Why Does Love Lose Its Intensity With Time?

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March 25 2013 2:08 PM

Why Does Love Lose Its Intensity With Time?

Old couple dancing
You tell this couple that love fades over time.

Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

This question originally appeared on Quora.


Answer by Mike Sellers:

I don't think it does, or at least it doesn't have to. I've been married for 32 years, and my wife and I still love each other intensely. It's more exciting, passionate, hilarious, fulfilling, etc., all the time.

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The differences in a short-term (a year or two) and a long-term (a decade or two) relationship are that, first, all that excitement and passion takes work—you have to invest in the relationship and keep it up. To use an analogy, being in love for the first year or two is like staying in a nice hotel, which is always kind of spiffy and exciting. After awhile though, any relationship needs maintenance, and that's more like owning your own home. Still exciting and wonderful—much more so in many ways than being in hotel—but with greater responsibilities for keeping it maintained. And if you don't maintain it, then the gutters leak and the paint peels and you realize that what you had thought was a perfectly good house is kind of a dump. But like I say, that's only if you don't put in the energy needed to keep your relationship in the shape it should be in.

Second, while the initial intensity isn't lost (or again, doesn't have to be), what grows up around it is a huge amount of shared experience that can seem to eclipse that intensity. Years of shared experience add fulfillment, memory, joy, nostalgia, and even wisdom that build up in ways that you simply can't have without having enjoyed wonderful magical times and having gotten through difficult, tragic, soul-crushing times together.

I can't speak to your relationship or to your parents' of course; but I can tell you that the best loving relationships are the longest-running ones, in every sense.

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Answer by Chloe Shani Malveaux:

There is a scientific basis for this perception that love is less intense over time. It is because relationships shift from passionate love to long term attachment. Literally if you looked at a picture of your love the first week in the relationship, and then a picture of them 10 years later, you may still love them, but different parts of the brain are being activated and responding depending on where you are in the relationship with that person.

Brain scans have been compared those who were dating for a week to couples who have been together for a year, and they found that the couples who had been together for a year had more activity in the area of the brain associated with long-term attachment.

Infatuation love fades, it is supposed to, but what it also does is it gives the initial push to spend as much time with that person to be able to develop long term attachment to that person by the time the infatuation fades. This is a point where some relationships fail, when the infatuation fades but the attachment never stuck. And people get bored and unsatisfied in the relationship, wondering why they were with the person in the first place. They realize that they no longer love this person anymore because the infatuation love has faded and the long term attachment love never took its place.

But I can see another reason why some relationships fail at this stage is due to our cultural perceptions that infatuation love is true love and it should remain consistent throughout the relationship. That if infatuation love ever wanes then it is an indicator that true love is waning, and therefore the relationship is failing.

In the media, we constantly associate love with infatuation love, since most movies and stories really only cover the beginning of relationships, but when they look at older relationships where the couples are still in love, it seems to imply that it is the same exact infatuation love just diminished in intensity.

Sadly, too many people associate infatuation love as the real deal, when it is only transient. So when people compare their younger relationships to older long term relationships, it isn't like comparing the same things just with two different intensities, it is like comparing apples and oranges.


Answer by Erica Friedman:

What do we really know of our parents' love for one another? Are we there in the bedroom with them, listening to them talk to one another at night and in the morning?

Do we know how they held each other, during the first fever we ever had, when we were infants and they had no idea if we'd be all right? Do we know what filled their tears after they had had their first fight?

No, we don't know these things, because we are their child, and we do not see parents as whole people, just as "my parents"; people with specific roles that have some relationship to our existence, and we know nothing of them in relationship to their own lives.

You're young, you're full of lust, and you think that's "love" and that passion means intensity. You're not wrong, but you're not right, either.

One day, 20, 30, 40 years from now, you'll be holding someone's hand in the hospital, as they get wheeled off for a test that cannot be good news no matter what, and your heart will burn with love that cannot be expressed, it is so intense. At that moment, I want you to remember this question and answer it for yourself.


... Answer by Cyndi Perlman Fink:


Who says that it does?
Your definition of "intense" at 20 involves tingles in a part of your body that you don't think your parents have.

I really enjoy telling kids this:
You parents did it more times than however many siblings you have. It wasn't a chore or a duty. They enjoyed it.

Here's the kicker:
They still do it, still enjoy it, they just don't tell you.

Each decade has its own definition of intense when it comes to love.

At 20, your intensity is a like a hummingbird, flapping your wings as fast as you can, while your parents are like swans.

They may look like they're serenely gliding across the water but underneath they're paddling like hell.

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