Proof's in the Brain Scan: Romance Doesn't Have to Fade

Long-term relationships can be as passionate as new love, a study finds.

Nov. 17, 2008— -- The honeymoon doesn't have to be over just because you've been together for years, new research suggests. Popular wisdom would have it that romance fades over time. But new brain scans of people who say they are still in love after being married for decades are similar to scans of those who have just fallen in love, leading researchers to conclude that long-term relationships can be just as passionate and romantic as new love.

"We're confident it's real," says psychologist Arthur Aron of the State University of New York-Stony Brook, one of the researchers involved in the study. "That's what the brain scans are telling us. People can't fake that."

The study, presented Sunday at a meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in Washington, D.C., represents a dramatic shift in thinking.

"A lot of other research always suggested romantic love is over by 12 to 15 months. This suggests that may not have to be the case," says Richmond Thompson, an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Bowdoin College, who was not involved in the study.

The findings are based on functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) which scanned the brains of 10 women and seven men who said they were still intensely in love with their spouses after an average 21 years of marriage. When they viewed photos of their partners, their brains reacted.

"If you ask people around the world whether romantic love can last, they'll roll their eyes and say 'probably not,' and most textbooks say that too. We're proving them wrong," says anthropologist Helen Fisher of Rutgers University, a co-author.

Lead author Bianca Acevedo, who has worked with Aron and now works with neuroscientist and study co-author Lucy Brown of Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, N.Y., says the findings are similar to earlier research they did on 10 women and seven men who had fallen in love within the previous year. The number of study participants is typical for fMRI studies, researchers say.

Findings show long-term relationships don't have the obsession and anxiety of new love; instead, they show increased calm and attachment, Fisher says. Couples view partners as central to their lives; they continue to want connection and engagement and maintain a sexual liveliness.

Elaine Hatfield, a University of Hawaii psychology professor who did not participate in the study, says the studies are a "wonderful addition" to the love research, "a promising beginning … not the last word in our understanding of passionate love."