After the Thrill Is Gone: The Science of Long-Term Love

A senior couple holding hands watches the seaEditor’s note: Mona Fishbane, PhD is a clinical psychologist and the author of Loving with the Brain in Mind: Neurobiology & Couple Therapy. Her continuing education presentation for GoodTherapy.org, titled Neurobiology and Couple Therapy, is scheduled for 9 a.m. PDT on December 12, 2014. This event is available at no additional cost to GoodTherapy.org members and is good for two CE credits. For details, or to register, please click here.

Falling in love is easy, and delicious. I remember the moment I fell in love with my husband—what I was wearing, how beautiful his eyes looked, the bright, cold February day. I saw the two of us in Technicolor and the rest of the world in black-and-white. It was a heady time; I was crazy in love.

Now I understand the science behind what was going on in my brain back then. Neuroscientists have studied madly-in-love folks, putting them in the fMRI machine while they look at a photo of their beloved. The parts of the brain that “light up” while looking at the lover are the same brain areas activated by cocaine—the reward centers. These researchers concluded that love is like a drug. I’ve never tried cocaine, but I’ve certainly tried love, and it is indeed a high.

Mona Fishbane

Mona Fishbane, PhD

We were awash in the chemicals of early love: testosterone (the hormone fueling the sex drive in both men and women), dopamine (focusing on “that special someone”), and oxytocin (the bonding hormone/neurotransmitter). I didn’t notice my lover’s flaws, nor he mine. It turns out that in early love, the critical part of the brain goes quiet. This is the science behind “love is blind;” we see our lovers through rose-colored glasses. Perhaps this is nature’s way of helping us bond with the beloved, oblivious to the problems that lie ahead.

Waking from the Spell

Crazy in love is a temporary state; the brain can’t stand the intensity forever. At some point the critical parts of the brain come back online, and we see our partners, warts and all. The jazzed-up chemicals settle down, and our drug high gives way to a calmer brain state. Romantic love, researchers find, yields to a tamer version, called companionate love. This happens somewhere between a year and three years into a relationship. Many couples are deeply disappointed when their romance fades into a more sedate version. They crave the high of early love, dopamine and all. Some have affairs, or divorce and remarry, seeking another hit of the drug. But eventually the new relationship will become old. The challenge: How to nurture love over the long haul? 

From Crazy in Love to Lazy in Love

When the newness and the magic fade, many of us become lazy in our relationship habits. Instead of dressing up for our beloved, we wear sweats to dinner. We become lazy in our interactions, blaming our partners when upset, not giving them the benefit of the doubt.  We become reactive to the negative, and overlook the positive in our relationships. We expect unconditional love, no matter what we dish out. But adult love is not unconditional; our partners may leave us if we behave badly.

Proactive Loving vs. Passive Loving

“I still love my wife, but I’ve fallen out of love with her,” a man said to me recently. He’s missing the hit of the drug, and is thinking of looking elsewhere for that love high again. To my mind, “falling out of love” sounds so passive—like falling into a pothole! I propose a more proactive view of long-term love, in which both partners work to create a great relationship. Once the initial glow wears off, the real work of loving begins. The stakes are high; while happy relationships are associated with health and longevity, the stress of an unhappy marriage can result in illness and earlier death.

Researchers such as John Gottman have identified the secrets to successful relationships. In longitudinal studies, he compared happy couples (he calls them the “masters”) and unhappy couples (the “disasters”). Happy long-term lovers are emotionally and socially intelligent. They nurture positivity and don’t get lost in negative reactivity with each other. They are generous, fair, and kind, practicing what I call “relational virtues.” When they hurt each other, these successful partners apologize. It turns out that love means having to say you’re sorry—a lot!

Nurturing the Positive in Your Relationship

So how can couples develop these skills of emotional and social intelligence? One of the most important skills is the ability to regulate your own emotions when you get upset. It’s so easy to “let it rip” and have a temper tantrum when your partner does something you don’t like. But staying calm in the face of stress is vital if you want to be a good lover. You also need to take responsibility for your own reaction rather than blaming your partner. As the wise Roman stoic philosopher, Seneca, said long ago, “Most powerful is the person who has himself in his own power.” Rather than getting into power struggles, each person can try to be his or her best self in interactions with one another. And partners can make room for mutual empowerment; research shows that happy relationships are more equal and respectful.

Happy couples do a lot to cultivate a positive tone in their relationship. This can be challenging, though, because our brains are biased toward the negative—better safe than sorry, so we notice an attack or danger more readily than we see the lovely things our partners may offer us. To counteract this negativity bias, many psychologists now encourage actively focusing on, noticing, and savoring the positive. One couple I know has a “Blessings Jar;” each time they notice something positive the other one does, they jot a note and put it in the jar.

For couples caught up in cycles of negativity, unable to notice the positive and having difficulty regulating their own emotions, couple therapy can be enormously helpful. Most people don’t act in nasty ways intentionally; they get triggered in interactions with their partners, and have a meltdown. And then they may blame their partners for the whole mess. Therapy can help partners take responsibility for their behavior, learn skills of emotional and social intelligence, and cultivate positivity. This is empowering, as they share the responsibility for building a relationship in which they can flourish. Rather than feeling like victims who blame each other, these couples become co-authors of their relationship.

The bottom line: To be a good long-term lover, there’s no free lunch, and there’s no free love. Love that lasts takes work. Happy couples do this work gladly, reaping the benefits in body and mind.

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Mona D. Fishbane, PhD, therapist in Highland Park, Illinois

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Barbie

    December 5th, 2014 at 11:14 AM

    It has taken me quite a few years to finally understand that love is work. Oh sure, the love is always there but like you said, the high does go away and I think that this is when many of us start craving that feeling again and we think that straying and finding it somewhere else will be the answer… not fully understanding then even with someone new eventually that feeling will go away all over again leading you to once again start looking for it in other places. I wish that more of us would understand sooner that to keep that loving feeling, it does take a lot more work than probably what most of us expected.

  • Lesley

    December 5th, 2014 at 1:53 PM

    Nuturing the positivity… yes that is the key… in all relationships, don’t you think?

  • Frances

    December 6th, 2014 at 5:59 AM

    I agree with Lesley. This is something that is correct for the young and the old, for the new and the established, for the marrieds and the friends. If you only nurture the negative, what do you really think that the outcome of it all will be? But if you look more at the things that you love about these people and that you would miss if you no longer had, then I think that you will want to be a better participant in the relationship and do more to grow it in a positive way.

  • Chapman

    December 6th, 2014 at 10:07 AM

    I have never had the mistaken belief that things would always be easy but it seems to me that if the love is real then it wouldn’t have to be quite so hard as it sometimes is.

    Don’t you think that there should be a little more ease and comfort with a relationship that is actually menat to be?

  • BURT

    December 6th, 2014 at 1:52 PM

    I am still just as much in love with my wife today as I was on the day I married her. The love is different, no less or more, just something very different than what we had them. I would never think of leaving her or looking elsewhere because she knows me like no one else does or ever could.

  • Mike

    December 6th, 2014 at 6:25 PM

    My 20-year marriage has never been better since my wife got angry at me one day and said, “You’re always critical of me, you never compliment me.” I realized that although I still appreciate many things about her, I rarely say them out loud. I’ve been able to establish a new habit of stating out loud every appreciation I have. No “faking” is necessary–all I have to do is be sure to notice these moments which already occurred in abundance. She has been reassured that I still love her and is in a better mood, as well as complimenting me more often. It really works!

  • Luke

    December 7th, 2014 at 11:27 PM

    I agree about this article. I have just separated from my partner after 5 years who is also a psychologist.
    I felt as though I compromised a lot and said sorry, unfortunately I didn’t seem to get this in return other than if I chose not to fight back, then she would, every time.

    Unfortunately though she has chosen not to look at couples therapy and has chosen to move out and move on with her life. Its only been a couple of weeks so very fresh but when I read articles like this one it makes me wonder why we can not give this type of treatment a go. I have always thought she should know the benefits as this is her line of work.
    When you get lazy and don’t work hard at your relationship it can slip away just like it has me.

  • Kevin C.

    December 8th, 2014 at 3:46 AM

    It is good to recognize that love has many stages but you do have to realize that even throughout all of these stages this must remain the one person that you would rather be with than anyone else in the world. When that particular feeling is gone, that is when you should know that you and your spouse have a real problem. There are many days and there have been over the course of our years together that I have not appreciated her enough and the same goes for her, but there has never been one day that I wanted to live without her.

  • Tom

    September 26th, 2015 at 11:23 PM

    This is a pragmatic insight and reminder. Thx

  • riley

    December 8th, 2014 at 10:35 AM

    Sometimes I look at these couples who have seemingly been together forever and you just have to admire them for staying so tenacious and dedicated to one another. You know that there have to have been dozens of times when most of them could have easily given up on each other but many of them didn’t and they chose to stay together. That is really saying something there.

  • Jeremy

    December 10th, 2014 at 3:54 AM

    There is something about the relationships which have been together for a long time that seem to have so much more over the new ones. The new ones might be a little more exciting, but the ones that have lasted, you know that there are something deep and meaningful there that maybe the rest of us really are missing out on.

  • becky

    July 28th, 2015 at 7:58 PM

    I’ve been in a relationship for 25 yrs. We were always so close, and very much in love. Over the past 5 yrs I can tell things are not the same. I feel we are roomates. He sleeps in chair a lot, we don’t talk about things that matter, we don’t have sex but 2x a yr, we don’t communicate and seem frustrated at each other. Tried to tell him I feel lonely and confused what happened to us. He says he loves me and nothings wrong. I dint knw where to go from here. He won’t do therapy, or go to a Dr to c if he is depressed.I’m so lonely

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