Twenty Years Later, the Honeymoon’s Not Over for Some Couples

Don’t worry—even if you’re not a "swan," you can still boost your romance levels.

February 13, 2009

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Everyone’s encountered those long-term married couples who claim to be just as much in love now as the day the first met. It turns out they could be telling the truth, according to research presented at a recent Society for Neuroscience conference. A team of researchers from Stony Brook University used brain scans to show that some couples still experience brain activity associated with the early stages of love, even though they’ve been together for 20 years or more.

THE DETAILS: Stony Brook University researchers used MRI scans to study the brain activity of 17 people who reported being intensely in love with a long-term (21 years, on average) spouse.


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Brain activity was observed while the volunteers were shown pictures of their partners, family members, friends, and acquaintances. The scans showed that pictures of their spouses elicited activity in parts of the brain that, previous studies have shown, becomes active in early-stage romantic love. Activity was also seen in areas of the brain that seem to be involved in long-term pair bonding in other mammals—prairie voles, for example.

Researchers sometimes refer to couples in long-term romantic relationships as “swans,” after the birds that famously mate for life. Previous research suggests that about 1 in 10 couples seem to experience this kind of long-lasting romantic feeling. No ones knows for sure what makes some long-term couples have extremely loving relationships, but study coauthor Arthur Aron, PhD, social psychologist at Stony Brook University in New York, says the following make for better relationships, and a combination of all at high levels could account for intense love:

1. Not being under great external stress (poverty, sickness, being in a war zone)
2. Neither partner being depressed or anxious
3. Partners having good communications skills
4. Partners regularly doing things together that are exciting, novel, and challenging
5. Partners celebrating each other’s successes

WHAT IT MEANS: Maybe you and your partner don’t bat eyes at each other the way you used to, but take that as a cue to put more work into your relationship, Aron suggest. “It is indeed sad that more couples are not intensely in love; however, for long-term couples, it may be a good impetus to do more to improve their relationship,” he adds. Your brain may not light up like an MRI like the Fourth of July, but that doesn’t mean you can’t jack up your romance meter and feel extra-close to your long-loved mate.

Here are three easy ways to improve your enduring relationship (and your time together between the sheets):

• Understand you have different noggins. Cut out a zillion petty arguments by understanding that the brains of men and women are vastly different. According to some neuroscientists, women’s left and right brain hemispheres often work at the same time, which means they can verbalize emotions faster than men. Among other things, this suggests men sometimes need extra time to process and formulate a response in a conversation, while women are expecting a more immediate answer.

• Make contact. Manufacture bursts of oxytocin, known as the love hormone, by touching your partner. Swapping half-hour massages every other night lowered a stress-related enzyme by 34%, according to Utah researchers. If you don’t have time for that, cuddle for 10 minutes for a shot of oxytocin. The hormone is also released during orgasm, which is why sex can bust stress and anxiety, and lower blood pressure.

• See your partner through another’s eyes. If all you see when you look at your partner are flaws and shortcomings, you need to spend some time focusing on his or her strengths. Ponder what your friends and colleagues admire about your significant other. Their views aren’t clouded by the fact that she never puts the remote back in the right place, or he keeps forgetting to buy milk, or any of the other thousand things about your partner that drive you crazy.

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