Linda: Although it is commonly believed that the best time in a relationship is the passion of the infatuation stage in the very beginning, that is not necessarily true.
Some people believe that after the infatuation stage it’s all downhill from there, and that the best that you can hope for in the later years is companionship.
It is true that in the early stage of the relationship, there is an exciting, steep learning curve, because the process of discovering who our new partner is can be exhilarating. And while we are discovering more about who they are, we are also discovering deeper aspects of ourselves.
Bianca P. Acevedo conducted a study of the brain with Arthur Aron, Helen Fisher, and Lucy Brown in the Department of Psychology at Stony Brook University, Stony Brook, NY. Acevedo’s findings were reported in the article “Natural Correlates of Long Term, Intense Romantic Love” in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Volume 7, No. 2 February 2, 2012 pages 145-159.
Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), the study examined the neural correlates of long-term intense romantic love. Ten women and seven men married an average of 21.4 years underwent MRI while viewing facial images of their partner. Control images included a highly familiar acquaintance, a close, long-term friend, and a low-familiar person. The areas of the brain showing activity did not demonstrate responsiveness to the highly familiar acquaintance, long term friend or low familiar. But the imaging did show a strong response by those viewing pictures of the intensely loved, long-term partner.
The specific areas of the brain studied were the dopamine-rich reward and basal ganglia system, such as the ventral tegmental area (VTA) and dorsal striatum. These are the areas that show strong results in the early stages of romantic love.
The long-term couples had findings similar to couples newly in love.
The hypothalamus and posterior hippocampus responses, which correlates with sexual frequency, was demonstrated by the long-term couples as well. And like the new couples that show responses that demonstrate their obsession, the long-term marrieds had these obsessive signs too. In other words, the dopamine-rich areas of their brains associated with reward and motivation lit up just like those couples in the ecstasy of new passion.
There are regions of the brain that show both mother-child and romantic attachment. These areas were observed to show strong attachment in the long-term loving couples. These are the areas that can calm anxiety and buffer pain.
The results of the study results suggest that for some individuals the passion associated with new love can be sustained with a long-term partner.
Brain systems involved in attachment and pair-bonding are not just operative in the early stages, but can remain vital and alive over many years, perhaps for decades. They have the excitement and glow of the infatuation stage combined with the trust and comfort of having been together for a long time. So it appears that we benefit from the best of both worlds; we have the dopamine effect that provides the excitement and passion like the early stage combined with the greater calm that comes with long-term solid attachment.
It is reassuring to review the findings of the study to know that keeping passion alive over many years with a partner is possible and measurable with the newest technology.
But the question remains, what are these couples doing to conduct their relationship in such a way that the passion is strong over time. We would speculate that the key factor here in having the passion remain high is the expansion of the self. If self-expansion is a high priority for both partners, enthusiasm can last over the decades. Having personal development be part of the romantic contract can promote such personal growth over a lifetime, which keeps passion high.
If you put your relationship on cruise control and don’t develop yourself or the relationship to maximize it’s potential, it is quite possible that the diminishment that many people expect will actually occur.
But this does not have to be the case.
We can consciously choose to develop our relationships, keeping the sexual and emotional intimacy active, and developing our creative expression as individuals and as a couple.
From my point of view, the brain studies show us that it is possible, but it won’t happen on it’s own. We must be active participants in the process to reap the abundant rewards. Are you up for it?