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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,
Episode #108
happy older couple

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.  

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.'

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.

Just passion? You’re in lust. Just intimacy? You’ve got a friend.

And in the elusive type Sternberg called consummate love? You get all three facets, though he noted that over the course of a relationship, passion slides, intimacy grows, and commitment rises but eventually levels off. 

Sternberg’s theory moved the field forward because it wasn’t a one-size-fits all model and it accounted for many different kinds of love. But it also carried forward the passionate/companionate paradigm that after the initial spark, the passion inevitably dies out.

School of thought #3: Sustained Love

Even many years later, the prevailing idea is still that love dies, or at least fizzles, which is just sad. But more importantly, it doesn’t match up with people’s experience. Indeed, in a 2012 paper in Social Psychological and Personality Science, more than 35% of people married 30 years or more reported being “very intensely in love.” And the researchers wondered, what was up with that?

To find out, some of the same researchers did another study; they used fMRI to scan the brains of people in long marriages (an average of 21 years) who, in the best part of this study, were recruited by ads that asked ‘Are you still madly in love with your long-term partner?’ Who knew study recruitment could be adorable?

Then each participant had their brain scanned while they looked at photos of four different people: their partner, a long-term friend, an acquaintance they had known as long as the partner, and a new acquaintance. What happened? When participants looked at the picture of their partner, they showed increased brain activity in the dopamine-rich areas that drive reward and motivation, the same areas that light up with food or drugs. But guess what? Not only did this not happen with pictures of the friend or acquaintances, but the parts of the brain that showed increased activity were the same as in individuals who were newly in love. In other words, neurally at least, long-term romantic love can look pretty much the same as a new relationship. Take that, companionate fizzle.  

Neurally at least, long-term romantic love can look pretty much the same as a new relationship. Take that, companionate fizzle.

So what conclusion should our listener Claire come to? Well, there’s no one right answer. Long-term romantic love is, we now know, certainly possible, but obviously not with every relationship. Sometimes it’s not the right match from the get-go, sometimes you just grow apart over the years. Most people need a few relationship tries at bat before they hit that home run.  

And even when you do find the right match, there is work to do. Indeed, you don’t get the takeout version of a soulmate—a neatly packaged product delivered directly to your door—instead, a soulmate has to be home-cooked, made with time and care.  

To wrap up, at a wedding I recently attended, the officiant made a point of saying to the bride and groom, “Instead of wishing you good luck, I wish you good work.” But it’s not thankless work—it’s work that, done well and with an equally committed partner—can make you one of those people who answered the ad, saying, yes, after all these years, I am still madly in love.  

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