The 12 Ties that Bind Long-Term Relationships

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That crazy thing we call love is perhaps one of the most studied and least understood areas in psychology. One reason is that many studies of romantic relationships are carried out not in real life, but in the lab. Making matters worse, many of these studies involve dating relationships between samples of convenience, consisting of undergraduate students. Though these students are certainly capable of close relationships, many of them haven’t matured enough to know themselves, much less what they want out of a romantic partner.

What better way to find out about love than to survey the experts? Not the psychology experts—the expert members of couples who have been married 10 years or longer. The surprising findings of this study, reported in the prestigious journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, showed not only that many people were still in love even after 10 years of marriage, but also which factors predicted the strength of their passion. As reported by Stony Brook University psychologist K. Daniel O’Leary (2012) and his research team, the findings provided a stark contrast to the typically glum view we have of long-term marriages. Rather than being doomed to a bland, mediocre existence, these couples endorsed their positive feelings toward their spouses with hearty (dare I say) enthusiasm. A whopping 40 percent of those married 10 years or more stated that they were “Very intensely in love”—the highest rating on the scale. Another 15 percent gave their marriages the second-highest rating on the love intensity scale. Perhaps even more surprisingly, those who stuck together for 30 years and more also gave their marriages high ratings with 40 percent of women and 35 percent of men saying that they were very intensely in love. Clearly, many couples are able to maintain high levels of passion as the decades go by well into their middle and later years.

Just as clearly, not everyone felt the same degree of intensity about their spouses. The researchers turned next to trying to predict which relationships would be marked by the strongest degree of intensity. Psychological theories of love focus on such quintessential features as passion, commitment, closeness, early experiences in relationships, emotional needs, and ability to communicate. These are, of course, important to the health of any relationship. However, when it comes down to predicting which relationships will make it for the long haul, the questions become almost equally pragmatic as romantic.

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Earlier research by psychologist Arthur Aron, who collaborated in this study, suggested that the people who are most intensely in love are the ones who feel a strong romantic attraction, but who also enjoy engaging in “self-expanding” joint activities that are novel and challenging. Based on findings from fMRI studies, the researchers also thought that strong love would involve regular strong doses of dopamine, the neurotransmitter that pumps up the brain’s reward circuits. The investigators couldn’t measure dopamine through a telephone survey, so instead they used questions that would tap into the amount of pleasure partners felt when they were around each other.

A few caveats about the study might have already come to your mind. First, and most importantly, the study was conducted only on couples who stayed together. The unhappy couples would have divorced and therefore not qualified for the research. On top of that, the couples obviously agreed to be in the study,  so it’s possible that the unhappiest ones simply didn’t want to confront the questions about their marriages—although it’s also possible that the unhappy ones would have welcomed the opportunity to complain about their spouses. In either case, the researchers believed that the bias of wanting to look either very happy or very unhappy didn’t play a major role in affecting the results.  One way that they made this assurance was by making the questions as focused on behavior as possible and therefore less subject to reporting bias. The study also has the obvious limitation of being conducted on partners in heterosexual marriages which may not be typical of all relationships.

Now that you’ve learned the basics of this fascinating study, it’s time to put your relationship to the test. See how you would rate your closest romantic relationship (marriage or otherwise) on these 12 key dimensions:

1. Thinking positively about your partner. Having positive thoughts about your partner means that you focus on the good, not the bad, in your partner’s personal qualities and character. Ruminating about the things that bother you can only lead you to magnify the small foibles which will make your partner even more irritating to you than you would otherwise feel.  People in good relationships engage in “sentiment override,” meaning that they remember more of the favorable than the unfavorable experiences they’ve shared together.

2. Thinking about your partner when apart. When you leave your partner for the day, the evening, or for an extended period of time, do you forget about his or her existence? Is it out of sight and out of mind for you? If so, this may be a sign that you’re not that much in love. You don’t have to spend every second apart sighing longingly, but the fact that your partner isn’t there should at least cross your mind some of the time during the course of the average day.

3. Difficulty concentrating on other things when thinking about your partner. If you’re able to set aside your thoughts about your partner without much effort, this suggests that your partner takes up only a small amount of cognitive load.  Multitasking isn’t particularly desirable when it comes to musing over your loved one. In the O’Leary study, this factor was particularly important for men.

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