Most Couples Stop Being "In Love" After This Long, Experts Say
Here's how you can expect your own relationships to evolve.
If songs and movies are to be believed, there's nothing more important or satisfying than being "in love." However, experts say that the beginning stages, when you're head over heels for each other, may be shorter lived than you'd expect. In fact, studies show that after a relatively brief period, most relationships will either adapt or die, and that being aware of this common transition may actually make things less fraught. Read on to find out what studies have to say about this tantalizing and torturous time in a relationship—and to learn just how long you have before you're no longer "in love."
Most couples stop being "in love" after six months, says a recent study.
While we like to think of love as a matter of the heart, it's largely a matter of the brain. Falling in love may feel simple or intuitive, but those warm, fuzzy feelings are the product of more complex mechanisms: for instance, neurochemical and hormonal responses to social factors, genetic cues, and more.
According to Harvard researcher Katherine Wu, PhD, our hormones and brain chemistry are very much altered during the early bonding stages of a relationship, which can be roughly broken down into three categories—lust, attraction, and attachment. "Though there are overlaps and subtleties to each, each type is characterized by its own set of hormones," their experts explain. "Testosterone and estrogen drive lust; dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin create attraction; and oxytocin and vasopressin mediate attachment."
However, a 2021 study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology found that after six months, couples tend to grow out of the initial bonding stage and evolve into something else. "The early stages of romantic love characterized by stress may be distinct from a later period characterized by feelings of safety and calm," the researchers explain. "The ﬁrst stage, which is characterized by approximately the ﬁrst six months of a relationship, has been described as "being in love." It is marked by all the characteristics of romantic love, including, especially, romantic passion and intimacy. The second phase, which has been said to last from approximately six months to four years, has been referred to as 'passional love.' During this time passion is maintained but commitment and intimacy increase. Passional love gives way to companionate love, passion subsides, and commitment and intimacy reach their peaks," the study says.
Don't worry, there's still room for romance.
If this all sounds a bit concerning to the romantics in the room, there's some good news. The researchers say that not every relationship will follow the same trajectory. Many couples will extend their time spent in the first two phases. "In some individuals, romantic love can last many years, or even decades," the Frontiers study authors write. "In romantic relationships that last, romantic love serves to bond partners together by creating shared understandings, emotions, and habits characteristic of companionate love and long-term pair-bonds. The transition from romantic love to companionate love is gradual and both types of love share many characteristics."
And of course, a relationship in the "companionate love" stage can still have romantic features—especially if you're making an effort to keep those sparks flying.
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No longer being "in love" has its perks.
New love can be enormously rewarding, but many people also find the early period of a relationship to be one of heightened stress and uncertainty. "Love is often accompanied by jealousy, erratic behavior, and irrationality, along with a host of other less-than-positive emotions and moods. It seems that our friendly cohort of hormones is also responsible for the downsides of love," writes Wu.
Wu calls the rush of hormones associated with the early stages of love a "double-edged sword" which can cause us to make poor decisions, neglect our everyday commitments, or hurt others (for instance, if pursuing the relationships means committing adultery). She adds that our experience of early love is not dissimilar to various forms of addiction. "The same regions that light up when we're feeling attraction light up when drug addicts take cocaine and when we binge eat sweets," writes Wu. "Addicts going into withdrawal are not unlike love-struck people craving the company of someone they cannot see." In other words, settling into the later, steadier stages of love can come as a relief to many.
It also gives you time to assess your choice in a partner.
Following the intense bonding period of new love, many people experience a stage of disillusionment when those strong feelings begin to fade. However, experts say that this, too, can serve as an important function in helping build a lasting connection with your partner.
"Nature made (this phase) for a reason: when you lose the chemicals that give you the euphoria, you start to see reality," Fred Nour, MD, a neurologist and author of the book True Love: How to Use Science to Understand Love told Today. "This is a re-evaluation phase. If you feel that, overall, you made a pretty good choice… hang in there," he advises.
Rather than continually chasing the high of new love—which can form a pattern of repeated romances that quickly fizzle and end—experts say you're more likely to find lasting happiness by accepting that most relationships evolve with time. By doing so, you may find more to appreciate about your partnership and discover new ways to keep the romance alive.