Can “Romantic Love” Last Throughout Marriage? Brain Scans Say “Yes”

By Emily Murray

Growing up, most of us were told that “the one” was out there. For little girls their prince charming was waiting somewhere in the future to whisk them away to their very own “ever after.” It seems as we age,  our childhood hopes for love are slightly snuffed out. With celebrity marriages blowing up each day and the growing grumble of  “half of all marriages end in divorce,” typically by our unhappily single friends, it’s all too easy to think that love is something we settle for rather than choose to explore because of some strong, almost magical, pull towards another. Well, hopeless romantics this is one TIME article you will enjoy. Studies have shown that even after 20 years of marriage, we can still be “madly in love” with our spouses – and brain activity actually proves this!

The findings of Bianca Acevedo and Arthur Aron of the Psychology Department at Stony Brook University in New York, were published in the December issue of Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

It has long been accepted that those sparks and butterflies you feel when you are head over heels simply fade and we have come to believe this is simply a part of “romantic love” transitioning into “compassionate love,” the term commonly given to the love experienced by couples in long term marriages. It has given many the impression that love fades, your left with a lifelong “partner” and that’s that. But guess what? When you see those couples who claim to still be madly in love after years and years of marriage, their brain activity proves that they aren’t acting. For some couples with strong relationships, the uplifting affect of passionate, romantic love is still very much present no matter how many years they have been together.

The study observed 17 couples who “claim to still be madly in love with their spouses” and with a 21 year average of marriage between them, an MRI scan was taken as each looked at a photo of their love. In order to see how these results differed from the activity stimulated by close friends or acquaintances, the brain activity was again monitored as the individuals were shown other photos of people from their lives. Other individuals who were reportedly “newly in love” went through the same process and when researchers compared “new love” with “lasting love,” there were many similarities and actually a few surprising differences.

The pleasure center or reward center (Ventral Tegmental Area) of the brain is what activates at a higher level when we experience  love and in both the new couples and married couples, this area of the brain showed lots of activity. But the key difference in brain activity may not be what you would expect. The part of the brain that was less active in long term couples was the same area that spurs anxiety and fear.  Even better than that, there is more activity in the portions of the brain associated with pain relief and pleasure in the married couples. Furthermore, the area of the brain responsible for “pair bonding” was also more active.

In addition, researchers  have found that the couples who are reportedly the happiest (and stay the happiest) are those who have sex regularly. Whether this is why they are happier, or if just a side effect of their happiness remains unknown.

“Individuals in long-term relationships may experience the excitement, sexual attraction, engagement, and intensity associated with romantic love,” says Acevedo in the TIME article. “But they report pining, anxiety, intrusive thinking far less than individuals newly in love.”

With Valentine’s Day around the corner, this is perhaps more of the media coverage we need to see. Let the drama of celebrity splits take a break – true love is there and researchers have proven what many have known since the day they met. Romantic love doesn’t disappear with time, for many couples it continues to grow stronger.