NiceDay blog: the success of a long-term relationship?

In the Netherlands, more than 1 in 3 marriages ends in divorce. That’s a big part, but it wasn’t always as easy as it is now. Take Sylvia’s mother for example, who wanted to divorce her husband in 1950. First, she had to provide evidence of adultery, only then were they allowed to divorce. Since the 1971 Divorce Act, divorcing has become a lot easier. This new law had an immediate effect: in the following years the number of divorces doubled! You may therefore ask, as humans are we made to stay together for a longer period of time? And what is the success of a long-term relationship?

The physiological stages of a relationship

First, let’s get back to the heart of a relationship between two people. Professor of physiology Jan Hindrik Ravesloot explains how the physical process works when you fall in love and enter into relationships, on the basis of three phases:

  • Sex drive

It starts with your sex drive. Your body is controlled by testosterone, and this hormone motivates people to enter into sexual relationships with each other.

  • Falling in love

Then you fall in love. The physical reaction in the second phase works as follows: when you fall in love the amount of dopamine in your body increases. This neurotransmitter ensures that every time you see someone you are in love with, your nerve cells receive a signal. This allows you to experience feelings of joy, euphoria and pleasure. You want nothing more than to be with that one person!

  • Pairing

The third phase starts when the infatuation ends. You notice that the person you used to be so in love with, can also annoy you. Other considerations will therefore play a role: does it make sense to stay together and build a life together? Physiologically, the cuddle hormone oxytocin plays an important role in this phase. When you are intimate and committed to each other, this creates more oxytocin and motivates you to stay together.

Love versus lust

Looking at the physiological response, you are only “in love” for a short while. So, more is needed to keep a relationship successful in the long term.

In the Ted Talk The secret of desire in a long-term relationship (NL), Psychologist Esther Perel discusses the difference between lust(desire) and love (love). If you consider the original purpose of marriage, it was mainly for economic and reproductive reasons. Now, we are looking for more. We still want to be intimate with someone for longer periods of time and build a stable relationship. At the same time, we, both men and women, also need adventure, surprise and novelty. We want to settle with someone, but we also expect adventure from the same person. As Perel says in her Ted Talk: “We want a passionate long-term relationship, and here is the contradiction between love and desire.”

If you look at the above phases, you would prefer to extend the feelings from the second phase (falling in love) to the longer term. The feeling of novelty, excitement and adventure! Since you physically enter a phase where the falling in love ends, the success of a long-term relationship lies in things other than just falling in love.

A successful relationship

According to Perel, there are three important things people mention when it comes to their relationship success:

  • People are most attracted to their partner when they don’t see him or her for a while. It is precisely at the moment of absence that you start to long for someone and feel more attracted to that person.
  • It is seen as attractive when your partner is in his or her element, enjoying themselves at a party, and is successful in what he or she does. If you look at someone from a distance, this can give a new perception. This can give something innovative and trigger the mysterious and attractiveness in someone. With “lust” it is about the desire from a distance, it is therefore attractive when you see someone from a distance.
  • What was often mentioned is continuing to surprise each other and laugh together. Surprising each other can provide a new trigger (even if it isn’t something new). You show new aspects of yourself and this is seen as attractive.

A good addition to this is what professor of physiology Ravesloot says about the happiness of a long-term relationship. According to him, the best relationships are between people who both have great lives. It is therefore important to make your own life fun and inspire each other at the same time. It is always good to focus on your own happiness first. Do you want to read more about the pursuit of happiness? Then also read this article about being happy.

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Maaike van der Kaaij

My name is Maaike and I am a psychologist at NiceDay. During sessions with my clients I find it really important they feel free to tell me everything. I am interested in people's behaviour and enjoy helping people gain new insights! Besides my work, I love my family, travelling, working out and going out to dinner.

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