What Makes Romantic Love Last Anyway?

Older Love

The seven responsibilities that make a lasting marriage relationship

Many clients ask this question at some point within the psychotherapy relationship. Artists, poets, psychotherapist, philosophers, writers, teenagers, and parents have sought the ultimate answer to this puzzling question. Many clients feel that they have not experienced romantic love, or seen it modeled by their parents.

I have an answer that comes from my own marriage of four decades and my experience with clients’ life stories. It is only my answer, I cannot claim it as a universal truth. First, it is important to say that I believe we humans are inherently social beings. We want an intimate relationship with each other.

How do we find such a relationship? Dating is very hard. The entertainment industry likes to portray creating a loving relationship as easy and effortless, leaving all of us feeling a little bit inadequate. However, in the movies, actors and actresses get to use as many ‘takes’ and ‘cuts’ as it takes. In real life, we have to make instant decisions about what to say, how much to tell, when to touch, when to have sex, or when to “make love” after the relationship is developed enough to talk about STDs and other personal private matters. Healthy relationships that last forty to fifty years are made slowly, deliberately and carefully with thought and verbal sharing, resulting in a common consensus. Forging the beginning of a romantic relationship can feel as difficult as taking SAT or GRE, going for job interviews, and enduring physical examination.

Two people come together, “attracted to each other.” This attraction is an arrangement of sorts, impossible to describe because it is different for each couple. There is a magic to it; perhaps the intelligence of the universe is the only one to truly understand. There is already obvious chemistry. However, I believe two people have to build and then tend an underlying foundation that turns a meeting of attraction into a long-term monogamous love relationship that will last for 40 years. How do they do that?

1. Both have enough respect and love for themselves to dare to be intimate verbally and physically with another person.

2. Both take responsible care of themselves physically and mentally so they can be fully present for each other.

3. Both are able to share and support the individual growth steps they themselves need to take to continue to make life successful.

4. Both are able to understand and support the growth steps their partner needs to take to have a successful and meaningful life.

5. Both are increasingly able to articulate each other’s life story, and the resulting strengths and vulnerabilities. Their strengths and vulnerabilities are complimentary. They are able to utilize the strengths and minimize the vulnerabilities through verbal exploration and help from within the relationship. The goal is a sense of wholeness for both individuals and the relationship. .

 6. Both persons are able to compromise because the survival of the relationship is more important than the individual wishes of each partner.

 7. A deep friendship is an essential large component of a romantic love relationship.

Engagement to the right person is a lovely and joyful experience. It is both a commitment to the long term future, and simultaneously an enormous relief that the complex dating game has concluded. As we recognize just how difficult dating is, we can then “cut ourselves some slack” as the normal mistakes occur when we only have one “take.” The long-term relationship takes many years to mature, starting with the honeymoon period putting only our best foot forward. As the love and respect is earned, we dare to admit more about the questions, vulnerabilities and the growth that is still needed to mitigate problem areas. Two people grow together, with tolerance for each other’s mistakes, and pride in the progress made. No one can or has to be perfect. 

Dorothea McArthur, PhD is a clinical psychologist and author of the award-winning, best seller Defining Moments: Breaking Through Tough Times