Time and Romance


Six things that are important to a long-term relationship

We asked Art Aron, our collaborator and a social psychologist, “What are the most important things investigators have found that promote good long-term relationships?”

His answer was, “I have six things to tell you!”  He speaks to us in this short video, and here is a summary:

  1. Minimize stress.  Sometimes you can’t avoid it, but don’t blame it on yourself or the other person.  It’s the situation you’re in.
  2. Have fun with friends and family.  It’s worth making the effort to cultivate supportive friend and family relationships, and to do things together.
  3. Control anxiety.  If you tend to be an anxious or depressed person, seek therapy or ways to reduce your anxiety, like meditation.  Too often people blame a partner for problems it is better to address themselves.
  4. Learn communication skills.  This is very important.  Yes, there are skills to be learned!
  5. Capitalization, which means celebrate your partner’s success.
  6. Enjoy something new.  Do novel things together.
Loading the video player ...

The big question: how long does romance last, and what happens in the brainstem reward area?  Psychological researchers estimate that romance lasts from 6 months to 4 years.  People vary and we don't know why.  It is partly the quality of the relationship, of course, but it is also partly the personality of the person who is in love.  We have some evidence that as romance fades, so does the activation in the ventral tegmental area, the brainstem reward area.

But, if the relationship is ongoing, other parts of the brain nearby become activated.  We are "in love" over a few months or years and grow attached, as different brain systems take over.  We switch from obsessive, romantic love to calm, companionate love.  In the early stages of love, we date, we move in together and these are thrilling times.  Later we go for slow walks and watch the river, or cook together, or watch TV, and become companions.

We first looked at time-in-love effects because we wanted to see why our brain mapping results were different from another study.   The length of the relationship was different for the two studies.  Indeed, we found that length of the relationship explained the differences, and areas like the insular cortex and cingulate cortex were more active the longer the relationship, consistent with the basic findings of the other study (London, Bartels & Zeki, 2000).

This may mean that all the experiences with the other person are getting more distributed throughout the brain, and attention systems and internal emotion systems are brought into play for our experience of longer-term love.

But the fact that there are certain areas of the brain keeping track of the amount of time you have been in love with the person you are looking at is fascinating.  Some of the areas may play a major role in pair-bonding.  The ventral putamen/pallidum is one of those.  It is rich in vasopressin receptors of a certain type.  It may be important for bonding with a partner, especially in males.