Ever wonder what your brain looks like after 20 years of marriage? The news is heartening. At least it is for some couples, who claim to remain “over the moon” about each other for decades past the honeymoon phase.
Researchers at Stony Brook University in New York compared the fMRI brain scans of people newly in love with those who claimed to still be in love after decades. Both groups—newly in love and long-term marrieds (married an average of 21 years) who claim to be still madly in love—showed activity in the dopamine-rich areas of the brain when they thought about or viewed images of their partner. The reward center part of the brains was very active; this is the same center that lights up for cocaine addicts when they use the drug.
Even more interesting is where the brain scans differed. The long-in-love brains showed no activity among areas commonly associated with anxiety and fear. “Individuals in long-term relationships may experience the excitement, sexual attraction, engagement, and intensity associated with romantic love, “ says study co-author Bianco Acevedo. “But they report pining, anxiety, intrusive thinking far less than individuals newly in love.”
Instead of activating the anxiety areas of the brain, the long-marrieds had more active brain areas that were associated with pleasure and pain relief. (I’ve shared other research that showed touch from a loved one can reduce one’s pain. Read Need a Pain Reliever? Try Love. ) These pleasure centers are the same areas that become active when we eat good food or use certain substances, such as morphine. The long-term lovers’ brains also showed more activity related to brain regions associated with maternal love.
The news may not be positive for some couples, says the study’s other co-author, Arthur Aron, who says some couples don’t want to hear that others have a steady, unyielding passion for one another. “Nobody wants to hear about couples doing better than they are. We all like to believe we’re the best.”
On the other hand, engaged and married couples, as well as marriage therapists, should understand that it is very possible for many couples to retain that passion, and not just be content companions. How can they do that? Aron’s other research suggests the most successful couples are the ones that help one another engage in self-expansion—something we discussed in the recent post Is the Happy Marriage the ‘Me’ Marriage? Aron also says couples who were still in love reported more frequent sex, adjusted for age.
See the Time Magazine article here that describes the study.
Do you think most married couples would show very different brain scans than the ones self-selected in the study as having the same passion as those newly in love? Where do you think research should tread next in this area?
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