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The 3 Simple Habits That Predict Long-Term Love

Research shows why romance can often last longer than many of us expect.

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The term romantic love is often used to describe that intense, joyful, passionate pleasure that couples experience as they “fall in love” in the earliest stages of relationships. But can this type of romantic love endure? Can such intense feelings of being “in love” last for years and years, or are they destined to be short lived? And do long-term relationships automatically trade passion for companionship—or worse, a utilitarian partnership?

Recent research suggests we shouldn’t lose hope: Some couples really do keep up an intense love for each other well past the honeymoon phase (O’Leary, Acevedo, Aron, Huddy, & Mashek, 2012). Drawing on a nationally representative sample of married couples and then replicating their study from a general New York state population, O’Leary and colleagues explored the basic prevalence rates of intense, romantic love—and then tried to figure out what predicts it.

As it happens, Cupid is very active in the United States. More than any other response, the first sample surveyed chose to report that they were “Very Intensely in Love” with their partners, amounting to about half of both the men and the women sampled. While relationships less than 10 years old were apt to report a great deal of intense love, so too did couples whose relationship had already lasted 20 to 30 years or more. Couples who had been together for 10 to 20 years reported slightly less intense feelings of love than “newlyweds,” but still claimed to feel quite a bit of romantic love for their partners. In the New York-only sample, intensity was highest for people in newer relationships, but it was still going strong in longer relationships.

The takeaway? Romantic love is more common than people tend to think, and it certainly doesn’t need to end once a relationship enters its mature years.

Once they'd established that romantic love exists in long-term relationships, the researchers then asked the question: What behaviors and beliefs tended to correspond with romantic love? They examined a variety of potential predictors but three straightforward habits emerged as significant correlates.

What predicted romantic love for both men and women across both samples?

  1. Thinking positively about one’s partner.
  2. Thinking about one’s partner when not with that person.
  3. Having an affectionate relationship (hugging, kissing, holding hands).

Also of note is the observed relationship between general life happiness and intense love for a spouse. It could be that overall happiness with one’s life helps make individuals love their partners—or alternatively, that maintaining feelings of intense love contributes to general life happiness.

In sum, love is alive in long-term couples.

We can practice the habits associated with that romantic love in the hope that they might facilitate enduring love, but the research above is correlational, not experimental, leaving room for new investigations into the specific pathways that bolster long-lasting love.

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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(2), 241-249.

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