A commercial for Kia Motors featuring supermodel Adriana Lima that aired during the Super Bowl painted a pretty sad state of affairs with regards to love: A married couple sleeps side by side, as viewers gain a glimpse into their dreams. While the woman dreams of being swept away by a long-haired hunk on a horse, her husband is speeding down a racetrack in a car as Lima and a horde of other bikini-clad women cheer him on. Although the dream eventually ends with the couple meeting, exchanging weak smiles and going for a drive in the Kia, the peak moments are clearly the fantasies: The deadened couple compensates for lack of love with wild dreams and a Kia car purchase.
Is this the inevitable end point of a long-term relationship?
A study by Daniel O’Leary and colleagues at Stony Brook University suggests that a high percentage of couples stay intensely in love even after a decade of marriage. The findings may also reveal the secrets to keeping intense love alive.
O’Leary and his team surveyed a nationally representative sample of 274 couples married 10 years or more on the state of their love life. When first collecting the data, the researchers were dumbfounded by the large percentage of people who claimed to still be intensely in love. The couples answered the question, "How in love are you with your partner?" on a scale of 1 to 7—"not at all in love" to "very intensely in love." To the researchers’ surprise, the most frequent response for both men (46%) and women (49%) was "very intensely in love," according to the report, which appeared in The Journal of Social Psychological and Personality Science.
So what are the secrets of intense love over the long term?
Physical Affection & Sex
Not surprisingly, topping the list were physically affectionate behaviors such as hugging and kissing. The survey couldn’t determine cause and effect, but oxytocin, sometimes called the “cuddle hormone,” goes coursing through our bodies when we receive hugs or make love. We then feel closer to our partner, and long-term bonding ensues. As I discussed in an earlier post, decades of psychological research show that social connection is a fundamental human need, essential for our physical and mental well-being. Affection is such an important element of love that the couples in the study who did not report any physical affection also reported a loveless relationship.
The researchers found that frequency of sex was also strongly associated with intensity in love, but that, interestingly, a high frequency was not always a requirement—25% of those who had not had sex in the last month still reported being intensely in love.
Physical affection is so powerful that, even if a relationship doesn't always seem perfect (what relationship does?), it may help make up for the negatives. For example, certain couples reported low marital satisfaction due, presumably, to some of the common challenges couples face —differences in parenting styles, financial stress, divisions of responsibility, etc. However, if their levels of physical affection was high, such couples still reported intense love.
Focusing on the Positive
Thinking positively about one’s partner is another common element of couples intensely in love, according to the findings. When people see each other every day, they can sometimes take each other for granted and stop noticing the characteristics they used to appreciate about their mate. However, a little awareness and gratitude seems to go a long way in countering this tendency. When we get to know someone well, we naturally learn about both their strengths and their weaknesses, but it is really up to us whether we choose to focus on one side or the other. By focusing on what we appreciate and admire in our partner and being grateful for the value they bring into our lives, we cannot help but think positively and may feel more intense love as a consequence.
Partners may also cultivate love in shared experiences. Couples intensely in love reported participating in novel, engaging, and challenging activities together. Some of the greatest moments of intimacy in a relationship come from the simple joys of cooking or exercising together, exchanging ideas over common readings, learning a new and challenging skill, or sharing spirituality. That togetherness may create a shared thread of life experience and memories.
Can a relationship lead to happiness? It certainly can. Yet the survey suggests that taking care of your own happiness may be crucially important. Personal happiness was associated with intensity of love, especially for women. In other words, one may think that tending to one’s own well-being via a night out with friends or a trip to the gym is selfish. But taking responsibility for one’s own happiness has the potential to drastically improve the quality of your relationship. (Of course, just being intensely in love may also be contributing to the observed happiness.)
No matter what message advertisers may try to send you, long-term love is here to stay—and it has absolutely nothing to do with material goods. Surveys such as this one give us a far more accurate picture of how to maintain the flames of love. Sharing affection, thinking positively and with gratitude about our partner, engaging in shared activities, and being happy independently of the relationship may all be important features of an intensely loving relationship.
For more on the Science of Happiness, check out The Happiness Track: How to Apply the Science of Happiness To Accelerate your Success (HarperOne, 2016)
© 2014 Emma Seppala, Ph.D.