New findings: passion can last
Carlo was an attractive man who had been married for 20 years. His kids were out of the house, so he could no longer use them as an excuse for remaining in his unhappy marriage. He forever complained that his wife was a hopeless bore, but he stayed — and had affairs. I asked him, “If you’re so miserable, why don’t you get divorced and marry the mistress you’ve had for the last eight years?” His response was not surprising: “Dr. Gilda, I know that if I married my mistress, she’d turn into another dull wife; our sneaking around keeps our passion going.” I agreed that many people have illicit affairs and remain married. Despite the obvious reasons for keeping a marriage intact, I wondered why people really continue to stay.
Helen Fisher’s groundbreaking book, Anatomy of Love, was published in 1992. It taught us that romantic love can only last from 18 months to three years, at best. From the time her book came out, I’ve quoted these findings in my writing, my speeches, and my media appearances. But recently, I interviewed the author for another article I was doing. In our discussion, I recounted the 18-month to three-year limit she placed on romantic love. What a shock to hear her excitedly describe her latest findings that refute her former research!
The link between love and addiction
Fisher’s team from the Department of Anthropology at the Rutgers Center for Human Evolutionary Studies scanned images of the brains of young couples who were madly in love and had been together for six months. Since more than 100,000 chemical brain reactions fire up each second, the group sought to determine how lovers’ brains reacted to seeing a photo of their beloved compared to one of a stranger. In fact, the lovers’ brains showed activity in the same region as the brains of people who were using addictive drugs, so the team likened romantic love to an addiction. Moreover, this addictive brain activity matched that of someone who had been dumped. So this would explain a rejected party going haywire in attempts to regain a lost love.
How long-term relationships affect brain chemistry
OK, so these were findings for the young lovers sudied. Next, the researchers examined the brain activity for couples aged 40 to 65 who had been married for at least 20 years and were still wild about each other. After viewing their spouse’s photo, each older person’s brain showed vibrancy in the same region as the younger subjects had in the previous study. In addition, there were increased levels of the chemicals serotonin and vasopressin present. (Serotonin maintains happiness and serenity, and vasopressin affects monogamy.) So the major difference between the young lovers and the older ones was that the regions of the older subjects’ brains associated with love anxiety were no longer active! The passion was still there, but accompanying that now was a sense of calm. The researchers concluded that when the obsessive suspense of new infatuation is removed, couples can continue to enjoy passion, alongside the vital ingredient of trust. Fisher’s findings suggest that true, dependable love can last forever — but she warns that people must first select the right partner.
Preserving “positive illusions” about your partner
So is the habitual cheater, Carlo, correct in predicting a future of boredom with a new, different wife? Fisher cites research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology conducted by psychologist Marcel Zentner at the University of Geneva in Switzerland, who found that there is only one personality trait that will lead to a couple being able to enjoy the kind of sustained romance that Fisher’s team observed: the ability to enjoy “positive illusions” about each other. Certainly, we’ve all heard long-married people characterize each other in such glowing terms that we wonder whom they’re describing; this is the “love blindness” Zentner mentions in his study. Fisher deems this condition to be a gift from nature that enables partners to ride the waves of relationship crises together. Clearly Carlo lacks that “love blindness” in his own marriage, since he perceives his wife to be unappealing, boring and dull. On the other hand, my friend Bobbi describes her husband of 14 years this way: “Everything about him as a man excites me.” To outside observers, Bobbi’s husband drips food from his mouth when he eats, is 40 pounds overweight and he’s often been let go from jobs because of his temper… but none of these traits faze Bobbi. After several years together, the couple’s shelf life remains solid.
How to choose the right partner for you
So what’s the secret to lasting love? Zentner says that it’s caused by “love blindness,” and Fisher says it’s also dependent on selecting the right partner. Toward that end, she developed a personality type test that categorizes four styles of temperament: Explorer, Builder, Negotiator, and Director. She describes each type in her book, Why Him? Why Her? These types are also the basis for the Chemistry.com dating site.
After Carlo and his wife took Fisher’s personality type test, Carlo learned that he’s an Explorer who seeks novelty and is intolerant of routine. His wife is a cautious, orderly Builder. Fisher calls their pairing “polar opposites” who are “likely to face problems.” While Carlo enjoys spur-of-the-moment adventures, his wife values rigidity that stifles spontaneity. On paper, this couple may appear to be mismatched — but sometimes such opposites may prove beneficial to each other. For example: the Builder can stabilize the impulsive Explorer, and the Explorer can offer flexibility that the Builder lacks.
My Gilda-Gram advises, “The issue we see is never the real issue.” So while Carlo says he doesn’t want a mistress who will become a dull wife, he may really need a steadfast partner like his established spouse happens to be. Maybe Carlo’s definition of “dull” should be redefined as “stable” so he can therefore find her to be desirable again. The fact that he stays married to this anchoring personality proves that Carlo craves stability on some level — no matter how much he protests.
Fisher doesn’t recommend singles rejecting someone based solely on his or her personality type, because biology and destiny are different things. However, for personality types that might seem incongruous, she suggests proceeding caution — at least for the first few years! Frankly, that’s wise advice for anyone in any new relationship.
A bit of love blindness goes a long way. Also, knowing your personality type can lead you to the right partner. Yes, lasting love can be both peaceful and passionate. The only question now is, “Will we accept steamy calm as the new standard instead of the torment our romantic comedies have taught us to expect?” With these new findings, we must change our perspective about love so we can welcome this peaceful ecstasy that can last!
Relationship expert Dr. Gilda Carle, Ph.D., gives Instant Advice throughout the world via Skype, email and phone. She is the 30-Second Therapist for Today.com. Her best-selling books include Don’t Bet on the Prince!, 99 Prescriptions for Fidelity and How to Win When Your Mate Cheats. Please visit her website at (DrGilda.com).