Do you know anyone who’s been married for fifty years or more? In the past it wasn’t unusual to know one or two couples who made it to their golden wedding anniversary. And the reason most didn’t last had more to do with health than divorce. Today, couples who don’t marry seem to split up more quickly than couples who do, and many of the married couples either don’t make it to their twenty-fifth anniversary or stay together without happiness. Is it inevitable to lose the love that brought you together?
The experts in long-lasting love agree on two things: first, love changes over time and second, love can last a lifetime—if the couple pays attention to their relationship.
At the beginning of a relationship, it’s all very exciting. Some have described it as “butterflies in the stomach” or feeling intoxicated. The new partner is funny and charming and intelligent. Nothing else matters but being with the loved one, spending time together, and doing things together. Being “in love” has been called a form of temporary insanity, and one that you think—and hope–will never end because it feels wonderful. It feels so good because of the chemical cocktail bubbling inside your body! There are increased amounts of epinephrine and norepinephrine, excitatory neurotransmitters, which make your heart beat faster and lead to feelings of excitement and zest. Dopamine levels rise, also, which increase motivation and sexual drive. When dopamine levels go up, serotonin levels go down, leading to the anxiety felt when the new love isn’t calling or texting back quickly enough and to the obsessive thoughts about and wanting to be with him or her. This chemical cocktail is initiated by the release of a chemical called phenylethylamine (PEA), and it helps us pay attention to the feelings of attraction the other’s chemicals stimulate.
As heady as the feelings of attraction or new love can be, they do start to fade over time. According to Daniel Amen, M.D., and Helen Fisher, Ph.D., sometime between six months and two years after the initial chemical storm starts, the brain begins slowing down production of the “in love” chemicals and switches to the “I love you” mixture of oxytocin and vasopressin. Oxytocin is a hormone that creates feelings of bonding, trust, and belonging, whereas vasopressin increases sexual persistence and dominance, leading to attached, committed relationships.
Some people take the change in love over time as proof that the love has gone because it doesn’t feel the same. Though it may not be as wildly passionate, over time love can become stronger and deeper. The important factor is paying attention to the relationship. Harriet Lerner, Ph.D., an expert in relationships, acclaimed author, and long-time wife of Steve, has written a book called Marriage Rules. In it, she lists rules for making relationships better. Some of her top tips are:
- Offer an apology when one is needed
- Make your partner feel special, valued, and chosen
- Respect differences, even the ones that drive you crazy
- Change yourself first rather than waiting for your partner to change
- Stop the negativity—it tears the relationship apart
Please see her book for more ideas on making your relationship strong enough to last the test of time. Try out one or two consistently for a month and see what a difference they make. As Ms. Lerner says, “It helps if you occasionally muster the maturity to bring your best self to the relationship even when the other person is being a jerk.”