Love doesn’t last for many people. Studies have found declines in relationship satisfaction, and specifically in passionate love, starting from about the time of marriage and continuing to go down for years. But for some people, passionate love—intensity, engagement, and sexual interest—over time is possible. Research by my collaborators and me has shown that the honeymoon phase can last.
In a 2011 nationally representative U.S. survey led by Dr. Daniel O’Leary, we asked respondents to rate how in love they were with their partner on a seven-point scale from “not at all in love” to “very intensely in love.” To our surprise, more than 40% of those married 10 years or longer selected “very intensely in love.” Of course we don’t know how they defined love, and it’s always possible people are deceiving themselves or trying to make a good impression. Still, the results are striking.
More interesting, in a brain scan study led by Dr. Bianca Acevedo that year, we specifically sought out couples married at least 10 years who claimed to be intensely, passionately in love. We showed them pictures of their partners as well as a familiar neutral person. Our studies, like similar ones with newly in-love couples, found that when people look at a picture of someone with whom they’re intensely in love, the “dopamine reward system” part of the brain is activated. The only notable difference from those newly in love was that the long-term lovers did not also show activation in brain areas associated with anxiety.
What makes passionate love possible after so many years? Studies have shows these factors can help make a relationship work:
- Not being under high stress (which can be tough in high levels of poverty or crime)
- Not being highly depressed, anxious, or insecure (which can be helped through therapy, learning to meditate or medication)
- Having good communication skills and being able to handle conflicts well
- Having strong support from extended family, especially after having children
Beyond just making a relationship work, here are some practices shown to increase relationship quality:
- Doing things with your partner that are novel and challenging
- Celebrating your partner’s successes
- Expressing your appreciation, gratitude for what your partners does for you
- Deepening friendships with other couples
We don’t know yet if every couple can keep the flame going for years. But we do know some can, and we know a lot about what you can do to make your relationship strong and to increase passionate love. So don’t just assume it’s normal if you’re not in a great relationship—do something about it!
Arthur Aron, Ph.D., is Research Professor, Stony Brook University, and Visiting Scholar, University of California, Berkeley