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Long-Term Love Not Just a Fairy Tale

• August 08, 2011 • 2:26 PM

A new study finds nearly three-quarters of Americans remain “very in love” after a decade of marriage.

And they lived happily ever after.

That fairy-tale inspired narrative of wedded bliss appears to hold true for a surprisingly large number of Americans, according to a newly published study.

In a random survey, 47.8 percent of married Americans (49 percent of men and 46.3 percent of women) reported being “very intensely in love” with their spouse, according to a research team led by Stony Brook University psychologist K. Daniel O’Leary. Another 13.4 percent said they were “intensely in love,” while 26.2 percent chose the term “very in love.”

Not surprisingly, those figures were lower for couples in the second decade of marriage compared with those in the first 10 years. But they bounced back in the third decade. For those married over 30 years, 40 percent of women and 35 percent of men reported being “very intensely in love.”

Writing in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, the researchers call these results unexpected. While few prior studies have addressed this issue, those that exist suggested the very-satisfied figure was in the 10- to 20-percent range.

“It is commonly assumed that intense romantic love occurs in the early stages of a romantic relationship, but decreases dramatically across time,” O’Leary and his colleagues note. Their research suggests this is not true for most married Americans and points to a number of factors that are linked to long-term love.

The researchers conducted two surveys. The first, a random-digit dialing survey, featured 10-minute telephone interviews with 274 married individuals (119 of whom were women). The participants’ mean age was around 47, and mean relationship length was 21 years.

They answered the question “How in love are you with your partner?” on a seven-point scale, ranging from “very intensely” to “not at all.” In addition, they described a variety of relationship-relevant feelings and behaviors.

“Thinking about the partner in positive ways, and how often they thought about the partner when not together, were two of the strongest predictors of intense love,” the researchers report. “Affection (hugging, kissing), frequency of intercourse, doing novel things together, and general life happiness were also significantly related to reports of intense love.”

The researchers note some gender differences in the responses. “Wanting to know the whereabouts of the partner was significantly associated with intense love for men but not for women,” they write.

The second study, conducted in a similar fashion, featured 396 married residents of New York state. These findings were significantly different: Only 33.3 percent of respondents said they were intensely in love. For those married 30 years or more, 19 percent of women and 29 percent of men reported this intense level of infatuation. The researchers suspect these results reflect previous studies suggesting that “general happiness” is lower in the Northeast than other regions of the country.

For half the participants in the New York survey, the researchers flipped the order of possible answers to the key question. They placed “not at all in love” on top and “very intensely in love” on the bottom, to see if it would impact the results. It didn’t.

O’Leary and his colleagues concede that participants may have exaggerated their feelings when talking to the interviewer. There are reasons to want to tell the world — and, for that matter, convince yourself — that you’re in a great relationship even when it’s not entirely true. They conclude, however, that adjusting for such factors would produce only minor changes in their results.

Sadly, there’s no clear guidance here for those searching for long-term love. It’s impossible to say whether the affectionate behaviors mentioned here (such as thinking about one’s partner in positive ways, and engaging in novel and challenging activities together) inspire intense love or are the product of intense love. Perhaps these activities and attitudes mutually reinforce one another.

Either way, it’s reassuring to learn that, of couples married at least 10 years, 74 percent reported they are either “very in love,” “intensely in love” or “very intensely in love.” With all the hand-wringing about the high divorce rate, could it be that the people who stay married are more likely to truly be in love?

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Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

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