Tuesday, 19 April 2011


Healthy romanticizing

In a 1996 experiment, psychologists at the State University of New York at Buffalo followed a group of 121 dating couples. Every few months, the couples answered questionnaires designed to determine how much they idealized their partner, and how well the pair was doing. The researchers found that the couples who were closest one year later were those who idealized each other the most. The idealizing seemed to help carry these couples through the inevitable rough spots. "Intimates who idealized one another," concluded the researchers in the paper, "appeared more prescient than blind, actually creating the relationships they wished for as romances progressed."
Short-term studies of courtship mean little for the issue that most people confront: What are the ingredients of a long-term, loving relationship? Psychologists at the University of Texas in Austin have been looking at the subject for more than a decade, following 168 couples who were married in 1981. What they're finding is that idealization of a kind can keep people happily married. "Usually, this is a matter of one person putting good spin on the partner, seeing the partner as more responsive than he or she really is," said Ted Huston, the study's lead investigator. "People who do that tend to stay in relationships longer than those who can't or don't."
But the findings are mixed. Huston's research also has identified three paths through early courtship: fast and passionate, slow and rocky, and in-between. The fast-track group, about 25% of the total, usually were interdependent within weeks, tended to ignore or forget their initial problems and were committed to marriage within several months. By contrast, the slow-motion group took an average of two years to reach a commitment, spending up to six painstaking months in each stage.
Yet when it came to success at the 13-year mark, the tortoises won out. "The more boring and deliberate the courtship, the better the prospects for a long marriage, I'm afraid," he said. "People who had very intense, Hollywood-type romances at the beginning were likely to have a big drop-off later on, and this often changed their view of the other's character."
That's the rub. If passionate romance is like a drug, as the MRI images suggest, then it's bound to lose its kick. Studies of dating and engaged couples find that feelings of passionate love and infatuation tend to fade quickly in the first year, and a year or two later often are all but gone, said Regan. What's more, simply having a strong romantic drive says nothing about how wisely you'll use it -- or on whom. "The drive is there simply to focus your energy on one person," said Fisher. "People make wrong choices all the time."
The emotional fallout from that kind of decision is no less awful for its being wrong, of course. But seeing romance as a biologically based, drug-like state can at least provide some balm for a broken heart. "Like a drug addict would tell you," said Regan, "the highs don't last, but neither does the withdrawal. With time the craving and pain go away and the brain returns to normal."

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