As a psychologist and dating coach, some singles have told me they are in happy relationships where they admire the person they’re dating, have fun with them, are attracted to them, and have good sex and similar values… but they don’t feel that, ‘in love feeling’ after a few months. They wonder if that feeling will grow, or if it matters if they never have it. They wonder if they love that person and it’s a healthy relationship, is that enough?
Being a huge romantic my whole life, I always thought it was important to have that, ‘in love’ feeling in the beginning of a life-long relationship. That feeling of being, ‘in love’ may be a soulmate recognition, a recognition from a past life, an incarnation agreement, pheromones, or even some unhealthy unconscious pattern of attraction; who knows? I then remembered my mother telling me about a childhood friend of hers who had fallen in love and been heartbroken, and who later married a man she loved… but who was more in love with her. They had three children and a good, long marriage. Was this because it was based on practicality and reasonable expectations?
As a psychologist and dating expert I remembered seeing research on how the, ‘in love feeling’ fades, and sometimes affects marriage adversely later, so I decided to write an article presenting both sides of this issue here. I’d love to hear your thoughts as well.
First off, do people still feel that romantic love is important when they choose a life mate? The answer is yes. Romantic love is increasingly viewed as an essential component of a marriage: 91 percent of women and 86 percent of men in America report they would not marry someone who had every quality they wanted in a partner, but with whom they were not in love.
And how long does that romantic love last? Psychologists maintain that the intense feeling of romantic love lasts about 18 months to three years. In a 2012 study of couples married for a decade, 40 percent of married couples said they were “very intensely in love.” A University of Geneva review of nearly 500 studies on compatibility said that the ability to idealize and maintain positive illusions about your partner leads to happiness over time. Perhaps some couples maintain this ability? Another study found that romantic love exists in long-term relationships without the obsession component typical of early romantic love. Infatuation and passion may have shorter life spans that evolve into ‘companionate love.’
What I found especially interesting was that some research suggests that couples who had a very romantic courtship could be adversely affected in marriage if their feelings significantly changed, especially over the first two years of marriage. Huston followed 168 couples from their wedding day through 13 years of marriage. He looked at how they related to one another during courtship, as newlyweds, and through the early years of marriage. He found that couples whose marriages began in romantic bliss were particularly divorce-prone because that romantic intensity was hard to maintain. In fact, marriages that started out with less “Hollywood romance” often had more promising futures. And spouses in lasting, but lackluster, marriages were not as prone to divorce because there was no erosion of a romantic ideal. It was actually the loss of love and affection (not interpersonal issues) that led these couples to divorce.
So is being ‘in love’ in courtship the kiss of death for marriage? It depends upon whether those romantic feelings drastically change and also whether partners’ expectations for romance cause expectations for romance to be the same as it was in courtship. Huston found that the couples who remained happily married and were very “in love” and affectionate as newlyweds had feelings that remained stable over time. By contrast, many couples who divorced later were very affectionate as newlyweds but they became less loving, more negative, and more critical of their spouse. “Disillusionment” happened when hidden aspects of each partner’s personalities emerged, and these idealized images became more realistic. Unhappily married couples and happy ones both had a lower level of satisfaction across the board and remained together despite those feelings. So, according to the research ‘being in love’ in early courtship isn’t a bad thing but it’s important not to expect those intense romantic feelings to be there forever or for that to be the main reason for getting married, in case they fade.
I also wonder if people have really considered the difference between, ‘being in love’ and loving someone, as well as the distinction between attraction and good sex versus, ‘a feeling of being in love.’ It might be helpful to examine these distinctions and notions. For me, a feeling of being in love is often accompanied by idealized notions about the other person, along with feelings of bliss and euphoria — whereas love is often characterized as the acceptance of a person (good and bad) and a wish for their happiness. Having good sex may be based upon chemistry, performance, trust, intimacy, presence, attraction, shared history or other things. People often have good sex and attraction without being in love, but that feeling can make sex more intimate and spiritual for some people. Psychotherapist Esther Perel talks about how eroticism can fade when there is a lack of novelty, independence and imagination. While my definitions are arbitrary distinctions, they may well be a springboard for you to consider what loving versus ‘being in love’ means for you, and their relative importance to marriage.
Lastly, I wanted to give you a sense of some important relationship qualities that marital experts found contribute to a good marriage. Interestingly the feeling of, being ‘in love’ did not seem be top of the list. Perhaps this is because those feelings are not often under our control and can be fleeting. Certain themes about what characteristics make for a good marriage came up frequently around the theme of being positive. Some experts say that happy couples practice a ratio of 5:1 or five positive comments to your partner for every negative remark you udder (and others say it’s a ratio of 20:1). Another study suggests that happy couples celebrate each other’s successes. Perhaps the research mentioned previously that the ability to idealize and maintain positive illusions about your partner leads to happiness over time is relevant because if you idealize your mate, you may do these aforementioned things more. Sex does seem important too. The authors of the 2004 paper “Money, Sex, and Happiness: An Empirical Study” estimated that increasing sexual activity from once a month to once a week increases happiness by the same amount as getting paid an extra $50,000 per year.
Other experts stress that negative things in a marriage can predict divorce, like negative communication patterns. John Gottman found that 4 common patterns of communication including stonewalling, criticism, contempt and defensiveness are highly predictive of divorce. Couples who had divorced after a six-year follow up had “turn-toward bids” 33 percent of the time, which means they were willing to meet their partner’s needs or requests. The couples who were still together after six years did this 87 percent of the time.
There are many things that predict marital satisfaction, and a feeling of being ‘in love’ may or may not be terribly important. I’ve created a list of 5 PRO’s for being ‘in love’ before marriage (based on what I’ve heard singles say) and 5 PROS for not necessarily ‘being in love’ with the person you marry:
5 PRO’s FOR BEING IN LOVE BEFORE MARRIAGE:
- You will have a happy, ‘in love’ courtship phase full of amazing memories together.
- You may feel that those, ‘in love’ feelings are your soul’s GPS telling you that other person is ‘The One.’
- Some people feel that ‘in love’ feeling is what separates a lover from a friend or a business partner.
- You love the feeling that the world is great and that other person makes you so happy. Feeling, ‘in love’ is almost like a drug while it lasts and it makes your life feel especially magical and you may feel that anything is possible.
- If you don’t feel, ‘in love,’ you might wonder whether ‘you settled,’ and worry that you may have a mid-life crisis later and want to cheat on your partner in order to experience that feeling later.
5 PRO’s FOR NOT MAKING ‘BEING IN LOVE’ A MARRIAGE DEALBREAKER:
- You can love someone deeply, but not have that ‘in love’ feeling and maybe that’s enough.
- You can find someone attractive and have a good sex life without having that ‘in love feeling.’
- Marriage involves a life-long partnership often affecting things like your lifestyle, values, finances, choices, career, children, religion, free time, mental and emotional health and more. So, perhaps the feeling of, being ‘in love’ is lower on this list of life priorities.
- Research shows that the, ‘in love’ feeling changes over time or at least becomes calmer. Often it fades by two years and becomes companionate love, so is it important to have had it the first few years anyway? Maybe you decide that it doesn’t.
- Marriage is a committed responsible union that can be differentiated from romantic love affairs and the early throws of passion. The expectations and goals of these two things are often different.
So, you decide. Is a loving marriage as valuable if you didn’t start out in love? What do you think and why?
 O’Leary, K., Acevedo, B. P., Aron, A., Huddy, L., & Mashek, D. (2012). Is long-term love more than a rare phenomenon? If so, what are its correlates? Social Psychological and Personality Science, 3(2), 241-249. doi:10.1177/1948550611417015 .
 Acevedo, Bianca P. & Aron, Arthur in the Review of General Psychology (Vol 13 (1), Mar 2009, 59-65)
 A study, “The Connubial Crucible: Newlywed Years as Predictors of Marital Delight, Distress, and Divorce” by Ted L. Huston, John P. Caughlin, Renate M. Houts, Shanna E. Smith, and Laura J. George was published in “The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.” (2001;80:237-252).
 David G. Blanchflower and Andrew J. Oswald, Money, Sex and Happiness: An Empirical Study, The Scandinavian Journal of Economics, Volume 106, Issue 3, pages 393–415, September 2004. Article first published online: 22 NOV 2004 DOI: 10.1111/j.0347-0520.2004.00369.x