Can Romantic Love Last? One Team Of Scientists Says 'Yes'

Brain researchers have seen couples who are madly in love after decades. Dr. Helen Fisher thinks she knows why.

Two people leaning in for a passionate kiss. Jacob Lund /

I have a friend who met her husband at a red light. She was 15, in a car with a pile of girls. He was in another car with a crowd of boys. 

As the light turned green, they all decided to pull into a nearby park and party. My friend spent the evening sitting at a picnic table talking to one guy. Thirty-seven years later they are still together. And both still maintain they are very much in love.   


We are born to love. This feeling of elation that we call romantic love is deeply embroidered into the human brain.   

But can romantic love really last a lifetime? 

As a biological anthropologist in search of the answer, I teamed up with brain scientists and other researchers in search of an answer. 

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It turns out, lasting love is not a delusion

For years I thought my friend and her husband were deluding themselves. Then something happened at a New York art opening to change my mind.   

I was talking to a pal when he spontaneously declared that he was still deeply in love with his wife — after 23 years of marriage. “In love,” I asked, “with butterflies in the stomach? Or feelings of deep attachment?”   

He announced boldly: “In love.” Equally bizarre, minutes after he vanished into the crowd, his wife appeared. And she, too, spontaneously maintained she was still in love with her husband.  Were these people putting me on? Later I found them together and asked. Both looked astonished. Apparently neither had known the other had divulged their feelings. 

Can romantic passion be sustained after years of soothing cranky babies, pinching nickels, entertaining irritating relatives, moaning at her bad jokes and washing his smelly socks? This was what my brain-scanning colleagues and I set out to discover in 2007. 


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A surprising discovery — love not only lasts, it also evolves

Led by Dr. Bianca Acevedo, our team started to ask everyone we met, searching for people who said they were still madly in love with their long-term spouse. These lovers popped up everywhere.

A 72-year-old retired professor; a 54-year-old financier who met her husband on the plane from Boston to New York; a man who met his wife in a hot air balloon: Aging lovers weren’t difficult to find

And with time we scanned the brains of 17 people as they looked at a photograph of their sweetheart. Most were in their fifties. All staunchly maintained they were still wildly in love with their partners after an average of 21 years of marriage.  


The results were astonishing. Psychologists maintain that the dizzying feeling of intense romantic love lasts no longer than 18 months to three years — and the vast majority of us believe it. Yet, these middle-aged men and women showed much of the same brain activity as did the young lovers we had studied years before, individuals who had been intensely in love for an average of seven months.  

Indeed, these two groups showed only one important difference: Among our long-term lovers, brain regions associated with anxiety were no longer active. Instead, they showed activity in areas associated with calm. These 17 participants weren’t the only ones to maintain this passion, either. 

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The one trait that leads to romantic love that lasts

When Bianca and other colleagues subsequently asked 315 long-married men and women in a phone survey, 46 percent reported that they were still “very intensely in love” with their spouse.  


Exactly what these people on the phone meant by “very intensely in love,” these scientists don’t know. Equally mysterious: No one knows how these lovers — or anyone else —manage to keep this wild passion alive. We are constantly told that happy marriages are based on good communication, shared values, a sturdy support system of friends and relatives, a happy, stable childhood, fair quarreling, and dogged determination.  

But in a survey of 470 studies, psychologist Marcel Zentner found no particular combination of personality traits that lead to long-term romance. There was, however, one exception: sustaining your “positive illusions.” 

Men and women who continue to maintain that their partner is attractive, funny, kind and ideal for them in just about every way remain happy long-term. Known as “love blindness,” I saw this phenomenon in a friend of mine. I knew him and his wife-to-be while we were all in college — when both were slim, fit, energetic and curious, a vibrant couple. 


Today both are heavy, dour, laconic couch potatoes. Yet he still tells me she hasn’t changed a bit — as he looks at her with an adoring smile. Perhaps this form of self-deception is a gift from nature — enabling us to triumph over the rough spots in our partnerships. 

But it is always worth celebrating our capacity to love, to love some more — and to keep on loving.

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Helen Fisher Ph.D., is a biological anthropologist and Senior Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute and Chief Scientific Advisor to the dating site Match. She is the author of the book The Anatomy of Love: A Natural History of Mating, Marriage, and Why We Stray, among other titles.