Can romantic love last or does it have, by its very nature, a best before date? One writer has suggested that love is only “designed” to last for about four years, or until the offspring of a romance can survive without two guardian parents. Other research has suggested that love inevitably fades after about 15 months. But mostly we seem to have collectively decided that natural life of a love relationship is even shorter than this. After all, if love is a fever, then it has to die down. If you ‘fall” in love, then I guess at some point you stand up and dust yourself off. Even our language suggests that romantic love is brief.
This perspective on love becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. As one of my clients recently told me, “I almost didn’t agree to come for couple therapy. After all, all my girl friends say that there is no solution to my unhappiness and I just have to accept the way love is. After you have been married for a few years there just isn’t much of that romance and being in love left. You just have to give that up and accept that this is all there is.” My client then added, “But I came because I was dying inside. I was angry all the time – after a while screaming into the silence is just too hard.” She was telling me about the high price of a distressed relationship and a resigned approach to love.
Another part of this skeptical approach to long term love is the ubiquitous assumption that sexual desire and passion withers once the marriage contract is signed. And it is true that changes, like those involved in becoming parents for example, can dampen eroticism for a while. But is the first flush of infatuation, and the temporary intoxication that comes with a new and highly emotional experience really the best we can expect from a love relationship?
An obvious response to this question is – Maybe. If we don’t understand love, if it really is a mystery, then there is probably nothing for it but to suffer its coming and goings and find a way to shrug our shoulders and not expect too much. But my response is that this cynical attitude to love is simply out of date. For the first time in human history, we understand what love is and how to shape it. This changes all the odds in the search for “real love’ – the love that lasts.
We have always known in our hearts that love can last for the lucky few. And science has begun to confirm this. Recently researcher Arthur Arons at Stony Brook University used brain scans to show that a small number of couples still respond with as much physiological arousal – lets call it passion – after 20 years together as most folks experience only in the heat of first infatuation. Chemistry can last!!
We also know from recent surveys that desire and passion are much more enduring than we have supposed. Rigorous recent surveys tell us that the people who have the most frequent and most satisfying sex are those in long term loving relationships. Logically, this is not surprising; in most things practice makes perfect. Sex is like tango; when you dance with someone over a long time, you can co-ordinate your moves and create more synchrony.
So what do we need to make this lasting love and passion an attainable goal for more and more of us? Once upon a time, you could not expect to live past fifty five. My grandfather died at 40, of pneumonia, a disease that is now easily cured – because of the advancement of science. In the same way, I believe that the new science of love that has evolved in the last decade is making the concept of love as a passing fever obsolete.
We have already learned so much about the bonds of love as a result of this revolutionary new development of seeing love – an emotion – through the microscope of science and systematic reasoned exploration. Hundreds of studies tell us, for example, that love is an exquisitely logical survival code and that the ability to reach out, clearly state your emotional needs and respond to your lover’s emotional need for comfort, reassurance and connection is the key ingredient in love. We make mistakes because we don’t understand our needs. We don’t have a map of the territory. We so often send distorted messages, offer advice or problem solving when our partner needs our emotional presence, or try to hide our emotions when science tells us that our loved one has picked them up from our facial expression almost before our own brain has decided to try and hide them.
But once we know the territory – once we understand the bonds of love, then we can actively shape these bonds in a way that is new for human lovers. We can have love that lasts a lifetime.