The Brain Benefits of Long-Term Love
When people talk about love and the brain, the focus is often on new relationships. These early stages of love are often what we associate with romance and romantic love, and it’s no wonder why. The rush of neurochemicals is strongest during these initial phases, making it easy to measure and more enticing to study. Many prevailing theories on how long-term relationships change in our brain have thought the euphoria associated with romantic love fades and a calmer neurochemical response takes over. But that doesn’t mean love fades, or that long-term love is any less powerful.
New Love Versus Old
Love is one of the most studied emotions humans experience. We know that when we first fall in love we get huge rushes of dopamine, the feel-good hormone tied to our reward center. It’s the hormone that makes us not only incredibly happy but motivates us to continue engaging in behavior that creates this response. As we move towards more physical acts of love, oxytocin and vasopressin are released, neurochemicals associated with bonding and attachment.
These chemical releases make us feel really good, but they also saturate our brain causing a number of physiological reactions. Our hearts race, our blood pumps, our thoughts race. All of this activates our central nervous system, which then stimulates the release of cortisol so we can cope with these elevated activities. This combination depletes our serotonin, causing our focus on these emotions to increase which makes it difficult to think about anything else. In short, these early stages of love hijacks our brain.
Researchers compared the brains of couples who have been married for approximately 20 years and compared them to couples in the initial stages of love. Using Function Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) technology, they scanned their brain activity while the couples were looking at images of their loved ones. They found that both sets of couples had the same activity in the reward center of the brain. But the married couples didn’t show any activity in the areas of the brain associated with fear and anxiety. The newer couples showed increased levels of both fear and anxiety.
Beyond less fear and anxiety, another interesting finding in their study was that in long-term couples activity in the posterior globus pallidus increased. This is a part of the brain that becomes stimulated when we’re experiencing primary rewards such as food or intense rewards from substances. It’s a different rewards activation than the initial dopamine rush that new love stimulates. This is a deeper, more primal reward system. In addition, the medial amygdala activates as well, which is usually seen in significant bonding pairs like between mothers and their children. Being in a long-term relationship deepens our bonding with our partner while still eliciting the same positive neurochemical response that is experienced while dating.
Even though some believe that passion ebbs and romantic love diminishes the longer we’re with a partner, the neurological evidence disagrees. Our reward pathways remain consistently activated whether we’re in the dating stage or have been with someone for twenty years. Once we fall in love, it’s not only possible to stay in love, but to experience the same physiological rush over and over again, proving that any long-term partnership truly can be an epic love story.