What elements of love make some relationships last a lifetime?

For a long time, psychologists and therapists have tried to pin down, describe, categorise and predict the course of true love. There’s been widespread agreement that love tends to start off as a romantic and intense longing to be with the other person, with feelings of pain when apart. Then as the months and years go by, if love lasts, its nature changes, and the relationship becomes more of a companionable warmth, without much excitement or allure, and with far less romance than there used to be.

According to this idea of love, relationships that last, and which bring satisfaction to both parties, inevitably see the decline of romance over time. This is not a wholly bad thing, because the Why do some relationships last a lifetime?intimacy that exists between partners increases as if to compensate, and there may be a strength of commitment to each other. The day to day irritations of living together produce conflicts, and we become ‘habituated’ to a stable, and low, level of romance, says much of the psychological literature. It’s by no means the whole story, though, and it may not be the right one.

Other researchers point to the way romance can reignite, for instance after a period of being apart. And couples who embark together on new experiences are often seen to rediscover their romantic sides. A number of studies show high levels of romantic love among couples who have been together for decades – and a pair of US psychologists decided to take a closer look at a large number of papers to investigate. They distinguished between obsession and romance as separate components of a loving relationship.

Obsession – which can be part of love – tends to be present in shorter-length relationships. Obsessive lovers are the ones who say they find it hard to concentrate at work because of thoughts about their partner, or they describe feelings of jealousy at the idea the partner may be with someone else. Obsession and romance can co-exist, even so, but successful relationships – defined as bringing satisfaction and pleasure to both partners – of whatever length, have a strong element of romance from the start. The longer relationships were less likely to have obsessive aspects, and more likely to retain romance.

Romance can be intense, it can involve sexual allure, and it is involving and committed. This analysis shows it has a strong role to play in long-lasting marriage – and happy marriages predict all-round happiness in individuals, plus feelings of well-being, and resistance to stressful life events.

Without the obsessive element that could undermine all these positives, romance is an enhancement to life – and settling for friendly companionship, as maybe the best that can be expected from long-term coupling, could be to sell ourselves short. Working for a re-birth of romance is possibly a challenge – but it’s one that’s worth working at.

The House Partnership, 26th September 2011