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November 13, 2014 9:22 AM EST
Barker is the author of Barking Up The Wrong Tree

What is love? (Sit down. This might take a minute.)

I’ve posted a lot about the science around love, including how to tell if your spouse is cheating and why high heels are sexy.

But what about the stuff we need to know to be happy? Platitudes don’t cut it and though the poets are often right they’re frequently vague.

Is there an expert who can give us some real answers about love: how to find it, nurture it and maybe even repair it?

You better believe there is. Arthur Aron is one of the world’s top researchers on romantic love.

He is a professor at Stony Brook University and author of a number of key books on the subject of relationships including:

I gave Arthur a call and learned what makes us attractive, how to have a great first date, and the things that kill and improve relationships.

Let’s get started.

So What The Heck Is Love Anyway?

Love isn’t an emotion, really. When you look at fMRI studies of the brain it shows up more as a desire. A craving.

And that explains why it feels so good. As far as the ol’ gray matter’s concerned love’s right up there with cocaine and cash.

All three activate the same area of the brain — the dopamine reward system.

Here’s Arthur:

So, yeah, even neuroscience agrees that love is intense. But can anything that powerful last? Doesn’t it eventually have to fizzle?

Not necessarily. Research shows some couples are very much in love 40-50 years later.

Here’s Arthur:

Want your marriage to last more than 30 years? Just “being married” often isn’t enough: you also need to be good friends.

Via 100 Simple Secrets of Great Relationships:

(For more on how to keep love alive and live happily ever after, click here.)

So what do we need to know to have a good relationship that stands the test of time? Let’s start with attractiveness.

This Is What Makes You Attractive

Looking good matters. Duh. But it’s far from the only thing.

Arthur also found that we’re more attracted to people who are attracted to us. So showing interest gets people interested in you.

And believing the two of you are similar is powerful (whether you’re actually similar, well, is another story…)

Here’s Arthur:

Believe it or not, other research shows even having similar fighting styles is a good thing.

It was related to double digit drops in conflict and a double digit increase in satisfaction.

Via 100 Simple Secrets of Great Relationships:

And while we’re on the subject of attraction, how about “playing hard to get?” Does it work?

Nope. Pretending you’re not interested in the other person is a terrible strategy.

However, making it look like you’re picky and have high standards but that you are interested in this person, that works very well.

Here’s Arthur:

(For more on how to flirt — scientifically — click here.)

How many internet dates do you need to go on to end up in a relationship? Online dating data says 3.8. But what should you do on that date?

How To Have A Great First Date

So how did Arthur become so well known as the big researcher on romantic love? He did the classic “bridge study.”

It showed that if we feel something, we associate it with who is around us — even if they’re not the cause.

So if our environment makes us feel excited, we can mistake it for feeling in love. Check out a video of the study here:

So what’s that mean practically? Roller coasters, concerts, anything exciting with energy in the air makes for a great date.

Here’s Arthur:

In fact, research shows you might even be attracted to someone trying to kill you. Researchers simulated a torture scenario and found exactly that.

Via The Heart of Social Psychology: A Backstage View of a Passionate Science:

Other than excitement, what else is good to do? Open up. Not too much, too fast, but start sharing. Superficial conversation is boring.

Here’s Arthur:

Research shows that talking about STD’s and abortion is better than bland topics. Other studies show that discussing travel is good but movies are bad.

But what you say isn’t everything. It’s also how you react to what they say. Be responsive and engaged.

Here’s Arthur:

In fact, the best self-disclosure can produce a bond almost as strong as a lifetime friendship in less than an hour. Seriously.

Arthur ran this test with two graduate students, trying to produce a romantic connection. What happened? They ended up getting married.

Here’s Arthur:

(For the list of self-disclosure questions Arthur used in that study, click here.)

So the date goes well and you’re together. What makes relationships go bad? And how can you dodge that?

The Real Reason Why Relationships Fail

Think you two are badly matched? You’re probably wrong. Arthur says this is a common mistake.

Who you are and what you’re like has a much bigger effect than the match between you two.

If you’re insecure, anxious or depressed you’ll have trouble connecting withanyone.

Here’s Arthur:

Think you two are going through difficult times but you’ll come out stronger? Probably wrong again.

Difficult times don’t usually strengthen a relationship — more often they destroy it.

Here’s Arthur:

Other research has shown that trying to change the other person is a killer as well. Often, you need to accept your partner for who they are.

69% of a couple’s problems are perpetual. These problems don’t go away yet many couples keep arguing about them year after year.

Via The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work:

(To learn the four things that most often kill relationships, click here.)

Okay, so maybe things aren’t going so hot. Everybody thinks they know how to make it better. What does the research say really works?

4 Things That Really Improve Relationships

Like Arthur said above: it’s not usually the match, it’s usually one of the people in the relationship.

So if you have personal issues like depression, anger or insecurity, get help.Fixing you is the best step toward a better relationship.

Here’s Arthur:

Relationships stop being fun because we stop trying to make them fun.

Early on you did cool things together but now it’s just Netflix and pizza on the couch. Every. Single. Night.

What to do? Just like the recommendation for a good first date: It’s about excitement.

Here’s Arthur:

What’s the third most important thing for keeping love alive? “Capitalization” is vital. (No, I don’t mean using bigger letters.)

Celebrate your partner’s successes. Be their biggest fan.

How a couple celebrates the good times is more important than how they deal with the bad times.

Not acting impressed by your partner’s achievements? Congratulations, you’re killing your relationship.

Here’s Arthur:

The fourth thing Arthur mentioned was gratitude. And not only does it help relationships, it’s one of the keys to a happy life.

What’s the research say? Can’t be more clear than this:

(To learn the science behind how to be a good kisser, click here.)

So that’s a lot of solid relationship advice. How do we pull all this together and put it to use?

Sum Up

Here’s what Arthur said can help you have a great relationship:

  1. According to your own brain, love is right up there with cocaine and cash. And it can last if you treat it right.
  2. Want to be attractive? Make yourself look good, emphasize similarities, and let the person know you’re picky — but that you do like them.
  3. A great first date is something that creates excitement and energy. Share things about yourself and respond positively when your partner does.
  4. Relationships often fail because of individual issues, not because of a bad match. Resolve difficulties as soon as you can; they don’t strengthen relationships, they cripple them.
  5. Improve your relationship by dealing with your personal issues, doing exciting things together, celebrating your partner’s successes and showing gratitude.

It’s easy to get lazy when things are going well. But a little effort can go a long way — and not just toward a better relationship.

The research shows love has many positive effects like increasing success, longevity, health and happiness.

Here’s Arthur:

If you don’t have someone special in your life, here’s how to find them.

And if you do have someone, make an effort today. Celebrate any good news they have and plan something exciting to do this week.

And then show them a little gratitude. Does anything feel better than hearing how much we mean to someone else?

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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Related posts:

How To Be A Good Kisser – 10 Tips From Scientific Research

Recipe For A Happy Marriage: The 7 Scientific Secrets

What 10 things should you do every day to improve your life?

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