How to Make Love at First Sight Last

What actually fuels a long-term sexual and romantic connection?

Posted Apr 30, 2018

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A typical example: Two people meet and just know it’s “love at first sight.” Passion reigns; they become attached and believe they’ve found their soul mate. Then what happens? In many cases, you hear that after several months, they’ve separated. Or they sink into the depressing reality that they might not really have an enduring relationship after all. Why does that experience of sudden connection — a feeling of intense, genuine love — often fade fairly quickly? It’s intoxicating, but as a new study shows, it’s actually just lust, not love. That experience reflects the broader flaws in how we tend to think about and seek intimate relationships. At the same time, there is evidence about what does support long-term sexual-romantic partnerships.

First, the research about lust. Published in Personal Relationships, it looked at the experience of love at first sight as reported by 360 participants. It found that the belief that one has fallen instantly in love is a genuine experience, but it’s not really about love; it’s more of a strong physical attraction. The study, described here, found that among those who describe a strong, positive relationship in the present, their recall of the past — that love-at-first-sight experience — is likely “a confabulated memory...a projection of their current feelings into the past,” according to researcher Florian Zsok. That is, “our findings suggest that love at first sight reported at actual first sight resembles neither passionate love nor love more generally.” It’s more likely "a strong initial attraction that some label as ‘love at first sight’ — either retrospectively or in the moment of first sight.”

Most people want sustaining romantic and sexual relationships, but our culture has fostered a view of love that’s essentially a version of adolescent romance. I’ve written about that here, and about why it often fuels endless struggles for dominance, manipulation, and control — along with a sense of being “in love.” Passion may reflect little knowledge about the real person you’ve fallen in love with, and more about your own enthrallment with your heady experience of feeling “in love.”

So what does keep love alive and thriving within successful couples? How do those couples relate to each other, day to day? How do they deal with fluctuations of sexual interest over time? 

There are many guides and workshops that purport to teach that, of course. Some are more useful than others, and more possible to practice in daily life. A couple of recent studies corroborate what is visible clinically, through psychotherapy. They highlight two practices in particular that help support and sustain positive connection in relationships:

Small gestures of caring and kindness. Such communications are through your actions and your engagement with your partner, rather than words or “saying the right thing.” This is the realm in which many couples express disappointment and unhappiness. That is, you may think you’re showing love by saying something loving or positive. Of course, that’s great. But your partner may be looking for daily gestures and actions that convey love — a smile; a touch; a supportive comment. This was confirmed in a study from Penn State that found that people who report feeling loved by their partner describe receiving those small acts and gestures in everyday life. The research was published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships and described in this report.

Direct, empathic communication when your partner is feeling stressed. There are times when you or your partner feel stressed, overwhelmed, or troubled by something — whether work, personal, or family issues. Your relationship is strengthened when your stressed-out partner feels really understood and listened to. Recent research from Wake Forest University found that will occur not just through words of support, but through multiple forms of conveying empathy — eye contact, listening, and generally conveying understanding and caring nonverbally. The key is tuning in to what your partner perceives as helpful. Inquire about that if you’re not sure, and don’t assume that you know. According to researcher Jennifer Priem, "When a partner is stressed, they are unable to focus on interpreting messages well. Clarity and eye contact help. Cookie-cutter support messages don't really work.”

What About Sex?

Returning to the lust versus love experience, some new research also shows what can help sustain and maintain a long-term sexual connection through all the ups and downs that couples inevitably experience. Physical, emotional, and situational issues all affect your sexual relationship over time, no matter how powerful it once was — or you thought it was.

For example, a recent study from the University of Toronto looked at the link between affection and sexual activity. According to lead researcher Anik Debrot, the research found that sex per se is important, but that "When engaging in sex, people not only seek an intimate connection, but indeed experience more affection, both when having sex and in the next several hours. Thus, sex within romantic relationships provides a meaningful way for people to experience a strong connection with their partner."

That is, the study found that sex is important in romantic relationships because of the emotional benefits that we feel. Moreover, when sexual activity is impaired, “affection could help maintain well-being despite decreased sex frequency." The study was published in Personality and Social Psychology and described here. 

Such studies, along with clinical evidence, show that the key is not so much the frequency of sex or the level of desire at any given time, but the extent to which the sexual relationship provides a strong connection.

Some of my previous posts focus on how couples build and maintain that strong connection. For example, one powerful way is through what I describe as “radical transparency."