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Marriage: Researchers Reveal Why Couples Succeed

Updated on July 16, 2013


This article is split into two parts. First, I am going to explain the biology of love and demonstrate that the human version of love isn't all that unique.

Then, I will illustrate that what IS unique about human relationships is the concept of marriage and a life-long bond. You might find it interesting that our ancestors actually made no such bonds.

All of my arguments are not my own opinion. Rather, they will be supported by recent evidence discovered through psychological experiments.

Let's begin...

We All Need Love

"Without loving relationships, humans fail to flourish, even if all of their other basic needs are met." ~Carter and Porges

The human need for love is innate and pervasive. Everybody is evolutionary designed to seek, find, and maintain these loving relationships.

The way people embark on this task, however, may differ wildly due to ideological and cultural differences.

Cultural attitudes affect not only what people emphasize about their partners when falling in love (Riela et al., 2010), but their attitudes and expectations toward these long-term relationships (Jackson et al., 2006), also.

In spite of these discrepancies, researchers Hatfield et al. discovered the universality of romantic love among all peoples of the world in 2007, and functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRIs) scans have shown that regardless of cultural differences, the same areas of the brain activate when people see pictures of their spouse (Xu et al., 2011). Additionally, both Western and Eastern cultures delineate companionate love and romantic love (Shaver et al., 2001).

Thus, even though individuals maintain their personal approaches and reactions to love, there must exist some common biological process that transforms a person from unattached to 'in love.'

The Hypothalamus' Role in Love

According to Dr. Brian G. Gilmartin in The Biochemistry of Falling in Love, "the available data indicate that romantic love feelings commence in the region of the lower brain that is known as the hypothalamus… which controls hundreds of bodily functions and impacts the entire nervous system." Interestingly, the hypothalamus, and the entire lower brain in which it exists, is a common structure throughout almost all animals.

In June 2012, researchers Kenkel et al. published a ground breaking report entitled Neuroendrocine and Behavioral Responses to Exposure to an infant in Male Praire Voles. The experiment of direct relevance placed 22 or 23 day old voles in a cage with an unrelated, never-before-seen, vole pup.

Although the experimenters categorized various patterns of behavior, the most important finding was that “all of the juvenile males were classified as alloparental,” meaning that they crouched over this unfamiliar, unrelated pup in order to protect it as if it were their own child!

Here’s what’s important to remember: upon analysis of these voles' blood, the researchers found higher concentrations of oxytocin in the group exposed to a pup.

Oxytocin's Role in Love

Various other studies show that these findings correlate to human experience: cuddling, hugging, and all sexual contact stimulate the release of oxytocin, thereby strengthening the relationship (Hill et al., 2009); high levels facilitate social behaviors, such as eye contact and social cognition (Meyer-Lindenberg et al., 2011); people trust strangers to a larger degree when flooded with extra oxytocin (Theodoridou et al., 2009); its presence forms and finalizes the parent-child bond (Carter and Porges, 2013); and...

**people automatically release oxytocin when they see an infant, triggering an inbuilt need to protect it (Ibid).**

Yes. Humans react to infants in the same way that prairie voles do!

These experiments reveal a biological basis for interpersonal relationships and love that extends beyond the selectively human realm. This conclusion can only make sense if the systems controlling the process of love are not specifically human, or, at least, that our distinct version of love evolved from our early ancestors. Either scenario would confirm the notion that the limbric brain, the oldest part of the brain, directs how a person's love relationship progresses.

Lust vs. Love

Humans, however, are special. They possess an extra brain layer above this shared limbic brain. As you can see in the picture, this brain has a complex network of functions that are totally distinct from the primordial limbic brain.

In 2004, Lisa Diamond discovered that the regions of the brain responsible for sexual desire, in the limbic brain, are entirely separate from those that regulate feelings of attachment and commitment, which predominantly reside in the human brain’s ‘extra’ layer. Thus, marriages tend to fail when sexual attraction acts as the foundation because people need to find a way to stay committed even after the initial passion dies.

This idea corresponds to what many psychiatrists, such as Michael Liebowitz, delineate as the “attraction phase” and the “attachment phase.” This is the age old distinction between Lust and Love. Only now, it's been proven scientifically.

The Four-Year Itch

The most interesting study on this subject is Helen Fisher's investigation of the divorce trends of fifty-eight contemporary populations in a report entitled The Four-Year Itch.

Through an analysis of the data compiled by the Statistical Office of the United Nations, she found three different situations that are statistically significantly more likely to lead to a couple's divorce:

  1. Couples married for four years
  2. Couples marrying when both spouses were between the ages of 25 and 29
  3. Couples with one or no dependent children

Interestingly, these trends appear in almost all cultures despite various divorce rates, cultural codes of conduct, or levels of industrial development. Remember, the human process of love functions on a level far below our conscious reasoning abilities.

The Surprising Truth About Our Ancestors

Fisher's work validates the theories of many evolutionary scientists, who suggest that, based on data from !Kung Bushmen and Australian aborigines, the original humans were designed to raise a child with a single mate for four years and then find a completely different mate to raise another child for another four years.

Essentially, lifelong commitments are totally uncharacteristic of the human forebears, but certain evolutionary factors such as the obstetrical dilemma and changing circumstances of childbirth completely altered how humans had to handle their love relationships.

Currently, humans give birth to the least developed young of all animal species, and according to Fisher, “human childhood is by far the longest of any primate species.” Consequently, humans necessarily have to form longer lasting parental bonds in order to properly raise a healthy child.

Why So Many Marriages Fail

The problem with this longer lasting bond is that Americans, to an unprecedented degree, determine whether to marry someone based on feelings of romantic passion (Hatfield & Rapson, 2008). The divorce rates have skyrocketed from 23.1% in 1950 (385,144 divorces out of 1,667,231 marriages) to 40.7% in 2000 (944,000 divorces out of 2,315,000 marriages), and now they hover around 50% (U.S. Census Bureau).

This mirrors William Kephart's research done in 1967. He demonstrated that the prototypically American attention to love developed only in the past few decades. 76% of contemporary women and 35% of men would have gladly married an otherwise perfect partner even if they were not in love with that person.

Additionally, Josh Ackerman's analysis of the marriage patterns of other societies throughout history provides evidence for the role of love in this problem. Disregarding a few other variables, the results found that ideologies which placed little emphasis on romance as a prerequisite for marriage had much lower divorce rates.

Ackerman also found that the most successful marriages resembled what's defined as "Companionate Love" in Robert Sternberg's Triangular Theory of Love (1967, 2006). The theory postulates that love consists of three components: passion; intimacy; and commitment. Unfortunately, Americans chase after "Fatuous Love," comprised of only commitment and passion.

The Triangular Theory of Love

Empty Love
Infatuated Love
Romantic Love
Companionate Love
Fatuous Love
Consummate Love

Without any resilient premarital foundation of intimacy, this love quickly disintegrates into "Empty Love" as the passion dies over time and all that remains is a bitter sense of commitment and obligation. Researchers Tucker and Aron found supporting evidence that the passion between a couple gradually decreases as time passes, and another study showed the extremely negative impact of marriage on passion, as well (Sprecher & Regan, 1998).

Companionate Love, on the other hand, combines high levels of intimacy and commitment to form a deep, long-term friendship. Marriages resembling companionate love tend to provide the highest satisfaction rate and last the longest (Lauer & Lauer, 1985). People in these relationships, even lasting for more than 15 years, typically report that "my spouse is my best friend" and "I like my spouse as a person" (Ibid). Because they enjoy their partner as a companion, even though their shared passion has drastically decreased, their relationship remains strong.

Important Marriage Advice


What have we learned?

  • Oxytocin helps form and strengthen a relationship. Spend more time cuddling, kissing, and just touching. Physical contact provides a rejuvenating effect.
  • Our ancestors formed four year commitments rather than our current lifelong bonds. As a result, successful couples need to work in order to sustain such a long relationship.
  • As people, and Americans in particular, rely more and more on love to decide whether life-long relationships are worth pursuing, the divorce rates have slowly crept higher over time.
  • Most importantly: In order to experience a truly meaningful, lasting marriage, people need to stop chasing the intimacy-less fatuous love, filled with only passion and commitment, and instead choose the companionate love, which combines intimacy and commitment.


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