Psychologist Arthur Aron specialises in the study of Romantic Love, so it seems only right that he should be on our front page in time for Valentine’s Day.
Aron directs the Interpersonal Relationships Laboratory at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and has been something of a legend in his field since 1974, when he and Donald G. Dutton carried out the famous Capilano Bridge Experiment , which established the relationship between states of high anxiety and increased sexual attraction. Since then he has worked on a number of studies which have attempted to define what ‘romantic love’ is and more importantly, how the hell we can make it last.
Aron’s most recent study was published just last month in the Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience journal. It was a collaborative project carried out with Bianca P. Acevedo, Helen E. Fisher and Lucy L. Brown. As Aron acknowledges “there is no “i” in fmri scanning”, the technique they used to map the brains of the seventeen participants involved in the study. All participants had been married for an average of 21 years and the aim of the experiment was to see which part of their brain lit up when they were shown pictures of their long term partners.
The results of the scans were tested against controls and then compared to the results of a previous experiment carried out by Aron and Fisher in 2005. That study had involved using fmri scans to map the brains of seventeen people who were newly-in-love. Both sets of scans – the long-term couples and the newly-in-love – showed activation in the dopamine-rich brain regions which are associated with reward, motivation and ‘wanting’. However, the newly-in-love also showed significant activity in areas of the brain associated with obsession and anxiety. Aron explains that “the newly-in-love panic the minute their partner is out of sight because they afraid they are dead. Long term couples don’t have that obsessiveness, but they are till very tightly interwoven. They show more activation in regions of the brain associated with maternal attachment and pair-bonding.”
In choosing the participants for the long-term study Aron specifically sought out individuals who described themselves as ‘madly in love’ and despite being married for several decades, their average sexual frequency was 2.2 times a week. Before you start to panic, that figure is way above the national average and Aron accepts that the sample is not representative. He also recognises that the findings may be intimidating for couples who have not managed to sustain similar levels of intimacy and affection.
Fortunately, Aron’s other research suggests that there are ways in which all couples can, with a little effort, maximise their relationship satisfaction. Back in 1986 Aron and his wife Elaine (also a psychologist) developed a conceptual framework that attempted to describe how people think, feel, and act in close relationships. It’s called the ‘self-expansion’ model of human relationships and it is based on the idea that we are constantly seeking new ways in which to expand ourselves, and to “increase our store of ideas, experiences, skills, interests and resources in order to accomplish an ever evolving set of goals.”
One easy way for us to speed up this process of self-expansion is to forge close romantic relationships. When we fall in love, our new partner’s resources, perspectives, and identities automatically become ours too, and this results in a rapid expansion of self and high levels of very positive feelings. Every shared conversation or social event becomes an opportunity for personal growth and in time, couples eventually adopt the traits of the other to the extent that they find it difficult to distinguish the differences between them, or even to remember which skills belong to which person. Though it sounds kind of selfish, it is an entirely unconscious process, and it works for both partners so it is mutually beneficial… unless you get dumped in which you experience rapid de-expansion and a desire to crawl under a rock and hide for the rest of your life.
The self expansion model also offers a credible explanation for the typical decline in satisfaction in long term relationships. When two people begin a relationship, there is an initial, exhilarating period in which they ‘expand’ at a very rapid rate. They stay up all night, making out, sharing secrets and post coital cigarettes. This intense and obsessive interest lasts, according to other research, approximately six months to two years, at which point the couple know each so well that the opportunities for further rapid expansion begin to decrease or cease altogether.
For some couples having children might serve as away of continuing the expansion process. We never get bored of our children because they are continually changing, however a shared admiration for offspring isn’t always enough to sustain the parents relationship with each other. As Aron’s research demonstrates, to sustain satisfaction in the long term couples need to keep finding ways to self-expand within the relationship.
To test this hypotheses Aron teamed up with Charlotte Reissman and Merlynn R. Bergen to conduct a study which looked at the effects of incorporating “novel and arousing’ challenges in to long-term relationships. Fifty-three middle aged married couples were recruited and persuaded to take part in a ten week experiment which required them to spend 1.5 hours a week engaged in a given activity. In the first condition, couples chose from a list of ‘exciting’ activities such as skiing, hiking, dancing, or going to concerts. The second group spent the same amount of time engaged in ‘pleasant’ activities such as going to the movies, eating out, or visiting friends. A third group did nothing at all. The results showed that the couples who participated in ‘novel and arousing’ activities experienced higher levels of marital satisfaction through the duration of the study.
To further explore this finding, Aron, his wife Elaine and colleagues Christina C. Norman, Colin McKenna and Richard E. Heyman set up a series of laboratory experiments. Participating couples were assessed on their levels of marital happiness before, and after, they engaged in either, a ‘self-expanding’ task which was ‘novel and challenging’, or an interactive task which was more mundane. In the expanding activity, the couples were tied together on one side at wrists and ankles and then had to crawl together on mats and climb over a barrier while pushing a foam cylinder with their heads. This was timed, and the couple received a prize if they beat a time limit, but the situation was rigged so that they almost made it within the time limit on the first two tries and then just barely make it on the third try. As predicted, couples in the expanding-activity condition experienced a greater increase in love and relationship satisfaction compared to those who were set a more mundane task.
Convinced that boredom was a significant problem, Aron then carried out a longitudinal study with Irene Tsapelas and Terri Orbuch which tracked 123 married couples over a nine year period. The couples were first interviewed after seven years and then again after 16 years of marriage. In both questionnaires they were asked this question:‘‘During the past month, how often did you feel that your marriage was in a rut (or getting into a rut), that you do the same thing all the time and rarely get to do exciting things together as a couple?’’. The second question asked ‘‘All in all, how satisfied are you with your marriage?’’
Again, the experiment found a significant link between expressed boredom in year 7 and marital dissatisfaction in year 16, a finding which Aron suggests, ought to change the way we think about relationship research. He believes that the current focus on eliminating conflict and tension and the emphasis on spending ‘quality time’ together is not terribly effective because “if a relationship is not providing opportunities for self expansion, over exposure is more likely to have a negative impact on marital satisfaction.”
Basically, spending time together isn’t enough. You have to change the routine, so for example, “going out to dinner at the same restaurant won’t be as beneficial as eating out somewhere new every time.” The challenge, is to “avoid the extremely strong lure of the familiar. It’s so easy to go to the same cinema, the same restaurant, sit in the same chair, watch the same soaps, do the same activities on holiday, have the same conversations about the same things, and then wonder where the spark has gone. But if you’re willing to haul yourself out of the habit trap, and if your partner is willing to do the same, then the reward could be a new sense of romance in the relationship.” Ultimately, Aron believes that “It is not enough for couples to be free of problems and conflicts. To maintain high levels of marital quality over time, couples also need to make their lives together exciting by doing new and challenging things together.” Hear Hear.