Romantic ideology still has its allure, but the idea that passion can last a lifetime has lost credence in modern times. One argument against enduring intensity comes from thinking rooted in the work of the great 17th-century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza: emotions occur when we perceive a significant change in our situation. Change cannot last forever. Ergo, passionate love must fade.
In line with that, many studies have consistently shown that sexual desire and intense romantic love decrease drastically over time. The findings show that the frequency of sexual activity with one’s partner declines steadily, occurring half as often after one year of marriage compared with the first month, and falling off more gradually thereafter, especially after the child-rearing years. This decline has been found in cohabiting, heterosexual couples and in gay and lesbian couples. Accordingly, many scholars have claimed that enduring intense love is uncommon, almost always evolving into companionate love which, as time goes by, is low in attraction and sexual desire. Love is a trade-off, the prevailing wisdom goes: we can either soar briefly to the highest heights or we can have contentment for many years. It is fruitless to despair like Emma and Hannah, because no one can have both.
Or can they? New research suggests that common wisdom might be wrong, and that a significant percentage of long-term couples remain deeply in love. In 2012, the psychologist Daniel O’Leary and his team at Stony Brook University in New York asked study participants this basic question: ‘How in love are you with your partner?’ Their national survey of 274 individuals married for more than a decade found that some 40 per cent said ‘very intensely in love’ (scoring seven on a seven-point scale). O’Leary’s team did a similar study of New Yorkers and found that 29 per cent of 322 long-married individuals gave the same answer. In another national study in 2011, the dating site Match.com found that 18 per cent of 5,200 individuals in the US reported feelings of romantic love lasting a decade or more.
Research in neuroscience identifies the possible mechanism behind these results. In a study published in 2012, Stony Brook psychologist Bianca Acevedo and colleagues reported on 10 women and seven men married an average of 21 years and claiming to be intensely in love. The researchers showed participants facial images of their partners while scanning their brains with fMRI. The scans revealed significant activation in key reward centres of the brain – much like the patterns found in people experiencing new love, but vastly different from those in companionate relationships.
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