Cover Story

Some psychologists say romantic love endures, while others disagree. Here's a look at both sides.

Every flame dies down

Romantic, passionate love is fleeting, says Elaine Hatfield, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Hawaii who has been studying love since the 1960s. "Passionate love provides a high, like drugs, and you can't stay high forever," she says. In fact, companionate love-the less passionate, but affectionate emotion that is associated with long-term commitment-declines over time as well, says Hatfield.

In 1981, Hatfield and fellow social psychologist Jane Traupmann, PhD, performed a series of interviews that assessed the level of passionate and companionate love in a random sample of 953 dating couples, newlyweds and older women who had been married for an average of 33 years. In findings presented in a chapter of the book "Aging: Stability and change in the family" (1981. New York: Academic Press), they found that passionate love decreased precipitously over time. Asked to rate their feelings on a scale that included the responses "none at all," "very little," "some," "a great deal," and "a tremendous amount," steady daters and newlyweds expressed "a great deal" of passionate love for their mates, but starting shortly after marriage, love declined steadily, with the group of older women saying that they and their husbands felt "some" passionate love for each other.

"The prevailing wisdom was that passionate love would last for a few years and then companionate love would grow, but it also declines," notes Hatfield, who has continued to write and give presentations about passionate and companionate love. She adds that it tends to decline at the same rate as romantic love, and generally never stops declining. Hatfield's findings are backed by other, more recent research. In a 1999 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 76, No. 1, pages 46-53), social psychologist Susan Sprecher, PhD, found that couples in relationships may subjectively feel like their love and commitment is increasing with time, but it is actually declining. In a study of dating couples, Sprecher administered two questionnaires to each member five times over a four-year period. The questionnaires included a survey asking about feelings of love, satisfaction and commitment and another one that contained scales to measure actual levels. She found that in the second round, love decreased for men and satisfaction decreased for both sexes. However, for the couples who stayed together, measures of commitment increased. Interestingly, she also found that among couples who broke up, both men and women were likely to report a decrease in satisfaction and commitment before the break-up, but no change in feelings of love.

So what keeps marriages and other long-term relationships together? Passionate love must come back intermittently, like small sparks that keep the relationship smoldering, Hatfield theorizes.

She does allow that there "are some couples with really good marriages who have come to love, like and understand each other, and so the companionate love is maintained or even grows."

Both fan the flame

Psychologist Robert J. Sternberg, PhD, thinks that love doesn't have to decline, but in order for it to flourish, both partners must share the same love "story."

For Sternberg, a former APA president who is dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Tufts University and has been studying love since the 1980s, the logical psychological theories about love-including his own-were at odds with the way people actually think about love: Most people seem to see it as story-based.

"I was interested in the fact that people seem to relate strongly to love stories," he says, noting that people seek them out in books, magazines, on television and in the movies.

"Is there any way to capture the story essence?" he wondered.

In a series of interviews in the 1990s with college and graduate students who ranged in age from 17 to 26 years old, Sternberg identified about 25 stories that people use to describe love. As Sternberg detailed in his book, "Love is a story" (1998. New York: Oxford University Press), the stories range from the "travel" story ("I believe that beginning a relationship is like starting a new journey that promises to be both exciting and challenging") to the "humor" story ("I think taking a relationship too seriously can spoil it") to the "autocratic government" story ("I think it is more efficient if one person takes control of the important decisions in a relationship"). In the 2001 study published in the European Journal of Personality (Vol. 15, No. 3, pages 199-218), Sternberg and his co-authors found that the type of story wasn't the deciding factor in forming a lasting relationship, but having matching stories was.

It's not the only thing that makes a relationship work, but it's important, says Sternberg.

"If the stories don't match, sooner or later people become unhappy or unfulfilled," he found, adding that the more people's stories matched, the happier they were.

Further Reading

  • Hatfield, E. & Rapson, R.L. (1993). “Love, sex and intimacy: Their psychology, biology and history.” New York: Harper Collins.

  • Sternberg, R.J. (1998). “Love is a story.” New York: Oxford University Press.

  • Sternberg, R.J. & Hojjat M. (Eds.) (1997). “Satisfaction in close relationships.” New York: Guilford Press.