The Science of Staying in Love

This video from BigThink explores what goes on in the brain when we fall in love, and how we can sustain long-term relationships.

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We all hope to find a healthy, engaging relationship with a special someone—but the truth is, a long-term partner is a lot harder to find (and keep) than they make it look in the movies. So what gives?

It turns out, “falling in love” and “building a relationship” activate completely different parts of the brain, and they don’t always work together well. The rush we get when we first fall in love activates regions of the brain linked with drive, craving, and obsession, and shuts down those responsible for decision-making and planning ahead, says Helen Fisher, PhD, biological anthropologist and Senior Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute.

It turns out, “falling in love” and “building a relationship” activate completely different parts of the brain, and they don’t always work together well.

“People…can fall madly in love with somebody who’s married, who lives on the other side of the planet, who comes from a different religion, and somehow they’ll say to themselves: ‘We’ll work it out,’” she says.

Clearly, “falling in love” has very little to do with choosing the right partner, regardless of what the movies tell us. To counteract this effect, Fisher is an advocate of “slow love”: taking the time to get to know somebody, letting the fog of those initial chemical infusions roll back a little so you can see the person you’re with a little more clearly.

“With this slow love process of getting to know somebody very carefully over a long period of time, it’s going to help the brain readjust some of these brain regions for decision-making,” she explains.

Of course there aren’t many sonnets written about the practicality of love. Learning whether someone’s saving for retirement or if they’re on speaking terms with their parents doesn’t make for the most romantic of courtships. So, how can we build sustainable relationships, while still keeping the spark alive?

Use Your Brain to Stay In Love

To foster a long-term connection that doesn’t fizzle out, Fisher says it’s important to sustain the three basic brain systems responsible for mating and reproduction: sex, love, and attachment.

Here are three tips she shares to do just that:

1. Get a Room

Having sex regularly is Fisher’s first tip for keeping a relationship from going stale.

“When you have sex with a partner, you’re driving up the testosterone system, so you’re going to want to have more sex [in the future],” she explains. “But you also have all the cuddling, which is going to drive up the oxytocin system and give you feelings of attachment.”

Feel like you’re just too busy? Fisher recommends scheduling time within your week that works for both of you.

2. Give Your Brain the Novelty it Craves

When your relationship starts to feel more like a commute to work than a rollercoaster ride, Fisher recommends trying something new to shake it up. Doing so, gives your brain (and body) that extra boost that  “drives up the dopamine system and can sustain feelings of romantic love,” Fisher says.

This doesn’t have to be a major change, like taking a trip around the world or deciding to have a baby. Little things, like trying a new recipe together, or going for a walk around the block instead of settling into the couch with a movie, can provide the novelty your brain craves.

3. Stay “In Touch”

Hand holding, cuddling, playing footsie under the table—it may sound cheesy, but touch is proven to foster connection. “It drives up the oxytocin system and can give you feelings of deep attachment to the partner,” Fisher explains.