A new study shows it's possible to be madly in love even after 20-some years. Nice news in today's world where the idea of lasting love seems almost quaint. The study from Stony Brook University in New York used brain scans to find that some long-married couples have the same intensity of attraction from the "dopamine-rich" area of the brain as newly in-love couples. According to the study's co-author Arthur Aron, "We're talking about people who have this intense connection, huge amounts of physical liveliness and passion."
We all remember the intense butterflies-in-the-stomach feeling of falling in love... and the uncertainty over whether those feelings are returned. This study suggests that after 20 years you can have the excitement without the apprehension. The area of the brain associated with anxiety was less active for the long marrieds than it was for new couples.
Unfortunately the findings shed no light on the "how." A small sample, it doesn't delve into what happens in the middle -- the years between wedded bliss and empty nest passion. Skeptics claim, the study only shows that "It's possible to fall in love again rather than it's possible to maintain new love."
After 20 years couples have survived career strain and financial drain. Parents subside for years on baby-talk and carpool roulette. And that's if they're lucky enough to avoid life's other challenges. If you've made it through that, perhaps you have to rediscover your partner. You either realize you have nothing in common or you fall in love again.
In the course of interviewing 40-something women for 40:20 Vision, I've found some who still have an intense passion. Then others who don't think they'll ever have that first love flutter again but ended up with something they say is better: A partner who is there for them, makes them laugh and shares the highs and lows. Someone who you trust enough to give space and take space... and who you still can get it on with even it if has its peaks and valleys. The one thing everyone agrees on is the ups and downs. It's really how you handle them that counts.
One observation the study author makes is that the results make many couples feel inadequate about their relationship. That's something 40-something women relate to. We love to compare after all. Which may be why so many women expressed disbelief or awe about a recent interview with Sting on his relationship with Trudie Styler. They seem to be living proof of the study's findings. In addition to the Tantric sex rumors, they cite a few other reasons for the success of their 18-year marriage:
'Relationships aren't easy, but we're lucky because we actually like each other,' says 59-year-old Sting. 'We love each other -- that's a given -- but Trudie lights my world up when she comes into a room. I don't take her for granted.'
'It's important to have frank discussions about what the other wants. To be in a relationship that is like a little lifetime, that's a challenge,' Styler admits.
'Being apart juices the relationship,' says Sting, noting, 'There's a playfulness we have; I like the theater of sex.'
How does this compare to 40-somethings who have survived years of marriage while living real lives? Surprisingly it's pretty consistent. Here are a few perspectives:
- Have tenacity. Like Trudie says, it's a challenge to stay in a relationship.
One thing I'd tell my 20-year-old self is that I'm glad that I hung in there in the marriage. I had tenacity. A lot of young people would've said, 'I am out of here.' I'm so glad I learned what commitment is. You can't be inside anyone else's marriage but when I see my girlfriends getting divorced now, I'm like, 'Are you kidding me? Over that?' I would say to be committed and tenacious and kind... but don't forget about yourself in the process. (40-something, Chicago, IL)
- Be aware of each other's needs and expectations. It's being on the same page, even if it's to expect the unexpected.
We truly adore each other. After 17 years I'm happy to see him when he walks in the door. Of course sometimes I want to punch him in the face but overall, he makes me happy. For the most part our expectations of each other are always met. Many people are unhappy because they're constantly disappointed when their expectations aren't met. If you're well aware of what your spouse needs and wants and you're willing to do it, it makes for a lot more peace, happiness and overall enjoyment. (40-something, Detroit, MI)
- You have to like each other. It keeps the lows from being deal-breakers.
Sometimes you're in sync and sometimes you're not. Through the years it's been back and forth. Sometimes he's so amazing. I just see him and think, 'wow.' And then sometimes I'm 'uggh, I'm so not attracted to him.' He probably hasn't even done anything. He's the exact same. It's just me. But as long as you both have good intentions and you treat each other like friends that you like... as opposed to someone you're pissed at, you'll be okay. (40-something, Stamford, CT)
- Spend some time apart.
You have to cultivate your own interests. It keeps it interesting. When you do stuff that doesn't involve the other person it makes it more fun to be together. If you don't have a social life, an intellectual life or some kind of activity that isn't all about your significant other, it's really hard to feel that you have a sense of identity. (40-something, Los Angles, CA)
- Don't take each other for granted. Make an effort to make alone time together.
It could be just be watching a comedy or movie together or going to dinner. We do a date one night a weekend. We go out just the two of us and try to not talk about the kids. Have something outside of raising your kids or talking about the business of running the house or all that stuff. (40-something Chicago)
- Allow yourself to be vulnerable. You have to trust that you can be yourself (and feel safe indulging in that theatrical sex if you are Sting and Trudie).
You can't have real intimacy unless you're willing to be vulnerable, both emotionally and sexually. You can't really be yourself during any sort of sexual intimacy if you don't allow yourself to feel vulnerable. It only comes from being safe with somebody, trusting them. (40-something, Detroit, MI)
- And last but not least...stay physically connected no matter what.
Stay intimate and close, especially after you have a child. He is not a roommate. It's an intimate relationship. Stay connected physically. And hold hands. Say I love you. (40-something, Manhattan, NY)
Who knows, perhaps knowing that you can recapture that first love rush without the fear can be motivation for couples to stay vs. stray.