The Shelf Life of Love

March 19, 2013

What expiration date?
How long does "happily ever after" last?  According to researchers, we can cruise on passion for two years.  After that, it's up to the couple to make their relationship work into perpetuity.

A recent New York Times article by psychology professor Sonja Lyubomirsky discussed a study regarding the shelf life of new love:
[American and European researchers found] that newlyweds enjoy a big happiness boost that lasts, on average, for just two years. Then the special joy wears off and they are back where they started, at least in terms of happiness. The findings, from a 2003 study, have been confirmed by several recent studies.
Two years of wedded bliss?  That's it?  After that, passion tapers off into companionate love, which sounds suspiciously like the marriage between FDR and Eleanor. 
 In time, [new] love generally morphs into companionate love, a less impassioned blend of deep affection and connection.
 But why, Professor Lyubomirsky?
The reason is that human beings are, as more than a hundred studies show, prone to hedonic adaptation, a measurable and innate capacity to become habituated or inured to most life changes.
The reason why we return to a feeling of ho-hum okayness after either a very positive (falling in love with Prince Charming) or a very negative (falling in an abandoned well with a rabid dog) experience is a psychological process called hedonic adaptation.  According to a longer piece in Psychology Today called "Hedonic Adaptation to Positive and Negative Experiences,"
Hedonic adaptation is the psychological process by which people become accustomed to a positive or negative stimulus, such that the emotional effects of that stimulus are attenuated over time (Frederick & Loewenstein, 1999 ; see also Helson, 1964 ; Parducci, 1995). The “stimulus” can be a circumstance (new mansion in the hills), a single event (a pink slip), or a recurring event (thrice-weekly dialysis), and it must be constant or repeated for adaptation to occur.
I went to my very first RWA Los Angeles chapter meeting earlier this month.  The featured speakers that day were the authors Zoe Archer and Nico Rosso, who are themselves married and exuded no outward signs of hedonic adaptation.  One of the many interesting concepts they discussed during their presentation about passion was the idea that a hero and heroine in a romance novel should exhibit signs that they would be good together on a long-term basis, not just in the here-and-now.  As Rosso said, would the hero and heroine be able to, after the bandits are captured and the pirates are thrown in the brig, go to Bed, Bath, & Beyond together? (Which is, I would like to add, a far more frightening prospect for my own husband than fighting bandits or pirates.)  As Archer asked, would the hero and heroine be able to sniff candles together?

Fighting the good fight against hedonic adaptation.
If hedonic adaptation were insurmountable, then only people in denial of their psychological natures would remain in a marriage for more than two years.  So how do people remain happy in marriage for three, ten, twenty, forty years?  By fighting hedonic adaptation, of course:
Undoubtedly there is something special and unique about relationships, and actively strengthening, nourishing, and enjoying them may ward off adaptation...[T]he person who acts within the marriage to improve and cherish it may cause that boost to last significantly longer....[T]hose respondents in the German marriage study who showed essentially no hedonic adaptation 5 years into their marriages were the ones who were intentionally and effortfully working towards keeping their relationships fresh, vibrant, meaningful, and loving.
At the risk of sounding like an armchair psychologist, there are lots of ways to keep a relationship fresh.  For the most part they are experience-based rather than material-object based, so while that Tiffany box is a nice surprise, its pop isn't going to last as long as if you and your honey were to go on vacation, work on a new project, or try out a new hobby together (like falconry). 

And dare I say it, I think that fighting hedonic adaptation is one reason books like Fifty Shades of Grey are so popular.  I would like to believe that erotica and high-heat romance novels are popular with married women who are trying to keep their relationships fresh, not escape them.

So perhaps one can prolong the shelf life of love by turning to the shelf itself.