“Quick, quick, slow, slow,” my husband says as I try to focus. We stumble over each other’s feet.
“I think you’re going too fast—try to follow the beat better!” I quip back, laughing.
We’re in our small apartment living room practicing our first dance for our wedding. Both of us are rhythmically challenged, and we figured a series of lessons might help us look somewhat decent on the dance floor. Spoiler alert: It didn’t. We still stumbled over each other in front of our guests and struggled to maintain the song’s fairly quick beat.
But as I looked back on this memory of us dancing in our living room, I realized it didn’t matter that the lessons didn’t pay off. Simply learning something new together—how to dance—gave me a string of memories I’ll never forget.
I thought back to other times we tried new things together: learning how to do the trapeze on a New York City pier on one of our first dates; taking a Thai cooking class on a cold Chicago night; learning how to make classic cocktails in a speakeasy-style bar; zip lining at 40 miles per hour in Costa Rica. Some of these experiences are my best memories from the past 10 years.
We always have such a wonderful time when we’re trying something new together. It seems to strengthen our relationship, and makes me feel like we have a closer connection.
It turns out my fledgling theory is backed by research. One study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2000 discovered—through surveys, questionnaires and lab experiments—that couples who participated in “novel” and “arousing” activities reported improved relationship quality, as well as increased passion for one another. These couples had been in relationships for anywhere from two months to 15 years. The most surprising part? Couples reported this enhancement to their relationship after a task that was just seven minutes long.
Another study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships in 1993 studied over 50 married couples who engaged in activities together every week for 10 weeks. These activities were described as either “exciting” or “pleasant.” (A control group of couples didn’t participate in any activities.)
After following these couples and tracking their self-reported levels of satisfaction, the researchers found that both the “exciting” and “pleasant” groups reported higher satisfaction with their marriage than the control group. Plus, the “exciting” group (who engaged in more adrenaline-boosting activities) reported even more satisfaction than the “pleasant” group. The study authors concluded that stimulating activities can enhance marital satisfaction.
These two studies show that learning new things with our partner can strengthen our connection. But how exactly does this work? The key is vulnerability.
“Learning new things together strengthens bonds because it is at those moments we can show our vulnerability to one another,” says Dr. Hisla Bates, M.D., a pediatric and adult psychiatrist based in New York City. “When we are learning a new task, neither party is an expert, and mishaps and failures are bound to happen. In those vulnerable moments when we fail, the other party can show support. They can work together to find a solution, and working together helps deepen the connection.”
I think back to a couple of years ago, when my husband and I were in Costa Rica. We happened to drive by one of the highest zip lines in Central America. The course included seven zip lines that were 700 feet above the jungle canopy and nearly 2,500 feet in length. At one point, the website says you fly at over 40 miles per hour. My husband is an adrenaline junkie, while I’m a bit more timid. I could tell he was bubbling with excitement at the prospect of zip lining, so I agreed to go for it.
I buckled my helmet and got hooked into the line, knees buckling and stomach turning the entire time. I went first so my husband could give me a pep talk. “You got this, babe! You’ll be on the other side before you know it. I’ll be right behind you!” I whipped through the air at lightning speed, screaming at the top of my lungs with a racing heart.
I’ll never forget the look on my husband’s face when he landed on the platform behind me. “That. Was. Insane!” he shouted before giving me a hug and telling me how proud of me he was.
We connected deeply in this moment because of our shared vulnerability. “Vulnerability is the ability to open up and take risks with your partner,” Bates says. “With that vulnerability, there is growth and maturity in a relationship.”
Want to put this theory into practice in your own relationship? Follow these tips to get started:
• Think small.
The benefits reaped from learning new things with your partner can come from activities as small as hiking, trying a new recipe, canoeing in the local lake or taking a fitness class together. You don’t have to bungee jump or skydive to grow closer.
• Pick something that’s new for both of you.
Try selecting activities that both partners are unfamiliar with, as this will ensure you’re on the same page. Instead of learning Pilates because your spouse does it, for example, try taking a rock-climbing class or something neither of you has ever done.
• Put it on the calendar.
Try to learn something new together once a month. Pick one Saturday or Sunday each month, for example, that will be designated for a new endeavor.
• Make sure you debrief.
Some of my best memories with my husband are the moments after we learned something new together: We grabbed dinner after zip lining and eagerly discussed our adrenaline-filled ride, for instance, and we chatted over drinks following our trapeze class. Make sure you leave time to talk about the experience afterwards.