I fell in love in a castle. It’s a great story for my grandchildren, how their Zayde and I fell in love 46 years ago at the castle at Brandeis University. And it’s a true story. It was a bright and cold February day when Cupid’s arrow hit; I remember every nuance of how I felt, what I was wearing, how deep and sparkling I found his eyes. As our love grew, I looked into his eyes and saw myself reflected back — beloved, wonderful, special. I was intoxicated, and as we planned our future together, I was infused with hope and optimism. Four-and-a-half decades later, we are still married. We are best friends — but it takes work to cultivate our friendship and not to take each other for granted. We are no longer young; along with our aging bodies, our hope and optimism have become a bit tarnished. We are blessed in our relationship, but we do not live a fairy tale.
Love is delicious; but the journey of long-term love is complex. We humans love to be in love. Despite high divorce rates, we marry and remarry, hoping that we will find that special someone who will adore us, turn us on, heal our wounds, overlook our blemishes, and love us unconditionally. We wish for the passion of early love to last forever. Indeed, happily-ever-after is the romantic love theme song — despite the evidence to the contrary. How are we to balance our fantasy with reality? Why do we keep trying?
Social neuroscientists have found that we humans are “wired to connect.” We are interdependent and we need other people throughout life. Social rejection triggers pain centers in the brain. Loneliness and unhappy relationships negatively affect the immune system, and they are associated with illness, premature aging, and earlier death. We are not meant to fly solo. Our search for a mate is part of our DNA. Yet we often mess up our love life, finding disappointment rather than happiness.
Why is love so difficult to maintain over the long haul? There are multiple layers in answering this question — sociological, neurobiological, and psychological. We no longer have the societal supports and constraints that held marriages together in the past. Marriage today, notes sociologist Stephanie Coontz, is both “optional” and “fragile.” We don’t have to stay in an unhappy relationship, and we typically lack the support of extended family and a stable community that can support a couple and provide for their needs. The pressure on the couple is enormous. We look to love to sustain us through the twists and turns of life. But these expectations are often more than love can bear.
Americans, according to sociologist Andrew Cherlin, marry, divorce, and remarry more than the citizens of any other Western nation. He calls this the “marry-go-round.” Couples start out wearing rose-colored glasses; in early love, we often don’t see the partner’s flaws. But then, at around 12 to 18 months into the relationship, according to researchers, the spell of falling in love yields to a more realistic view of the partner. This can be deeply disillusioning and disturbing. The traits that were charming are now annoying. Our partner’s habits and idiosyncrasies are no longer cute.
The statistics on marital satisfaction over time are rather grim. (Much of the research has been done on heterosexual married couples; but the challenges of long-term love addressed here apply to unmarried gay or straight couples as well.) Relationship quality declines steadily after the early years. Romantic passion fades into a tamer version, called companionate love. But even companionate love deteriorates over time. Stresses, such as financial woes or the challenges of raising children, hasten the decline. In light of all this, that we still seek love and go to such great lengths to find it is amazing.
I believe that insights from relationship science and neuroscience can shed light on our perennial search for love — and on ways we can nurture love over the long haul. For example, I now know what was going on in my brain when I fell in love in that castle 46 years ago. With the use of an fMRI machine, researchers have determined that, for couples deeply in love, when they gaze at each other, reward centers of their brains light up — the same brain areas activated by cocaine. The conclusion: Love is like a drug. The brain chemical dopamine is flowing in early love, giving us that jazzed-up feeling (not to mention all the sex hormones coursing through our bodies). Oxytocin, the chemical that bonds mothers and babies, also bonds lovers. Released with orgasm, oxytocin lowers the stress hormone cortisol and facilitates attachment. At the same time, in early love, the critical/judgmental parts of the brain are quiet. This is the neural basis for the saying, “Love is blind.”
Alas, at some point we awaken from the spell. Our brains cannot sustain the emotional “high” long-term. Our critical faculties come back online and we see our partner, warts and all. As we lose the passionate craziness of early love, we may conclude that we have “fallen out of love.” Many people at this juncture decide they are with the wrong person and seek love elsewhere. Sometimes, this is a wise choice, if the relationship is troubled or abusive. But, often, the decision to look for new love is driven by a desire for another hit of the drug.
The phrase, “I fell out of love” troubles me; it is such a passive view. The expressions “falling” into and out of love sound as though one is falling into a pothole! The alternative to this passive view — in which we expect to be loved perfectly, without having to earn it — is a more proactive approach to loving. This proactive view is supported by research. Psychologist John Gottman, a preeminent couple researcher, demonstrates that love needs to be nurtured if it is to last over the long haul. His “Love Lab” shows that happy couples repair their relationship quickly and successfully after conflict. In fact, trust is built out of these moments of hurt and repair. Another of Gottman’s conclusions: Happy couples work together to co-create a relationship, tending their bond and their friendship. They maintain a “we” perspective.
We live in a larger culture that prizes individualism and competition rather than a sense of partnership. These are poor values to bring into an intimate relationship. I see the impact of these beliefs on my clients, who become caught in power struggles. Unlike Jewish tradition, which emphasizes responsibilities and obligations, the dominant American culture privileges rights and autonomy. In a good long-term relationship, both rights and responsibilities need to be cultivated.
Couples in distress often get trapped in cycles of reactivity, as their emotional brains take over and they enact problematic “dances” over and over again. And long-term relationships can get routinized. Couples become victims of their own habits, interacting on automatic pilot. By contrast, happy couples intentionally co-create a marriage in which both partners can flourish, living according to their higher goals and values. Rather than falling prey to habits and a stale, rote approach to their relationship, these fortunate pairs deliberately pay attention to and nurture their friendship.
The thrill of early love, abundant in dopamine, testosterone, and oxytocin, makes us excited and hopeful. The challenges of long-term love emerge over a lifetime (if we are fortunate enough to have a partner with whom we can grow). We can become cynical about love, yearning for the simpler hopefulness of youth and new love. But loving well over time means balancing hope and disappointment, living with ambivalence and complexity. And it means working really hard. Adult love is not unconditional; it needs to be earned every day.email print