This week I called my husband and fretted, “Life as I know it is officially over.” “Why?” he answered with a sigh that exasperated, “What now?” “Thanks for asking,” I continued, ignoring the eye-rolling I heard on the other end of the phone, “When I was at the checkout line at the store, the female checker asked me if I was over 55 to see if I qualified for the senior discount.”
Finally, “Is that it?” he prodded. The eye rolling got louder. “Honey, I just turned 50 less than a year ago and she shoved me half of a decade toward 60, and stop rolling your eyes at me!” He sighed again, “You remember that I’m older than you, right? It’s probably because you look so wise.” “Is that supposed to be funny?” I countered, adding vocal intensity for emphasis. “How old was she, 19?” he consoled, “They think anyone over 40 is elderly.”
I wish it hadn’t bothered me, but it’s one of my flaws—worrying about getting old—maybe because I watched my mom’s health deteriorate before she passed away, bringing my own limited mortality into sharp focus. Later that evening, I was still mildly ruminating over the exchange and approached my husband again.
Me: Do you want to know something about me?
Him: That you have a low frustration tolerance? I already know that.
Me: No! But it’s related. I really really really really really really—how many reallys is that? Multiply it by ten—hate getting old. I’m trying not to, but I’m REALLY not happy about it.
Him: Why? It’s fun!
Me: What? It’s the opposite of fun—there is one thing it’s not and it’s called fun.
Him: We are getting old together—that’s what makes it fun.
I must admit I admire his attitude. He continually insists that he is “more in love,” with me than when we got married. The cynic in me expresses doubt at these declarations, but I came across an encouraging study recently suggesting that maybe he’s telling the truth.
Researchers interviewed 274 randomly-selected participants in long-term marriages in a national sample to find out how in love they would say they were on a scale of 1 to 7 where 1 was “not at all in love,” and 7 was “intensely in love.” They were surprised that 46.3% of women and 49% of men reported that they were “very intensely in love,” which was the most common response. Even for people married 30 years or more, 40% of men and 35% of women reported that they were very intensely in love. A replication study of a New York State sample reflected similar results.
The researchers also identified several strong love correlates. The couples were more likely to report being intensely in love if they also reported these characteristics:
- Thinking about the partner in positive ways.
- Thinking about the partner when not together.
- Physical affection. More physical affection in the relationship was predictive of “very intensely in love,” responses. Not a single individual who reported a complete absence of physical affection in the relationship also reported being very intensely in love.
- Sexual frequency. Sexual frequency was unsurprisingly correlative with intense love relationships. Couples with intensity were more likely to answer that their bodies responded when touched by their partners.
- Doing novel and challenging things together. Doing any activities together is associated with higher marital happiness, but novel and challenging things seem to increase the intensity of love relationships.
- Generally being happy. In short, people with high levels of global happiness were more likely to report being intensely in love.
- Wanting to know the whereabouts of the partner. I thought this was interesting. This was associated with “very intense love,” for men but not for women, which might make the fact that my husband uses the “find friends,” app to know where I am less creepy, and might explain why I never care to look at it to see where he is.
These findings are consistent with earlier research showing that when many people married long-term were shown pictures of their romantic partners compared to other close friendships, their brains lit up in the reward centers, like people in early romantic relationships. Researchers used to think people in long-term marriages were doomed to a less intense “companionate,” love, suggesting more friendship than passion. However, recent research is dispelling that myth. Couples can have enduring intensity in love relationships.
My experience with many couples is that they are waiting for love to “happen,” to them. They take a passive approach. Even though the correlates outlined in this study can be a “chicken or the egg,” question, I 100% believe people can upregulate passion and intensity in their long-term romantic love relationships. Personally, I can’t imagine taking a passive stance. If you are married, do what you can to make the most of it!
This study is good news for couples who want to grow old together, which I must admit, makes the process seem a lot less scary.
Does a long-term relationship kill romantic love? (2009) by Acevedo, B. P. & Aron,A. in Review of General Psychology, 13(1), 59-65. Doi: 10.1037/a0014226
Is long-term love more than a rare phenomenon? If so, what are its correlates? (2012) by O’Leary, K. D., Acevedo, B. P., Aron, A., Huddy, L., & Mashek, D. in Social Psychological and Personality Science, 3(2), 241-249. Doi: 10.1177/1948550611417015
Neural correlates of long-term intense romantic love (2012) by Acevedo, B. P., Aron, A., Fisher, H. E., & Brown, L. L. In Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 7(2), 145-159.
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