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Can Love Actually Last?

Can love last? Or does love inevitably settle in, hang around in a stained t-shirt, and get a little too comfortable? Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen looks at the many permutations of love, including everlasting love, which, it turns out, doesn’t just happen in fairytales.

By
Ellen Hendriksen, PhD,
April 22, 2016
Episode #108

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Listener Claire from Los Angeles writes that she and her partner have been together for two years, but recently she’s begun to worry the spark is gone. She’s interested in how love changes over time—are you supposed to feel like you’ve nested? Is that a good sign or a bad sign?

So for this week’s episode, I set out to write about the stages of a relationship, but after digging through the research, I discovered that, unlike grief, with its denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance model, there’s no go-to stage theory for romantic love.  

But what I did dig up was really interesting. Here are three schools of thought on the nature of romantic love:

School of Thought #1: Passionate versus Companionate Love. You might also call this the old school model of love. The theory has reached the holy grail of research in that it’s become common household knowledge. But is it true?

In the 1960’s, two pioneering social psychologists, Drs. Ellen Berscheid and Elaine Hatfield, started out in a field that was then thought of as an oxymoron: relationship science. But in 1969, they named the two stages of long-term love we’re all familiar with. The first, passionate love, marks the beginning of a relationship. In it, you have strong feelings of love (and lust) for your new partner.  You walk on sunshine and annoy all your friends with your infatuation. You are nourished, somehow, by your obsession with your beloved. Passionate love is thought to last anywhere from a few months to a couple of years.  

Next comes the second stage, companionate love, in which love settles in for the long haul. Here, the passion ebbs. Wisdom, care, and affection flow on, but it’s more like a deep friendship. It’s been described as a “warm afterglow,” with emphasis on “after”—in other words, the honeymoon is over. As nice as security and comfort are, companionate love sounds to a lot of people like a breakup cliche—”I think of you as my best friend.”

School of thought #2: Triangular Love. Along comes Robert Sternberg. His 1986 Triangular Theory—not to be confused with that mainstay of soap operas, the love triangle—thought about love as a mix-and-match outfit of three parts. The ingredients are these: passion, intimacy, and commitment.

For example, mix intimacy and passion, but leave out commitment, and you get the obsession of passionate love. Intimacy plus commitment, but no passion? That’s companionate love. Just passion? You’re in lust. Just intimacy? You’ve got a friend.

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