February 17, 2008
Rare Few People Maintain New Love Feelings Long Term

For most couples mutual attraction gradually wanes. But for some statistical outliers the initial intense attraction seems to last.

Psychologists studying relationships confirm the steady decline of romantic love. Each year, according to surveys, the average couple loses a little spark. One sociological study of marital satisfaction at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Penn State University kept track of more than 2,000 married people over 17 years. Average marital happiness fell sharply in the first 10 years, then entered a slow decline.

Think about all those people becoming steadily less satisfied with each other. The outcomes of natural selection are cruel.

Are those who feel thrilled about their mates for many years different in some neurobiological way? One would expect that to be the case. Some scientists decided to investigate the statistical outliers using brain scans.

About 15 years ago, Arthur Aron, a social psychologist at Stony Brook University, became curious about couples outside the norm. His own work turned up the usual pattern of declining passion. But he was drawn to what statisticians call outliers, points way off the curve. These dots represented people who claimed they'd been madly in love for years. "I didn't know what to make of that," Dr. Aron says. "Was it random error? Were they self-deceiving? Were they deceiving others? Because it's not supposed to happen."

Not supposed to happen? I wouldn't say that. More likely there's a large range of genetic variations that govern how the brain develops in areas related to sex and bonding. Some people probably get genetic variations that make them feel romantically high for decades just like some people are natural optimists who always feel happy even in adverse circumstances.

Brain scans show the perpetually in love as different than the masses. Those people in long term relationships who profess to still feel very excited about their partners have more intense brain activity in the ventral tegmental area of the brain just like the newly fallen in love do.

Days after Mrs. Tucker's brain scan, Dr. Brown, the neuroscientist, sat in her book-lined office looking at the results. "Wow, just wow," she recalls thinking. Mrs. Tucker's brain reacted to her husband's photo with a frenzy of activity in the ventral tegmental area. "I was shocked," Dr. Brown says.

The brain scan confirmed what Mrs. Tucker said all along. But when she learned the result, she too was a bit surprised. "It's not something I expected after 11 years," she says. "But having it, it's like a gift."

The scan also showed a strong reaction in Mrs. Tucker's ventral pallidum, an area suspected from vole studies to have links with long-term bonds. Mrs. Tucker apparently enjoyed old love and new. In the months since, Dr. Brown analyzed data from four more people, including Ms. Jordan, who also showed brain activity associated with new love. The study is ongoing, and more volunteers are being sought.

This research has many ramifications. Do those who stay thrilled have lower rates of divorce? I would expect so. But people who have the neurological tendency to maintain intense romantic love probably are at risk for getting into relationships with people who do not share that tendency. So they can get their hearts broken pretty badly. If they could find each other (neuro-scan dating services that screen to pair people up with neuro-like potential mates) then they could bond to someone who will bond back just as strongly and for just as longly.

Longer term: Neurobiologists will develop a better understanding of why some maintain a long term romantic high off of pair bonding. They will eventually develop the ability to manipulate it. Will people decide to undergo treatments to prevent their romantic feelings from declining with time? Or will they turn down and suppress these feelings so that romance becomes less of a distraction from career ambitions?

What happens once bonding behavior gets traced back to genetic variations and genetic engineering of offspring becomes possible? Will people choose to give their children genetic variations that make them pair up in very stable long-lasting relationships? Or will they give future generations genetic variations that cause serial monogamy or general promiscuity? Also, will parents make male offspring and female offspring more or less different in their mating preferences?

The coming of offspring genetic engineering probably won't unite humanity into a single style of living. I expect society to divide up into groups that make different sorts of decisions about genetic endowments for how their children will form relationships, romantic and otherwise. Some groups will choose genetic variations that make their kids more monogamous. Others will intentionally create children who are more promiscuous. Still others will genetically engineer women to happily join polygamous marriages without jealousy.

Also see my previous post Romantic Love Seen As Motivation Or Drive Rather Than Emotional State.

Update: If you aren't going to get divorced there is some appeal to the idea of making yourself feel thrilled once again about your spouse. Tuning up your brain's love spot would probably increase your enjoyment of life. But if your spouse is abusing you or otherwise creating a disaster in your life then you really need a way to turn down your enthusiasm far enough to get out of the relationship.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2008 February 17 09:07 PM  Brain Love

Kralizec said at February 17, 2008 10:04 PM:
I expect society to divide up into groups that make different sorts of decisions about genetic endowments for how their children will form relationships, romantic and otherwise.
As often happens, I'm at a loss to cite "chapter and verse," but somewhere, Friedrich Nietzsche predicted that mankind had entered a period of experimentation on entire populaces. I think he was talking about differences of regime among nation-states. As examples, one can consider the comparatively minor differences between the European and American regimes; even these result in differences in total fertility and immigration that may make the difference between a populace's enduring and its passing utterly. Differences in genetic engineering of the sort you imagine seem likely to result in populaces that exhibit amazing strengths and unforeseen, deadly weaknesses. In order to imagine such unforeseen deadliness, one can consider the contemporary combination of Western liberty, technology, unilateral multi-culturalism (including especially religious tolerance), feminism, commercial emphasis, wealth, compassion, intellectual honesty, and respect for national sovereignty. Each of these innovations, individually, is beautiful in many respects, and that beauty is a cause of each innovation's adoption. The willy-nilly combination of these experimental factors, however, has come to light as dangerous to the Americans and deadly to the Europeans. If technological advance somehow continues, an innovation for which one can hope from genetic engineering is the cultivation of a class or race whose beauty lies in their being too strong, too deep, and too evil to fall so easily for such a deadly combination of apparent goods.
Rahein said at February 18, 2008 7:29 AM:

My wife and I have been married for 8 years and dated 3 years before that. We are still each other best friends and spend most of our time happily together. When all my coworkers complain that getting married means no more sex I just laugh. We still have sex 5 times a week at least, unless we are not feeling good. We took a month long vacation this summer and everyone said we would fight so much we would be divorced by the end of it. On the last day we both wanted to stay another month.

I think the real secret is not having preconceived notions of what roles your spouse has to play. Just let it work out and don't sweat the small stuff.

Bob Jenkins said at February 18, 2008 3:46 PM:

I think you're on the mark. If you look at the apes, they've already divided into very different ways of forming family relationships. So it would be no surprise for us to continue doing so.

Ruth said at February 18, 2008 11:10 PM:

If only men knew that all they have to do to keep love alive is make their woman feel special it could lead to world peace.

NikFromNYC said at February 18, 2008 11:47 PM:

"If only men knew that all they have to do to keep love alive is make their woman feel special it could lead to world peace."

Caveat. I agree with you. But must must alter your statement to ring true: "If only men knew that all they have to do to keep love alive is make their woman feel special YET REPLACEABLE, it could lead to world peace."

Legions of men have TRIED that. And because they had to make money and make wars and be jerks to other guys inORDER to stand out in a crowd of competitors to either just get lucky one night, or get her hand in love. Uh...might it occur to anybody that women have NEVER come out against the MONOPOLY power of the slave-labor diamond ring racket? Has any woman in history EVER wanted a synthetic, flaw-free, chemically identical to the real thing, RUBY ring? No.

Women sit back and act peaceful. Peace of ass is what we call you, in the locker room, and for very VERY V*E*R*Y good reasons, hypocrisy and acting innocent being mostly higher theory of what is at base the sad fact that women only mate with violent men who love to bully other, smarter men.

Nice, "feeling-based" women? They are the worst kind. Always trying to "save" some utterly psychotic jerk, while stringing along cool guys. Then they hit old age and have not experience with real relationships, so they fail to find a good man, at all, ever.

Dave said at February 18, 2008 11:49 PM:

Why is that though? Why do men need to make their women feel special? And, what is that? What's the formula for making my woman "feel" special. What does it take to *make* my woman feel special? Flowers every 2 weeks...special get-a-ways every 6 months...diamonds every 5 years? Is that the formula? Or, do I talk to her about things that interest her? Will that *make* her feel special? I would suggest that there is very little that I can do to *make* my wife feel anything! And if I could, what does that make her? An emotional robot..."you will feel happy now."

Can I suggest that "being in love" might mean that I am actually still very interested in my woman because she is actually still very interesting? Granted, I need to be open to see and admire her qualities, the big things and the little things about her that make her special. But, I believe that women expect men to *make* them happy when in reality it is more healthy for a woman to seek out things that fulfill her and excite her. In other words, do things that are interesting. Read, get involved, create and then talk about it with your spouse. That's interesting. That's exciting. That's someone to stay in love with. Think about it...after 15 years of marriage, looking at your spouse and thinking, "Wow, they are really cool / interesting / sexy / different / thoughtful / generous / intelligent." (You pick the qualities that *you* admire.)

At the same time, men need to stay interesting. Drinking beer while watching sports and ignoring your wife...probably not interesting to your wife.

In other words, be intesting, be someone to capture the interest in your mate and at the same time admire her for all of her qualities.

Michael said at February 19, 2008 2:11 PM:

I think the worst part about evolution is the fact that as the age of a woman increases past 30, they become increasingly less attractive to me. That's one thing I would change, if I could. Beauty should be uncoupled from a woman's fertility. Evolution is very cruel, in that it makes you less attracted to your partner over time. If I could reconfigure my brain chemistry, I would make myself more attracted to older women, so I wouldn't have that problem.

Bob Badour said at February 19, 2008 3:46 PM:

In a cruel twist of fate, shortly after Michael gets his wish, rejuvenation therapies will make women increasing less attractive to him. ;)

J.J. Yong said at February 20, 2008 7:17 AM:

This topic is too subjective. However, "natural selection" happens when we're too selective on finding partners based on physique, career, and etc.

Grace Chiang said at August 9, 2010 9:53 PM:

Very well said Dave, thank you.

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