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Our love is here to stay (maybe)

 

Last updated 2/12/2009 at Noon



With Valentine’s Day around the corner, love is going to be front and center on everyone’s radar screens.

The roses will be expensive; the restaurants will be packed; the chocolates will be fattening; and the couples will be wondering, “Is this what love is?”

Retaining the ardor of early romance isn’t a simple thing, and it may not even be a desirable goal, since working, children and daily life require more attention and energy than two star-struck lovebirds who only have eyes for each other can muster for the outside world.

But many couples miss the zing of the early days and wonder if its passing means the relationship itself is something that needs to be shelved while a newer, hotter connection is pursued.

When two people fall in love, their brains release chemicals similar to those found in drug or alcohol addiction.

Being separated from The One brings about feelings of malaise, anxiety and, well, withdrawal.

Two people find themselves laughing at the same comedian or screaming on the same rollercoaster and zoom! The brain thinks, “This is it. This is forever.”

Alas, researchers such as Arthur Aron, a psychologist at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, tell us the ‘zing’ lasts only for a few months or maybe, if we’re really lucky, two to four years.

The high wears off and the things we overlooked in the early throes of passion now stand starkly before us. She bites her nails. He drinks too much. She’s a slob. He’s a Pisces.

At this point the couple needs to become comfortable in what the eggheads call “companionate love” or it may be curtains for the relationship.

Companionate love is what comes after the blazing inferno. It’s the warm emotion of interconnectedness, of having a history with someone, of being on the same journey together.

Companionate lovers can take separate vacations and it’s okay. They can spend time with friends and not really be pining for The One at home. There’s less sex and more cuddling.

If we’re supposed to be hot for someone for only a little while (long enough to make a few babies and move on, perhaps?) and then the BFF stage sets in, is there a way to keep it fresh? Can we look at an old lover with new eyes?

Helen Fisher, an evolutionary anthropologist and the author of “Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love,” was asked this question in an interview on Salon.com.

“The only one way I really know of to kick in that dopamine system and to help spark love, particularly in a long-term relationship, is to do novel things together,” she responded. “Novelty is associated with elevated activity of dopamine and norepinephrine.”

“Novelty can step up that system. Some people can just go to a different restaurant. You don’t have to go skydiving. Other people, maybe they should.”

Susan Brink of the Los Angeles Times asked relationship experts what advice they had for couples who were successful in staying together and keeping the embers burning. Here are some of their tips:

Anxiety and depression can break relationships. Arthur Aron says to “do everything you can to make yourself less anxious and depressed.”

Set your earlier, hotter images of your love interest on ‘freeze frame’ and keep them there.

Gian Gonzaga, a senior research scientist at eHarmony Labs (bet you didn’t know that existed), says, “As people get older, they get less attractive, but we don’t update.”

Retaining the image of that fresh-faced young man or woman we fell in love with helps get us over the hump of aging and getting less attractive.

Be blissfully unaware of what your partner really thinks about the attractiveness of others.

As Gonzaga found, “If you show people pictures of attractive men and women and ask how their partner will look at this person, they underestimate the person’s attractiveness to their partner.”

It’s this almost willful ignorance that enables us to keep from worrying about every pretty thing that passes in front of our partner.

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