The myth of the seven-year itch is a strong one. Is there a point where, no matter how happy you've been in a relationship, things just get a little boring or the spark fades away completely? A lot of us are fascinated by this idea. Maybe you've experienced love fading after a certain point in past relationships or maybe you're currently very much in love and want it to stay that way forever. No matter what your situation, it can be totally normal to wonder about why love fades over time — and how you can stop it. The truth is, there's no fool-proof way to keep the love alive, but understanding how our brains play a role can help you protect yourself, and your relationship, from the erosion of time.
Dr. Dan Lieberman and Michael Long, co-authors of The Molecule of More: How A Single Molecule in Your Brain Drives Love, Sex, and Creativity -- and Will Determine the Fate of the Human Race, coming August 2018, are experts in a singular, powerful chemical that affects all of us: dopamine. They have some real insights on why love changes over time. But first, when thinking about this change, it's important to understand the difference between companionship and passionate love.
"Attachment — known scientifically as 'companionate love' —is quite different from romance, chemically speaking," Dr. Lieberman tells Bustle. "Attachment comes from the satisfaction we take in being around another person, day after day. These brain chemicals, also called neurotransmitters, are associated with the here and now. Attachment is less about 'What’s next?' and more about 'Your company, right now, is enough for me.'" Think of older couples holding hands, happy nights in on the sofa. It's great, but it can be very different than the first throes of passion.
"This matters because early or ''passionate' love, the gateway to attachment, is so different," Long tells Bustle. "Instead of being driven by 'here and now' (H&N) brain chemicals that are active when your attention is focused on the present, passionate love is driven by a single chemical, dopamine — and dopamine rewards us for pursuing things we don’t yet have but that might be useful. Love and sex propagate the species. Those are infinitely useful, so dopamine gives us a buzz when the possibility appears. That buzz encourages pursuit – in this case, meeting new people, flirting, and dating. And the neurochemical buzz of pursuit is, as we all know, intense." And though it's a great buzz, it can be tricky to maintain in a relationship.
The Challenge Of Attachment
One of the reasons love can fade over time is that it's hard to keep that dopamine buzz going. "Dopamine gets us interested in each other, but it responds only to things that are new or that are possible rather than real," Dr. Lieberman says. "Once you’re in a relationship, that dopamine excitement fades and eventually stops. If you’re going to stay attached, you’ll have to find a reason beyond the dopamine thrill of the new. Typically, that’s choosing to appreciate your partner in the here and now."
Choosing to remain attached to your partner, even once the dopamine buzz fades, is also driven by chemicals, just a different set. "People might be surprised to know that the chemicals responsible for attachment in humans do the same things in some animal species that mate for life, such as Prairie Voles," Long says. "The chemicals are oxytocin and vasopressin."
But even though chemicals drive both passionate and companionate love, it's clear that choosing to remain with the same person is a choice. "Early love is a ride on a merry-go-round that sits at the foot of a bridge," Dr. Lieberman says. "That carousel can take you around and around on a fun trip as many times as you like, but it will always leave you where you began. Each time the music stops and your feet are back on the ground, you must make a choice: take one more whirl, or cross that bridge to another, more enduring kind of love. In that realm, attachment, your love is driven not just by a dopamine buzz, but by deciding to appreciate someone in the here and now, day after day."
Passionate Love Fades, But Companionate Love Endures
When we speak about "love fading", we're actually talking about passionate love specifically. "It’s important to remember that it’s only passionate love that fades," Dr. Lieberman says. "Companionate love, the kind of love that established couples feel, generally grows with time. But some people think that once the dopaminergic thrill of passionate love is gone, the relationship is over. It doesn’t have to be."
The relationship can continue — and even thrive — but in order to do so it's important to understand that being with the same person every day will mean that the passionate love fades. "That’s why passionate love fades: the thrilling mystery of the unknown becomes the boring familiarity of the everyday," Long says. But that doesn't mean that there's no reward in that familiarity. " [I]f you can accept that, if you are willing to trade excitement for intimacy, and anticipation for satisfaction, then you’ll be able to fire up the oxytocin circuits in your brain and lay the groundwork for years and years of happiness." And some excitement, of course.
How To Add The Dopamine Buzz Back Into Your Relationship
Even though settling into companionate love has its benefits as passion fades, that doesn't mean that dopamine is totally off the table. "What most people do — and what most people want — eventually is to cross that bridge into companionate love that requires us to make a choice: to appreciate someone in the here and now," Long says. "But that doesn’t mean couples have to part with the dopamine thrill of romance, not at all. To keep that spark, create dopamine-driven experiences that you can enjoy together."
And, because dopamine is triggered by doing something new, it's important to keep the novelty alive in your relationship. The good news? It doesn't all have to be daredevil stunts (though those certainly will do the trick), it can be anything new. "Visit a new restaurant, especially one that serves a cuisine you don’t know, or that involves some experience or activity that’s new to you," Dr. Lieberman says. "Skydiving, horseback riding, go-cart racing, a museum tour — anything you haven’t done before, or done before together. Whether it’s a vacation, date night, or the bedroom, put yourself in a situation where you’re experiencing the dopamine buzz not only from the surprises in the activity but also from surprising reactions of your partner."
Understanding how our brain chemicals work can help us improve our relationship and even protect it over time. At some point your passionate love will fade, but it's important to appreciate that companionate love has its own benefits. And if you want to keep that passion and spark as alive as possible, keep chasing new experiences. Your brain — and your relationship — will thank you.