Marriage remains a mystery. What makes it work for the long-term? What makes some marriages passionate? What keeps couples in love—even madly in love—decades after they exchanged their vows? What is the fundamental difference between couples who experience marital happiness and those who do not?
In the recent New York Times article “What Brain Scans Can Tell Us About Marriage,” Tara Parker-Pope reveals how questions such as these fascinate and drive academic researchers, such as a post-doctoral researcher at UCSB, Bianca Acevedo. Dr. Acevedo and others are intrigued by these questions and the “inner workings” of long-term happy marriages. Utilizing a plethora of lab tests (including brain scans and relationship tests), researchers tried to more accurately and tangibly identify what is behind these lasting, loving, and happy marriages.
In one study, Dr. Acevedo, who specifically studies the neuroscience of relationships, conducted a phone survey of 274 men and women in long-term, committed relationships and who considered themselves still madly in love. She collected data related to marital happiness and passionate love and expected to find only a small percentage of couples still deeply in love. Dr. Acevedo was extremely surprised to find nearly 40 percent registering high on the romance scale! Couples in the other 60 percent also had high levels of relationship satisfaction and considered themselves still very much in love—just not as acutely as the first group.
In another study, 17 men and women (married an average of 21 years) agreed to undergo a brain scan so that researchers could try to identify how long-term, romantic relationships affect the brain. When shown a picture of their spouse (as opposed to a friend), parts of the brain related to romantic love were activated—similar to a couple falling in love. What was especially interesting is that in these older couples with longer-term marriages, something additional was identified in the brain scan. For these couples who had weathered life and shared significant experiences together, a unique part of the brain associated with deep attachment and security was activated as well! So, in addition to the euphoric feelings related to romantic love, these couples also experienced feelings of security and calm in the relationship.
So you ask: What did these couples have in common to keep the romance alive all those years? While there is still uncertainty and debate surrounding what specifically fosters and preserves marital happiness, romance, and longevity, these couples did in fact share certain things in common. Researchers discovered the following facts about these couples:
- They remained active and engaged in one another’s lives.
- They were committed to working on and growing the marriage. (They recognized and understood that marriage is work and doesn’t just “go” on its own!)
- They were intentional about doing new and different activities together
As a marriage therapist, what I get out of this article is simple: There are tangible ways to work toward a more satisfying and engaged marriage—one in which you still feel in love! Despite what you may think (and the growing pessimism of the surrounding times and culture), you can be madly in love with your spouse…even decades into your marriage. It can happen. It does exist. And (wink, wink) there are some benefits that you can only enjoy decades into your marriage. Pretty cool stuff.