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This article is from the In-Depth Report Love, Explained: The Science of Romance

Discovering the Secrets of Long-Term Love

A survey reveals many American couples are still "intensely in love" even after a decade together--and hints at the reasons why



iStock/Jacob Wackerhausen

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During America's most popular TV event, the Superbowl, one much-anticipated advertisement featuring supermodel Adriana Lima painted a pretty sad state of affairs with regards to love.

In an ad for Kia cars, a married couple sleeps side by side and we are given a glimpse into their dreams. While the woman dreams of being swept away by a long-haired hunk on a horse, her husband is speeding down a racetrack in a car while Lima and a horde of bikini-clad women cheer him on. Although the dream eventually ends with the couple meeting exchanging weak smiles and going for a drive in the Kia (this is family television after all), the peak moments are clearly the fantasies. The deadened couple compensates for lack of love with wild dreams and a Kia car purchase.

Is this the inevitable end point of a long-term relationship?

Think again! A recent study by Daniel O’Leary and colleagues at Stony Brook University suggests that a large percentage of couples stay intensely in love even after a decade of marriage. The findings may also reveal the secrets to keeping intense love alive.

O’Leary and his team surveyed a nationally representative sample of 274 couples married ten years or more on the state of their love life. When they first collected the data, the researchers were dumbfounded by the large percentage of people who claimed to still be intensely in love. The couples answered the question "how in love are you with your partner?" on a scale of 1 to 7 from "not at all in love" to "very intensely in love." To the researchers’ surprise, the most frequent response was "very intensely in love" for both men and women. Forty six percent of women and 49 percent of men reported being "very intensely in love," according to the report, which was published in this month’s Journal of Social Psychological and Personality Science.

What are the secrets of intense love over the long term? Not surprisingly, the list was topped by physically affectionate behaviors such as hugging and kissing. The survey couldn’t determine cause and effect, but oxytocin, sometimes called the “cuddle hormone,” goes coursing through our bodies when we receive hugs or make love. We then feel closer to our partner and long-term bonding ensues. Decades of psychological research shows that social connection is a fundamental human need and essential for our physical and mental well-being. Affection is such an important element of love that the couples in the study who did not report any physical affection also reported a loveless relationship.

The researchers found that frequency of sex was also strongly associated with intensity in love, but that, interestingly, it was not always a requirement: 25 percent of those who had not had sex in the last month still reported being intensely in love.

Physical affection is so powerful that, even if a relationship doesn't always seem perfect (and what relationship always does?), it may help make up for the negatives. Certain couples, for example, reported low marital satisfaction due, presumably, to some of the common challenges couples face (e.g. differences in parenting styles, financial stress, divisions of responsibility). However, if their levels of physical affection remained high, the couple still reported intense love.

Thinking positively about one’s partner is another common element of couples intensely in love, according to the findings. When people see each other every day, they can sometimes take each other for granted and stop noticing the characteristics they used to appreciate about their mate. However, a little awareness and gratitude may go a long way in countering this tendency. When we get to know someone well, we naturally learn about both their strengths and their weaknesses but it is really up to us whether we choose to focus one side or the other. By focusing on what we appreciate and admire in our partner and being grateful for the value and gifts that our partner brings into our lives, we cannot but think positively and may feel more intense love as a consequence.

Love may also be cultivated in shared experiences. Couples intensely in love reported participating in novel, engaging, and challenging activities together. Some of the greatest moments of intimacy in a relationship come from the simple joys of cooking or exercising together, exchanging intellectual ideas over common readings, learning a new and challenging skill like skiing, sharing spirituality by attending church or meditating, and going on travel adventures. That togetherness may create a shared thread of life experience and memories.

What of happiness? Can a relationship lead to happiness? Certainly, it can. Yet the survey suggests that taking care of your own happiness may also be important. Personal happiness was associated with intensity of love, especially for women. In other words, one may think that tending to one’s own well-being through a night out with friends or time at the gym is selfish, but taking responsibility for one’s own happiness has the potential to drastically improve the quality of our relationship. Of course, being intensely in love may also be contributing to the happiness observed.

No matter what message Kia ads and marketing specialists may try to send you, long-term love is here to stay and has absolutely nothing to do with material goods. Surveys such as this one give us a far more accurate picture of how to maintain the flames of love. Sharing affection, thinking positively and with gratitude about our partner’s qualities, engaging in shared activities and being happy independently of the relationship may all be important features of an intensely loving relationship.

 Happy Valentine’s Day!

Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at the Boston Globe. He can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com or Twitter @garethideas.

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