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How important is being "in love" to a happy marriage? What's the difference between love vs "in love" vs limerance?
April 2, 2010 12:02 PM   Subscribe

What's the difference between loving someone versus "being in love" versus limerence/new relationship energy? And how important is the presence and intensity of the "being in love" feeling to having a long and happy marriage?

It seems like a commonly held view that the kind of head-over-heels, passionate, dizzying feelings of limerence at the beginning of a relationship inevitably fade over time and aren't really what's important to a lasting partnership. (As seen by much of the advice in the recent Marry or break up question.) Yet I also get the impression that most people make a distinction between loving someone and being "in love" with someone, and consider having and maintaining the "in love" feeling to be an important part of marriage. The difference between love and limerence is pretty clear, but how exactly would you define the difference between being "in love" and "love" on the one hand and the difference between being "in love" and "limerence" on the other?

And how important is that "in love" feeling? Assume a couple has a good friendship, enjoy spending time together, feel warm and fuzzy and happy about each other, have compatible values and life goals, respect and admire each other and feel respected and valued by each other, feel like they have a good and strong partnership, communicate well, have a good (although not necessarily amazing) sex life that they're both satisfied with. Assume they love each other deeply (in the "your happiness and well-being is very important to me, I'm willing to make sacrifices for you" sense-- a very strong feeling, but one which could also apply to a parent or a child) and feel willing to make a commitment to each other, to a future together, to working on their relationship and working through problems that arise.

In your experience or that of those around you, how much difference does it make whether the couple feels "in love" or not, or how strongly they feel that way, to their long term happiness as a couple? And how/why? (i.e., does the "love" feeling deteriorate over time/in stressful situations if the "in love" feelng is absent or weak? does the lack of the "in love" feeling make people more vulnerable to a third party with whom they do feel the "in love" feeling? etc)

Obviously a lot of this depends on the particular individuals, but any anecdotes are great, and/or generalizations from your experience. And of course if there's any actual research on this issue specifically, that would be awesome and interesting as well.
posted by EmilyClimbs to Human Relations (23 answers total) 49 users marked this as a favorite
 
I've been with my husband for sixteen years and we are very happy and definitely what I would call in love, but your description of assumptions pretty much sums up my relationship. So, I'm not sure there is a difference, at least for me.
posted by something something at 12:27 PM on April 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


You can spend your whole life wondering if there's a better love, a love that keeps the fires burning, or you can live a lifetime with this person who makes you happy.

I doubt there's anyone in any relationship that doesn't have their moments where they wonder if there's something more that they could be getting out of a relationship. It's up to you to decide if the one you are in is enough to forsake all others. But take it from this internet stranger, you'll never be able to live a lifetime without question popping up again.
posted by advicepig at 12:29 PM on April 2, 2010 [4 favorites]


It depends. As the original MOBU poster, the only thing I can tell you is different people have different needs. Some things you can compromise on, others you can't.

I know that I need a ridiculous deep, soulful connection with my partner (call it limerance or whatever). Because if I don't have that, and I don't feel it can be TRULY cultivated in the relationship I'm in, I'd rather just be alone.

Cause a marriage without that means being totally alone anyway. Only hurting/isolating someone else in the process.
posted by spaceandtime30 at 12:31 PM on April 2, 2010 [4 favorites]


And how important is that "in love" feeling?

I think that that's something you have to decide for yourself. It's like how you have to decide that your partner is or isn't something that's supposed to exist in your life to excite you or bring you constant jollies. In order to have a successful relationship, I think you have to remove self-objectification and objectification of your partner, and learn that it's about being a loving person and choosing to love someone and be good to someone, and not constantly second guess that person or that choice or that relationship. I think that's maturity and humanity, allows us to see that the level of objectification we give to spouses and lovers is wrong and that we, as flawed people, as moody people, would never like.

Essentially, what would probably be important to a long and happy marriage is if both couples agreed on the importance of their particular union to their lives and that it benefits their life to be married with the person that they are with, be it fact or fiction, they have to know it and it has to be mutually agreed upon and each person has to be committed to protecting it and protecting each other. I guess when it isn't, that's where the breakdown happens.
posted by anniecat at 12:39 PM on April 2, 2010 [14 favorites]


Being "in love" is a chemical reaction that floods the reward centers of your brain. You can and do get addicted to it (which is why it's painful when the other person isn't around & why you think about them constantly). This lasts about 2 years. Afterward, you usually switch into another type of love (such as Companionate Love).

More on the neurochemistry of love:

Helen Fisher studies the brain in love
Why do we crave love so much, even to the point that we would die for it? To learn more about our very real, very physical need for romantic love, Helen Fisher and her research team took MRIs of people in love -- and people who had just been dumped.

Helen Fisher tells us why we love + cheat
Anthropologist Helen Fisher takes on a tricky topic -- love –- and explains its evolution, its biochemical foundations and its social importance. She closes with a warning about the potential disaster inherent in antidepressant abuse.

More on the different types of love.
posted by MesoFilter at 12:41 PM on April 2, 2010 [3 favorites]


I've been married shy of 3 years, and we've been together for more than 4 years. The giddiness has worn off, but we still have passionate moments, with a steady warmth of being really happy together.

My parents .. well, they're a mixed bag of issues. They've spent time apart, but only for breathing space. That was a brief period, and they're back under the same roof, and trying to deal with things together. I think there's still love, but maybe not as much as when I was a kid (or maybe I didn't know what to look for then). My parents-in-law seem to be more in love, even though there's more shouting and arguments.

My parents aren't great communicators, and they have coping mechanisms which work for the short term but bury the issues, instead of dealing with them, so larger issues sprout up in the long term. My parents-in-law have known patterns, and they recognize that in each-other (and their daughters call them out on it, too, which may help).

People change over time, and so do situations. I think it's critical to recognize your own wants and needs, and how you deal with situations, and to be able to discuss all this with your partner. Love doesn't last well under stress, because stress can win out over love.

As for the love itself: I think what is needed and necessary is personal. I've seen people who have been together for decades who still seem to be on fire for each-other. I've known others who are happy being together, though their love looks more like companionship. To each their own, and know what works for you.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:46 PM on April 2, 2010


From a recent Jonah Lehrer article:
I've been recently been reading some interesting research on close, interpersonal relationships (much of it by Ellen Berscheid, at the University of Minnesota) and I'm mostly convinced that there's a fundamental mismatch between the emotional state we expect to feel for a potential spouse - we want to "fall wildly in love," experiencing that ecstatic stew of passion, desire, altruism, jealousy, etc - and the emotional state that actually determines a successful marriage over time.

Berscheid defines this more important emotion as "companionate love" or "the affection we feel for those with whom our lives are deeply intertwined." Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at the University of Virginia, compares this steady emotion which grows over time to its unsteady (but sexier and more cinematic) precursor: "If the metaphor for passionate love is fire, the metaphor for companionate love is vines growing, intertwining, and gradually binding two people together."
posted by ibmcginty at 12:48 PM on April 2, 2010 [2 favorites]


I can say this, in my personal experience:

1. having that spark/passionate feeling beyond the initial limerance stage is important for long-term relationship success;

2. that spark/passionate feeling beyond the initial limerance stage over a long period of time is definitely possible, although it is impossible to force;

3. being in a long-term relationship that exists as a solid, supportive friendship without that spark/passionate feeling is wonderful in its own way, but not as fulfilling;

4. the spark/passionate feeling I'm talking about is separate and distinct from feelings of limerance in intensity, but not in type.

Having feelings of jealousy and anger and other strong negative emotions are a strong indicator of your long-term relationship potential, provided you experience similarly strong positive ones more often, and provided they come from a place of desire and connection, rather than disgust or mistrust or insecurity.

For instance, being overwhelmingly jealous of your partner because you feel like they'll run off with some unknown other person is not a good sign -- but being a bit jealous because your partner is off doing an extracurricular activity with other people and you wish they were home with you instead is a good sign. The former involves a lack of trust, and the latter involves a desire to be together, despite both manifesting as feelings of jealousy.

It is also important to separate the legitimacy of negative feelings from what they bode about your relationship and future together. For instance, being frustrated with your partner because they're spending too much money is a legitimate negative feeling, but doesn't necessarily represent a positive or negative sign about your relationship. Meanwhile, frustration with your partner because they're procrastinating about seeking medical care for themselves (and you're worried about their health) is both a legitimate negative feeling and a positive sign for your relationship.
posted by davejay at 1:06 PM on April 2, 2010 [5 favorites]


I have a long-standing debate about love with a very close friend of mine. He's a philosopher-type (as was I, at one time--so bear with me if this sounds a bit hoity-toity and drab), and contends that love is primarily a recognition of things we value embodied in another person. The problem with this, I've told him, is that you can recognize all sorts of things you value about that person--that they're kind, that they have a good sense of humor, that they have dark hair and broad shoulders and a great butt--without there being any reciprocity of emotions. The sort of love my friend talks about could easily be applied to, I don't know, a car. A car can embody all the things I value about cars--it can be the world's most perfect hatchback with antilock breaks and leather seats or whatever. I can love that car. But we wouldn't say that I'm in love with that car.

I've always felt that this is a definition that works well with limerence, because a limerent state is essentially a crush. It's hormones and giddiness and excitement about the other person, but it's excitement about the other person as an object. You can experience limerence, the emotional and chemical state, without your feelings of affection being reciprocated. Limerence--that is, a crush--doesn't really require two people at all. In fact, it's something chemical and hormonal that's mostly going on in one person. Sometimes, you get two limerent people who happen to feel that way at the same time, which is good for sex, but rarely lasts more than a handful of years. And when it fades, you're left to figure out if you love the person or not.

While my friend has argued all this stuff about love being a recognition of values, I've always argued that a successful loving relationship is all about mutuality, respect, friendship, and growing and changing together. In fact, that couple in your question would be a pretty good mock-up of what I think a couple "in love" should look like. This doesn't always mesh perfectly with my friend's "recognition of values" argument, because sometimes there are annoying things about a partner that you love very much--sometimes there are things you don't like. In my friend's model, it breaks the mold. You can't love someone who embodies things you don't like. In my view of love, it's fine as long as it's not a deal breaker; your ideal partner might be very different from you, but as long as they're a good, supportive friend and you enjoy being with them and they can help you grow and you have awesome sex, it's not a problem at all.

For what it's worth, my friend has drifted from relationship to relationship, never quite attaining the relationship nirvana that he's been after. Meanwhile, I'm going into my eighth year with my now-husband, who I just flat out adore. He's awesome! I might not feel like a silly teenager with him all the time, but even at our worst, I never don't love him. And the longer we've been together, the deeper that love grows. I don't believe in soulmates (can you guess that my friend does? or wants to?) but I do think there comes a point when a healthy relationship becomes something that's hard to imagine living without.

So anyway, I think it's possible to feel limerent about someone and be in love with them. But I don't think it's possible to be in love with someone without having a mutually enjoyable relationship--not to mention the fact that you might feel limerent about them without really being in love with them, or without having the situation reciprocated. Those are the situations where you're crazy about someone, but it still doesn't work. Or you're crazy about someone for a time, but then those feelings die down and you feel lukewarm, and look for someone new to feel limerent about.

What was the question again?
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 1:47 PM on April 2, 2010 [8 favorites]


"Love" is a measure of the amount of time you spend with someone. Limerance is the feelings they give you. "In love" is the whole thing. There's a "past performance guarantees future returns" quality of limerance that speaks to origin theories you see in sociology.

But I get the feeling that sparkiness is pretty important to you, so you might want to listen to your gut.
posted by rhizome at 2:15 PM on April 2, 2010


I often wonder about this question too. And it makes me think of a close relative who married quite young (baby on the way!) then wondered if she'd done the right thing. She and her husband had an open marriage for awhile with every one living together in the same house (it was the 70s man!). Eventually she moved away from the marriage seeking more 'passion'.

She and her hubby (they didn't divorce) swapped kids and continents for about 10 years until one day they realised that neither had met someone they'd rather be with in all their time apart. And so they got back together. Happy ending?

In the process of getting back together they had STD tests and one discovered that they had HIV. The other said, that's OK, I love you for everything you are. That was 15 years ago, they have never been happier or more loving. And I think it's because of that love that the HIV one has remained so healthy for so long. Passion only counts for so much but love, support, and friendship matter the most. Yes, a happy ending.
posted by Kerasia at 2:21 PM on April 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


After 25 years of marriage, my advice is to abandon the inquiry. You have no idea what either you or your partner will be feeling next year, let alone over your lifetime. Marriage, if referenced exclusively to feelings, makes almost no sense. Marriage, at its root, is simply a promise to stay together, no matter what. It is a counterweight to feelings. If you can imagine why a lifelong promise is a good thing, then rest assured that your feelings will occur in the context of that promise.
In practical terms, as others have said above, it really helps if you're pals as well as lovers. The sleep of reason can only take you so far.
posted by Carmody'sPrize at 2:38 PM on April 2, 2010 [22 favorites]


I fell for my husband in a big hurry and still love him more than I can say . . . and it's been 13 years since we married. The major difference between this and every other romantic relationship I've had, including the really serious and loving ones, is the huge comfort level I felt right from the start. I find being with my husband as comfortable as being with myself. He also cracks me up. And I trust him completely. But most of all, he has always been incredibly easy to be with. And the attraction I continue to feel for him as we both get older, grayer, and less physically awesome :) is just as unforced.

So, if it is really easy to be with someone, you feel always safe and comfortable, and you find them hugely attractive, I think you've met your soul mate.
posted by bearwife at 3:10 PM on April 2, 2010 [8 favorites]


What Carmody'sPrize said. This type of question seems to come up with regularity on AskMe. That's the best answer I've ever read and expresses my own views, based on 21 years of marriage, far more elegantly than I ever could.
posted by HotToddy at 4:02 PM on April 2, 2010


I would define it this way: when someone says they "love you but aren't 'in love' with you", it means they don't want to have sex with you any more.

So, love means love. But "in love" means "horny for".
posted by gjc at 4:10 PM on April 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


You need the spark to get things going. You can't be in love without falling in love first.

This seems obvious, but so much of the supposed "brain science" approach to love these days seems to ignore the order in which these things go. Just because science has now (supposedly) split love into the phases of "wild passion" and later "companionate love" doesn't mean that you can skip straight into phase 2. At least, that hasn't worked for me.
posted by yarly at 4:13 PM on April 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


It's folly to overgeneralize. People get married for all kinds of reasons, and stay married (or don't) for all kinds of reasons.

I will now go on to the folly of overgeneralize, because, hey, its MeFi.

Happy marriages are the lucky union of two people who are each, individually, constitutionally inclined to be happy and contented people. Between two such people, marriage is a joy, the most natural expression of human nature, and it just gets better with time (kids, material success, shared experience, etc.). At no moment (or, okay, hardly any moment) does any difficulty of marriage make one wish one wasn't married.

By contrast, unhappy individuals have unhappy marriages, no matter how much they love one another. Some marriages of unhappy people still make them better off than being alone -- but not many.
posted by MattD at 5:37 PM on April 2, 2010 [4 favorites]


My husband was my best friend before he was my lover. And we've always put the friendship first.

We're coming up on 10 years, now. And we've both grown and changed over that time. But we are still friends and lovers, and partners and companions. As we've always been.

We did go through that euphoric phase where everything was sunshine and rainbows ... and frankly, it was really annoying. I couldn't think straight about *anything*. And when it wore off in both of us - simultaneously - the following month was absolutely miserable, the most contentious month we've had thus far, until we figured out what was going on.

Since then, we have a very deep, passionate, rich love. Not as reckless, not as chemically intense, but I wouldn't want to be without him, and I miss him incredibly when we're at work, and not together. He is rarely far from my thoughts.

I don't think that the euphoria was necessary to our relationship, and well, didn't do anything much positive for it.
posted by ysabet at 8:32 PM on April 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


I read somewhere that it's very common for people with opposite approaches to money to be attracted to each other -- a spendthrift is attracted to a miser and vice versa. One interpretation of this is that you look for someone to balance you out, but this sounds suspiciously pragmatic. Why would you go weak in the knees for something so mundane?

I don't think evolutionary psychology is very convincing, not every irrationality can be explained by appealing to supposed rational savanna instincts that we've inherited. They've done experiments on male monkeys, presenting them with the ideal but inaccessible sexual partner and a less than perfect alternative who is accessible. They react rationally: first they go after the ideal partner, but after a while they realize it's impossible so they move on to the second choice, and they are happy. But humans are much more irrational, it's very common for us to fixate on the ideal and never let go, pining endlessly and persisting even when it's obvious that it's never going to happen.

Irrationality is a major part of experience of love, and I don't think it can be accounted for in any kind of rational genetic determinism. Maybe the reason there are so many rationalized love theories is to help us stigmatize the bad kind of love, where someone is deeply in love someone who is abusive and destructive to them. We can say "You aren't really in love with them, it's a malfunction of some kind." But this malfunction is constitutive of love as such, if you get rid of it, you end up with something safe, rational, sanitized, cold. When someone is in love with you, you are vulnerable to their irrationality, which can be extremely threatening in some circumstances, like when a stalker shows up on a celebrity's doorstep claiming they are meant for each other. And sometimes we worry that our own feelings are too strong, and potentially threatening to others. Counter-intuitively, the romanticized ideal of love, the One you are meant to be with, is somehow too rational for me, it tries to eliminate this risk by fantasizing about a guarantee, that the feelings are directed at the person you are supposed to love, who will reciprocate, etc.

So I guess for me, if love is irrational, then I count that as "in love". Even asking this kind of question could be a sign of that irrationality, if you think your feelings aren't really proper, somehow. Intense feelings are often taken as a sign of irrationality, but today we're almost expected to live our lives in pursuit of deep, extraordinary feelings and experiences, and it seems like most people have this internalized belief that if they don't have that, they are letting themselves down, or not really living. This is similar to the myth of the One, but instead of fantasizing of a person who can make us whole, we focus on a particular feeling that can make us whole while being "realistic" that more than one person can provide this. This is the logic of the lost object, where we passionately pursue something that we think we're missing or has been taken from us. The experience of finding (what we think is) IT produces rapturous feelings temporarily, until it inevitably let's us down and we conclude we were mistaken and start the search all over again--I think this is not really love, there is nothing on earth that can fill this void. It reminds me of the quote "What does it matter how many lovers you have if none of them gives you the universe?"

So if your experience of love violates your expectations by not bowling you over, I'd take that as a good sign.
posted by AlsoMike at 8:43 PM on April 2, 2010 [2 favorites]


Well, as always, check out Gottman. It's hard for me to summarize his stuff, which is really comprehensive research about marital satisfaction, happiness, etc. Marriage Clinic is the most thorough, a great read if you like psychology.

Anecdotally, being "in love" has jack all to do with a happy anything. People are in love with assholes who make them miserable! All the time!

Also anecdotally, the feeling of being "in love" that I think you're referring is what I call a crush...it's not limerance, or NRE, because I'm not an irrational psycho about it, but I have the biggest crush on my husband. I get all excited when I'm at a party and he meets me there. Yay! It's my husband! AGAIN! You know how dogs get sooooo excited every time you come home and soooo excited every time you take them for a walk, like it's the first time? I'm like that with him. YAY, he's watching TV with me! Wooo hooo! Again! YAY!

Hence, a crush. I think that having a crush helps marriage be awesome! Then again, he doesn't seem to have a crush on me, but maybe I don't know about it? I guess I'll ask.

Also, I have crushes on other people sometimes, too, it's not just him. Of course we have all the other stuff going on that makes it a marriage and a crush. Shared living space, shared fluids, shared medical info, kisses and hugs (yay! see what I mean about the crush? I get excited and happy just to type that), in-laws, shared money, kisses...got distracted by the kisses, but, um, other stuff too.

I just asked him, he said he thought I was so cute at the gym today and that in fact he does have a crush on me. He might be lying, you never know. Lying is also a good marriage skill that might be as important as being "in love". I know sometimes I've had to lie and act like I like him more than I do. The feeling does come and go, so I guess that calling a marriage a counterweight (as above) is a great way to put it.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 9:03 PM on April 2, 2010 [9 favorites]


(also there has been research that shows rather definitively that limerance/"passion" does last for some couples, it is in Gottman's book as well as other studies that I can't come up with right now...however, for most people it will indeed fade).
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 9:05 PM on April 2, 2010


I"m not at all sure what the difference is supposed to be between "love" for a partner and being "in love". I think my relationship is very like the one you described. After 28 years, I would say that our shared experience and the constancy of my partner in my life have deepened my love. We not the fizzing, romantic type but he completes me and I appreciate my good fortune in having him as a partner as we have travelled through the ups and down of life.

By the way, if you want up the sexual part, David Schnarch writes about developing the kind of relationship that can support experimentation and fun in the bedroom. It's not techniques, it is about having the kind of relationship that gives the communication and trust that are the foundation for hot, mature sex. The one that I read is called Passionate Marriage: Keeping Love and Intimacy Alive in Committed Relationship. There is a new one called Intimacy & Desire: Awaken the Passion in Your Relationship that might be good too.
posted by metahawk at 9:10 PM on April 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


What's the difference between loving someone versus "being in love" versus limerence/new relationship energy?

Loving someone means you care for them deeply, but you see their flaws and they irritate you.

Being in love means you want to be with the person a lot, probably having sex.

Limerence is you're ok with sleeping in the wet spot. Might actually kinda of savor, you naughtly freak.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:12 AM on April 3, 2010


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