There may now be hard science behind the notion that true love can last a lifetime. A neurological study from Stony Brook University revealed that couples who experience "romantic love" long-term can keep their brains firing similarly to the brains of couples who have just fallen in love.
The research team, led by Bianca P. Acevedo and Arthur Aron, found that the "dopamine-rich brain regions associated with reward, motivation and 'wanting'" were activated in similar ways between newly in-love couples and those who've experienced "romantic love" over the course of many years. They defined "romantic love" as being characterized by "intensity, engagement and sexual interest." This type of love was associated with marital satisfaction, well-being, high self-esteem and relationship longevity.
So what does this mean? It means that couples who maintain "intensity, engagement and sexual interest" without that extra layer of anxiety associated with "obsessive love" can in fact sustain that sparkly, cloud-nine, butterflies-in-your-stomach feeling of being in love. This optimistic conclusion led Dr. Acevedo to state, "Couples should strive for love with all the trimmings.... Couples who've been together a long time and wish to get back their romantic edge should know it is an attainable goal that, like most good things in life, requires energy and devotion."
If lasting love is an attainable goal, then what's getting in our way of achieving it? What keeps so many people from maintaining that excitement and closeness that they once felt with a partner? What are some of the ways that couples can rekindle the fire that's started to dwindle? I would argue that many couples can preserve "romantic love" by avoiding the trappings of a "fantasy bond."
The fantasy bond is a concept developed by my father, psychologist Robert Firestone, that describes an illusion of connection that replaces real acts of love, affection and relating. A fantasy bond exists when the form of a relationship becomes more important than the substance -- when a couple starts to forgo their individuality, losing the "me" to become a "we."
As Robert Firestone explains it:
Perhaps the most significant sign that a fantasy bond has been formed is when one or both partners give up vital areas of personal interest, their unique points of view and opinions, their individuality, to become a unit, a whole. The attempt to find security in an illusion of merging with another leads to an insidious and progressive loss of identity in each person.
This loss of identity is detrimental to sustaining romantic love. Initial attractions are very much based on a sense of interest in, intensity toward and attraction to a separate person. This combination of emotional, intellectual and physical engagement is necessary to keeping love alive. Yet we forgo this excitement in favor of a safer arrangement in which we regard our partners as extensions of ourselves instead of appreciating them for the autonomous individuals they are.
We do this because, although most of us say we want real love, many of us find real love hard to tolerate. Love threatens our defenses. It can make us feel uncertain and unsafe to care so deeply for someone else or to be seen in a different light than we've been seen or have come to see ourselves over the years.
As my father wrote:
[The fantasy bond] explains people's compulsion to relive the past with new relationships i.e., to form illusory connections that invariably lead to a reenactment of defensive styles of interacting developed in childhood.... Once a fantasy bond is formed, individuals prefer to maintain a defensive posture rather than trusting and investing genuine feeling in others.
A fantasy bond allows us to feel secure and connected to someone else while numbing us against some of the more painful emotions that love stirs up, such as existential anxieties; fears of loss; or memories of hurt, longing or rejection. Unfortunately, we cannot selectively block out pain without also blocking out joy. Without knowing it, couples tend to set up routines and fit each other into roles rather than face the unpredictability and inherent challenges that come with maintaining passion, excitement and a deep sense of fondness for another person separate from themselves.
So what are some signs that you may be in a fantasy bond?
- Less eye contact
- A breakdown in communication
- Less-frequent affection and less-personal or routinized lovemaking
- A loss of independence
- Speaking as one person and overusing "we" statements
- Using everyday routines as symbols of closeness in place of being emotionally close
- Engaging in role-determined behaviors (e.g., as father, wife, breadwinner, decision maker) rather than developing yourself based on your personal goals and interests
- Using customs and conventional responses as substitutes for real closeness and relating
If you notice that your relationship has some of these qualities, don't despair or run for the door. A fantasy bond exists on a continuum. It isn't a black-or-white, good-or-bad label for your relationship. Once you realize that you have fallen into some form of a fantasy bond, it is possible to reemerge as a happier, more in-love version of yourself. To do this, you must first investigate and explore how this bond manifests itself and hurts your current relationships. Then you can stop the behaviors that maintain the fantasy connection and engage in behaviors that encourage real and meaningful contact with your partner. You can stop reenacting hurtful dynamics and strengthen your capacity to love and be loved. Ultimately, you can become the person you want to be in your relationship -- minus the fairytale, but with a much happier ending.
Learn more about the fantasy bond here.
Join Dr. Lisa Firestone for the eCourse "Creating Your Ideal Relationship."
Read more from Dr. Lisa Firestone at PsychAlive.org.