Romeo and Juliet would approve: A new study found that romantic love can stand the test of time.
Though it is widely held that romance and sex must ultimately yield to friendly companionship over time, new research found that's not the case. Instead about 13 percent of people reported high levels of romance in their long-term relationships, in a new study published in the March issue of the journal Review of General Psychology.
Researchers analyzed data from surveys of more than 6,000 people, including some in newly-formed pairs and many in marriages of more than 20 years. The scientists found that a surprisingly high number of people were still very much in love with their long-term partners, though the researchers drew a distinction between romantic love, which can endure, and passionate or obsessive love, which often fades after the beginning of a relationship.
"I think generally, in the literature, love has been measured as passionate love, so I think that's one reason for this widely-held assumption that love had to fade in relationships," said Bianca Acevedo, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who authored the study while she was a graduate student at Stony Brook University. "The obsessive component is generally combined with the romantic component. Thought of that way, it looks like it's diminishing, but if you assess the romantic love differently than the obsessive component, it happens for a greater proportion than what was generally thought."
Romantic love has the same intensity, engagement and sexual chemistry as passionate love has, but without the obsession, Acevedo said. Passionate love, on the other hand, includes feelings of uncertainty and anxiety.
The new findings could help inspire couples to strive for better relationships, rather than resigning themselves to the inevitability of falling out of love, Acevedo said.
"Being in the mindset that [long-term romance] is probably not something to shoot for might be discouraging to some people," she told LiveScience. "They might think, 'This is probably as good as it gets.' I think it's important for people to at least know that it could be attainable."
What's the trick?
Acevedo and her advisor Arthur Aron are interested in finding out how some couples manage to keep the romance alive. So far, research indicates that it often has to do with pure hard work.
"These people are often very relationship focused," Acevedo said. "Their relationship is something that is very central to their lives, something they spend time on, work on, really care about. They seem to resolve conflicts relatively efficiently and smoothly."
Aron's previous studies suggest that couples who want to give romance a boost can benefit from doing new and challenging activities together. These novel experiences stimulate brains to create the neurochemicals dopamine and norepinephrine, which are also created during the early, exhilarating stages of romantic love.
Evolutionary benefits of love
Researchers debate whether people are really meant to stay in love throughout their lives. Helen Fisher, a professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey, has suggested that passionate love is maladaptive if it lasts too long.
"When people are in the early stages of romantic love, it's very hard for them to focus on other things," Acevedo explained. "They are constantly thinking about the other person. They have a lot of energy; they can stay up all night talking to each other. This can be very metabolically costly, and it's not efficient when it comes to work and relationships. I think this fits in well with the idea that the obsession component has to fade. It's unsustainable to be like that over the years while raising children and having jobs."
However, a certain level of love is beneficial, she said. Having a partner who increases your happiness and comfort is certainly a healthy thing, and being able to trust and rely on someone in difficult situations can improve a person's success in life.
Medical research has demonstrated the physical benefits of loving relationships. People who report being in positive relationships have been shown to be healthier, less stressed, and to have stronger immune systems. And some studies even suggest happily married people live longer than their single counterparts.