Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Enduring Love, Complex Love

Human Relationships

Endless Love: Ben-Zeev writes; "A complex psychological personality is more likely to generate profound romantic love in a partner, while even the most intense sexual desire can die away.
Sexual desire is boosted by change and novelty and diluted by familiarity. Romantic profundity
increases with familiarity if the other person, and the relationship itself, is multifaceted and
complex."

Photo CreditChris Stowers; Panos Pictures
Source: Aeon
An article, by Aaron Ben-Zeev,  in Aeon looks not only at love in general, but at love in particular, notably at couples who have had an enduring love for a decade or longer. In a mixture of science and literature, Ben-Zeev, a professor of philosophy at University of Haifa, looks at love through literary narratives like Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary (1856) and Amos Oz's My Michael (1958) and how, if at all, they influence our modern sensibilities.

Ben-Zeev starts off by writing about Oz's novel, based largely on a biblical myth:
Emma and Hannah appear to be victims of a myth, a dangerous romantic ideology still enshrined in our rituals and songs: love can overcome all obstacles (there is no mountain high enough); love is forever (till death us do part). This seductive romantic ideology assumes the uniqueness of the beloved along with a kind of fusion. Soul mates are meant only for each other; the lovers form a single entity; each of the partners is irreplaceable in all the world. (Millions of people go by, but they all disappear from view – because I only have eyes for you.) Ideal love is total, uncompromising, and unconditional. No matter what happens outside the circle of the relationship, true love endures.
Romantic ideology still has its allure, but the idea that passion can last a lifetime has lost credence in modern times. One argument against enduring intensity comes from thinking rooted in the work of the great 17th-century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza: emotions occur when we perceive a significant change in our situation. Change cannot last forever. Ergo, passionate love must fade.
In line with that, many studies have consistently shown that sexual desire and intense romantic love decrease drastically over time. The findings show that the frequency of sexual activity with one’s partner declines steadily, occurring half as often after one year of marriage compared with the first month, and falling off more gradually thereafter, especially after the child-rearing years. This decline has been found in cohabiting, heterosexual couples and in gay and lesbian couples. Accordingly, many scholars have claimed that enduring intense love is uncommon, almost always evolving into companionate love which, as time goes by, is low in attraction and sexual desire. Love is a trade-off, the prevailing wisdom goes: we can either soar briefly to the highest heights or we can have contentment for many years. It is fruitless to despair like Emma and Hannah, because no one can have both.
Or can they? New research suggests that common wisdom might be wrong, and that a significant percentage of long-term couples remain deeply in love. In 2012, the psychologist Daniel O’Leary and his team at Stony Brook University in New York asked study participants this basic question: ‘How in love are you with your partner?’ Their national survey of 274 individuals married for more than a decade found that some 40 per cent said ‘very intensely in love’ (scoring seven on a seven-point scale). O’Leary’s team did a similar study of New Yorkers and found that 29 per cent of 322 long-married individuals gave the same answer. In another national study in 2011, the dating site Match.com found that 18 per cent of 5,200 individuals in the US reported feelings of romantic love lasting a decade or more.
Research in neuroscience identifies the possible mechanism behind these results. In a study published in 2012, Stony Brook psychologist Bianca Acevedo and colleagues reported on 10 women and seven men married an average of 21 years and claiming to be intensely in love. The researchers showed participants facial images of their partners while scanning their brains with fMRI. The scans revealed significant activation in key reward centres of the brain – much like the patterns found in people experiencing new love, but vastly different from those in companionate relationships.
This essay poses many questions and provides many insights, some that are contrary to modern psychological theory on what drives human emotion; it is worth reading, if only to consider what is important for those searching for love. It is my opinion that one does not search for love, or for a loving person, but for a person with whom one can make a harmonious life. A love that is enduring is a love based on meeting each other's changing needs. People are complex and thus often change with time, as does the kind of love each expects.

That some couples can have enduring and loving long-term relationships is not really surprising for couples who have them. That this will only apply to a small subset of all human relationships is also not surprising. This shows that individuals often marry for the wrong reasons, choose the wrong person to marry, or that some persons ought not marry at all.  Although this essay does not point this out, some individuals, perhaps not many, can be happy and content alone.

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You can read the rest of this article at [Aeon]

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