Sunday 25 July 1999
True love is all over in 30 monthsby John Harlow
Social Affairs Editor
The Sunday Times
Forget the traditional Valentine card message - love is not for ever. In fact, for most people, it lasts no more than 30 months.
After that, according to one of the world's top researchers into the nature of romance, couples face the stark choice of breaking up or muddling along out of habit.
The conclusions of Professor Cindy Hazan of Cornell University, New York, based on 5,000 interviews across 37 cultures and medical tests on couples, challenge the romantic ideal, suggesting instead that men and women are biologically and mentally predisposed to be "in love" for only 18-30 months. That is just long enough for a couple to meet, mate and produce a child. After that, there is no evolutionary need for the beating heart and sweaty palms associated with the high point of passion.
"There is mounting evidence that what we call love is created by a chemical cocktail in the brain triggered through social conditioning," says Hazan.
The chemicals, which are registered together only during the initial stages of courtship, are dopamine, phenylethylamine and oxytocin. But even the most ardent lovers develop a tolerance to the effects of these chemicals "like a drunk grows immune to a single glass of alcohol", says Hazan. "The effect wears off, returning people to a relatively relaxed state of mind within two years.
"By that time, couples have either parted or decided that they are easy enough with each other to stay together. Love becomes a habit, especially if children are in the frame. But those chemicals rarely return again in the relationship, even if further children are required. That is it for true love."
People who are addicted to the chemicals become serial romantics, she says, such as Henry VIII. "They are genuinely in love, or at least the chemicals make them think they are - which amounts to the same thing."
The Cornell study indicates that most men fall in love more quickly and easily than women, and most relationships are terminated by women. This may indicate that women get less hooked on the cocktail of love.
Hazan's study will upset many dewy-eyed romantics. Most people learn to fall in love because they feel the other person is in love with them.
She says: "Thanks to the intensity and tunnel vision of romantic infatuation, we enjoy the illusion that we choose our mate. The reality is known to zookeepers - the most certain way to get members of any species to mate is to house them in the same cage."
The findings in the Cornell study, conducted over the past two years, are supported by Dorothy Rowe, a leading clinical pyschologist.
"Love is a kind of psychosis which you develop when there is space to fill in your life - such as in teenage years," she says. "After three years you may not love the person, but you may like them and that can be more important in the long run," she says.
People can be shocked by how quickly they fall out of love. Gwyneth Paltrow, star of the romantic comedies Sliding Doors and Shakespeare In Love, recently revealed why she left Brad Pitt after nearly three years together. "I was sure Brad was the love of my life and then suddenly one day I did not feel the same. Nothing happened, but doubt set in. I told myself it was better to have enjoyed the relationship while it lasted rather than try to stretch it out and become really unhappy," she said.
Claire Fisher, 35, a nurse from Cheltenham, felt the same way. She says of her own love affair: "He was like Gregory Peck and I was a crazy bundle of hormones. We moved into an idyllic old cottage with roses around the door, but suddenly it went wrong. I asked him if I died and I went to heaven, would he be with me, and he said no. And that was it. The bubble burst and I left. It started like a romantic film and ended up like a nightmare."
Yet there are those who get through the 30-month barrier. Jean Wormall, 73, has been married for 54 years. She met Bill when he was on leave during the second world war, and they had a child within a year. She said: "It's good for couples to have a year or two together to see if it will really work before having a family. But do not think you can regain that first flush of love. You have to find another word for what keeps you going."
Others find their own formula for overcoming the three-year ennui. Jerry Hall, former lover of Mick Jagger, had her own rule: "To keep a man you have to be a maid in the living room, a cook in the kitchen and a whore in the bedroom." Yet it seems even a Texan beauty cannot fight the lure of a chemical cocktail for ever.
Additional reporting: Lynn Eaton and Sarah Toyne
Copyright 1999, Times Newspapers Ltd.