Does Loving Longer Mean Loving More?

It all depends on what Iove is.

Posted Aug 16, 2016

Susan Lowenstein: “Just admit it. You love [your wife] more.”
Tom Wingo: “No. Not more, Lowenstein. Only longer.” — Pat Conroy, The Prince of Tides

Loving longer is typically associated with lower romantic intensity, but is it also associated with profound love? Does loving longer increase or decrease romantic love? It all depends on what we mean by love.

When loving longer means loving less

Emotions typically occur when we perceive significant positive or negative changes in our personal situation—or in that of those related to us. From an evolutionary point of view, it is advantageous to focus our attention on changes rather than on stable stimuli. Changes indicate that our situation is unstable, and awareness of this is important for survival. When we become accustomed to the change, mental activity decreases because there is no need to waste time and energy on something we've already adapted to. 

Acute emotions are associated with instability, great intensity, and partiality. These emotions are brief, almost instantaneous intense experiences because a system cannot be unstable for a long period and still function normally; it might explode if there is a continuous increase in emotional intensity. Moreover, a change cannot persist for an extended period of time. After a while, we construe the change as normal and it no longer stimulates us. If emotions were to endure for a long time regardless of what was occurring in the environment, they would not have an adaptive value. The exact duration of an acute emotion is a matter of dispute. Depending on the type of emotion and the given circumstances, it can last from a few seconds to a few hours and sometimes even longer.

If acute intense emotions are brief, then loving longer might appear to mean loving less—the intensity of love paling with time, turning from a passionate emotion to a companionate experience between two acquaintances.

Despite the brief duration of acute emotions, we can divide longer emotional experiences into two major groups—extended and enduring emotions.

Extended emotions (or emotional episodes) involve successive repetitions of occurrent experiences that are felt to belong to the same emotion—for example, being angry for hours or experiencing sexual desire throughout the night. If extended emotions are mere repetitions of a given emotion, the extension in time is not exciting and we easily become bored. Here loving longer means loving less intensely.

Extended emotions do not solve the conflict between loving longer and loving more, because there is no element, such as greater complexity, that can make the extended love more meaningful and profound. 

Source: oliveromg/Shutterstock

When loving longer means loving more

Enduring emotions involve a qualitative meaningful process of development that comprises some level of achievement. This also has dispositional features that enable it to endure over a long time. A long-standing romantic love between two partners is an example of such an emotion. The process of development turns these emotions from a mere watered-down imitation of the original experience into a deep romantic connection.

A major difference between acute and enduring emotions is that acute emotions are usually generated by external change, while enduring emotions are typically generated by internal, meaningful development, which is a different kind of change. Development is “a process of improving by extending, enlarging, or refining” (Oxford English Dictionary). Development requires a temporal process, and if development is characterized as improvement over a period of time, then it is both constitutive and constructive in such positive development. This process of positive development is profound and has an aspect of “objectivity,” because it takes into account reality—i.e., the agent’s unique personality and circumstances.

We can then distinguish between romantic intensity, which is central to the acute emotion of love, and romantic profundity, associated with enduring love. Romantic intensity is a snapshot of an emotional peak at a given moment: It refers to the momentary degree of passionate, often sexual, desire. Romantic profundity goes beyond mere romantic intensity in that it includes the temporal dimension. Profound activities are essential for our well-being; they have an enduring influence on our life and can also shape our personality. Superficial activities affect only the surface of our lives—they are more limited in their scope and impact and can have a negative influence on our lives if we engage in them too frequently. External change is highly significant in generating romantic intensity. In romantic profundity, familiarity and stability are of greater import. While romantic novelty is useful in preventing boredom, romantic familiarity is valuable in promoting flourishing.

The external change underlying intense love is a one-time, simple event that generates an acute, or at most an extended emotion. Such a change has a brief impact because we quickly adapt to the change. The growth underlying profound love is continuous. It's the result of the agents’ ongoing process of development and is expressed in a long-term profound love. Because the partners and their connection are continually developing, the issue of negative impact resulting from habituation and boredom does not arise.

The significance of long-term profound love is clearly evident in Harvard's 75-year Study of Adult Development, which highlights the late-life happiness and health benefits of a fulfilling, satisfying long-term marriage, which includes spending a considerable amount of time together. As Robert Waldinger claims in his TED lecture, “The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80. And good, close relationships seem to buffer us from some of the slings and arrows of getting old.”

If romantic love has advanced to the state of an enduring emotion characterized by meaningful profound development, then loving longer typically means loving more.

We have seen that loving longer is typically a necessary, but not a sufficient condition for the generation of profound love. There are, of course, many cases in which the length of time is merely associated with the negative element of reducing intensity without the positive element of increasing profundity. This sad, but often true phenomenon is illustrated in the situation of Tom Wingo in The Prince of Tides: Despite the length of time he has loved his wife, that love has not developed into profound love—in his case, loving longer has indeed not meant loving more.

Are we condemned to suffer Wingo’s fate? Statistics indicate that most, but not all of us, are.