Is it Possible to Love Anyone Forever?

Research says that our romantic promises and wedding vows may be unrealistic.

Posted Jul 24, 2008

As your friends and family look on, you look into your new spouse's eyes and see your loving gaze returned. The sun shines, your partner's smile radiates, and your heart wells up with profound joy and fulfillment. How wonderful it is to have found your life mate! You experience an overwhelming certainty that you will love this person forever.

But should you solemnly vow that you will do so?

The answer largely depends upon on the degree to which you can accurately forecast your future emotional states. Love is, after all, an emotion—and just like anger, despair, or euphoria, it can be insubordinate to our conscious wishes. 

What does the scientific literature have to say about our ability to forecast our future emotional states?

Alas, the news isn't good.

Following in the footsteps of affective forecasting pioneers Daniel Gilbert (Harvard University), Timothy Wilson (University of Virginia), George Loewenstein (Carnegie Mellon University), and Daniel Kahneman (Princeton University), dozens of scholars have presented evidence that people are surprisingly inaccurate when forecasting their emotional reactions to future life events. Whether we are forecasting our reactions to future election results, football games, or unpleasant medical procedures, our forecasts generally don't match our actual experience.

Breaking Up: Surprisingly Easy to Do

In one recent study, we examined how accurate people are at predicting their emotional response to a romantic breakup. At study entry, the participants in our sample of college students were involved in reasonably serious romantic relationships (the average duration was over a year). They completed an online questionnaire every two weeks asking them about diverse aspects of their personal and professional lives. Embedded in each questionnaire were questions asking them to forecast how distressed they would be—two, four, eight, and 12 weeks out—if their relationship were to end within the next two weeks. Even after breaking up with their partner, they continued completing the questionnaires, which enabled us to compare their forecasted distress to their actual distress—for example, to compare the distress they predicted they would experience eight weeks after a breakup to the distress they actually experienced eight weeks after one.

On average, participants significantly overestimated how distressed they would be, and this affective forecasting bias became evident almost immediately after the breakup. In addition, those individuals who made their forecasts when they identified themselves as strongly in love with their partner were the most inaccurate—they forecasted that they would experience bottomless devastation, but they tended to pull through the breakup more-or-less okay. There were enormous discrepancies in the pre-breakup distress forecasts between those who said they were deeply in love and those who said they were not. But in reality, participants who had identified as strongly in love were only slightly more distressed following a breakup than were participants who had claimed that they were not especially in love.

To be sure, breaking up is not fun; we don't recommend it for weekend entertainment. The results of our study suggest, however, that most people find the distress of a breakup to be significantly less painful than they anticipated, especially if they were strongly in love with their partner when making the forecast. 

Should You Vow?

What does this affective forecasting research have to do with the vows we should make on our wedding day? It suggests that we should be wary of making promises about our future emotional states. Of course, since "We'll see how it goes" does not make for compelling matrimonial theater, you should instead consider all the things you can promise that do happen to be in your control. For example, you can promise that you will always strive to treat your spouse with decency and respect, even when you are angry. Or you can promise that you will never engage in an extramarital sexual liaison. These things, and many others that are essential to long-term relationship well-being, are under your control.

But can you solemnly vow that you will experience love for your partner not only tomorrow, but also 20 or even 50 years from now? There's a decent chance that you really will love your spouse until death do you part, but promising that you will do so seems dangerous, especially if you're the sort of person who takes solemn vows seriously.

(This post was co-authored with fellow attractionologist Paul Eastwick.)