Editor’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.
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.
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