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Long Term Love

Fromm wrote, "Love is the most satisfactory solution to the problem of existence." In his opinion, love solved the basic human problem of existential loneliness with the fewest drawbacks and deepest satisfactions.

A love relationship allows one to respond with care and commitment to something outside the ego. Unlike solitary acts of creativity, it satisfies the need to relate to another human being. It can be long lasting, unlike an orgiastic states. It can be fresh and authentic, unlike conformity.

To Fromm, a mature love is one that emphasizes giving rather than getting. However, Fromm was not referring to agape as Lee defined it in Colors of Love.

Recall that agape was represented on Hendrick and Hendrick's (1986) Love Attitude Scale by statements like, "I would rather suffer myself than let my partner suffer" and "I cannot be happy unless I place my partner's happi­ness before my own."

Fromm's version of "giving" was more like an act of vitality, an expression of life energy, the way athletes, musicians, and actors give to an audience while performing. They do not regard it as a painful sacrifice; it makes them feel strong and capable.

How did Fromm define mature love?

If an audience responds to what an artist or athlete is giving by showing their appreciation and enthusiasm, it inspires the performer to greater heights. Similarly, love given to a partner who reciprocates love is felt as an expression of life, not as a painful sacrifice.

Love as Unfailing Response

A teacher of mine (Paul Wagner) defined love as unfailing response. This was not intended as an airtight, logical definition, and it is not. But it is an interesting way to expand on Fromm's idea of love as existential affirmation.

To respond unfailingly to something is to find yourself moved by each encounter with it. When something moves you, you break through the barrier between the ego and the outside world. This overcomes existential loneliness.

What was Paul Wagner's definition of love? To what sorts of situations might it be relevant?

Unfailing response can occur with pets. A dog or cat can love you for sure, but even a hamster can show unfailing response.

Unfailing response also occurs with friends. Remember the definition of an ideal friend was a dependable friend, steadfast and true. Love for a friend is shown by always responding, even if you do not love that person in a romantic way.

You can even love scenery or a special place. A student wrote:

During the week we talked about love, you gave us a definition of love as being an unfailing response to something. For years I've been saying I love the lake where my family lives, and when you gave that definition, I knew exactly what you meant.

When I think of the lake I automatic­ally think of peace and beauty. Then I begin to picture the rolling mountains and the color of the water and the smells in the air. What I miss most since coming to college are the weekends I would normally be spending at the lake.

It's very relaxing and no one has to worry about a thing. Now when I say I love the lake, I'll know I truly love it, by one definition of the term. [Author's files]

Finding Romance

How do you find someone if you are lonely and have no romantic relationship? Neediness or an apparent eagerness to enter into a relationship can backfire; it is a big "turn-off" to many people, so it may perpetuate the problem.

Trying to force a commitment from another who is not interested in a commitment usually ends the relation­ship. This is a fine example of psychological reactance, an automatic push-back against restrictions on one's freedom.

When somebody pushes for a commit­ment before you are ready, it is a major encroachment on your personal freedom. So you are likely to resist. Only when you freely choose commitment does it seem desirable.

What problem is faced by "needy" people?

Sex between friends often acts like implicit pressure for commitment, even if it is not intended that way by either party. Sex functions as a powerful symbolic as-if commit­ment that may bring a relationship quickly to an all-or-none decision point.

One or both individuals may pull back from a friendship that existed earlier. A student wrote an essay about an example of this:

How can sex ruin a friendship?

My roommate just ruined a perfectly good friendship she had. She and this guy were such good friends, but two nights ago they went to bed. Now they will not face each other or talk to each other. She hates him now. A one-night stand has ruined their friendship. [Author's files]

What strategy does Dr. Peplau advise, for those who seek a love relationship?

Experts suggest that rather than pushing for commitment, the best strategy is to proceed slowly. The best love relation­ships tend to grow out of friendships. In discussing remedies for a supposed "national epidemic of loneliness," Dr. Peplau of UCLA recommended concentrating on friendships:

Those who have no intimate relationship should stop their frantic search for the perfect love and instead focus on making friends.... Friendship should be the first goal. A love relationship is more likely to happen when you're not looking for it. (Brody, 1983)

Concentrating on friendship rather than pushing for a romantic commitment has two advantages. First, it reduces the problem of appearing desperate or needy. Second, it lays the foundation for a good relationship, because friendship is critically important to a long-term love relationship, if one occurs.

A young blogger was skeptical of the be-friends-first advice. "I know within 45 seconds if there is any chance I would end up in bed with a person," she wrote.

However, Peplau may have assumed any prospective romantic partner already clears that hurdle. Nobody would disagree that romantic love requires, as Fromm put it, "certain specific, highly individual elements which exist between some people but not between all."

If there is enough attraction to allow passion, as determined in the first 45 seconds, then perhaps the next question is whether there is a basis for a lasting friendship. Successful couples work at their relationship, not in the negative sense of doing hard labor, but in a positive sense of sharing an important goal in life.

They devote time, energy, and thought to a major, long-term project that benefits them both. It might take some time to figure out if a person is willing to do that (and not just talk about it).

Successful Long-Term Relationships

The great novelist Tolstoy wrote, in the famous opening line of Anna Karenina, "Happy families are all alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

Dr. Nicholas Stinette of Oklahoma State University set out to determine the ways in which happy families are alike. He studied 100 families in which both the marriage and the parent-child relation­ships seemed unusually good. Happy families shared the following qualities:

1. The members frequently and spontaneously showed appreciation of each other.

2. They communicated easily and well, facing conflicts openly and trying to solve them–not just settling for the dubious advantage of being the person in the "right."

3. They had a high degree of spiritual unity and shared common values and goals.

4. They did a lot of things together (Mace, 1977).

What were qualities shared by happy families?

Lauer and Lauer (1985) surveyed 351 couples who had been together 15 years or more. Of this group, 300 said they were happily married, 19 were unhappily married but staying together for other reasons, and in 32 cases one member was happy and the other unhappy. The 300 happy couples consistently stressed several themes:

1. The spouse was viewed as a best friend, a person who would be chosen as a friend if he or she were not a marriage partner.

2. The couples were committed to the institution of marriage and willing to work hard at maintaining it. They endorsed statements like "Marriage is a long-time commitment" and "Marriage is sacred."

3. There was great agreement and compatibility on major areas of concern, such as philosophy of life, sex life, how often to show affection, and goals of the relationship.

What are common qualities of happy marriages?

4. There was a willingness to seek out complexities in the spouse. Many respondents said, "My spouse has grown more interesting." Others said, "I confide in my spouse" and "We laugh together" and "We have a stimulating exchange of ideas."

Exploring the Depths

One study followed 200 college-age couples over a two-year period (Hill, Rubin, & Peplau, 1976). All the couples were dating steadily and said they were in love at the beginning of the study.

After two years, 45% were no longer together. The leading cause of break-ups, according to both males and females, was becoming bored with the relationship. This was cited as a factor by 77% of those who broke up.

What factor was cited by 77% of people who broke up? How can couples avoid becoming bored with each other?

Many students know from personal experience that romantic interest can turn into boredom. Some students ask a penetrating question. How do you avoid getting bored? Isn't it inevitable?

Here the research data is actually encouraging. Boredom is not an inevitable outcome of a long relationship.

For example, Lauer and Lauer (1985) found that many of their 300 happily married couples were more interested in their spouses after a 15-year period. They interacted in complex ways. They felt that they shared humor, philosophy, life goals, and stimulating ideas.

Perhaps this is the secret. One avoids boredom by cultivating complexity and depth in a relationship.

Psychologist Robert J. Sternberg presented his "triangular theory of love" in 1986. He declared that good love required passion, intimacy, and commitment (Sternberg, 1986). Exploring the depths is related to the factor called intimacy by Sternberg.

The hedgehog theory of Edward L. Walker, discussed in Chapter 9 (Motivation), is also relevant here. Walker pointed out that people prefer stimuli of moderate complexity, neither chaotic nor simple but moderately challenging. This applies to relation­ships as well.

A chaotic, unpredictable relationship is aversive. So is a boring, predictable, un-stimulating relationship.

Fortunately, humans are inherently deep. By opening up to each other and exploring these depths, a couple can add complexity to their relationship.

Happily married couples do not spend all their free time in rapt fascination with each other's conversation. However, they communicate well about the things that matter most, enjoy each other's company, share basic values, and tolerate each other's eccentricities.

Sex in Marriage

Sexual frequency typically declines after the initial years of a marriage. In one study in the United States, the average number of sexual outlets during marriage dropped from a median of 17.5 times during the first month to 8.5/month a year later (James, 1981).

In another study, those married 1 year averaged 15 sex acts per month, or once every other day. Those married 6 years averaged about 6 per month, or once every five days (Greenblat, 1983).

How does frequency of sex fall in a "typical" marriage?

A good sex life in middle adulthood can, and usually does, continue into old age. Starr and Weiner (1981) interviewed 800 elderly adults and found that 8 of ten were still sexually active. A survey in 2007 found the same pattern.

Those who were not sexually active usually lacked a partner. Most people had the same pattern of sexual behavior in their 70s as they did in their 40s (Lindau et al., 2007).

What is the biggest sex problem in many marriages?

Women sometimes report a drop in sexual desire after menopause. The absence of naturally occurring estrogen is correlated with a drop in sexual desire. But this does not always occur, and many couples report satisfying sexual activity in old age.

With sex, as with any complex skill, one must "use it or lose it." After decades of abstinence, it may be difficult for an older woman or an older man to desire or perform sex.

For those with an ongoing relationship, the past predicts the future. Satisfying sex life is possible into old age, and it makes a difference. A survey of research by Jackson (2010) showed, "Frequency of sexual activity does indeed positively affect general happiness and marital happiness among older Americans."

The Four Horsemen

Researcher John Gottman of the University of Washington made a career of studying marital interactions. He claimed to be able to predict with 95% accuracy which couples would eventually divorce.

After an gathering data from thousands of couples over 13 years, Gottman's research team studied 130 newlyweds intensively over a six-year period. The couples were invited to Gottman's laboratory, where they were hooked to instruments measuring heart rate, sweating, and muscle tension.

The couples were recorded with a video camera while they had a conversation about a disagreement. In a frame-by-frame analysis, their facial expressions, movements, and comments were analyzed.

What sort of research did Gottman do? What were Gottman's "Four Horsemen"?

After correlating the data with marriage outcomes, Gottman found four factors that predicted divorce. He called these the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse for marriage. They were:

1) criticism (telling the other person his or her faults)

2) defensiveness (reacting to certain subjects by denying responsibility, or refusing to discuss an issue the spouse regards as important)

3) contempt (making sarcastic or cutting remarks about the other person)

4) withdrawal (also called "stonewalling": showing no reaction, having a blank look, or ceasing to care)

Perhaps the most "corrosive" of the four, according to Gottman, is contempt, which he said should be "banned from marriages."

Later analysis of his data provided a surprise for Gottman. While the Four Horsemen remained important, he and fellow researchers found one factor that was the best predictor of all.

This was a positive predictor, one that predicted long-term success rather than failure in marriage. Marriages are likely to thrive when the man was willing to be influenced by his wife (Gottman, Coan, Carrere, and Swanson, 1998).

What did Gottman find to be the best predictor of long-term marital success?

Why would the factor of being willing to listen to your wife be so highly predictive? Here it is tempting to fall into the trap of imposing a cause-effect interpretation on a correlation. But that would be a mistake, because this is not random-assignment research.

Gottman did not tell one randomly chosen group of men to respect their wives' opinions, while another randomly chosen group served as a control. The groups are self-selected, so any variable that correlates with the decision to be "influenced by the wife" could be the real cause of a more durable marriage.

These correlated factors could include higher income, more education, better social intelligence, more inclination to cooperate rather than compete, or a more satisfying approach to sexuality. Any of these variables, or any combina­tion of them, or any other variables that correlate with respect for wives, could be the real explanation for longer marriages.

Whatever the underlying reasons, the predictive information is useful and interesting. If Gottman is correct, measuring a male's willingness to take advice or be influenced by his wife provides the most accurate way to make a forecast about long-term prospects for success in a marriage.


Brody, J. E. (1983, April 6) Personal health. New York Times, p.20. Retrieved from:

Gottman, J. M., Coan, J., Carrere, S., & Swanson, C. (1998). Journal of Marriage and Family, 60, 5-22. doi:10.2307/353438

Greenblat, C. S. (1983). The salience of sexuality in the early years of marriage. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 45, 289-299.

Hill, C. T., Rubin, Z., & Peplau, L.A. (1976) Breakups before marriage: The end of 103 affairs. Journal of Social Issues, 32, 147-168.

Jackson, A. (2010) Sex and older Americans: Exploring the relationship between sexual activity and happiness. University of North Texas PhD Dissertation. Retrieved from:

James, W. H. (1981). The honeymoon effect on marital coitus. Journal of Sex Research, 17, 114-123.

Lauer, R. & Lauer, J. (1985, June) Marriages made to last. Psychology Today, pp. 22-26.

Lindau, S. T., Schumm, L. P., Laumann, E. O., Levinson, W., O'Muircheartaigh, C. A., & Waite, L. J. (2007) A study of sexuality and health among older adults in the United States. New England Journal of Medicine, 357, 762-774. doi:10.1056/NEJMoa067423

Mace, D. R. (1977, September). Making marriage work. Parents, p.16.

Peele, S., & Brodsky, A. (1976). Love and Addiction. New York: Basic Books.

Starr, B., & Weiner, M. (1981). The Starr-Weiner Report on Sex and Sexuality in the Later Years. New York: Stein and Day.

Sternberg, R. J. (1986) A triangular theory of love. Psychological Review, 93, 119-135.

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