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Hot and Heavy or Slow and Steady: Changing Our Perspective on Love

In a recent New York Times article, psychology professor Sonja Lyubomirsky challenged ideals about long-term marital bliss and presented evidence that new love has a short shelf life.

As she outlines in the article, in a new relationship, our partner constantly surprises us because so much about him or her is a mystery. This uncertainty is exciting and often accompanied by high levels of desire and passion. Social psychologists refer to early stage of a relationship as passionate love – an intense period of longing and desire for a partner that is common in new relationships but tends to fade after about two years.1 Over time, our partners become more familiar and predictable, and we shift to a more companionate love stage. Although this stage typically involves a deep connection, it is less intense and often feels more stable and comfortable.1

When couples make the shift from intense passion to stable connection, they may identify this as unhappiness. People might attribute the shift in intensity – which is, in fact, a fairly natural decline in passion - to shortcomings in their partners, instead of seeing it as a byproduct of their relationship’s stage. Basically, if partners confuse passion with long-lasting love, a decline in passion may be seen as a loss of love.

For those of us who have persevered through this shift in our relationship and come out on the companionate side of love, we know that this less intense love has many benefits and that it often doesn’t mean the end of passion or desire. It is just not possible to maintain that early intensity forever. Though the relationship may be less intense after this shift, many of us greatly benefit from the deep connection we have with our long-term partners.

“Why, then,” Dr. Lyubomirsky asks, “is the natural shift from passionate to companionate love such a let down?” Part of the reason, she explains, is that we are hardwired to desire variety. Something new is more exciting than something familiar. What may not always occur to us, however, is that we may be able to find novelty with our old, familiar partner.

Another reason why this shift in passion may come as a disappointment is that our ideal picture of love is more in line with notions of passionate love than companionate love. We can thank romantic comedies, shows like the Bachelor/ette, and online dating commercials for contributing to the idea that once we find that one “true” love - our “soulmate” or “perfect match” - everything will be smooth sailing. From this perspective, our biggest challenge is finding this one person. Once we have him or her, our relationship and sex life will be easy and wonderful.

Although declines in passion are typical over the course of a long-term relationship, as I discussed here, there is evidence to suggest that the loss of passion is not inevitable and that some couples manage to maintain high desire and excitement for decades.3 As Dr. Lyubomirsky discusses in her article, one ingredient for maintaining passion is engaging in novel activities with a partner. Self-expansion theory4 supports this idea – engaging in a novel, challenging, and exciting activities with a partner boosts happiness more than simply spending time together doing something pleasant.5

Although we may, on occasion, stumble upon a novel activity while with our partners, this is also something we can work toward by purposefully building these experiences into our relationships. Couples can plan outings that involve new experiences, get each other’s perspective on a new topic, or sign up for a class together where there will be opportunities to learn something new. (Maybe salsa dancing? Or Italian cooking?)

In any long-term relationship, passion and desire will ebb and flow (the initial phase may just be the most intense flow) – but how we handle these changes is not completely in the hands of destiny. Of course, this doesn’t mean that all couples should stay together no matter what, as there are certainly valid reasons for ending a relationship. But I do think it is important to examine how our beliefs about love can impact our happiness. New love may have a short shelf life, but perhaps old love still holds the potential to be new again.

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1Berscheid, E., & Walster, E. H. (1974). Interpersonal attraction. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

2Knee, R. C. (1998). Implicit theories of relationships: Assessment and prediction of romantic relationship initiation, coping and longevity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 360-370.

3O’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.

4Aron, A., & Aron, E. (1986). Love and the expansion of self: Understanding attraction and satisfaction. New York, NY: Hemisphere.

5Aron, A., Norman, C. C., Aron, E. N., McKenna, C., & Heyman, R. (2000). Couples shared participation in novel and arousing activities and experienced relationship quality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology78,273-283.

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.

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