Health benefits of falling and staying in love

Feb 08, 2011

Arthur and Elaine Aron answer your questions on the science of love and relationships.

Can a functional MRI of the brain show if you're in love?

fMRI *ON THE AVERAGE* shows specific patterns of activation associated with being in love.  However: (a) for any individual case, it might not show up, (b) if one was tense about the procedure one might be much less likely to show the result, and (c) if one wanted to look like they were in love to someone, one could think about a different person or something else highly desirable when doing the task and the scan might look like they were in love with the target person.

Married people weigh more and exercise less than single people. In studies, always-single people are found to be as healthy as married people. It's the divorced people that are often unhealthy. Married men have smaller social networks than single men, which has a negative impact on survival. So why does society so enjoy perpetuating this myth that married people are healthier?

I suspect you are thinking of the young, visible single people in society, the ones out there jogging, going to entertainment events, partying, networking...  And you are right that divorced and widowed people are in the average unhealthier than those who have never been married.  This statistic on single people is being affected by the many of them  who have trouble attracting someone due to being older, physically or emotionally unhealthy, unattractive to the average person for some reason, and so forth.  They make themselves less visible to us, but they are there.

Are there points when being together becomes too stressful that there becomes a health risk to staying together?

Definitely.  There is considerable research on that.  Staying in a bad relationships is especially bad for older people--perhaps because they are more vulnerable to things like heart disease and high blood pressure.  Also, perhaps they feel they will have fewer chances to find a new relationship, so it feels more hopeless.   As a therapist, I tell people in an unhappy relationship that if BOTH of you are  taking responsible for the situation and trying to change, through therapy, seminars, reading--whatever--then there's still hope and it's worth staying for awhile.  (Otherwise, your partner may go on to the next person, having become your ideal!)  If the other person sees it as all your fault and refuses to look at his or her role in the problem, well... not much hope for change there.

Is it falling in love with someone special or just anyone? It seems some people are so desperate it could be a pet or a pet rock, just about anything or anyone.

There is considerable research on initial attraction and falling in love, but we still don't know all the variables involved.  The main picture at the moment is that the factors that predict falling in love have relatively little to do with who the otehr person is.  The typical pattern of falling in love is that you meet someone at a time in your life where it is appropriate or desirable for you (such as after a breakup) to fall in love, the person is reasonably attractive and appropriate for you, and the person does something that you can interpret as indicating the person is interested in you.  We also know that certain people are more likely to fall in love in general, particularly those who have an insecure childhood (especially having had a mother who was inconsitent in being available); also those who experience emotions especially intensely, such as those who are highly sensitive (based on my wife's research on the highly senstivie person).

Do we have causal evidence that being in a happy marriage is good for your health? That is, it may just be that healthy people tend to also be in happy marriages, and there's another cause for both events, such as an optimistic personality. If that's the case, then we shouldn't all run out to get married or be in love just to be healthy. As you know, correlation does not imply causation. Fortunately, being in love is it's own reward.

You are so right that this is only correlational evidence--something I'm especially aware of as a therapist.  I suspect that in many, many cases a person is not married because of poor physical or emotional health (the latter especially) rather than the other way around.  Feeling unattractive or just not being married like everyone else is also can also make you pretty miserable.  Then there's the biological clock for women, so not being married makes you fear not having children, more unhappiness.  And I certainly would not run out to get married for health reasons.  In fact, weddings as usually done today are very stressful and probably bad for our health!  I guess we need to do a study in which we randomly assign people to marry or be single.  Want to volunteer?

You hear about couples staying in love for years, decades, even for a lifetime... but as of late, that's become more rare -- with divorces and 'hooking up' becoming more common. With the changing of the times, is it still 'realistic' to believe that romantic love truly does endure?

I am not aware of any systematic historical data, but in general in most cultures, except perhaps in a few eras in a few cultures among the very upper classes, marriage was about a strong working alliance for having and raising children and had little to do with romantic love.  Divorce was not common or even allowed in most cases.  Today in Western cultures we have much higher rates of divorce (and in Western Europe, lower rates of people amrrying at all--although people still form long-term pair bonds they just don't get formally married).  But we probably also have much higher rates of love in marriage at all phases, since in our culure love is considered a pre-requisite for marriage. 

   So what about love lasting?  In most marriages, intense romantic love with physical/sexual livelness and centrality to ones life and the other person being on one's mind most of the time, is something we see in only a minority, but not an infinitesimal minority. 

  Our recent fMRI study supports the conclusion that some individuals married 10-30 yeears experience romantic love as intenseloy as those newly in love.  We also see this in interviews and in about 10-12% of married individuals we have studied in non-representative community samples.  There are as yet no published studies of represenative samples with regard to the incidence in the general pouplation of intense love in long-term marriages.  but from the data we have, it certianly seems likely that it occurs and is possible for many people to experience.

I loved an older man for years with all my heart, he isn't my husband... It was never sexual, but the gender spark between his male mind & my female mind was palpable always. Is this ok? Should I only have a deep love & gender-based spark for one man, my husband? Help...

This is a tough one.  Very archetypal.  To me it would depend in part on how it makes your husband feel. Does he even know?  If not, why aren't you telling him about the importance of it to you (in an honest but diplomatic way)?  He might say that this is a kind of infidelity--he wants to be the most important person in your life, in all ways.  You need to face this and perhaps the two of you talk it out.  (In my book The Undervalued Self I discuss how to have these sorts of discussions without fighting.  Much.) Or he might not be bothered, having friends like this himself.  Or knowing that you need certain things he does not satisfy, perhaps doesn't even want to try,and would rather you gain it elsewhere than leave him to find it.  Further, as far we know, we only live once, which does not permit us to be immoral or hurt others, but does require us to think twice.  How dark would your life be if this light went out?  Carl Jung said about situations like this, "It's a sin if you do and a sin if you don't."

Is falling in love purely hormonal/biological or is there also a "logical" kind of love?

Falling in love in humans is probably the same thing somewhat elaborated as what is called "selective attraction" in higher animals in general.  That is, when selecting a mating partner, there is an evolutionary advantage to focusing attention (at least for a mating season) on a single partner. 

   That being said, humans have quite a capacity to moderate how they respond to wired-in needs.  Consdier eating--our desire for food (and even for partiuclar kinds of foods) is biological, but as humans we have diets, restaurants, gourmet food, etc., etc.

   There is a reason we have the myth of being shot by an arrow.  Falling in love feels out of our control, just as the desire for other important things in our life can suddenly come upon us and seem out of our control.  On the other hand, we can control how we act on it, and to a considerable extent, we can control to whom we expose ourselves--that is, control the kinds of people that become avaible to us as potential targets for falling in love. 

   Finally, we do not have to base the selection of a long-term partner on feelings of romantic love.  Romantic love is a quite universal phenomenon, found in every culture and as far as we know every era.  But it is mainly only recently and only in a few cultures that it has come to be thought of as a basis for forming a lasting pair bond.  So if one wanted to be "logical" one might pick a partner who was optimal for maintaining an enjoyable long0term relationship, raising chldren together, etc., whether or not one felt "in love" with the person.  Of course you would then be going against the cultural norms, which can be a very high price in terms of delaig with your partner, extended family, and everyone esle aroudn you (as well as what you were raised to believe and feel--which is not easily overcome).

Found out about 8 months ago hubby is into MEN. Seriously into men. Watches tons and tons of YouTube videos at home, and God only knows what with his iPhone. Has refused sex with me for ages... no, I'm not fat, repulsive, etc. and no, I have not confronted him. He has a very bad temper and is supremely homophobic. Why, other than financial reasons, would a woman choose to stay in such a relationship? A few actually do. I don't understand it. I'm leaving when our daughter turns 18 (14 months). Can you discuss mixed orientation marriage, and WHY so few counselors / therapists are trained in it?

I am sorry to hear you are in such a difficult situation.  I am not sure if there are any data on mixed orientation marriages--there may be some surveys that have looked at the incidence, but my impression is that we know little about it.  Probably we know little about it and few counselors are trained in it, because it is relatively rare. 
   We DO know a fair amount about why people stay in unhappy (and even abusive) relationships in general.  The main reason is simply that they feel the alternative of leaving is worse.  That is, the children will suffer, one may not have a reasonable way to support oneself, or, in the case of some abusing husbands, one may fear being attacked or killed if one leaves. 

   Indeed, more generally, the main predictor of whether people stay married or get divorced is whether they see their marriage as better than the avaiable alternatives.  Of course, this has a lot to do with how happy you are--if you are very happy, there are few alternatives that are better (especially when one considers the costs of breakup, and the uncertainties that what seems like a better alternative actually is).  Still, people will sometimes leave a good marriage if they think they can have even a better life outside of it (either with another partner, or single, or as a monk, or whatever).  And when people are very unhappy, even the alternative of a lonely and poorl ife may be better than staying with your partner.  But if the life situation of leaving seems even worse than what you have, you stay.

What about people who don't want to commit? Is it possible to be afraid of falling in love?

Very definitely.  Maybe we should all be a bit afraid.  Like any other fear, it is often a fear of something that has already happened to you.  You've lost someone or been betrayed in the past.  A major reason from the past is what we call "adult attachment style."  It comes in three flavors--secure, insecure, and avoidant.  Attachment style is mostly affected by childhood attachment "models," which are very difficult to change.  The mind is very conservative in that regard.  An avoidant style (won't commit) is usually due to neglect, abuse, or abandonment, including when the "primary care giver," usually mother, was depressed or ill or just had to work.  The child decides to act as though he or she is self-sufficient, needs nobody.  These types still want to be in a close relationship, if you can get them to admit it.  But often they can't.   They create a very frustrating pattern.  They are there, acting very interested, when you are backing out, tired of their "games."  Then you respond to their interest and they back away as you come close again.  Very frustating. 

Then there are the highly sensitive people who are simply very thoughtful about what a huge step they are taking.  In my book The Highly Sensitive Person in LoveI list seven ways, at least, that a sensitive, thoughtful person might fear committment.   But as I say, no decision, wait and see, is still a decision.

Some people have internal work to do in order to be their healthiest and the best partner they can be. However, especially for women, the clock is ticking. At what point should a person working on their health (physical, emotional, and otherwise) also make efforts to fall in love? If a person waits until they are perfect, they will die without having paired up.

Defintely do not wait to get out there.   Working on yourself is a life long process.  Try to find someone on the same path, with the same dedication to personal improvement.  What could be more attractive, really?

What is love, anyway? I am a newlywed. My husband and I have been together for about seven years, and things are definitely not as . . . intense . . . as they were when we first met. But somehow, they're better. I feel happy; secure. This sense of well being permeates the deepest parts of my whole life. Is love the thing that causes me to get up an extra half-hour early each morning to pack our lunches for work? I don't know, but we eat healthy meals because of it. Sometimes I'd rather have the sleep. But it's a team effort. We both do things to make things better for the other person--and for both of us. Would I be happy and well as a single person? Yes. Would I trade the life that I have? Not for anything.

There are many kinds of love.  Romantic passionate love is what in our culture is often found in new relationships and tends to diminsh over time.  There is also what is called companionate love, the strong warm bond between two people that can grow over time.

  However, some couples manage to have BOTH!  We don't know all the factors, but the research Elaine Aron and my other collaborators and I have done suggest that one thing couples can do to rekindle some of the early passion and excitement is to do exciting, passionate, novel, challenging things together.  For example, a date night every week doing something different each week, something you both are fairly positive about and that is new and exciting.  Another thing that can be very important over the long haul is to find the things that are really important to your partner for his or her personal development (whether professionally, spiritually, psychologically, or whatever)--what your partner (not you) sees as his or her "ideal self"--and systematically support it.  This is from research by Caryl Rusbult and her colleagues and they call it the "Michelangelo Effect" in which you are helping your partner sculpt his or her ideal self from out of the marble.  There is also someting you can do on a daily baiss that comes from research by Harry Reis and Shelly Gable--celebrate your partner's successes, strongly (to the extent you can sincerely).  You can show excitement for every success from a big promotion at work, to the smallest nice thing, such as your partner finding something he or she has been searching around the house for, for 20 minutes and finaly locates.

The pheromone rush, the overwhelming emotions - I hate it! That might have something to do with my being a highly sensitive person though (great book!). I am a very emotionally healthy person, but relationships have just never been my thing. Since I've never wanted to have children and I don't have the same need for companioinship that most people do, there's never been any reason for me to get married and every long-term relationship I've been in has resulted in me becoming physically ill from the stress. Once I was out of the relationship, the health problems disappeared. So I remain happily single!

I'm so sorry that it is that awful for you.   " Happily single" is the key word here.  Good for you, taking the road less travelled.  Although, maybe you should also read what I wrote about fear of falling in love.  Your arousal level when in love could have a fear element, yes?  Or maybe you are trying to be in a close relationship the way nonsensitive people are, and that's too overstimulating for you.  Maybe there's someone out there who needs the same sort of distance as you to feel comfy.  I know sensitive people in close relationships who have never lived together.  It works best for them that way.   A problem with giving up on close relationships is that they can be the very best place to grow.  You have to face your stuff.  Just a thought.

Any studies on the effects of long-distance relationships vs. normal "in the area" love?

There ARE a number of studies of long-distance love, mainly in the contexts of college students and miliatary personnel.  I don't have the data at hand, but my memory is that they certainly add stress to ones life but that surprisingly the rates of infidelity and breakup are only maringally higher than when the partner is nearby.  Of course the amount of ongoing contact (by phone, video chat, email, even old-fashioned letters) matters a lot.  Also, if it is a military situation, the fear of the soldier partner being injured or killed adds to the complexity; as does the situation when there are children. 

People fall in love several times during the course of their life time - hence second and third marriages... is being in love in a marriage vs being in like or lust or financial need the exception or the rule ? What are the numbers on that?

There are as yet no published studies of the incidence of intense love in a representative sample of married individuals, so we do not konw the numbers.  But from the data we have, it certainly exists and is not extremely rare.  Probably some kind of warm companionate love is experienced by the majority of North Americans at any given time in a marriage; however, intense romantic passionate love is probably exprienced by much less than the majority, although we don't know how much less. 

My husband used to be be enlisted and would be deployed often. Now that he's back at home, I want to spend as much time as I can with him, but am afraid I'm being too clingy. How can I tell? What is a good boundary to set?

Hm.  I'd have to know you better to answer that definitively.  But it's natural to cling, I think, when you have been separated so long, especially if you were insecure about the outcome.  You might have suppressed lot of that fear in order to be a good military wife, but especially if you are highly sensitive, it may have built up quite a fear in the unconscious.  Two things.  First, discuss it with him.  Every couple has to decide on how close they want to be, which is usually a compromise.  Perhaps you are worried about it because he is not that happy with your "clinginess" but does not want to say so.  Or, maybe he loves it and feels the same way but, having had some lessons in the military about the need to be emotionally tough, he has not shown it.  

Second, look at your childhood.  See what I wrote about fear of committment.  You may have what's called an "anxious attachment style" due to very inconsistent care giving in childhood.  That could have been replayed in the frequent deployments, triggering that need to cling that started in childhood.  In that case, you might want to take this to a therapist trained in psychodynamic therapy (not cognitive behavioral) to get a final opinion, and maybe work on it there.

I've seen a fair bit lately that suggests that "we all marry the wrong person" -- that that initial "click" with someone only lasts for so long and after that, really doing a relationship is serious work and everyone doubts. I wonder about that not because I take issue with the "it's serious work" part, but because, well, the woman I am with now I'm with because We Clicked. I don't even know how to describe it. People around us remark constantly on how well suited for one another we are -- and both of us are oddballs that most people don't quite get, nice as most folks are. People are struck by it, and so are we -- constantly, even though I'd say the dancing-on-air part is fading. So what's that mean? Are she and I evidence for the theory that clicking happns, or are we in for a time when we suddenly go from soul-twins to strangers, grieving for the way it was?

Most studies show that teh match between two people matters relatively little. But how intensely you are in love at the outset (regardless of the match) does predict to a moderate amount the long-term quality of the relationship.  Still, over time, it is very important to "work at" the marriage and not just take it for granted.  Do exciting thigns together, support each other in times of need, get excited when your partner has a success, support your partner's actions to devleop his or her ideal self.  But also, ifyou are dancing on air, ENJOY IT!  But work to keep it alive too.

I'm trying to figure out what I'm in right now. My past experiences with the passionate, pheromone-rush feeling have usually turned out to be disasters (possibly because they were with intense people by nature?). I've spent a lot of time single and was mostly happy, if a little lonely. Now I find myself in a good relationship that is drama-free and, I think, more of the companionate variety -- not that there is no attraction, it's just that the intense heat and butterflies aren't there. If I've had those feelings before (though for the wrong people), is it a bad sign that I've apparently skipped them entirely in this relationship?

It seems like you have answered your own question.  This a "good relationship," to quote you.  Maybe you have learned your lesson, so to speak, and found what you really wanted.  No need to do it the way others do.   Maybe you are highly senstive (see above) and have found another highly sensitive person.  Or perhaps fate or whatever you call it has given you an "arranged marriage," the kind that many cultures insist on.  You would not be allowed to begin with a mere passionate, irrational  attraction, but if the Wise Ones have done their job right, your love will grow and grow with time.

In This Chat
Arthur Aron, Ph.D.
Social psychologist at Stony Brook University
Elaine Aron, Ph.D.
Author of The Highly Sensitive Person and The Undervalued Self
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