The Neuropsychology of Long Lasting Love: Can Brain Scans Tell Us Something Useful About Staying in Love?

The Wall Street Journal today has an article called Keeping Love Alive, which documents some fascinating research looking at why a small minority of long-term couples seem to maintain intense passionate loving connections.

First the grim background to these findings. Keeping love alive is no mean feat, as the research on long-term relationships suggests that for most couples love is a fading affair.

From the article:

“Each year, according to surveys, the average couple loses a little spark. One sociological study of marital satisfaction at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Penn State University kept track of more than 2,000 married people over 17 years. Average marital happiness fell sharply in the first 10 years, then entered a slow decline.”

This is not such good news for all of us in long-term relationships. What do we have to look forward to? A sharp decline in happiness for the first ten years, and then a slow erosion of whatever remaining happiness is left until we run out of love or time, whichever comes first? Ugggh!

But then to the rescue comes Arthur Aron, who is a social psychologist at Stony Brook University. He’s looked at those unusual couples who claim that their love is just an intense years later. It’s a strategy of research which is called examining the outliers, those people who fall outside the averages.

Aron and his students are studying these couples in an interesting way. They are taking pictures of their brain function, using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). They have a person lie inside an MRI machine, and look at pictures of their spouse while measuring the activity in their brain.

What have they found? It turns out that when these passionate couples look at or think about their spouses, a part of their brain called the ventral tegnmental area lights up. This is a section of the brain that is rich in the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is connected to our ability to feel pleasure and joy. The results have been duplicated in China, suggesting this is not just a western cultural phenomenon.

So what does this all mean? It’s not of much help in the challenges that I face as a marriage therapist, in helping couples repair damaged love. One of the interesting details reported in the article was that these passionate long-term “in love” couples show one behavior in common. They are constantly affectionate, kissing, hugging, and holding hands. They display many PDA’s (public displays of affection).

Now that there is a brain measure of this intense love, it is important to study how people get there. Are these couples just more intensely in love to begin with? Perhaps it works like cognitive functioning, where those who start off smarter and more educated deteriorate more slowly in old age. Maybe these passionate couples simply start with more love and then it erodes, but they have such an excess that it doesn’t matter.

We might be able to answer some of these questions with a long-term study of new couples that followed them over 10 years or longer.

Is it a selection process, where better mate selection leads to better long term outcomes? Or are there behavioral differences, a set of behaviors and attitudes that preserves love? These are the key issues in answering the question of how do we go about Keeping Love Alive.

What I find deeply fascinating is that in spite of the fact that most people value love as one of the most important things in their lives, we actually know very little about what predicts success, and even less about how to help people love better. Brain scans may tell us more about the process of love and attraction, but unless we develop a “love beam” that changes the activity of the key brain regions, it won’t help us fall in love and stay in love.

…Excuse me, I’ve got to go kiss my sweetie!

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