Romantic Love in Long-Term Relationships

Romantic Love and Long-Term Relationships

Romantic love is something that everybody highly seeks after and which most Western cultures greatly exalt. Today, “being in love,” has become the main criteria for most Westerners getting into a marriage. Also, an absence of romantic love has been one of the major reasons couples give for divorce.

A lot of people think that they know the place of romantic love in their lives. However, overwhelming evidence show that many people lack even fundamental understanding of romantic love.

But the fact is that psychologists, therapists, and laypeople have puzzled over the possibility of romantic love in long-term marriages.

There are people that even vow that their love will be “forever” for their beloved. Such people erroneously believe that the love they feel today will be the kind of love they will feel tomorrow.

In fact, most people have idolized love. They’ve seriously bought into the idea that their love will always last – usually alluding to the euphoria of romantic love. Yet, a lot of bittersweet anecdotal evidence stares at us right in the face about what mostly becomes of the feeling known as romantic love.

But what exactly is the elation and satisfaction, anguish and drama of this thing called love all about?

Besides what it is all about, I think there’s a more important question lurking in a lot of people’s minds. Many people have a persistent question raging in their heads about “how on earth does one keep a romantic love alive?”

In answering these questions, getting to understand the nature of love, specifically romantic love in this context, becomes absolutely necessary. Indeed, it is imperative as continued ignorance in no longer an option.

What is Romantic Love?

Romantic Love - Young guy carrying his partner in his arms outdoor

This kind of love derives from a combination of the intimacy and passion components of love. Find out more about the three important components of love – intimacy, passion, and commitment – in our post about the Triangular Theory of Love.

Romantic love is also termed “passionate love,” “puppy love,” “a crush,” “lovesickness,” obsessive love,” or “being in love.” There are also those who refer to it as “infatuated love.”

Based on the triangular theory of love, romantic love is a combination of “liking” and infatuation. Liking someone is based strictly on having intimacy with the individual devoid of both passion and commitment. One has infatuation for someone when he or she only feels passion towards that person.

Love never dies of a natural death. It dies because we don’t know how to replenish its source, it dies of blindness and errors and betrayals. It dies of illness and wounds, it dies of weariness, of witherings, of tarnishings, but never of natural death.

Anaïs Nin

As a result, the individual in a romantic love has passionate feelings towards another person. Also, the passion is accompanied by a deep and durable emotional connection and shared intimacy.

Romantic love has a relatively high association with positive emotions such as passion, sexual desire, and excitement. However, it equally has a high tendency to exhibit negative emotions. This includes negative emotions such as loneliness, jealousy, sadness, fear, anger, anxiety, and so forth.[1]

Thus, romantic love can be a very powerful emotional state and most people liken it to a hot flame. In fact, one of the most renown relationship expert defines it as “a state of intense longing for union with another.”

Confused Excitement That’s Arousing

Romantic love has a lot to do with chemistry than most people are aware of. From a chemical standpoint, love, joy, sexual desire, and excitement, as well as anger, fear, jealousy, and hate, have much in common – they are all intensely arousing. They are products of a sympathetic response in the nervous system.

This is evidenced by the majority of symptoms associated with these emotions:

  • Flushed face
  • Sweaty palms
  • Weak knees
  • Butterflies in the stomach
  • Dizziness
  • Pounding heart
  • Trembling hands
  • Accelerated breathing

Concerning these feelings, Michael Liebowitz – author of “The Chemistry of Love” – provides an almost lyrical description of the mixed nature of romantic love:

Love and romance seems [sic] to be one, if not the most powerful activator of our pleasure centers… Both tend to be very exciting emotionally. Being with the person or even just thinking of him or her is highly stimulating… Love is, by definition, the strongest positive feeling we can have. Other things – stimulant drugs, passionate causes, manic states – can induce powerful changes in our brains, but none so reliably, so enduringly, or so delightfully as that “right” other person… If the relationship is not established or is uncertain, anxiety or other displeasure centers may be quite active as well, producing a situation of great emotional turmoil as the lover swings between hope and torment.

Though the excitement may be confusing, it’s at least arousing. And thus people become addicted to the feeling of “being in love.”

In fact, though we often believe that we love the people we do in spite of the suffering they cause us, it may be that, in part, we love them because of the pain they cause us.[2]

The Sexuality of Romantic Love

Romantic love involves a lot of physiological arousal and the belief is that the arousal is because of the partner. Thus, it is termed “passionate love” as it features both intensely positive and intensely negative emotions.

I am certain that to continue to discuss romantic love without also prominently mentioning the role sexual arousal and desire plays in it is very much like our printing a recipe for tiger soup that leaves out the main ingredient.

Ellen Berscheid

Most experts agree that romantic love contains a strong sexual component. In fact, it is mostly agreed that in romantic love sexual desire and attraction are a necessary feature of the passionate love experience.

It also entails additional sexual phenomena such as arousal, excitement, gratification, and sexual activity. For example, Lee A. John suggests that most romantic lovers desire early sexual involvement with their partners. He also states that they are “eager to get to know the beloved quickly, intensely – and undressed.[3]

However, there are other prominent social scientists like Elaine Hatfield who argue that romantic love does not differ much from infatuation. She defines romantic love as “a state of intense longing for union with another.” He definition is such that the “longing” might include sexual union, but it need not.

Her view of romantic love being infatuation is such that the intensity of the infatuation is for reciprocity from the beloved. Thus, sex may be a sign of such reciprocity.

Evolutionary Function of Romantic Love

Romantic Love - Romantic lovers resting on grass

So, what has evolution got to do with romantic love? The truth is that science just recently became interested in studying the concept of love – so there’s a long road ahead.

However, most scientists have come to accept one basic thing about romantic love. This is the fact that romantic love did not evolve to help us maintain stable and enduring partnerships. Instead, romantic love serves a somewhat different purpose.

Romantic love seems to have evolved to drive ancestral men and women to prefer, choose, and pursue specific mating partners. It was to help them start the mating process and to remain sexually faithful to each other long enough to conceive a child.

After birthing a child, the brain develops a new set of chemicals and neural networks. These are to ensure the rearing of the new infant as a team. This is the chemistry of attachment.

Thus, the natural progression of most loving relationships is such that the chemistry of attachment usually dampens the ecstasy of romance. In its place, a new deep sense of connection develops with a mate.

This is unfortunately the fate nature has decreed for romantic love. In fact, there’s a great deal of anecdotal evidence supporting this negative chemical relationship between romantic love and attachment.

Basically, the chemistry involved in the creation of the attachment system that sustains a long-term loving relationship quells the chemistry that fuels the initial euphoria of romantic love.

Sustainability of Romantic Love

Unhappy heart-broken lady

All relationship states are but temporal in nature. They are like rivers that flow through time and space. Along their course, they change as the properties of the environment in which they are in changes.

Thus relationships are never static, and neither are the phenomena that occur within them.

From most frequent findings, including both people’s experiences and studies on interpersonal attraction, it is difficult to maintain the initial euphoria of romantic love over a long period of time.[4]

Theodor Reik comments that “as time passes, all that people can expect from the fire of romantic love is the ‘afterglow’ of dying embers.[5]

The Problem of Habituation

The passion component of romantic love is probably the most difficult to sustain. This is largely because it is the least subject to “conscious control” and most subject to habituation.[4]

Over the course of most successful long-term relationships, passion generally decreases, latent intimacy increases, while commitment also increases then levels off.

Habituation generally follows the rapid development of passion. This is a situation in which people reach a more or less stable, low level of arousal for their partner.[6]

Thus, habituation and familiarity, unavoidable interdependence conflicts and the likes, significantly diminish the passion in romantic love.

Quick Notes About Romantic Love’s Sustainability

  1. One of the most profound influences on how relationships start is through the passion component. The passion is what draws the individuals into the relationship. However, it is the intimacy component that helps to sustain the closeness in the relationship. The commitment component on the other hand keeps the relationship intact.
  2. Passionate feelings come along with a plethora of negative intense emotions such as jealousy, loneliness, sadness, fear, and anger. In fact, some researchers argue that “passion and other intense emotional experiences have a ‘swift onset’ but are ‘distressingly fragile.'”
  3. Emotionally, a “continuous interplay between elation and despair, thrills and terror” appear to be integral to the bittersweet experience of romantic love.
  4. Specifically, the overall presumption is that romantic love is an inherently unstable. It is a transitory phenomenon which inevitably diminishes by the passage of time.[7]
  5. Overwhelmingly, the main reason why romantic love cannot survive the long haul is nature itself. Inherent in its composition is the element of passion – a basic emotion. Passion is just too fragile and transient to be the backbone of a thriving and healthy long-term love relationship.

Maintaining the Passion

Romantic lovers with guy backing his lady

However, one can keep the flames of romantic ecstasy alive despite this evolutionary trajectory of romantic love. Though it might not as fiery as the euphoria of the initial dating phases, you can surely keep the sparks alive.

You can achieve this in a long-term “comfortable” relationship through some minor brain hacks.

Helen Fisher – author of “Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love” – proposed a simple but effective way to go about this.

She advises that couples engage in an array of common interests and to do novel and exciting things together. This idea is also corroborated by Arthur Aron.[8]

Robert Sternberg also made some similar useful suggestions. He advised couples to regularly introduce some elements of change and variations to keep their relationships growing.[4]

Love doesn’t just sit there, like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; remade all the time, made new.

Ursula K. Le Guin

The overall idea is that the sharing of such novel and challenging activities can help to reignite passion in a relationship. The brain normally associates the excitement with the relationship.

Regularly engaging in novel experiences increases the level of dopamine in the brain. This dopamine increase helps to trigger the release of testosterone which in turn stimulates the sex drive.

Further Notes on Romantic Love

This might not be what you expected me to talk about concerning something so beautiful about romantic love. But I think it is appropriate and timely. People need to start understanding the true role of romantic love in their lives.

We should be tired of people breaking up every now and then over something that is supposed to be a natural process of truly loving someone.

It’s good we know the truth so that we have the right expectations for our love relationships. This will help us to stop smothering our relationships and sending them to early graves with all their potentials.

As they say, knowledge is power. Your understanding about the various concepts of love goes a long way to determine how much of it you enjoy.

O love is the crooked thing,
There is nobody wise enough
To find out all that is in it,
For he would be thinking of love
Till the stars had run away
And the shadows eaten the moon.
Ah, penny, brown penny, brown penny,
One cannot begin it too soon.

William Butler Yeats “Brown Penny”

We can greatly empower ourselves when we understand and embrace the way nature has programmed us. This is far better than fighting against it.

Going directly against nature’s role in relationships is analogous to wanting to thwart the effect of gravity for whatever reason. That would simply be ludicrous.

We can better exploit the power of love through a having a balanced understanding of the dynamics of love. Thus, one can sustain love for the long-term through proper understanding of the dynamics of a loving relationships.

A Final Note on Romantic Love…

Overall, most people hope that their romantic love will last because of all the excitement it brings. But nature, and life in general, have a grander plan for the protection and propagation of the human race.

We can’t fight against thousands of years of evolution but we can learn from it. We can also develop ways to hack into the human system that might provide some sort of succor.

However, there are the fortunate ones for whom love in a relationship may be everlasting. Yet, it is likely that its overall quality will change over the course time.

So, in reality, couples can maintain long-term romantic love having the intensity, sexual interest, and engagement, but without the obsessive element common in new relationships.

And before you start hoping to be part of the fortunate few, think again. Are you ready to do the work your loving relationship demands to achieve this dream? It’s all in your hands!

The heights by great men reached and kept
Were not attained by sudden flight,
But they, while their companions slept,
Were toiling upward in the night.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The overall point is that every relationship will pass through different states and possibly stages. This will mostly be a function of the course of the three components of love.

Thus, there will always be changes in the nature of the relationship due to changes over time in the three components of love. You need not fear the changes, but rather understand them, embrace them, and work through them.