Fueling the Fire – Love that Lasts

A new study shows it is possible to still be madly in love with your partner after 20-some years. Nice news in today’s world where the idea of lasting love seems ever more quaint. The study from Stony Brook University in New York used brain scans to find that some couples married on average 21 years had the same intensity of attraction from the “dopamine-rich” area of the brain as newly in love couples. According to the study:

“The 17 study participants weren’t just happily married, said study co-author Arthur Aron, a professor of psychology at Stony Brook University in New York. These were spouses who couldn’t keep their hands off each other even though they’d been married for more than 21 years, on average. We’re talking about people who have this intense connection, huge amounts of physical liveliness and passion. This is the sort of thing people thought was impossible or crazy. Our data suggest it’s real.”

We all remember intense butterflies-in-the-stomach feeling of falling in love .. . but then there’s also the uncertainty of whether those feelings are returned. This study showed that after 20 some years the excitement can come minus the feelings of obsession and anxiety. The area of the brain associated with these negative feelings was less active for the long marrieds than in scans of new couples, while the area associated with calmness was more pronounced.

Several relationship experts claim the study is jumping to conclusions. It’s a small sample and doesn’t delve into what happened in the middle – the years between wedded bliss and empty nest passion. After 20 years couples have gone through the chasms of financial stress, children and career troubles and come out the other side. The skeptics suggest the study really shows that “it’s possible to fall in love again, rather than show it’s possible to maintain that “new love” for years and years.”

One interesting observation that the study author made is that the results make a lot of married couples feel less than adequate as they look at their own relationship. This is something a lot of 40-something women can relate to. We love to compare after all – women are relational!  When we start picking apart our own relationship based on these comparisons it leads to resentment (he’s doing something wrong) or self-doubt (I’m doing something wrong). But of course relationships are rarely how they appear on the outside. Everybody does have their ups and downs. Which is why we’re all so jealous (or doubting?) of Sting and Trudie Styler for reasons beyond their looks and multiple talents. After 30 years they still “light up when they see eachother”.  In addition to the Tantric sex rumors and and tales of theatrical” sex, they site a few other reasons for their success:

“Relationships aren’t easy, and I don’t think they’re particularly natural, but we’re lucky because we actually like each other,” says 59-year-old Sting, who wed Styler in 1992. “We love each other — that’s a given — but Trudie lights my world up when she comes into a room. I don’t take her for granted.”

“It’s important to have frank discussions about what the other wants. To be in a relationship that is like a little lifetime, that’s a challenge,” Styler admits.

“Being apart juices the relationship,” says Sting, noting, “I don’t think pedestrian sex is very interesting. There’s a playfulness we have; I like the theater of sex. I like to look good. I like her to dress up. I like to dress her up.”

Communication, friendship and trust  are oft cited pillars of a successful marriage. Sounds good. But how does this all compare to 40-somethings who have survived 20 years of marriage in real life? Here are a few perspectives:

Some say it’s tenacity:

One thing that I would say to my twenty year old self for sure is that I’m glad that I hung in there in the marriage, that there was a tenacity about me which I don’t know where I got it but I mean there’s so many people I think that would’ve just said “I am out of here. This is too much. Why am I going through this?” I’m so glad that I learned what commitment was and I learned that in my twenties. I’ve got girl friends now who are in their forties and they’re going through divorce. You can’t be inside anyone else’s marriage but I’m like “Are you kidding me? You’re divorcing over this? I guess I would say to my twenty year old self it is one thing to be committed and tenacious and kind but don’t forget about yourself in the process.” — 40-something, Chicago, IL

It’s understanding and meeting expectations:

“I think we truly adore each other. After 17 years, when he walks in the door at the end of the day, I’m happy to see him. Obviously not every single day… sometimes I want to punch him in the face but overall, he definitely makes me happy. I think our expectations of each other are for the most part always met.  I think many women and men too are unhappy because they’re constantly disappointed when their expectations aren’t met. I think if you’re well aware of what your spouse needs and wants and you’re willing to do it… I don’t mean that it has to be such a difficult task. You’re not constantly working at it. It’s easy. I think if you really understand what you both want and need, it makes for a lot more peace and happiness and just overall enjoyment.” – 40-something, Detroit, MI

It’s knowing that even in the down periods, the person you fell in love with is still in there…so treat them like a friend, not an enemy:

“Sometimes you are more in sync and sometimes you are not. Through the years it’s been back and forth and back and forth. As long as you both have good intentions and you treat each other like friends that you like as opposed to someone you’re pissed at.  And it’s a passion thing. Sometimes he’s so great and amazing. I just see him and think, wow, he looks great.  And then sometimes I’m like uggh I’m so not attracted to him. And he probably hasn’t even done anything. He’s the exact same. It’s just me. — 40-something, Stamford, CT

It’s allowing yourself to be vulnerable:

‘You can’t have real intimacy with someone unless you’re willing to be vulnerable. And you can’t be vulnerable to someone if you don’t feel safe. That includes emotional vulnerability and sexual vulnerability. You can’t really be yourself during any sort of sexual intimacy if you don’t allow yourself to feel vulnerable. It only comes from being safe with somebody, trusting them. Part of that ability is the respect and part of it is just being more comfortable in your skin.” – 40-something, Detroit, MI

And for gods sake …have sex!

“Stay intimate and close, especially after you have a child. He is not a roommate. It is an intimate relationship. Stay connected physically. And hold hands. Say I love you.” – 40-something, Manhattan, NY

It’s good to know you’re not alone in your highs and lows…and you might gain insight from others relationships that can benefit yours, but you can’t define your relationship by others expectations.

“Define your own relationship, together. Don’t worry if it’s not the same as others.”  – 40-Something, Sierra Vista, AZ

Love to hear your thoughts on how to keep passion alive for the 40 over 20!

Link to more info on the study: http://www.businessweek.com/lifestyle/content/healthday/648760.html

on Twitter

on Facebook

on Google+