In our society people marry for love, divorce if love fades, and many won’t even consider committing to a relationship with someone they are not in love with. It’s ironic that while love is considered a vital ingredient to the success of lasting relationships, it is also assumed to die over time.
Are we fooling ourselves by trying to live out the unattainable fantasy of lasting love? Or are we positively accurate for placing high hopes on love lasting and not settling for less? These are tough questions. And while the course of love is seldom smooth, scientists are making life a little easier by using cutting-edge techniques to answer an age old question, “Can love last”?
A few years ago, I started to examine this issue by conducting extensive interviews with couples claiming that they were intensely in love with their partner of 10 years or more. These individuals were not insane or delusional. More importantly, they were still in-love and had many insights to offer. For example, they were not infatuated—with intrusive thoughts about their partner, anxiety, and emotional roller coasters—as people often are in new relationships. They did however continue to experience intense feelings of love, excitement, engagement, and sexual desire for their long-term partner. Several follow-up studies have confirmed this pattern of results. For example, my colleagues at Stony Brook University and I found that in a random sample of 274 U.S. individuals, 40% of those married over 10 years reported being “very intensely in love.” In another just released study, Match.com reported that 18% of 5,200 U.S. individuals said they have experienced feelings of romantic love lasting for 10 years or more. And if that’s not enough to convince skeptics, in a paper recently published in the Journal of Social and Cognitive Affective Neuroscience, Dr. Helen Fisher, other colleagues, and I report findings from an fMRI study of 17 individuals who claimed to be intensely in love with their spouse of about 20 years. We compared their brain activity while viewing images of their long-term partner with those of individuals that had recently fallen in love from a previous study. Individuals in long-term love showed significant activation in key reward centers of the brain, such as the ventral tegmental area (VTA), replicating results found for early-stage romantic love. The VTA lights up when people anticipate or receive rewards, or when they experience the euphoria of cocaine and other drugs. Interestingly, those reporting greater romantic love and closeness with their partner also showed stronger activation in the VTA. These and other results provide some clues about what keeps our reward systems revved up.
To summarize, these various studies show that love can and does last, and it’s not just for a rare and privileged few. However, it may feel like an impossible challenge to achieve because— well, let’s face it— relationships are not easy. Maintaining love is not easy either, but it is possible. Scientists and matchmakers are making strides in uncovering the secrets to lasting love, so we can look forward to new knowledge to help us achieve what once seemed like an impossible ideal…long live love.
About Dr. Bianca Acevedo
Dr. Bianca Acevedo is a National Science Foundation postdoctoral researcher fellow at University of California at Santa Barbara, visiting from Albert Einstein College of Medicine, based in New York City. She obtained her PhD from SUNY Stony Brook, with a specialization in close relationships. Her research is largely in the field of social neuroscience and focuses on motivational and emotional substrates in close romantic relationships.
For more information on our “Single in America” study:
- “Everything You Think You Know About Singles is Wrong” by Match.com
- “The Forgotten Sex: Men” by Dr. Helen Fisher
- “Aren’t You Glad You Weren’t Single Fifty Years Ago?” by Professor Stephanie Coontz
- “Why Monogamy Matters” by Dr. Justin R. Garcia
- “What does the Match.com 2011 Survey tell us about Singles and Money?” by Dr. Jonathan Rich