI I mean, if you’re serious.

DACHER KELTNER Man, this is your shot though, man.

MATT LIEB Oh my god. I feel like Eminem. I only got one shot.

DACHER KELTNER This could be big.

MATT LIEB This is my 8 Mile. No, it’s cute having small, intimate activities.

DACHER KELTNER All right, Francesca and Matt. I’m going to count down from five. And I want you each to tell our hundreds of thousands of listeners what the key quality is to make for a happy relationship. You guys ready?

MATT LIEB All right, I’m ready.

DACHER KELTNER Five, four, three, two, one.

FRANCESCA FIORENTINI & MATT LIEB SIMULTANEOUSLY: Respect.

MATT LIEB Whoa! I didn’t expect it was going to be the same thing.

FRANCESCA FIORENTINI I was going to make it a joke and say dishes.

MATT LIEB I was going to make a joke, too. But I was like, I respect this too much.

FRANCESCA FIORENTINI Respect.

MATT LIEB Respect.

DACHER KELTNER Respect. I love it … Well, Francesca and Matt, I wanted to thank you guys for being on the show and trying out this Exciting Activities for Couples practice. It’s been really delightful to talk with you guys.

MATT LIEB Thanks for having us. And thanks for helping our relationship.

FRANCESCA FIORENTINI Yeah. Thanks for giving us a reason to try.

DACHER KELTNER We know from a lot of research in relationship science that having exciting and novel experiences with romantic partners can broaden our perspectives and make us happier … But can it affect our sex lives?

AMY MUISE We were interested in thinking about how this might be linked to sexual desire.

DACHER KELTNER More on the science, up next.

AMY MUISE One of the broader questions that I’ve been really interested in, in my work is particularly how couples can maintain sexual desire in their relationship.

DACHER KELTNER Amy Muise is an assistant professor in psychology and director of the Sexual Health and Relationship Lab at York University in Toronto.

AMY MUISE Desire is something particular that we know can be hard to maintain over time. You know, once people become sort of more secure and comfortable with their partner, things can become like a bit less exciting and desire can decline.

DACHER KELTNER In a series of studies, Amy and her team followed romantic couples for 21 days, and asked each of them daily if they’d been exposed to new experiences with their partner that had broadened their view of the world and provided excitement. They found that couples reported more sexual desire for their partner on the days they did new and exciting activities.

AMY MUISE And not just that. On those days, they were actually more likely to engage in sex with their partner, about 30 percent more likely. And then in turn, they ended up feeling more satisfied with their relationship. And if they did have sex on that day, they also felt more satisfied with the sexual experience.

DACHER KELTNER In another study, Amy directed couples to do exciting activities together —like we just did with Francesca and Matt.

AMY MUISE We told them that, you know, there’s research out there that suggests when you do these novel, exciting activities with your partner, you know, you’ll feel happier in your relationship. And then another group were assigned to a condition where they were told the same thing, but about familiar and comfortable activities. And then we had a group that was sort of given no instructions.

DACHER KELTNER The people in the first two groups were told to try to either do an exciting new activity or something really familiar and kinda mundane over the upcoming weekend. Again, the couples who did novel and exciting activities together—what researchers refer to as “self-expanding” activities—reported higher sexual desire.

AMY MUISE So it seemed like we were getting both effects—that couples when they were naturally self expanding in daily life. We saw this boost in desire. And then also if people were sort of directed towards doing something self expanding or novel, this could also seem to heighten their desire for their partner as well. And one of the things that really struck me about this study was that I think when we think about novel, exciting activities we imagine that we’ve got to, like, go bungee jumping with our partner or do something very kind of extreme. But for the most part, it didn’t seem like they had to do these really intense activities.

DACHER KELTNER Of note, they found the activities often involved teaching each other something, or learning something together, like cooking, music—or a thousand piece puzzle.

AMY MUISE So it really leads us to think that there’s something about this idea of novelty or stepping outside your routine that can be linked with desire and satisfaction. So I would have couples think about how they’re spending their time together. It’s really easy in a long term relationship to sort of fall into the same kind of routine behaviors. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I mean, that can provide a lot of security, knowing what to expect, knowing that your partner is going to be there for you. Those are good things. But they can also squash desire because it becomes very predictable and mundane. So I would think about not just setting aside the time for like a date night or something, but actually thinking about what might push you and your partner a bit outside of your routine and trying to incorporate that into your relationship.

DACHER KELTNER I’m Dacher Keltner, thanks for joining me on The Science of Happiness. If you’d like to try this Exciting Activities for Couples practice, or get a transcript of today’s show, visit us at greatergood.berkeley.edu/podcasts and click on the episode link.

Our podcast is a co-production of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and PRX. Our senior producer is Shuka Kalantari. Production assistance is from Jennie Cataldo and Ben Manilla of BMP Audio. Our associate producer is Nina Sparling. Our executive producer is Jane Park. Our editor-in-chief is Jason Marsh. Our science director is Emiliana Simon-Thomas.

Tell us what you’d like to hear more of by using #HappinessPod or emailing us at greater@berkeley.edu.

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