Never mind the seven-year itch. It’s now proven that we get bored after just two. We’ve no choice, says Suzanne Harrington, humans are hard-wired that way
THERE’S a new romcom out on Feb 8 called I Give It A Year — perhaps Katy Perry and Russell Brand were the inspiration — but when it comes to the optimum human love window, I Give It Two Years would be more accurate. Because, folks, that’s how long passionate love lasts. Any longer and we would all die of exhaustion.
You know how it feels. You’ve met someone and fallen for them. Oh, what bliss. Everything is heightened. Music sounds better, colours are brighter, you are in a permanent state of arousal — emotional, psychological, romantic, the lot. Sleeping and eating become optional extras, as does the normal stuff, like concentrating on work, or getting anything done. It’s intense and magical and passionate and all-consuming. It’s a feeling as addictive as a drug.
In fact, the feeling of being passionately in love works on the same reward part of the brain as actual drugs, sending your dopamine receptors into a frenzy of joyful chemical activity. Who needs food or sleep when you are high as a kite on love? Just don’t forget to feed the cat. Or your kids. Or pay the phone bill, or turn up at your job. It can be quite debilitating, this amour fou — ‘crazy love’, as the French call it. Equally, in English, it’s perfectly normal to be ‘madly in love’, to be ‘crazy’ and ‘insane’ about someone.
Don’t worry, it won’t last. On average, within two years we go back to normal again. This hedonic adaption is down to evolutionary biology — protracted courting rituals aside, it takes human mammals approximately two years to mate, gestate, give birth, and form a neo-natal family bond until mother and child are able to fend for themselves. That’s the bare bones biologically, but it’s not terribly romantic.
Hence we have marriage, where we promise to stay together for rather longer than the time it takes to make a baby and care for it into toddlerhood. This allows the love to move into a place of longevity, companionship and deep bonding, rather than the crazy stuff, and this longevity is very much encouraged by human society. Our culture is saturated by love poems and love songs that promise ideas of ‘together forever’ and ‘always’ and ‘endless’; from fairy tales to Hollywood, we are told that real love lasts a lifetime, that this is the ideal. Tru Luv 4 Eva. Hmmmm. But are we sure this actually reflects true human nature, our innate way of being which lies beyond social conditioning?
In 2003, researchers in the US and Europe surveyed 1,761 people who had been married more than 15 years, and confirmed what we already knew — the high wears off relatively quickly, after around two years. Passionate love becomes companionate love, which means that you can do other things apart from stare moonily into each other’s eyes, and pine for each other like lovestruck numpties when one of you has to do the school run or take the rubbish out. If you make it through the years that come after the two years of passionate love, this early-period excitement can even make a comeback during empty nest season, when you rediscover your honeymoon attraction after the children have finally left home. So. Just 20 years or so to wait.
Lots of people don’t last that long, however. This is because of hedonic adaption — our innate ability to get used to things, no matter how fabulous it is. We are pre-programmed to adapt, and this means adapting to good things as well as bad. Whether it’s a beautiful new home or a beautiful new partner, we will eventually take our lovely situation for granted; had we not evolved to continually adapt like this, as a species we would long be extinct. (Although the love high does last longer than the high of material acquisition — so technically, you’ll remain keen on your new girlfriend for longer than your new stereo. In theory anyway).
The big lie about TL4E is that sexually, humans are especially prone to hedonic adaption. We get bored of the same old same old. This does not mean we don’t love our partners deeply, it just means that we are hardwired for sexual variety, so that our genes keep mixing and spreading, and the human race carries on genetically strong and healthy. This means for individuals that what was once magical can quickly become routine.
Women are especially prone to hedonic adaption in love, which means we crave novelty and go off sex far more quickly than our male partners. Studies have shown that for women, passion is more connected with newness, variety and the unexpected. In order to remain passionate about our partner, we need them to surprise us. And not just with a box of Milk Tray.
My personal solution to hedonic adaption is to keep adapting. I am not married, and am therefore free to form relationships that last only as long as they remain fun, exciting, interesting; when the going gets dull, I tend to get going. And in keeping with evolutionary biology, my optimum relational window is about 18 to 24 months; perhaps it’s the sheer excitement of amour fou that stops me from moving towards more domesticated companionate love. As women, we tend to get this depth of bonding from our friendships; men get emotional intimacy from women, women get it from other women. Which rather frees us up, I find.
For long-term couples, however, keeping your ardour blazing for decades is not just unrealistic, but possibly impossible — so what can be done about that drug-wearing-off feeling when passionate love has become companionate love? Happily there are solutions, which need not involve anything illicit or harmful to the relationship.
For the very secure and liberated, there’s sexual encounters as a couple with third parties; this tends to keep things interesting, and injects companionate love with regular peaks of passionate love. However, if you find such an idea unnerving, but dread the boredom of long-term monogamy, you can still shake things up without breaking things up. Personal trainers know that if you work your body in the same routine every day, your body adapts, gets complacent, and becomes less efficient; well, this also applies to the psyche.
Yet when couples hit the two year mark, they often mistake the shift from passionate love to companionate love as a disintegration, a sign of incompatibility. So treat your relationship to some positive shocks.
US social psychologist Arthur Aron conducted an experiment where long-term couples pursued mutually ‘pleasant’ activities (cooking, seeing friends, watching films) and mutually ‘exciting’ activities (skiing, dancing, concerts). Guess what — after ten weeks, the couples who did the exciting stuff reported being more satisfied with each other than the couples who did the pleasant stuff. (We needed a psychologist to tell us that?)
The crux of keeping a relationship from being swallowed alive by domesticity and routine, therefore, is to constantly surprise each other. In a good way, that is.
Tickets for a surprise weekend away with your partner will safeguard and nurture your relationship far more than a secret weekend away with your personal assistant; just think of your relationship as a kind of pet shark, which has to be fed and kept moving.
And remember, humans — especially women — have low boredom thresholds.
You have been warned.
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