A few weeks ago, I made the argument that falling in love is like smoking crack cocaine (see my 8/4/12 blog post). To very briefly recap, I pointed out that there are striking similarities between the brain state of a person falling in love and that of a person who has just smoked crack cocaine.
Cocaine.org provides a good summary of the effects of crack:
Smoking crack leads to enhanced mood, heightened sexual interest, a feeling of increased self-confidence, greater conversational prowess and intensified consciousness…It offers the most wonderful state of consciousness, and the most intense sense of being alive [that] the user will ever enjoy.*
I pointed out that if we were to substitute the words "smoking crack" with the words "falling in love,” then this summary could just as well describe the experience of new lovers’ high.
Since the cocaine-rush of new love feels so universally amazing, and poses no legal consequences, why don’t we all just make a lifestyle of repeatedly falling in love? Maybe the best kind of life is one of successive new loves with no marriage at all? After all, divorce could be instantly eliminated if marriage were banned.
Not so fast. There are three fundamental problems with this idea.
First, you don't get endless chances for your relationship(s) to absolutely blow your mind. The law of diminishing returns applies in the realm of love relationships. The reason we never forget our first love is that this was the first time our brains were soaked in the chemicals that produce the lover's high. In our first love relationship, the faint brush of our partner's hand on our own was enough to initiate a deep cascade of pleasure.
Over time, and in our subsequent relationships, the first touch of a partner's hand generally has diminished power to produce the same explosion of feeling. Eventually, even the amorous patting of Robert Pattinson will feel less thrilling and his partner may be tempted to pack up and move out of Camp Edward if novelty is the primary source of sexual attraction.
Likewise, over time, we don't get quite the same zap to our brains when someone haltingly whispers, "I think I love you." And if we play out this theme into multiple marriages, it becomes almost farcical. Picture a bride and groom, both on their fourth marriage, saying to each other, "I'll never leave you…I promise we'll always be together, until death do us part." As an objective witness of such a scene, wouldn't you be asking yourself, "Really? How can they stand on these promises when there is so much evidence that just the opposite is likely to occur? What potency of intent can now remain in such statements?"
Second, a particularly disturbing research finding is that too many trips to the altar seem to be associated with an earlier death. Researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine discovered that people who had been married at least three times were 34% more likely to die at any given time after the age of 50 than those who had limited themselves to just one union.
So, if the diminishing returns of new love affairs is not a compelling enough reason to rethink the starter-marriage strategy, perhaps the idea of an earlier death might motivate us to become the kind of person who can attract and sustain real love, and to accurately identify someone who is equally capable.
Third, if we can do what I've just suggested in the line above, then we may not necessarily have to choose between romance or stability. I gratefully received a very interesting article from a reader that validates what many people in happy long-term relationships would report anecdotally – it is quite possible to “stay in love” with your partner over the course of a long-term relationship. Acevedo and Aron (2009) studied this phenomenon across 25 studies and ultimately concluded that “love does not inevitably die out or at best turn into companionate love—a warm, less intense love, devoid of attraction and sexual desire” (p. 59).
While the obsessive quality of new love does fade, they find good evidence that “romantic love – with intensity, engagement, and sexual interest—can last” (p. 59). In satisfying long-term relationships we may not daydream about our lovers all day, but we can still feel a sexual charge when we are in their presence. (In comparison to new love relationships, the source of sexual desire is also qualitatively different in successful long-term relationships - more on this in a later blog).
I had not read the Acevedo and Aron article before writing my book, but their findings converged with what I observed in my research study, The Lifestyle Poll. That is, a significant number of wives in my sample (who had been in their relationships for about 8 years on average) reported that they are “still in love” with their husbands, would marry them all over again, and continue to feel sexually attracted to them. So, the idea that you have to choose between boring but stable love and sexually thrilling but short-lived romance seems to be a false dichotomy.
Marriage is not for everyone— many people lead deeply satisfying lives without ever marrying. However, I do know this: Lifelong love and romance in marriage is possible and a lifelong string of relatively brief cocaine-rush relationships is not likely to result in satisfaction or positive well-being.
*In Search of the Big Bang: What is Crack Cocaine?” Accessed February 10, 2011.http://www.cocaine.org/
**Acevedo, B. & Aron, A. (2009). Does a long-term relationship kill romantic love? Review of General Psychology, 13, 59-65.
***Macrae, F. “Your Third Marriage? It May be the Death of You, According to New Research.” (posted August 13, 2010). Accessed January 22, 2011. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1302632/Your-marriage-death-according-new-research.html