Illustration: Brett Ryder
The truth about what keeps marriages together
I have a friend who met her husband at a red light. She was 15, in a car with a pile of girls. He was in another car with a crowd of boys. As the light turned green, they all decided to pull into a nearby park and party. My friend spent the evening sitting on a picnic table talking to one of the guys. Thirty-seven years later, they are still together.
We are born to love. That feeling of elation that we call romantic love is deeply embedded in our brains. But can it last? This was what my colleagues and I set out to discover in 2007. Led by Bianca Acevedo, PhD, our team asked this question of nearly everyone we met, searching for people who said they were still wild about their longtime spouse. Eventually we scanned the brains of 17 such people as they looked at a photograph of their sweetheart. Most were in their 50s and married an average of 21 years.
The results were astonishing. Psychologists maintain that the dizzying feeling of intense romantic love lasts only about 18 months to—at best—three years. Yet the brains of these middle-aged men and women showed much the same activity as those of young lovers, individuals who had been intensely in love an average of only seven months. Indeed, there was just one important difference between the two groups: Among the older lovers, brain regions associated with anxiety were no longer active; instead, there was activity in the areas associated with calmness.
We are told that happy marriages are based on good communication, shared values, a sturdy support system of friends and relatives, happy, stable childhoods, fair quarrelling, and dogged determination. But in a survey of 470 studies on compatibility, psychologist Marcel Zentner, PhD, of the University of Geneva, found no particular combination of personality traits that leads to sustained romance—with one exception: the ability to sustain your "positive illusions." Men and women who continue to maintain that their partner is attractive, funny, kind, and ideal for them in just about every way remain content with each other. I've seen this phenomenon, known as "love blindness," in a friend of mine. I knew him and his wife-to-be while we were all i n college, when they both were slim, fit, energetic, and curious: a vibrant couple. Today both are overweight couch potatoes. Yet he still tells me she hasn't changed a bit. Perhaps this form of self-deception is a gift from nature, enabling us to triumph over the rough spots and the changes in our relationships. I'm not suggesting you should overlook an abusive husband or put up with a deadbeat bore. But it's worth celebrating one of nature's best-kept secrets: our human capacity to love…and love…and love.
Read another column by Helen Fisher: How to build intimacy
From the December 2009 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine