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Long-lasting romantic love is no delusion, researcher says

Psychologists Arthur and Elaine Aron relax at home on Feb. 7, 2011 in Tiburon, California.

David Paul Morris/David Paul Morris

Arthur Aron uses brain imaging and other tools to learn more about love, commitment and what makes long-term relationships work. He collaborates with his wife of 37 years, Elaine Aron, who is also a researcher at Stony Brook University in New York. They recently spoke to Anne McIlroy about the brain, love and how their studies have informed their relationship. The interview was edited and condensed.

Arthur, you recently did brain scans of couples who been together for more than 20 years and were still intensely in love with each other. What did you learn about long-lasting romantic love?

Arthur Aron: Mainly, we learned that it is real. The people who tell us they are having this experience are not just kidding themselves. Their brains looked for the most part like people who have newly fallen in love.

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You had each volunteer look at a photo of their partner while they were in the scanner. Were there any differences between the long-married couples and the ones who were newly in love?

Arthur: We saw activity in an area of the brain known to play an essential role in attachment, based on research in prairie voles, one of the few mammalian species that is monogamous. We didn't see this in the people who had just fallen in love. There was also more signs of calmness versus a kind of tension in the people who had newly fallen in love.

Do you think you and Elaine would have qualified as a couple still passionately in love?

Elaine Aron: Sure. I think so.

Would you have wanted to know how Arthur reacted to your photo when he was in the magnetic resonance imager? What if it was more "ho-hum" then "wow"?

Elaine: I wouldn't need to know. If it didn't come out right I would figure there was something wrong with the MRI.

Arthur: I agree, absolutely. Still, a collaborator who recently got married actually did the scan on herself and was delighted to see the effect in her own brain.

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Was it hard to find enough couples who were still deeply in love after two decades together?

Arthur: Finding them was not easy. We don't know the exact numbers, but we may see it in 5 to 12 per cent of long-term married couples.

You and Elaine have also found that happy couples tend to make life more interesting for each other and that doing new or exciting things together can strengthen a relationship. How important is this compared to, say, communicating well?

Elaine: It is important for people to work on communication skills and problems that show up because of their childhood or family and to handle stressful things. But sometimes we ignore the fact that a relationship can be going well, when there are no problems - but that it can be boring. It can be dangerous when couples are bored because they can get into all kinds of trouble trying to make things more stimulating with each other or somebody else.

Does it have to be bungee jumping or skydiving? Any suggestions?

Elaine: I would suggest couples sit down together and draw up a list. But you can keep it simple and easy. If you are going to a movie, try something you would normally not see. If you are eating out, try a cuisine you have never had before. It can be doing something creative together, like writing a letter to the editor, playing or singing music or cooking.

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What kind of things do you two do together?

Elaine: I'm highly sensitive. I find that Art gets me to go out and do things I might think are too overstimulating, like experimental theatre or to hear some obscure chamber music. I pull him into quiet time, like meditation and being in nature. We go on a lot of hikes but try to go to a new place each time.

Arthur: You have to be careful, because excitement is good, up to the point where it is stressful. Elaine loves to go sailing, but I get seasick. I tried recently to go whale watching with her. I really wanted to go. It seemed so exciting. I got every drug to stop you from getting seasick. Elaine was so supportive as I was leaning over the boat.

Elaine: It was pretty bad.

Can you actually study how doing new and exciting things together can affect the brain?

Arthur: We are doing a study right now. We have a person in the scanner playing a video game with their partner, who is not in the scanner. The game is either exciting or relatively mundane. It is our first attempt to study exciting activities in the scanner.

You are also working with returning veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq and their spouses. What kind of activities do you get them to do together?

Arthur: They go to big events like car races or rock concerts. We are working in co-operation with a non-profit, Welcome Home Troops, that arranges exciting events for returning soldiers and their partners to attend. We survey them before and after, as well as control couples.

How else has your work, and that of other psychologists, influenced your relationship?

Elaine: Making your relationship a priority pays off. I would bet the people who are passionately in love after many years didn't end up that way because they never saw each other. It is very valuable to help a person through a hard time, we know that, but also to celebrate a person's successes, to get in there and open a bottle a champagne.

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