What is love? (Sit down. This might take a minute.)
But what about the stuff we need to know to be happy? Platitudes don’t cut it and though the poets are often right, they’re frequently vague.
Is there an expert who can give us some real answers about love: how to find it, nurture it and maybe even repair it?
You better believe there is. Arthur Aron is one of the world’s top researchers on romantic love.
He is a professor at Stony Brook University and author of a number of key books on the subject of relationships including:
- Handbook of Closeness and Intimacy
- Heart of Social Psychology: A Backstage View of a Passionate Science
I gave Arthur a call and learned what makes us attractive, how to have a great first date and the things that kill and improve relationships.
Let’s get started.
So What The Heck Is Love Anyway?
Love isn’t an emotion, really. When you look at fMRI studies of the brain it shows up more as a desire. A craving.
And that explains why it feels so good. As far as the ol’ gray matter’s concerned love’s right up there with cocaine and cash.
All three activate the same area of the brain—the dopamine reward system.
When you’re in love with someone romantically, the areas of the brain that are activated when you think about them are what we call the dopamine reward system. The same system that responds to cocaine and expecting to win a lot of money. Love seems to be more of a desire than an emotion.
So, yeah, even neuroscience agrees that love is intense. But can anything that powerful last? Doesn’t it eventually have to fizzle?
Not necessarily. Research shows some couples are very much in love 40-50 years later.
Another thing we’ve learned both from that research and from surveys is passionate romantic love can exist in people that have been together 40 years, 50 years. We don’t know the percentage. But people who claim to be very intensely in love that have been married and are in their 70s show the same patterns of neural response to a large extent as people who have just fallen in love.
Want your marriage to last more than 30 years? Just “being married” often isn’t enough: you also need to be good friends.
In studies of people happily married more than three decades, the quality of friendship between the partners was the single most frequently cited factor in the relationships’ success. – Bachand and Caron 2001
(For more on how to keep love alive and live happily ever after, click here.)
So what do we need to know to have a good relationship that stands the test of time? Let’s start with attractiveness.
This Is What Makes You Attractive
Arthur also found that we’re more attracted to people who are attracted to us. So showing interest gets people interested in you.
And believing the two of you are similar is powerful (whether you’re actually similar, well, is another story…)
You are much more likely to be attracted to someone who you think will be attracted to you, or who has shown they’re attracted to you. And believing the person is similar turns out to matter a lot. Their actually being similar doesn’t matter so much but believing they’re similar does.
Believe it or not, other research shows even having similar fighting styles is a good thing.
It was related to double digit drops in conflict and a double digit increase in satisfaction.
While people may employ many different conflict resolution strategies in a relationship, when both partners use the same strategy they experience 12 percent less conflict and are 31 percent more likely to report their relationship is satisfying. – Pape 2001
And while we’re on the subject of attraction, how about “playing hard to get?” Does it work?
Nope. Pretending you’re not interested in the other person is a terrible strategy.
However, making it look like you’re picky and have high standards but that you are interested in this person, that works very well.
Playing “hard to get” does not help. It’s good for a person you meet to think you’re being hard for others to get but not hard for them to get. That’s sort of the ideal partner: one that’s hard for everyone else to get but is interested in you.
(For more on how to flirt—scientifically—click here.)
How many internet dates do you need to go on to end up in a relationship? Online dating data says 3.8. But what should you do on that date?
How To Have A Great First Date
So how did Arthur become so well known as the big researcher on romantic love? He did the classic “bridge study.”
It showed that if we feel something, we associate it with who is around us—even if they’re not the cause.
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So what’s that mean practically? Roller coasters, concerts, anything exciting with energy in the air makes for a great date.
When in the initial stages of dating, you might want to do something physiologically arousing with the person. The classic is to go on a roller coaster ride or do something like that as long as it’s not too scary.
In fact, research shows you might even be attracted to someone trying to kill you. Researchers simulated a torture scenario and found exactly that.
Those in the high-fear condition did show, for example, significantly more desire to kiss my confederate (one of the key questions) and wrote more romantic and sexual content into their stories. Looking at the details of these results, I found that the situation had generated, quite specifically, romantic attraction.
Other than excitement, what else is good to do? Open up. Not too much, too fast, but start sharing. Superficial conversation is boring.
Another thing is to try to keep the conversation from being too superficial—but you don’t want to move too quickly. You can scare a person away if you right away tell them the deepest things in your life.
But what you say isn’t everything. It’s also how you react to what they say. Be responsive and engaged.
There’s some wonderful work by Harry Reis and his colleagues on self-disclosure showing it’s not how much is disclosed but how you respond to the other person’s self-disclosure. You want to be very responsive to hear what they’re saying, to show that you understand it, to show that you value what they’re saying and appreciate it.
In fact, the best self-disclosure can produce a bond almost as strong as a lifetime friendship in less than an hour. Seriously.
Arthur ran this test with two graduate students, trying to produce a romantic connection. What happened? They ended up getting married.
The very first pair we ran, which were a couple of research assistants in our lab who weren’t involved in this study, they actually did fall in love and got married.
(For the list of self-disclosure questions Arthur used in that study, click here.)
So the date goes well and you’re together. What makes relationships go bad? And how can you dodge that?
The Real Reason Why Relationships Fail
Think you two are badly matched? You’re probably wrong. Arthur says this is a common mistake.
Who you are and what you’re like has a much bigger effect than the match between you two.
If you’re insecure, anxious or depressed you’ll have trouble connecting with anyone.
Most people think that how well a relationship will work has to do with the match between you whereas that only matters a little bit. Much more important is who you are, and then secondly, who the partner is. If you are insecure, anxious, or depressed, you’ll have a hard time with anyone. Who you are and who the other person is matters much more than the match.
Think you two are going through difficult times but you’ll come out stronger? Probably wrong again.
Difficult times don’t usually strengthen a relationship — more often they destroy it.
Long-term relationships of any kind have a very hard time when there are great stressors on people. If you live in a war zone, or you have a child die, or someone loses their job, it’s really hard for a marriage to survive. When things aren’t going well and we behave badly or our partner behaves badly it’s common to jump to the conclusion that it’s always been this way and that things will always be this way. When something stressful is happening we need to remember it’s not always like this.
Other research has shown that trying to change the other person is a killer as well. Often, you need to accept your partner for who they are.
69% of a couple’s problems are perpetual. These problems don’t go away yet many couples keep arguing about them year after year.
Most marital arguments cannot be resolved. Couples spend year after year trying to change each other’s mind – but it can’t be done. This is because most of their disagreements are rooted in fundamental differences of lifestyle, personality, or values. By fighting over these differences, all they succeed in doing is wasting their time and harming their marriage.
(To learn the four things that most often kill relationships, click here.)
Okay, so maybe things aren’t going so hot. Everybody thinks they know how to make it better. What does the research say really works?
4 Things That Really Improve Relationships
Like Arthur said above: it’s not usually the match, it’s usually one of the people in the relationship.
So if you have personal issues like depression, anger or insecurity, get help. Fixing you is the best step toward a better relationship.
First, look at your own life. Are you anxious, depressed, or insecure? Did you have a really difficult childhood? If so, do something. That would be number one.
Early on you did cool things together but now it’s just Netflix and pizza on the couch. Every. Single. Night.
What to do? Just like the recommendation for a good first date: It’s about excitement.
After a while, things are sort of settled and there isn’t much excitement, so what can you do? Do things that are exciting that you associate with your partner. Reinvigorate that excitement and the main way to make them associated with the partner is to do them with your partner.
What’s the third most important thing for keeping love alive? “Capitalization” is vital. (No, I don’t mean using bigger letters.)
Celebrate your partner’s successes. Be their biggest fan.
How a couple celebrates the good times is more important than how they deal with the bad times.
Not acting impressed by your partner’s achievements? Congratulations, you’re killing your relationship.
Celebrating your partner’s successes turns out to be pretty important. When things go badly and you provide support, it doesn’t make the relationship good, but it keeps it from getting bad. Whereas if things are going okay and your partner has something good happen and you celebrate it sincerely, you’re doing something that can make a relationship even better.
The fourth thing Arthur mentioned was gratitude. And not only does it help relationships, it’s one of the keys to a happy life.
What’s the research say? Can’t be more clear than this:
…the more a person is inclined to gratitude, the less likely he or she is to be depressed, anxious, lonely, envious, or neurotic.
(To learn the science behind how to be a good kisser, click here.)
So that’s a lot of solid relationship advice. How do we pull all this together and put it to use?
Here’s what Arthur said can help you have a great relationship:
- According to your own brain, love is right up there with cocaine and cash. And it can last if you treat it right.
- Want to be attractive? Make yourself look good, emphasize similarities, and let the person know you’re picky — but that you do like them.
- A great first date is something that creates excitement and energy. Share things about yourself and respond positively when your partner does.
- Relationships often fail because of individual issues, not because of a bad match. Resolve difficulties as soon as you can; they don’t strengthen relationships, they cripple them.
- Improve your relationship by dealing with your personal issues, doing exciting things together, celebrating your partner’s successes and showing gratitude.
It’s easy to get lazy when things are going well. But a little effort can go a long way — and not just toward a better relationship.
The evidence shows that relationship quality plays a huge role in longevity. The findings are that the importance of being in a good relationship versus being alone is a bigger effect than smoking or obesity on how long we live. And the quality of your relationships is also the biggest factor associated with general life happiness.
If you don’t have someone special in your life, here’s how to find them.
And if you do have someone, make an effort today. Celebrate any good news they have and plan something exciting to do this week.
And then show them a little gratitude. Does anything feel better than hearing how much we mean to someone else?
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Eric Barker is a writer who has been featured in the The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Wired and TIME. He also runs the Barking Up the Wrong Tree blog. Join his 205,000-plus subscribers and get free weekly updates here. This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.