The Science Of Lasting Love

By Georgia Rickard.

A deep and sudden appreciation of Whitney Houston. An uncontrollable urge to share your feelings with YouTube. Twitter PDAs… When love first hits it can send the most level-headed of us loopy, but fast-forward a bit and it’s all quiet nights in and comfy silences. It seems love goes on a journey of its own and now, the relationship between love and science is deepening, with boffins taking romance to the lab to uncover biological meaning behind its evolution. Among their findings: we fall in (and out of) love in predictable patterns that are as old as our species itself.

Phase 1: Falling in limerence

Of course, “predictable” isn’t the word most of us would choose to describe a phenomenon that leaves you giddier than a teary tween at a One Direction concert. “Fall for someone, and the world as you know it pretty much stops,” says psychiatrist Dr George Blair-West. Food drops off the agenda. You need less sleep, but have more energy. Your libido spikes. And you can’t stop grinning, even when people are looking at you like you’re on crack. Which you kind of are, says Blair-West.

“Falling in love triggers the release of huge amounts of dopamine, activating the same neural pathways as cocaine,” he explains. Dopamine – the “reward” hormone – explains your sudden motivation, elation and energy, he says, along with your constant sense of craving, hence the euphoric highs when you’re together, and anxious lows when you’re apart. “It’s basically an addiction,” says Blair-West. “You’re constantly wanting that feeling.”

At the same time, you become slightly, well, obsessed, say Italian researchers. They discovered that the newly-in-love have dramatically lower-than-normal levels of serotonin in their blood – amounts that match those of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) sufferers, according to their results, which compared blood profiles of OCD patients and the lovesick with “normal” controls. Hence your new Rain Man-style habits: thinking about him repetitively; compulsively checking your phone… Scientists reckon we’ve been doing it since forever. Some 40-odd years ago one of them, Dr Dorothy Tennov, even gave the condition a name: limerence. After interviewing more than 600 in-love people, she concluded two major things about it: first, it’s involuntary – you can’t help yourself when it happens (more on that in a moment). And second, the key ingredient is a surprising one: uncertainty. Feeling unsure about your chances with him, worrying he won’t like your outfit, wondering if he’ll find someone else… uncertainty is what spikes your anxiety levels when you’re apart, and gives you a sense of reward when you’re together. It’s why you can barely believe you got together with someone so perfect.

If ever there was something to blame for love-induced blindness, limerence is it. Juiced up on a cocktail of feel-good hormones, limerence leaves you smiling dreamily at things you’d normally be cringing at (Crocs, dad jokes, that thing he does with your tweezers and his toes…) and not only rating your relationship as better than everyone else’s, but rating your new love as hotter than you, say Dutch researchers. They asked 93 couples to rate each other’s attractiveness and found lovers consistently rated their partner as more attractive than themselves – a result of the “positive illusions” we have about our partner, says study co-author Dr Pieternel Dijkstra.

Another study in Evolution and Human Behaviour, which asked 120 participants to look at pictures of attractive strangers and then write an essay on either their current partner or a random topic, concluded that the feeling of love associated with limerence diminishes your perception of others’ attractiveness. The loved-up participants who wrote about their lover recalled factual information about the photos (such as the colour of a T-shirt) rather than physical details about the strangers’ appearances. They were also six times less likely to think about the photos after looking at them, than those who wrote about a random topic. As study co-author Dr Martie Haselton put it, “it’s almost like love puts blinders on.” Not that you care: you’re busy doing other things. Like hoisting your new prize onto a pedestal.

“This is a classic symptom of falling in love,” says Dr Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist. “The first thing that happens is the person takes on what I call ‘special meaning’ – they become different from every other car in the parking lot. The songs they like, books they read– everything about them becomes special. No matter what they’re actually like, you think they’re great.”

A slippery slope? Maybe, but we just can’t help ourselves. When Fisher and her colleagues gathered 17 men and women – all newly, madly in love – and had them look at pictures of their beloved, their brains lit up in the ventral tegmental – the origin of dopamine production. At the same time, the caudate nucleus was activated – a “basic instinct” area near the centre of the brain that looks after primary survival functions, such as motor skills. “It’s a very primitive part of the brain, linked with drive, craving and motivation, rather than emotion,” says Fisher. These two findings helped explain what Fisher had already suspected: that love is closer to drives like hunger and thirst, than emotional states like misery or cheerfulness. It seems we’re biologically trip-wired to fall for each other.

Phase 2: Love goggles crack

As Katy Perry knows, the madness of limerence is temporary – usually lasting between 18 months and three years, according to social biologist Prof Cynthia Hazan. Why? After tracking the brain chemicals of 5 000 loved-up participants across 37 different cultures, she concluded that it’s a case of chemicals: like any other drug, your tolerance to love eventually gets higher, leaving you in a stable, secure relationship minus the infatuation – or, as was the case with Katy, waking up to realise that the view isn’t quite as good sans pedestal.

Fisher has another theory: limerence evolved as a kind of relationship glue. In a savannah full of predators, two parents would have meant the difference between an offspring’s survival and not, she says – a honeymoon phase ensured we’d work as a team to raise a baby.

Sound loopy? It isn’t – other monogamous animals like foxes, wolves and all kinds of birds (robins, thrushes and more) do the same thing, she says. “They tend to pair up only until their offspring have made it past infancy, then go their separate ways.” This also suggests why there’s a worldwide tendency to divorce around the four-year mark, she adds. “United Nations statistics from 62 countries – dating back to 1947 – show that people around the globe tend to divorce in their fourth year together; just long enough to raise a baby past infancy.” Of course, there are all kinds of factors behind people’s decision to divorce, she admits. “But it does seem like there’s a biological component.”

Whatever the case, experts agree on one thing: limerence almost always fades. As the dopamine high wears off, you start noticing the empty milk bottles in the fridge and begin assessing him with a level head. “Without the infatuation, you find out what kind of relationship you’re really in,” says Blair-West. And that’s not a bad thing. “It can actually be a springboard to something deeper,” he points out. “This is when someone knows all the ‘bad’ things about you and still wants to be with you anyway.”

As you settle in to share Saturday nights on the couch, your brain settles in too: generating less activity in the “passion” region, but significantly more in the area responsible for attachment, say British researchers, who scanned the brains of couples past the two-year mark. As your dopamine and serotonin levels normalise, your anxiety levels do too – along with your libido. You’re no longer spending 80 percent of your time thinking about your partner, says Dr Arthur Aron, a love expert and psychologist – and that’s a good thing, because now you can start getting things done again. “You become more secure; settled. The relationship becomes more stable. You’re less anxious about what they think of you. As long as you’re not bored of each other, it’s a very nice place to be.” You also begin to churn out higher levels of vasopressin, a hormone powerfully associated with commitment and attachment. When US scientists triggered vasopressin production in mouse-like mammals called meadow voles, the normally promiscuous males morphed into attentive, loving dads – sticking by their new partner even when other females tried to woo them away. It’s thought the upswing in vasopressin bonds you to your partner by gently reactivating your dopamine “reward” circuitry whenever you’re near them, unconsciously reinforcing your connection. Powerful stuff.

Phase 3: Saturday nights in

The chemicals may be strong, but will they stay forever? As the founders of extramarital affairs website AshleyMadison.com can tell you, we’re not the most faithful species in the world. Even if you’d never stray, chances are you’ve lusted after a hot barman or colleague – despite being in a loving, committed relationship. Has our brain chemistry cheated us?

Not at all, says Fisher. “There are three different systems in the brain for mating and reproduction. Of the three systems, the first is sex drive – the craving for sexual gratification. The second is passionate love – limerence. The third is attachment, that sense of calm and security you can feel for a long-term partner. And these systems can operate in any combination,” she explains. That’s why you can love but not be “in love”, or feel frenzied lust but no desire to take on his last name – or feel lust for one person, and a deep sense of attachment to another.

These systems can also occur in any order, Fisher adds. “For example, you might feel deep attachment to a friend at work. Then times change, and suddenly you fall madly in love with them – so attachment can come before passionate love.”

And here’s the kicker: you can also flow from one to the other and back again within your relationship, she says. “Or have all three systems going at once.” Which means you don’t have to grow old as platonic friends – you can bring back that first flush of love.

While no one’s worked out the exact formula for putting the love butterflies on speed dial, you can do things to dial up its intensity. One study, published in the Review of General Psychology, concluded that it simply takes elbow grease to stop long-term love morphing into friendship – namely, by taking responsibility for your own happiness, actively managing your self-esteem, and being there for your partner, so that you in turn can feel supported. Another study in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience found that having regular sex, and seeing yourself as part of a team, were both important factors in couples who’ve managed to maintain that “first-stage” infatuation after at least 20 years together (all together now: awww…).

You can also ratchet up your bond by changing your schedule, says Aron. When he asked 60 long-time married couples to devote an hour and a half a week to exciting, novel activities, the couples reported a “much closer” bond after 10 weeks than couples who’d only undertaken enjoyable activities together. “Brains that fire together wire together,” explains Blair-West. “When you’ve experienced strong, positive, mutual emotional experiences, you create mutual neural pathways. Subsequently triggering that rewiring leaves you with a bond that helps you connect.” Novel experiences also trigger the release of dopamine, according to the Journal of Neuroscience – yep, the same reward hormone that got you hooked on your partner in the first place.

As for what constitutes exciting – well, the couples in Aron’s experience were strapped together with Velcro and challenged to crawl their way through an obstacle course while holding a pillow between them (seriously). But you don’t have to go that far, says Fisher. Trying a new cuisine or climbing Table Mountain together will have the same (or similar) effect, she says. We’re pretty sure he won’t object to a bit of novelty in the bedroom either.

For all the research, it seems the secret to long-term love is no secret at all: it takes work. But for all the ups, downs and squabbles over the remote, it’s worth it – and you don’t need a science degree to know that.

Love For Longer

According to world trends, around 50 percent of all marriages end in divorce. Scary! Up your odds with WH relationship expert Dr Elna Rudolph’s advice:

  1. “Take at least 15 minutes to talk to each other every day. Remember, it’s equally important to listen to him as it is to express your feelings.”
  2. “Keep dating and exploring new experiences together. Challenging activities can be a great way to enhance your bond and make great memories.”
  3. “Make time regularly for sex, kissing, hugging and hand holding. A passionate kiss every day is a really easy way to increase intimacy.”

Wild Love

Only three percent of the world’s mammals pair up for longer than a night – and their relationships can be just as tumultuous as ours…

Gibbons

These apes couple up for their entire lives – but have been known to divorce if someone better comes along.

Grey foxes

They stick together until their babies are old enough to be parents themselves. Then they split and start the process with someone else.

Prairie voles

Couples raise babies together and share nests for life, but romp around with other voles too. Shifty.

Swans

Once considered the gold-standard for life-long monogamy, swans actually practice social monogamy – they pair up, but have flings on the side.

It Had To Be You (Or Someone Like You)

Whether you’re a believer in soul mates or a make-it-work kind of gal (and both types can work, says research presented at the American Psychological Society conference), the way we fall in love tends to be the same. “There are a number of scenarios that create the right circumstances for falling in love, but the most common is knowing a person who is reasonably attractive, and receiving some indication that they like you,” says psychologist Dr Arthur Aron. “We did one study where we had a lot of people who’d recently fallen in love tell us what happened. The most common response was, ‘There was this person I knew, who was appropriate and reasonably attractive, and they did something that indicated they liked me. At that moment I felt a huge wave of falling for them.’”

The other scenario involves highly exciting, dramatic conditions, he continues. “An extreme example would be a plane crash or some kind of street demonstration where the police are coming,” he says. Meeting under conditions of high physiological arousal, where your dopamine system is already running at full speed, means “you kind of mistake the arousal for being attracted to the person,” he says. Tell him that on your next anniversary…