Recently, I was talking with my sister when she mentioned some mutual friends had gotten divorced. “What?!” I squawked. I had participated in their wedding 10 years ago, and I can’t think of a couple that was more gooily, gushingly in love than they’d been. “It sounds like they just didn’t feel anything for each other anymore,” my sister said. “They fell out of love and decided they weren’t meant for each other after all.” Especially disquieting was the fact that both friends (who, admittedly, I lost close track of after an interstate move years ago) were Christians. Their faith apparently wasn’t enough to help them weather the evaporation of romance.
As much as I’d like to say this pattern is the exception rather than the rule, we know that’s not the case. Many couples divorce. Even Christian couples. And I suspect in many of those cases, it’s for the same reason: The intense feelings that drew two people together have dissipated, and they conclude that they’ll be happier with someone else.
Science indicates that’s the wrong conclusion. In fact, as depressing as it may seem, research indicates that those “in love” feelings are likely to fade relatively quickly. That said, there are also concrete things married people can do to cultivate and sustain romance.
Let’s start with the bad news.
In 2003, American and European researchers studied nearly 1,800 people who’d been married for 15 years, focusing on how they felt about each other over the course of their marriage. They found that those blissful, intoxicating feelings of early romantic love lingered, on average, about two years.
Writing about those findings in the recent New York Times article “New Love: A Short Shelf Life,” author and psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky says that’s because the human brain is wired such that we eventually get used to anything that creates positive feelings.
When love is new, we have the rare capacity to experience great happiness while being stuck in traffic or getting our teeth cleaned. We are in the throes of what researchers call passionate love, a state of intense longing, desire and attraction. In time, this love generally morphs into companionate love, a less impassioned blend of deep affection and connection. The reason is that human beings are, as more than a hundred studies show, prone to hedonic adaptation, a measurable and innate capacity to become habituated or inured to most life changes.
Regarding this tendency in marriage, Lyubomirsky notes:
When married couples reach the two-year mark, many mistake the natural shift from passionate love to companionate love for incompatibility and unhappiness. For many, the possibility that things might be different — more exciting, more satisfying — with someone else proves difficult to resist.
I think this is an important reality for all of us to reckon with, whether single or married.
For those of us who are married and wondering why romantic sparks don’t fly as high as they once did, this research reminds us that the transition from passionate love to companionate love is normal, not an aberration that indicates something is wrong with our marriage. That may not seem particularly positive or romantic, but research indicates that’s the way things often proceed. I wonder if that understanding could have helped my friends, for instance, when they decided they needed to part ways.
For singles, this research might also serve to temper expectations regarding marital bliss. We live in a culture that already stokes immense expectation regarding the happily ever after nature of romance. This research indicates that Hollywood’s frequent portrayal of never-ending romance isn’t grounded in reality. (Sorry, Bella and Edward.) On top of that, I wonder if our Christian subculture sometimes inadvertently amplifies our culture’s already rampant romanticism by adding a layer of spiritual expectation over the top — thus potentially setting up Christians, especially, for even greater disappointment if and when those heavenly emotions settle back down to earth.
Now, as promised, a more optimistic take on this subject. Lyubomirsky says one way to combat marital doldrums is to inject surprise, which can reawaken a sense of possibility.
In the beginning, relationships are endlessly surprising: Does he like to cook? What is his family like? What embarrasses or delights him? As we come to know our partners better and better, they surprise us less. Surprise is a potent force. When something novel occurs, we tend to pay attention, to appreciate the experience or circumstance, and to remember it. We are less likely to take our marriage for granted when it continues to deliver strong emotional reactions in us.
Generally speaking, experiences like those don’t happen accidentally. They take planning, initiation and effort — all of which, incidentally, also communicate that we value and care deeply for our spouse. But if we’re willing to put in the effort, and we resist the impulse to look elsewhere when romance seems to be at a low ebb, it pays dividends over the long haul. Lyubomirsky one last time:
The realization that your marriage no longer supplies the charge it formerly did is then an invitation: Eschew predictability in favor of discovery, novelty and opportunities for unpredictable pleasure. ‘A relationship,’ Woody Allen proclaimed in his film Annie Hall, ‘is like a shark. It has to constantly move forward or it dies.’ A marriage is likely to change shape multiple times over the course of its lifetime; it must be continually rebuilt if it is to thrive.
For those of us who’ve been influenced by our culture’s unrealistic messages that true love is both effortless and everlasting, Lyubomirsky’s perspective serves as a healthy, realistic reminder that a durable, satisfying marriage requires imagination and intentionality if we want to enjoy a lifetime of love with the spouse of our youth.