I have a friend who met her husband at a red light. She was 15, in a car with a pile of girls. He was in another car with a crowd of boys. As the light turned green, they all decided to pull into a nearby park and party. My friend spend the evening sitting on a picnic table talking to one man. Thirty-seven years later they are still together. And both still maintain they are very much in love.
We are born to love. This feeling of elation that we call romantic love is deeply embroidered into the human brain. But can it last? For years I thought my friend and her husband were deluding themselves. Then something happened at a New York art opening to change my mind. I was talking to a pal when he spontaneously declared that he was still deeply in love with his wife—after 23 years of marriage. “In love,” I asked, “with butterflies in the stomach? Or feelings of deep attachment?” He announced boldly: “inlove.” Equally bizarre, minutes after he vanished into the crowd, his wife appeared. And she, too, spontaneously maintained she was still in love with her husband. Were these people putting me on? Later I found them together and asked? Both looked astonished. Apparently neither had known the other had divulged their feelings.
Can romantic passion be sustained after years of soothing cranky babies, pinching nickels, entertaining irritating relatives, moaning at her bad jokes and washing his smelly socks? This was what my brain scanning colleagues and I set out to discover in 2007. Led by Dr. Bianca Acevedo, our team started to ask everyone we met, searching for people who said they were still madly in love with their long term spouse. These lovers popped up everywhere. An 72 year old retired professor; a 54 year old financier who met her husband on the plane from Boston to New York; a man who met his wife in a hot air balloon: aging lovers weren’t difficult to find. And with time we scanned the brains of 17 people as they looked at a photograph of their sweetheart. Most were in their fifties. All staunchly maintained they were still wildly in love with their partner–after an average of 21 years of marriage.
The results were astonishing. Psychologists maintain that the dizzying feeling of intense romantic love lasts no longer than 18 months to three years—and the vast majority of us believe it. Yet these middle aged men and women showed much of the same brain activity as did the young lovers we had studied years before, individuals who had been intensely in love an average of seven months. Indeed, these two groups showed only one important difference: Among our long term lovers, brain regions associated with anxiety were no longer active; instead they showed activity in areas associated with calm. These 17 participants weren’t the only ones to maintain this passion, either. When Bianca and other colleagues subsequently asked 315 long-married men and women in a phone survey, 46% reported that they were still “very intensely in love” with their spouse.
Exactly what these people on the phone meant by “very intensely in love,” these scientists don’t know. Equally mysterious: no one knows how these lovers–or anyone else–manage to keep this wild passion alive. We are constantly told that happy marriages are based on good communication, shared values, a sturdy support system of friends and relatives, a happy, stable childhood, fair quarrelling, and dogged determination. But in a survey of 470 studies, psychologist Marcel Zentner found no particular combination of personality traits that lead to long-term romance. With one exception: sustaining your “positive illusions.” Men and women who continue to maintain that their partner is attractive, funny, kind and ideal for them in just about every way remain happy long term. Known as “love blindness,” I saw this phenomenon in a friend of mine. I knew him and his wife-to-be while we were all in college—when both were slim, fit, energetic and curious, a vibrant couple. Today both are heavy, dour, laconic couch potatoes. Yet he still tells me she hasn’t changed a bit—as he looks at her with an adoring smile. Perhaps this form of self deception is a gift from nature—enabling us to triumph over the rough spots in our partnerships. I am not suggesting you should overlook an abusive husband or a deadbeat bore. But with the annual mid winter festivities soon upon us, it’s worth celebrating one of nature’s best kept secrets: our human capacity to love…and love…and love.