Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


How Our Romantic Feelings Change Over Time

Passion may not last forever but companionship can.

Key points

  • Romantic feelings, evaluations, and perspectives change as partners spend time together and learn more about each other.
  • Specifically, attraction (based on general characteristics) grows into companionship (based on specific features and shared experiences).
  • By learning to create rewarding interactions and positive experiences, partners can use these changes to grow together—rather than apart.

Loving feelings grow, change, and evolve over time in romantic relationships. Historically, in the psychology literature, this is discussed as a change from passionate to companionate love. Recently though, Mate Evaluation Theory has offered a more detailed explanation of exactly why this change occurs—and what long-term relationship partners can do to make it work for their benefit.

Why Feelings Change Over Time

According to Eastwick, Finkel, and Joel (2023), as relationships progress, the perspective or "lens" that partners use to evaluate each other changes in predictable ways. When relationships first begin, partners do not know each other well. Therefore, they rely on common characteristics and cultural scripts (common lens), along with their own feelings as an individual (perceiver lens), to make a "best guess" about a mate's attractiveness and compatibility.

As partners get to know each other over time, however, they learn more detailed things about each other. So, their perspectives change to focus on assessing the specific features of each other (feature lens). Later still, mate evaluations are based on the quality of repeated interactions and shared experiences (target-specific lens) too. Thus, unique characteristics and specific experiences ultimately make (or break) the long-term relationship.

Essentially, this is how feelings and perspectives change from passion based on general characteristics, to companionship based on specific features and shared experiences. In other words, as Eastwick, Finkel, and Joel (2023) explain, "Eventually, the growing corpus of information in the target-specific lens should provide the best method of predicting whether things are going to go well in the near future: Every time we have a fun time, or have great sex, or navigate a conflict, we grow the bank of knowledge that facilitates our ability to have subsequent positive experiences with each other."

Two Different Mating Styles

This change in perspective over time is exactly why I make the distinction between short-term and long-term mating in my book Attraction Psychology and writing here. Put simply, people use different criteria for evaluating a short-term fling versus a long-term mate. Therefore, the characteristics and social skills that make someone successful at one type of mating may not help them in another. This makes it harder for women to find a satisfying partner and makes dating a frustrating experience for men too—because the things that help you attract a mate might not help you keep them (and vice versa).

Eastwick, Finkel, and Joel (2023) discuss this difference as well. They state, "Mate attraction is often competitive, with distinct winners and losers." They go on to say, "In the language of MET, the effects of mate value are due to the common lens; that is, if a given individual has an intrinsic level of mate value, then perceivers will assess that mate value (his/her target effect) using information that derives from a set of shared species-type mental mechanisms or shared cultural scripts (i.e. the common lens)." In other words, mate attraction and short-term mating decisions are largely based on the general characteristics that are biologically and culturally appealing.

Nevertheless, in long-term mating, when people know each other better, unique characteristics and shared positive experiences start to matter more. Eastwick, Finkel, and Joel (2023) explain, "In contexts where people know each other well, MET predicts that competition for mates will be less intense: Because the role of the common lens drops, individual differences in mate value should decline in importance, and competition should ease as people disagree about who are (vs. are not) valuable mates." Thus, for those interested in long-term relationships, being able to create satisfying interactions and unique experiences often becomes more important than generic sex appeal over time.

Tips for Long-Term Partnering Success

Eastwick, Finkel, and Joel (2023) conclude by noting that MET generally agrees with relationship intervention advice—that long-term partners should focus on developing the skills to create positive interactions and experiences with each other. Specifically, they note, "some of the most effective forms of couples' therapy (e.g. systems-oriented interventions) help partners to (a) identify the (sometimes hidden) rules underlying their interaction patterns, (b) change any problematic habitual interaction sequences, and (c) reframe their interpretation of problems to facilitate more productive discussion." This too mirrors the perspective in my book and articles, so let's look at those steps in more detail.

1. Identify your interaction patterns. A way to keep this simple is to focus on how you are rewarding a partner in interactions, versus where the situation becomes punishing. As a rule, punishment kills relationships, especially in the long run. So, as you evaluate how you and your partner interact as a couple, the goal is to steer things toward creating a rewarding relationship.

2. Change problematic habitual interactions. Beyond using rewards (and avoiding punishments), couples can get stuck in more specific ways too. Sometimes, one or both of you may have to work on breaking bad habits that can end a relationship. At other times, you both might need to develop skills to more effectively deal with arguments that inevitably arise. Learning when and how to forgive a partner is essential as well. Overall, this helps smooth out the normal "bumps" in the road for any long-term partnering.

3. Reframe for more productive discussion. Here, I generally share that long-term partners can benefit from three things. First, remember to be grateful to and for each other, which helps motivate positive behavior all around. Second, pay attention to the type of relationship story you are creating together and how it impacts your relationship. Third, build a relationship that feels sacred and special, which motivates both gratitude and a good relationship story—and keeps you connected and faithful through difficulties too. With that in place, long-term success and satisfaction will be much more likely.

© 2023 by Jeremy S. Nicholson, M.A., M.S.W., Ph.D. All rights reserved.

Facebook image: Drazen Zigic/Shutterstock


Eastwick, P. W., Finkel, E. J., & Joel, S. (2023). Mate evaluation theory. Psychological Review, 130(1), 211–241.

More from Jeremy Nicholson M.S.W., Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today