Lasting Love: The Secret To Long-Term Relationships

07/08/2013 10:29 am ET

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By Helen Fisher

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 spent the evening sitting on a picnic table talking to one of the guys. Thirty-seven years later, they are still together.

We are born to love. That feeling of elation that we call romantic love is deeply embedded in our brains. But can it last? This was what my colleagues and I set out to discover in 2007. Led by Bianca Acevedo, PhD, our team asked this question of nearly everyone we met, searching for people who said they were still wild about their longtime spouse. Eventually we scanned the brains of 17 such people as they looked at a photograph of their sweetheart. Most were in their 50s and married an average of 21 years.

The results were astonishing. Psychologists maintain that the dizzying feeling of intense romantic love lasts only about 18 months to -- at best -- three years. Yet the brains of these middle-aged men and women showed much the same activity as those of young lovers, individuals who had been intensely in love an average of only seven months. Indeed, there was just one important difference between the two groups: Among the older lovers, brain regions associated with anxiety were no longer active; instead, there was activity in the areas associated with calmness.

We are told that happy marriages are based on good communication, shared values, a sturdy support system of friends and relatives, happy, stable childhoods, fair quarrelling, and dogged determination. But in a survey of 470 studies on compatibility, psychologist Marcel Zentner, PhD, of the University of Geneva, found no particular combination of personality traits that leads to sustained romance -- with one exception: the ability to sustain 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 content with each other. I've seen this phenomenon, known as "love blindness," in a friend of mine. I knew him and his wife-to-be while we were all in college, when they both were slim, fit, energetic, and curious: a vibrant couple. Today both are overweight couch potatoes. Yet he still tells me she hasn't changed a bit. Perhaps this form of self-deception is a gift from nature, enabling us to triumph over the rough spots and the changes in our relationships. I'm not suggesting you should overlook an abusive husband or put up with a deadbeat bore. But it's worth celebrating one of nature's best-kept secrets: our human capacity to love…and love…and love.

Earlier on HuffPost OWN: Moments That Can Make Or Break A Couple

  • 1. The Parking-Lot Puke Of Love
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  • In the beginning, you go out of your way to present the best version of yourself to your potential mate. Bad moods are concealed. Weaknesses avoided. ("Bowling? Oh, no thanks!") So when you punctuate an overly zesty dinner date with throwing up chile rellenos into a parking-lot tree pit, it might be his first chance to see the real, unvarnished, purely-you you. Assuming he doesn't shield his eyes in embarrassed disgust.
  • 2. The Seconds Following Your First Kiss
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  • When this dalliance flowers into a true-love, toothbrush-sharing situation, that first kiss is going to become the stuff of relationship lore, a creation myth shared with your fascinated/horrified children. Pay attention. You're going to need every detail.
  • 3. The First Time One Of You Drives
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  • A car ride together can be many things: a peacock-like display of assets; a show of skill and prowess; a date in itself (if you're 16 or a city dweller with a Zipcar). Whom does he trust to navigate -- you, him or that GPS lady? Who do you?
  • 4. The Time He Cooks For You And Fails
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  • 5. The Time You Cook For Him And Fail
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  • 6. The First Time You Actually REM-Sleep Together
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  • Sleeping together is one thing. SLEEPING together is another. Here is your future-every-night. So take careful, scientific note of any notable instances of snoring, sleepwalking, larcenous duvet-hoarding and/or drool puddles of unusual size. And then think carefully before accepting that next sleepover-party invitation, or in 10 years you might find yourself sleeping on the sofa wearing earplugs. (And if you're sure he's worth it, take this moment to invest in a really comfy sofa.)
  • 7. When You Meet His Best Friend From Back In The Day…
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  • … and you see a whole new side of him.
  • 8. Attending Your First Wedding As A Couple (Hopefully Not Your Own)
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  • Once you've gotten through chicken-or-fish, filibuster-length toasts and doing the YMCA dressed in taffeta with someone, you are essentially war buddies. Well? Would you want to go into buffet-style battle a hundred more times with this guy? If he still seemed charming when your pumps started pinching your feet, it's probably a very good sign.
  • 9. The Moment You're Tempted To Tell A Little White Lie
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  • A white lie is, after all, a lie. What are you really trying to hide?
  • 10. The Talk
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  • At some point, you're going to have to talk about sex. Nobody wants to. But you gotta. And how you talk about it might just inform hundreds of intimate moments down the line, so you both had better be as honest as you can possibly muster. If he's secretly hoping there's a French-maid costume in your shared future, or your interest in 50 Shades of Grey goes beyond writing a book report, and neither of you checks to make sure the other is on board, you're going to end up two not-so-secretly disappointed creatures.
  • 11. Finding The Text From His Ex
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  • The phone vibrates and you automatically pick it up because it looks just like your phone, only what does not look just like your phone is the text that is from Sue -- Sue? Yes, Sue. What matters here is your reaction: Are you shaking, dry-mouthed, certain of betrayal, racing through weeks' worth of texts that are strictly none of your beeswax? Does it make you merely curious to learn more about this man's past? Do you not care at all? Give that feeling as much attention as you do the message itself: It's a whole lot more revealing.
  • 12. Spending The $1,000 You Can't Really Spare
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  • You know what they say: You never forget your first major investment mistake. Maybe it's a bad 401(k) choice or buying a house at the height of the market. Maybe it's just a suddenly scrutinized habit of lending cash to unreliable relatives. Think of this as a mistakortunity! Finances will be discussed. Will they be shared? Or will they remain linked but forever separate, like Lucy and Ricky's twin beds?
  • 13. The First Time Your Baby Doesn't Sleep All Night
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  • Nothing tests a couple's mettle like sleeplessness, that most mundane of all torture devices. You're both raw, and since you've just created an extra human, the stakes are high; but the rewards for reconciliation are oh, so bounteous.
  • 14. When You Run Into The One Who Got Away
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  • … and you realize he's just another guy.

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