First Comes Love, Then Marriage, Then the Long Struggle

Romance is fleeting, says University of California- Riverside psychology professor Sonja Lyubomirsky, even among those who have found love. Professor Lyubomirsky believes couples enjoy a two-year “passion bump” after getting hitched, after which their love converts into a more compassionate, familial one. Chalk it up to “hedonic adaptation,” as she calls it; the human tendency to become “habituated or inured to most life changes.”

“Studies show that in long-term relationships, women are more likely than men to lose interest in sex, and to lose it sooner,” Lyubomirsky writes. “Why? Because women’s idea of passionate sex depends far more centrally on novelty than does men’s.” In a way, that finding conforms to some old clichés—that men are down for sex under any circumstances, and women need a little more attention to get heated. But it upends another assumption that women are interested in settling down with one partner, while men would prefer to sleep around.

New relationships “are endlessly surprising,” Lyubomirsky notes; monogamous love appears to bore men and women alike. But couples that decide to commit for the long haul can renew the spark (for brief periods, at least) by reconfiguring their relationships.

Couples experience a happiness bump when they commit to marriage, and another bump 18 to 20 years down the road, a phenomenon Lyubomirsky attributes to grown children “leaving the nest.”  The happiness of long-term couples who don’t get hitched or don’t have kids isn’t investigated here, but one study found that couples who make an effort to engage in new and “exciting” activities together—like a spontaneous ski trip—experience little bumps, too.

All of this speaks to a paradox about the American understanding of wedded bliss: The culture celebrates people who find life partners, support one another, share resources, and raise children in stable, predictable relationships. And yet we still expect life partners to experience a romantic, passionate love—and to keep sleeping with one another exclusively until they die. The big relationship milestones we see as signs of true love and commitment—meeting a partner, moving in, marrying, having kids—are actually institutionalized strategies for injecting change into our relationships. But they also further tether us to one partner who quickly becomes more like a sibling than a lover.

The ideal of a romantic marriage may be an innocuous social convention—at least trying to surprise a spouse throughout a lifetime is a not-totally-unattainable (and quite romantic!) notion. But the idea that passionate love ought to last a lifetime can be poisonous, too.

According to Lyubomirsky, “a series of studies at the University of Virginia and at Harvard showed that people experienced longer bursts of happiness when they were at the receiving end of an unexpected act of kindness and remained uncertain about where and why it had originated.” That’s the kind of surprise an abusive partner can provide—someone who could make you happy, or else miserable, every day of your life. Bursts might be overrated.

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