[I hope you like graphs … ]
♪ Now everyone dreams of a love lasting and true, / But you and I know what this world can do. / So let’s make our steps clear, so the other may see./ I’ll wait for you, and should I fall behind, will you wait for me? ♪
— Bruce Springsteen & Patti Scialfa (“If I Should Fall Behind”)
“Contrary to what has been widely believed, long-term romantic love (with intensity, sexual interest, and engagement, but without the obsessive element common in new relationships), appears to be a real phenomenon that may be enhancing to individuals’ lives—positively associated with marital satisfaction, mental health, and overall well-being.”
— Bianca Acevedo and Arthur Aron (2009: 64)
In the 2013 film “Before Midnight,” we caught up with Celine and Jesse (played by Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke) who had fallen in love during a chance, whirlwind evening in Vienna eighteen years earlier. After nine years apart between the first and second parts of the trilogy, they have been together for the last nine and are now in their early forties, and have twin girls together as well as a son from Jesse’s first marriage.
The first part of the trilogy, “Before Sunrise,” focused on Celine and Jesse’s incipient romantic connection as they explored the city, talking all night about a variety of topics before ultimately having to separate. In part two they reconnected. By the third film we see that there is still love, but with more complexity within their long-term relationship. We see themes of restlessness, resentments over suspected past infidelities, and the struggles that come with balancing parenting, career, sexual desire, domestic life, and having family spread out over long distances. They lament that passion (for all things) came easier to them when they were younger, and Jesse suggests that maybe “this is the natural human state – always a little dissatisfied, perpetually discontented.” We are left wondering if their relationship will survive.
The New York Times critic A.O. Scott reviewed “Before Midnight” jointly with the European film “Amour,” released the previous year. In that movie, we saw an elderly couple struggling with failing health. Scott pondered why such films, with their focus on a couple already-in-progress, were less common than ones centered around early romance. In his view, the reason is that unlike romantic comedies, marriage “has no story arc.”
“A marriage plot, which is to say a comedy, is a story with a wedding at the end. The exchange of vows provides a satisfying and efficient exit from an intricate story. After the chaos of misbehavior, misunderstanding and missed connection, order is restored, the curtain falls, and love’s essential labor is done. But if the story starts in the middle, sometime after the honeymoon, at the breakfast table or the parent-teacher conference, where then does it conclude? There are only two logical possibilities, both of them sad.”
This take is somewhat depressing, but perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. Time isn’t very kind to most things, romantic relationships included. After all, if nothing lasts forever, then what makes love the exception?
There isn’t much we can do about relationships that are severed by mortality, but we can at least try to understand why long-term romantic relationships are often a challenge for many people. Not for everyone, of course; many marriages endure a lifetime. There are good reasons to value long-term relationships. Evidence suggests that they provide stability and that married people tend to be happier (but this doesn’t mean marriage causes happiness; it’s just as possible that miserable people tend not to get married). Perhaps we can look for patterns across societies and find where they are the most vulnerable.
Still, we have to ask why, if relationships are so important, they are a challenge to maintain for many people. The ultimate reason must be idiosyncratic to each relationship, but some of the usual suspects are
- heightened expectations of modern marriage
- the finite lifespan of passionate love
- the conflict between mating and parenting
- age and declining libido
- simple attenuation/ habituation
Shifting Expectations: Withering Orchid Marriages
Some have wondered whether long-term relationships in Western societies are untenable because our expectations of them have become too high. Eli Finkel and colleagues (2014) argued that some married Americans are ‘suffocating’ their partners by asking too much, while simultaneously investing too little. They gave a historical timeline of American marriage could be divided into three periods, based on its primary functions:
- The Practical Model (late 1700- 1850): to fulfill a couple’s economic, political, and pragmatic goals in an agrarian society.
- The Breadwinner-Homemaker Model (1850 – 1965): to help spouses meet their passion and intimacy needs in an industrializing society.
- The Self-expressive Model (1965 – present): to meet each other’s autonomy and personal growth needs in a society that recognized individuals’ rights to “create their own identity and craft their own trajectory of personal growth.”
In the Self-Expressive model, the goals of autonomy and personal growth are considered ‘higher-altitude needs,’ referring to Maslow’s famous hierarchy, taught in every Psychology 101 course. Maslow suggested that before anyone could achieve personal growth (or self-actualization), they first needed to secure more basic needs like food, shelter, safety, feeling loved, etc. After all, it probably doesn’t make much sense to worry about personal growth if there is no food.
Finkel et al argued that the problem is not necessarily that American marriages have been overburdened by increasing the total sum of expectations. Rather, it is where those expectations reside on Maslow’s hierarchy. Most Americans today (and in other places too) don’t rely as extensively on marriage to fulfill their more basic needs, as was the case in an agrarian economy when people had more children and when partners relied on each other for economics, safety, shared parenting, community involvement, or sexual fulfillment (as a basic, physiological outlet).
Today, Finkel suggested that Americans increasingly look to marriage for needs that reside higher on Maslow’s hierarchy, including friendship and emotional intimacy, social prestige, personal growth, and sexual passion (as a function of intimacy or even ecstasy). In addition, spouses have become more isolated withdrawn from their broader social networks and rely intensively on their partner for meeting their higher altitude needs, and for longer periods of time as life expectancy has increased.
There are pros and cons to these shifting marital expectations, according to Finkel. Modern marriages that meet higher altitude needs can be more fulfilling than in past generations. However meeting those needs requires more effort and greater compatibility than in the past, when marriage was more utilitarian. This increases the risk for ‘suffocation,’ to continue the metaphor of the lack of oxygen at higher altitudes. Finkel et al compare this to different types of wine grapes – the sturdier cabernet grape versus the finer, but more difficult to grow pinot noir: the potential payoff is higher, but so is the effort required for care and cultivation. They could have used the dandelion/ orchid analogy, but their point is that past models of marriage focused on needs that were more basic and easier to meet, while higher expectations are more vulnerable to collapsing under their own weight:
“whereas two spouses can coordinate to meet basic survival and safety functions without having deep insight into each other’s fundamental essence, lacking such insight makes it difficult to facilitate the fulfillment of each other’s esteem and self-actualization needs, and, to a lesser extent, their belonging and love needs… Consequently, greater “oxygen” (investment in the marriage) is required for fulfillment of the higher-altitude needs.”
Passionate Love: “The Fire Cools”
I think Finkel’s ‘suffocation model’ has some merit, but I also wonder if the emphasis on changing marital expectations is overdone. Faltering marriages could be a function of shifting needs, but they could also simply be a function of duration. Also, maintaining long-term relationships is not a modern challenge, nor an exclusively American or even Western one. To a certain extent, it is a human challenge.
For example, Bilgé and Kaufman (1983) wrote that among Hadza hunter-gatherers of Tanzania divorce rates were “astonishingly high” at 49 per 1,000 years of marriage, vs. 10.4 in the U.S. circa 1950. The U.S. figure certainly has risen since then, but the point is that divorce was common. Frank Marlowe (2000) reported that only about 20% of Hadza remained married to one person for life, while the majority have a series of marriages and divorces (that is, serial monogamy), with a small minority of marriages being polygamous.
This might simply come down to the limitations inherent in the biology of passionate love, illustrated by the following story from Marjorie Shostak’s book Nisa (2000). Here Shostak described a conversation she had with a young man, a !Kung forager in Botswana, man as they passed another young couple in love:
“I said “They’re very much in love, aren’t they? He answered, “Yes, they are.” After a pause, he added, “For now.” I asked him to explain, and he said, “When two people are first together, their hearts are on fire and their passion is very great. After a while, the fire cools and that’s how it stays.” I asked him to explain further. “They continue to love each other, but it’s in a different way – warm and dependable.” Seeing my questioning expression, he continued, “Look, after you marry, you sit together by your hut, cooking food and giving it to each other – just as you did when you were growing up in your parents’ home. Your wife becomes like your mother and you, her father.” How long did this take? “It varies among couples. A few months, usually; sometimes longer. But it always happens.”
In an earlier post, we saw that several researchers delineate between passionate love, manic love, companionate love, and lust/ sexual desire. While these components overlap with each other, they are also somewhat biologically independent. To summarize: passionate love is much more intense and is marked by ‘intrusive thinking,’ the idealization of one’s partner, and a desire for emotional union even more than sex. It is also experienced earlier in a relationship, and its most intense phase appears to have a relatively short shelf-life, lasting for 1.5 to 3 years. Companionate love is not necessarily void of passion, but is less intense and revolves more around long-term attachment, friendship, and deeply interwoven lives.
Helen Fisher argued that even though passionate love tends to be more intense earlier in a relationship, it’s probably incorrect to think of the different types of love as stages. Passionate love does not ‘turn into’ companionate love any more than fat transforms into muscle. Yet many researchers have noted that the transition from the predominance of passionate to companionate love is a potential time of strife in a long-term relationship (Acevedo et al 2011). Mandy Lee Catron – the author of the widely shared NYTimes essay “To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This,” – put it this way: falling in love is easy; staying in love is another matter.
To Fletcher et al. (2015), the biology of passionate love likely evolved as an adaptive ‘commitment device’ which acts to suppress us from searching for a new mate. However, we know that evolution is not a goal-oriented process, and it need not live up to our expectations of what an adaptation ‘should’ be. Matt Cartmill said it best: “Evolution doesn’t act to yield perfection. It acts to yield function.” This is true of everything in our biology, including passionate love. It can be one of life’s most moving experiences, but it is not perfect.
It is possible that the most intense phase of passionate love evolved to keep a pair-bond intact long enough to conceive and raise at least one offspring through the difficult and vulnerable period of infancy. This doesn’t mean this is the only function of passionate love – older people fall in love, as do people of all sexualities. However it first originated, passionate love didn’t have to remain tied to its original function. Still, the evidence suggests that natural selection would have favored the emotional machinery that maintained a pair-bond – without much effort – for a given period. After that it would be sort of icing on the cake, at least from an evolutionary perspective.
The psychologist Jonathan Haidt (2005) noted that maintaining passionate love at its peak for an indefinite amount of time is “biologically impossible.” According to Helen Fisher (2006) one possible reason that the most intense part of passionate love has an expiration date is that it would simply be too metabolically costly and distracting to sustain indefinitely. This makes some sense: passionate love is wonderful, but we can’t spend our entire lives idealizing and obsessing over a single person. We have other things to do and other relationships – platonic, familial, professional, etc. – to forge and maintain.
Haidt also referred to what he called ‘danger points’ in a relationship – when people make long-term decisions at the peak of passionate love and are irrational (or more irrational than usual), and when passionate love falls back to earth and a person may experience disappointment, thinking that the best part is over.
However, Haidt also noted that while the peak of passionate love had a relatively short lifespan (not the entirety of passionate love, but the peak), companionate love had the potential to increase over time. So, there’s some good news. And here is more good news: Bianca Acevedo and Arthur Aron (2009) helpfully suggested that it’s a mistake to conflate the obsessive, intrusive thinking that often occurs early in a relationship with the entirety of passionate love. Instead, it is entirely possible to have enduring passion toward a partner over the long haul. So, Haidt’s take on passionate and companionate love is not necessarily the entire story either. Still, maintaining passion does have some challenges, including having children.
What’s Eating Gilbert’s Graph? (Mating vs. Parenting)
In his book, “Stumbling on Happiness,” the psychologist Daniel Gilbert (2006) presented a graph of 4 studies on marital satisfaction at different ages (below). To Gilbert, the pattern was clear – marital satisfaction goes through a U-shaped pattern, peaking in the honeymoon and empty nest periods, interrupted by the valley of the shadow of children. He concluded:
“couples generally start out quite happy in their marriages and then become progressively less satisfied over the course of their lives together, getting close to their original levels of satisfaction only when their children leave home. Despite what we read in the popular press, the only known symptom of ‘empty nest syndrome’ is increased smiling” (p. 243).
The suggestion is that if a couple can survive raising kids together, then there is light at the end of the tunnel. Just keep your head down, get through the two decades of hard work, sacrifice, and fatigue that accompany guiding your infants to adulthood, and then life’s a beach.
The effect of children on parents requires a lot of verbiage, and I don’t have room for that here. Children are wonderful and a source of meaning and happiness (at least some of the time – they can also drain you). Suffice it to say that in biology, all aspects of life have tradeoffs. If energy is thought of as a resource, like time or money, then energy invested in one part of life cannot be spent in another. So energy allocated to mating effort may be pulled away from parental investment, and vice versa. As one example, evidence suggests that the frequency of intercourse declines markedly during pregnancy and in the immediate postpartum period.
Alexandra Brewis and Mary Meyer (2004) analyzed demographic data from 91,744 married women in nineteen countries in Asia, Africa and the Americas. They found that “a basic conclusion is that these samples suggest that marital sexual frequency universally declines across the life course.” As expected, the probability of having intercourse on a given day declined markedly during pregnancy and breastfeeding, rebounding between each birth, and then then eventually declined later in life (see graph).
If we remember that one of the functions of intercourse is not just reproduction, but also bonding through intimacy and shared pleasure, then it makes sense that the childbearing years can be disruptive for some couples. This could fit with Gilbert’s graph. Perhaps once a couple gets through the childbearing years, when time for passion is harder to find, they can begin to re-forge their bond again. Of course, this is not the whole story. Actually, it may even be worse.
Jody VanLaningham and colleagues (2001) argued that the U-shaped curve is an illusion, a statistical artifact of a cross-sectional study design. Instead, the second peak of marital satisfaction seen in the empty nesters is really due to the dissolution of the unhappy marriages during the child-raising years. Since happier marriages are more likely to survive the long-run, they are the ones still around at later ages, which explains that uptick in average marital satisfaction.
When VanLaningham used a longitudinal design and followed the same marriages over time (in several marital cohorts), a different pattern emerged. After the honeymoon period, most cohorts declined steadily in satisfaction over time (graph below). In other words, the average marriage does not have a second peak of happiness and the honeymoon period may be as good as it gets. So, the good news is that the kids appear to be off the hook. Declines in average marital satisfaction is not their fault, at least not entirely, so if you were on the fence about having children one day, don’t let Gilbert’s graph stop you. But the bad news is that we’re still left wondering: are long-term relationships doomed? Doooooomed?!?!?! To answer that, I think we still need to look a little bit deeper.
Age and Libido: Where Did Our Love Go?
Aside from children, another possible explanation for declining sexual frequency is simply that libido (both dyadic and solitary) tends to wane at older ages. For example, in a German sample of 2,341 men and women aged 18-93 years, the percent of people who said they felt sexual desire “frequently” or “very frequently” declined after age 30, while the rate of people who said they “never” desired sex increased (Beutel et al 2008). This was true for both men and women, but male desire was more resistant to aging.
Data from the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior, the largest nationally representative study of sexual-health behaviors ever fielded in the U.S., reveals a similar pattern (Herbenick et al., 2010). One of the many findings from the NSSHB was that the percent of people who reported masturbating peaked at age 25-29, and then declined thereafter.
Perhaps declining frequency of intercourse in a LTR is more an effect of age than children. On the other hand, newly partnered people at older ages still have a honeymoon effect, so age does not explain everything either.
A number of studies suggest that passionate love and sexual desire tend to decline over time from their initial peaks. First, an important disclaimer: individuals are not averages, so this is a trend, not some inviolable law of nature. But statistically speaking, it appears that passion usually cools over time. Klusmann (2002) sampled 1,865 hetero, German adults in committed relationships (mean age 25 years; range 19-32), whose average relationship length was about 31 months. Participants were asked questions pertaining to sexual frequency, desire, satisfaction, as well as infidelity.
For women who were in a relationship of various lengths – less than a year, for 1 to 3 years, and for more than three years – the percent who reported having sex 7+ times in the past month was 67%, 43%, and 34%, respectively (I don’t know why 7+ times a month was the cutoff, but most cutoffs are arbitrary anyway). Results for men showed essentially the same pattern, but let’s keep it simple. Sexual satisfaction showed a similar drop-off. The percent of women who reported being very satisfied with their sex life was 46% in relationships of less than one year, 27% for 1 to 3 years, and 27% (again) for 3+ years. Conversely, rates of infidelity increased over relationship duration. For those in relationships of 3 years or more, 27% of men and 30% of women reported having sex outside their relationship.
Male and female patterns were fairly similar for most questions, except for two. When men and women were asked whether they “want to have sex often,” men’s desire remained steadily high for relationships of all lengths, while women’s rates dropped rather steeply over time (below). When participants were asked whether they “just want to be tender” in their relationship, this desire increased for women in longer-term relationships, while it decreased in men. Klusmann speculated on various possibilities for why these patterns existed, but the important point is that over time, on average, there may be diverging desires within a couple, at least in straight couples.
But here’s the thing. This pattern doesn’t seem to be confined to straight people either, or to people with children. In the early 1980s, Philip Blumstein and Pepper Schwartz (1983) found that among couples in the first two years of their relationship, 67% of gay couples, 45% of heterosexual couples, and 33% of lesbian couples had sex 3+ times a week. However, for those who had been together for 10 years or more, those numbers dropped to 11%, 18%, and 1%, respectively. The drop-off also seems to begin relatively early in a relationship and isn’t confined to older ages. This points to habituation as a factor.
Let’s return to Marjorie Shostak’s book Nisa (2000) on the !Kung foragers of Botswana. In her conversation with a young man about love, he said that once couples live together, “the fire cools” in their hearts, perhaps after a few months. Shostak then asked a follow up question about whether the same was true for clandestine lovers, and for his lover in particular:
“Was it also true (that passion fades) for a lover? “No,” he explained, “feelings for a lover stay intense much longer, sometimes for years.” What did he feel for the woman I had been interviewing – hadn’t they been lovers for a long time?
As soon as I mentioned her name, his manner changed and a smile crossed his face. He described what an exceptional and beautiful woman she was and how deeply he loved her, “With a burning heart.” He confirmed what she had already told me – that they often fantasized about running away together. I asked, “What would it be like?” A dreamy look came over his face, then he smiled again and said, “The first few months would be wonderful!”
This is merely an anecdote, but it suggests that habituation may come more easily for spouses who are consistently in each others’ presence. Esther Perel referred to this as the “essential paradox” of passion, that we have two oppositional desires, one for separateness and another connection:
“One does not exist without the other. With too much distance, there can be no connection. But too much merging eradicates the separateness of two distinct individuals. There is nothing more to transcend, no bridge to walk on, no one to visit on the other side, no other internal world to enter. When people become fused – when two become one – connection can no longer happen. There is no one to connect with. Thus separateness is a precondition for connection: this is the essential paradox of intimacy and sex. ”
In another study from Pepper Schwartz – a sample of 7,000+ Americans – she and her colleagues again found that sexual frequency declined with age (Call et al, 1995: 649). They also noted that frequency seemed to drop off sharply after a honeymoon period, and that habituation was a factor:
“If habituation were a cumulative, long-term process, however, we would expect to eventually find negative impacts on sexual frequency as marital duration increased. This was not the case in the present study. The data suggest that sex satiation and habituation occur very quickly after the honeymoon…
“The rapidity of habituation to marital sex appears to have two components: a reduction in the novelty of the physical pleasure provided by sex with a particular partner and a reduction in the perceived need to maintain high levels of sexual behavior.”
This has been one long, and rather negative essay. Now is the part when I’m supposed to provide an uplifting message that says things aren’t all bad. And they aren’t.
For example, Bianca Acevedo and Arthur Aron (2009) helpfully suggested that it’s a mistake to conflate the obsessive, intrusive thinking that often occurs early in a relationship with the entirety of passionate love. Instead, it is entirely possible to have enduring passion toward a partner over the long haul.
In one sample of 274 married people from across the US, 40.3% of those who had been together for more than ten years reported being “very intensely in love” (O’Leary et al 2011). In fact, ‘‘very intensely in love” was the most common response, while only 0.6% of that sample said they were “not at all in love.” However, those were the couples who made it to that point. Attrition rates from divorce suggest that many did not make it that far and thus could not be sampled.
Perhaps our approach should be that the health of long-term relationships should be treated like any other type of health – that is, we shouldn’t expect it to endure indefinitely on automatic pilot without care, maintenance, and a basic understanding of where our vulnerabilities are. In the same way that the health of our bodies exists within a certain limit of physiology, this can be knocked off balance from a number of directions. The same may be true of relationships, each one of which is unique.
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