HMC Professor Researches Love

Just in time for Valentine’s Day, a new study co-authored by Debra Mashek, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Harvey Mudd College, indicates that romantic love might last longer than what is commonly thought. “Is Long-Term Love More Than A Rare Phenomenon?” is a psychological study based on two surveys of people who have been married or in a relationship for over ten years.    

The first group was a random sampling of currently married people across the country. Forty percent said that they were still “very intensely in love” even after ten years of marriage. The second sample was based solely in New York, where only 29 percent of those surveyed reported that they were very intensely in love with their long-term partners.         

Mashek has made studying human relationships like these her life’s work. 

“I think the topic of relationships is very interesting for us as social animals,” she said. “When we look at our highest highs and our lowest lows, they are often associated with relationships.”    

This study is only Mashek’s latest published work in the psychological study of love. Published last year, The Science of Relationships is a collaborative work that translates recent psychological and neurobiological research into layman’s terms. The result is a mix of science and self-help. Mashek and her co-authors used scientific literature to answer questions that occur throughout the stages of a relationship, from the first signs of interest to settling down and starting a family.    

Scientific research on love and relationships is fairly new. While poets and philosophers have been struggling with love for thousands of years, scientists and social psychologists were limited by available technology. However, recent brain-imaging tools like MRIs have allowed researchers such as Mashek to understand how our brains react to romance.    

“It’s on our radar as an important construct,” Mashek said. “People are finding some really clever ways of studying it. For instance, looking at what areas of the brain are particularly active when people are feeling intense longing for someone else. You couldn’t have done that years ago when we didn’t have the technology. People are using methodologies to better understand the biological underpinnings of this emotional experience.”    

In an earlier paper, Mashek and colleagues used fMRI technology to image the brains of subjects who had recently fallen in love. The results revealed that early-stage love is a complex set of reward pathways that lead to various emotions such as euphoria and anxiety. However, Mashek says her latest findings suggest that passion is a property of all relationships.    

“I think sometimes people think that passion is real but that it’s juvenile, that it’s something that you can’t really sustain a relationship on or that it’s just a phase, but I think these data call that into question,” Mashek said. 

However, sustaining passion beyond the early stages of a relationship is not easy. In this most recent study, Mashek and her colleagues also studied what factors were correlated with very intense love in long relationships. 

Were the long-term couples doing anything special? As it turns out, they were. Statistics showed that couples who remained in love used a variety of techniques to keep the spark alive.      

People still “very intensely in love” reported that they spent time trying new activities with their partner, and that they were frequently affectionate with each other. The latter seemed to be especially important. 

Although it was rare for respondents to report that they and their partners were not physically affectionate with each other, not a single person who said this also said that they and their partner were still in love. Physical affection was crucial in maintaining loving relationships, and it was not limited to sex. According to the results, cuddling, holding hands and hugs were important activities.    

“One of the things we can do to maintain our relationships is engage in self-expansion and come to see the world through different eyes,” Mashek said. “Go have adventures, and find ways of expressing to the other person that you care for them. Those are the things that seem really essential to our long-term relationship satisfaction.”

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