What makes a happy marriage? Psychologists offer myriad suggestions, from active listening to arguing appropriately and avoiding contempt. But my brain-scanning partners and I have stumbled on what happens in the brain when you are in a long-term, happy partnership.
In research published in 2011 and 2012, we put seven American men and 10 American women (all in their 50s and 60s) into the brain scanner. Their average duration of marriage was 21.4 years; most had grown children; and all maintained that they were still madly in love with their spouse (not just loving but in love). All showed activity in several areas of the dopamine-rich reward system, including the ventral tegmental area and dorsal striatum—brain regions associated with feelings of intense romantic love. All also showed activity in several regions associated with feelings of attachment, as well as those linked with empathy and controlling your own stress and emotions.
These data show that you can remain in love with a partner for the long term.
More intriguing, we found reduced activity in a region of the cerebral cortex known as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which is associated with our human tendency to focus on the negative rather than the positive (among many other functions linked to social judgment). These brain functions may have evolved millions of years ago—perhaps primarily as an adaptive response to strangers who wandered into one’s neighborhood. Natural selection has long favored those who responded negatively to the one malevolent intruder, rather than positively to myriad friendly guests.
But reduced activity in this brain region suggests that our happily-in-love long-term partners were overlooking the negative to focus on the positive aspects of their marital relationships—something known to scientists as “positive illusions.” Looking at our brain-scanning results from other experiments, including long-term lovers in China, we found similar patterns. We humans are able to convince ourselves that the real is the ideal.
The neural roots of tolerance, mercy and pardon may live deep in the human psyche.