- - Wednesday, August 15, 2012

What is the secret to lifelong marital bliss?

This question lies at the center of “Hope Springs.” The new film stars Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones as Kay and Arnold, a couple that has been married for more than 30 years, and yet are romantically estranged from one another. They sleep in separate beds. They celebrate their anniversaries with purchases of household appliances and cable subscriptions. They haven’t intimately touched each other for years.

“I feel like I’m married to ESPN,” Kay complains. “I want a real marriage.”

So off they go to couple’s therapy, hoping to rekindle the spark of the love that went “poof” after they had kids. There, the earnest marriage counselor Dr. Feld, played straight by Steve Carrell, encourages the couple to engage in a series of “sexercises” that are supposed to heat up their romantic life — and they do.

“Does it feel good?” asks Kay, stroking her clothed husband on the bed.

“Feels like you’re petting the dog,” says Arnold.

“Hope Springs” happens to be a charming and beautifully acted film. But is its implicit marital ideal of unceasing romantic love and sexual attraction realistic?

Our popular culture is infatuated with the ideal of passionate love, whose origins lie in the courtly traditions of the 12th-century French troubadours. We think passionate love is the basis of long-term relationships and that idea, therefore, often guides our marital decisions.

“The message we get over and over again is that strong sexual passion is love and that it’s critical for long-term commitment,” says psychologist Robert Epstein, the former editor of Psychology Today and a specialist on love and marriage.

This message has given rise to what psychologist Jonathan Haidt calls “the myth of ‘true’ love” in his 2006 book “The Happiness Hypothesis.”

“True love is passionate love that never fades; if you are in true love, you should marry that person; if love ends, you should leave that person because it was not true love; and if you can find the right person, you will have true love forever,” he writes.

The “love myth” reared its head in Elle magazine, when a reader who was “caught in a love spell” wrote in for some advice. She was cheating on her fiance with a man that she just couldn’t “stop having sex with.” Elle’s advice columnist wrote back: “Halt! You are marrying the wrong man.” The right relationship to pursue is the one full of fiery passion: “Marry the man your DNA is shouting for you to marry, and your chances for happiness are damn good.”

This type of advice, based on the Hollywood model of love, sets us up to fail because “there is no such thing as passionate love,” says Mr. Epstein.

“Media messages just confuse sex and love,” he says.

Passion is evolution’s siren call – an irresistible and dangerous force, which couples should approach with caution, Mr. Epstein argues. It’s nature’s way of ensuring that the necessary work of reproduction gets done.

But the wild emotions of passion have an intoxicating effect on the brain. Mr. Haidt compares passion to an addictive drug. It impedes our ability to think and act clearly. Like cocaine, its symptoms include giddiness and euphoria. And, following the high, there is the inevitable feeling of disappointment and withdrawal: The passionate stage of a relationship lasts only 18 to 24 months.

Once the passion fizzles out, many relationships end because a hiatus in passion is “taken to mean an end to the love,” explains historian Stephanie Coontz, author of “Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage.”

Couples should look instead to companionate love as the source of true marital happiness, Ms. Coontz advises. “Marriages founded on passion are much less successful than ones founded on companionship, mutual respect, shared interests and real enjoyment of each other’s company,” she says.

John Gottman, a psychologist at the University of Washington in Seattle and a leading marriage scholar, confirms that friendship is the most important factor in keeping a marriage together. Scientifically studying the habits of hundreds of couples in his “love lab” over the years, Mr. Gottman found that the most successful ones spend five extra hours per week on their marriages. That doesn’t necessarily mean weekly candlelit dinners. It can be something as simple as holding hands while you recap your day at work.

“Romance is fueled by a far more humdrum approach to staying connected,” Mr. Gottman wrote in his 1999 book “The Seven Principles of Making Marriage Work.” “It is kept alive each time you let your spouse know he or she is valued during the grind of everyday life.”

“Our whole model of marriage is flawed,” Mr. Epstein declares, citing the high divorce rates in the U.S., where 50 percent of first marriages fail, 67 percent of second marriages fail, and 73 percent of third marriages fail. Rather than look west to Hollywood for a marital ideal, he proposes we look east to India.

In Eastern cultures, where conventional wisdom holds that “first comes marriage, then comes love,” arranged marriages rely on compatibility to work, and often serve as a bulwark against the vagaries of passion.

“There is another model for us,” says Mr. Epstein. “It’s not to practice arranged marriages, but it’s to learn from them.”

In a study published by a peer-reviewed journal of psychology in 2008, marriage researchers Jayamala Madathil and James M. Benshoff studied Indian couples living in the United States and found — brace yourselves — that those in arranged marriages were substantially more satisfied with their relationships than those in “choice” marriages.

A 1982 study published in India by psychologists Usha Gupta and Pushpa Singh goes further. When the researchers looked at the love in arranged marriages, they determined that the love started out very low and then increased over time. In love marriages, by contrast, the love started out very high and decreased over time. By the five-year point, the love in arranged marriages surpassed the love in love marriages. Ten years into the marriage, the love in arranged marriages was twice as strong as the love in love marriages — a shocking reality for Americans, who have an expectation that freedom in all matters, especially in love, will make them happier.

Mr. Epstein mentions a Pakistani woman he interviewed who was in an arranged marriage. When he asked her to rate the intensity of her love on a scale of 1 to 10 on the day she was married, she said it was a 0. How in love was she now, he asked? An 11. She and her husband have been married for 45 years.

This isn’t to dismiss passion. Psychologist Arthur Aron at New York’s Stony Brook University is among those who stress that companionate love and passionate love aren’t mutually exclusive and that the most successful couples are those that share both. Mr. Aron and his colleague Bianca Acevedo studied the brains of people who claimed to be madly in love with their spouses after an average of two decades of marriage. They found that two areas of the brain were lit up — the area associated with dopamine activity (passion) and the area associated with pair bonding (friendship).

Even “a companionate marriage can founder if a couple doesn’t find some way to ignite such sexual attraction and keep it burning, even if it stays on the back burner for days at a time,” allows Ms. Coontz.