If you want to read about love and marriage you've got to buy two separate books. ~ Alan King
Popular wisdom suggests that intensely passionate love is a rare phenomenon in long-term partnerships. The assumption is that passion peaks in the early stages of a relationship and then fades over time. In a recent study, however, researchers found that intense love for a partner (even after 30 years or more together) may not be as rare as people assume.
In two samples of married individuals in the U.S., researchers asked people a series of questions about their relationship including how intensely they love their partner. Contrary to expectations, in response to the question “how in love are you with your partner?” the most frequent response was “very intensely in love” (7 on a 7-point scale). In a national sample of married couples, 40% of wives and 35% of husbands married 30 years or more reported being very intensely in love with their partners. Things weren’t quite as positive in a sample of married couples from New York however, in which 19% of wives and 29% of husbands married 30 years or more reported being very intensely in love (the researchers attribute this difference between samples to the consistently lower levels of general happiness reported by people who live in Northeastern states).1
What was different about people who reported very intense love for their partners compared to those who didn’t? As you might expect, people who were intensely in love had more positive thoughts about their partners, thought about their partners more when separated from them, and had higher general life happiness. Also, in line with self-expansion theory as discussed here, here and here, people who were intensely in love reported engaging in more novel and exciting activities with their partners.
Frequent affection, such as hugging, kissing, and holding hands, was also more common among those who reported intense love. As I discussed in a previous post, there is more to sexual satisfaction than how often a couple has sex. In this study, general levels of affection in the relationship were more important to the experience of intense love than was how often couples had sex. In fact, 9% of the sample reported no intercourse in the past month, but a quarter of these people still reported being very intensely in love with their partners. Of those who reported no affection in the last month (4% of the sample), none reported intense love. It is not clear from this study whether intense love leads to more affection or if more affection promotes intense love (likely this goes both ways).
Although marital satisfaction was closely associated with feelings of intense love, some people who reported low satisfaction still reported intense love for their partners. Interestingly, the association between physical desire and intense love was strongest for people who reported lower relationship satisfaction. This finding suggests that couples with issues that undermine marital satisfaction (e.g., disagreements about money, child rearing, division of household tasks) may still have a strong physical connection and intense love for each other.
In short, it seems that long-term love may not be as rare as popular wisdom suggests. If you want to learn about love and marriage, you may not need to buy two separate books after all.
1O’Leary, K. D., Acevedo, B. P., Aron, A., Huddy, L., & Mashek, D. (2012). Is long-term love more than a rare phenomenon? If so, what are it’s correlates? Social Psychological and Personality Science, 3, 241-249.
Dr. Amy Muise - Sex Musings | Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Muise’s research focuses on sexuality, including the role of sexual motives in maintaining sexual desire in long-term relationships, and sexual well-being. She also studies the relational effects of new media, such as how technology influences dating scripts and the experience of jealousy.