“I must admit you've got a way about you
But something here keeps warning me to doubt you
So don't fan the flame of love.
You've got a kiss that makes me thrill all over
But I've a hunch you're nothing but a rover
So don't fan the flame of love.” Peggy Lee
All human experiences, including romantic ones, can be boring. The remedy for boredom is often change and novelty. Should we then change our romantic partners in order to fan our romantic flames? One prevailing view believes that this is the case. Although change is indeed essential to emotional intensity, there are several types of changes, and emotional intensity is far from being the whole story when it comes to romance.
Change as the cause of emotions
“I want to live fast, love hard, die young and leave a beautiful memory. But don't ever think you can tie me down; I'm going to stay footloose and fancy free.” Faron Young
Emotions are typically generated when we perceive a significant change in our personal situation, or in the situation of those close to us. Like burglar alarms going off when an intruder appears, emotions signal that something needs attention. From an evolutionary point of view, it is advantageous to focus our attention and resources on changes rather than on stable stimuli whose nature we know already (Ben-Ze’ev, 2000, 2009). Change cannot persist for a long time; after a while, we construe the change as normal and it no longer excites us. Such decrease in intensity illustrates the hedonic adaptation tendency of the mental system in which we return to a relatively stable level of happiness after major positive or negative events have passed.
In this context, there is an amusing story about the American president, Calvin Coolidge, who once visited a farm with his wife. Soon after their arrival, they were taken off on separate tours. When Mrs. Coolidge passed the chicken pens, she paused to ask the man in charge if the rooster copulates more than once each day. "Dozens of times," was the reply. "Please tell that to the President," Mrs. Coolidge requested. When the President passed the pens and was told about the rooster, he asked: "Same hen every time?" "Oh no, Mr. President, a different one each time." The President nodded slowly, then said, "Tell that to Mrs. Coolidge." In light of this story, the expression "The Coolidge Effect" was coined for the phenomenon in which males (and to a lesser extent females) in mammalian species exhibit renewed sexual interest if introduced to new sexual partners.
In light of the central role of change in the generation of emotions, many scholars (and ordinary people) have argued that romantic love is fading over time. Indeed, sexual response to a familiar partner is less intense than to a novel partner. On successive occasions we adapt to the event and the experience yields less pleasure. In fact, the frequency of sexual activity with one's partner declines steadily as the relationship lengthens.
New research suggests that above common wisdom might be wrong, and that a significant percentage of long-term couples remain deeply in love. Daniel O’Leary and colleagues (2012) asked study participants this basic question: ‘How in love are you with your partner?’ Their national survey of 274 individuals married for more than a decade found that some 40 percent said "very intensely in love" (scoring seven on a seven-point scale). O’Leary’s team did a similar study of New Yorkers and found that 29 percent of 322 long-married individuals gave the same answer. In another national study in 2011, the dating site Match.com found that 18 percent of 5,200 individuals in the US reported feelings of romantic love lasting a decade or more.
Research in neuroscience identifies the possible mechanism behind these results. Bianca Acevedo and colleagues (2012) reported on 10 women and seven men married an average of 21 years and claiming to be intensely in love. The researchers showed participants facial images of their partners while scanning their brains with fMRI. The scans revealed significant activation in key reward centers of the brain—much like the patterns found in people experiencing new love, but vastly different from those in companionate relationships.
There are then strong theoretical considerations and empirical findings to support the short duration of romantic love. There are also strong empirical findings that support the long duration of romantic love. How can these conflicting empirical findings be accommodated? And are there theoretical considerations supporting the long duration of love?
In light of the robustness of the empirical findings supporting each side of the dispute over the duration of romantic love, it would be problematic to reject either side; a better way would be to limit the validity of each side to particular circumstances. Another significant issue in this regard is the need to propose theoretical considerations that support long-term romantic love. The major theoretical consideration supporting the short duration of romantic love concerns the essential role of change in romantic love, which is expressed in the evolutionary phenomenon of hedonic adaptation. I suggest that the process of intrinsic development, which is a kind of change but not an extrinsic change, can explain long-term love.
Extrinsic change and intrinsic development
“All change is not growth, as all movement is not forward.” Ellen Glasgow
Change is indeed crucial for the generation of emotions, but we should distinguish between extrinsic change and intrinsic development. Extrinsic change occurs in situations where sexual desire is enhanced when meeting a new partner. The change underlying intrinsic development occurs when better knowledge of the partner enables deeper understanding of each other and accordingly leads to greater romantic profundity and resonance.
A common dictionary definition characterizes the general notion of “change” is as follows: “To become different, typically without permanently losing one's characteristics or essence.” Development is a type of unique change; a common dictionary definition of development refers to “the process of improving by expanding, enlarging, or refining.” A change does not necessarily need time; the two states can differ from each other without assuming a temporal process common to both of them. Development assumes a temporal process, and since development is characterized as improvement over a period of time, time is both constitutive and constructive in development. Once we distinguish between change and development, we should further distinguish between intrinsic and extrinsic change. Intrinsic change relates to the essential qualities of something and is a natural part of its development. Extrinsic change is not connected to the essential nature of something or its development.
An extrinsic change is typically a one-time (or very short), simple event that causes the affective system to move to a different (typically, more intense) state. As the change is one-time event, its impact is limited in time and extent and is not necessarily positive. Development, which is a process in time and one that improves the agent’s state, has a more profound and positive impact.
The aspect of improvement in development is related to its intrinsic value. An intrinsic quality is one that is related to the essential nature of something. Our intrinsically valuable activities are compatible with our basic personality, which remains more or less stable. In profound, complex, intrinsic activities, the process of hedonic adaptation does not take place. We cannot say that we have adapted to intrinsic activities, such as intellectual thinking, dancing, or listening to music, so that it has been rendered worthless for us now. In these activities, we have a tendency to be satisfied and fulfilled as long as the activity is meaningful for us. Thus, in profound love, the change that keeps our interest and excitement high is not a superficial extrinsic stimulus, but rather a continuous intrinsic growth and development. If you are profoundly satisfied with the intrinsic connection with your partner (and the intrinsic flourishing of each of you), extrinsic change is not needed to fan the flame of your relationship.
Change and development in romantic love
“To know him is to love him, Just to see him smile makes my life worthwhile.” Teddy Bear
The distinction between change and development is directly related to the distinction between romantic intensity and profundity. Whereas extrinsic change mainly generates romantic intensity, the change underlying romantic profundity is that of meaningful development, which typically brings out the best in each partner.
Romantic intensity is like a snapshot of a given moment, but in romantic profundity the temporal dimension of love has greater significance. Romantic intensity expresses the momentary measure of passionate, often sexual, desire. Romantic profundity embodies frequent acute occurrences of intense love over long periods of time, along with romantic experiences that meaningfully resonate in all dimensions, helping the individuals to flourish and thrive in all aspects of love. Generally speaking, romantic intensity is mainly generated by extrinsic change, while romantic profundity is mainly generated by intrinsic development.
The extrinsic change underlying intense love is a one-time, simple event expressed in an acute emotion, or at most in an emotional episode; such a change has a brief impact, since the agent quickly adapts to the change. The growth underlying profound love is continuous, the result of the agent’s ongoing complex process of development, and is expressed in a long-term profound love. Since the agent is continually growing, the issue of adapting to the change and eliminating its impact does not arise. Whereas the impact of extrinsic change depends to a large extent on good timing, intrinsic development is constituted by time. In the case of extrinsic change, the agent remains more or less the same, and some change is needed to alleviate boredom; in the case of intrinsic development, the agent is continually developing while interacting with somewhat similar circumstances.
Extrinsic changes are crucial in generating the more superficial activities whose value depends more on extrinsic novel stimuli; the function of such stimuli is in preventing boredom. In profound love, however, intrinsic development is of greater value, though extrinsic changes are of some value as well. Intrinsic growth in romantic love, which expresses the agent’s nature and capacities, enhances the agent’s flourishing.
Profound love has the potential to nurture growth and improvement, and even to bring out the best in both lovers. This is exemplified in the notion of romantic resonance in which each partner amplifies the love in the other. Shared emotional experiences and joint activities are certainly an important aspect of romantic amplification (Krebs, 2015). Moreover, research has demonstrated that when a close romantic partner views you and behaves toward you in a manner that is congruent with your ideal self, you move nearer toward your ideal self. This has been termed the "Michelangelo phenomenon." Just as Michelangelo released the ideal form hidden in the marble, our romantic partners serve to "sculpt" us in light of our ideal self. Close partners sculpt one another in a manner that brings each individual closer to his or her ideal self, thus bringing out the best in each partner. In such relationships, personal growth and flourishing is evident and is typically demonstrated in claims such as: “I'm a better person when I am with her” (Drigotas, 2002; Rusbult, et al., 2009).
“If we don't change, we don't grow. If we don't grow, we aren't really living.” Gail Sheehy
The need for extrinsic change has been regarded as the main stimulus for increasing romantic flames. Changing a partner, or at least "taking an occasional walk on the wild side” (Kipnis, 2003: 12), is a prime example of such a romantic change. Making changes within the couple’s relationship, like exploring new places or new activities together, generates lesser intensity—which may at first seem like a kind of pauper’s joy. But when we distinguish between romantic intensity and profundity, these joint activities turn from a pauper’s joy to the main process underlying the development and enhancement of profound love. Romantic profundity is created through an ongoing process involving mutual intrinsic activities whose value typically increases with familiarity and constant use. Extrinsic changes have a certain value in fanning some romantic flames, but the essence of the romantic flame is in its intrinsic development.
Acevedo, B.P., Aron, A., Fisher, H. Brown, L. L. (2012). Neural correlates of long-term intense romantic love. Social Cognition and Affective Neuroscience, 7, 145-159.
Ben-Ze'ev, A. (2000). The subtlety of emotions. Cambridge, Ma.: MIT Press.
Ben-Ze’ev, A. (2009). Die Logik der Gefühle: Kritik der emotionalen Intelligenz. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp.
Drigotas, S.M. (2002). The Michelangelo phenomenon and personal well-being. Journal of Personality, 70, 59–77.
Kipnis, L. (2003). Against love: A polemic. New York: Pantheon.
Krebs, A. (2015). Zwischen Ich und Du. Eine dialogische Philosophie der Liebe. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp.
O'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 its correlates? Social Psychological and Personality Science, 3, 241-249.
Rusbult, C. E., Finkel, E. J., & Kumashiro, M. (2009). The Michelangelo phenomenon. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 18, 305–309.