How long can love last in a marriage? Research has suggested that romantic love inevitably fades after about 15 months, maybe less. After all, if love is a fever, then it must die down eventually–right?
John Gottman has written about love that lasts in his book, which I highly recommend, What Makes Love Last. Gottman’s premise is you can’t sustain love without making a conscious commitment to do it.
In recent years, we have learned so much more about the bonds of love through the microscope of science and systematic reasoned exploration. Hundreds of studies tell us, for example, that love is an exquisitely logical survival code and that the ability to reach out, clearly state your emotional needs and respond to your lover’s emotional needs for comfort, reassurance, intimacy and connection, are the key ingredients in love. We are all wired for love, from infancy on. But we make mistakes because we don’t understand our needs; we don’t have a map of the territory. We so often send distorted messages, offer advice or problem-solving when our partner only needs our emotional presence. Or we try to hide our emotions when science tells us that our loved one has picked them up from our facial expression almost before our own brain has decided to try and hide them.
But once we know the territory, once we understand the bonds of love, then we can actively, consciously shape these bonds in a way that is new and lasting for human lovers. What are the bonds of love? Trust, faithfulness, emotional support, empathy, presence, and commitment to meeting each other’s needs: Are you there for me? Do you see me? (I loved this phrase in the movie Avatar: I see you.) Learning to see each other is a “work” that never ends.
In its infatuation stage, romantic love hardly requires any work or effort. The wish to turn this stage into a lasting romantic relationship is a challenge entailing the investment of blood, sweat, and tears, which doesn’t sound romantic at all, of course. But, hey, all or most things worthwhile require work and attention.
Bottom line: love is more than a feeling; it is also an act. In fact, the work of love can in many circumstances enhance the feeling of love.
What is the work? Learning how to be present, remain connected, and listen.
It’s learning the alternatives to blaming, criticizing, distancing, and dismissing. It takes effort, but the reality remains: We invest more effort in something which is significant for us; at the same time, it is also true that something we invest more effort in becomes more significant.
So finding the right person is not the end of the story. It is the beginning of a long (preferable enjoyable, meaningful, at times romantic) journey, that is not always easy, sometimes impossible, but doable most of the time. Sometimes it will require personal sacrifice and effort. In other words, marriage is a very human experience.
I close with a quote from C.S. Lewis who best expresses what I am trying to share:
If the old fairy-tale ending ‘they lived happily ever after’ is taken to mean ‘they felt for the next fifty years exactly as they felt the day before they were married’ then it says what probably never was nor ever would be true and would be highly undesirable if it were. Who could bear to live in that excitement for even five years? What would become of your work, your appetite, your sleep, your friendships?
But, of course, ceasing to be ‘in love’ need not mean ceasing to love. Love in this second sense—love as distinct from “being in love”– is not merely a feeling. It is a deep unity, maintained by the will and deliberately strengthened by habit. They can have this love for each other even at those moments when they do not like each other– as you love yourself, even when you do not like yourself.
‘Being in love’ first moved them to promise fidelity. This quieter love enables them to keep the promise. It is on this love that the engine of marriage is run. Being in love was the explosion that started it.C.S. Lewis