Romantic love has been described as ‘a human universal, or near universal’ and is associated with intense emotional experiences such as increased energy, euphoria, obsessive thinking about the loved one, feelings of dependency and craving. When people are ‘in love’ they may feel as if they have uncovered the meaning of life. People often report feeling complete and that their life feels whole. Bronte superbly captured the experience in Wuthering Heights: ‘‘I am Heathcliff – he’s always, always in my mind – not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself – but, as my own being.” The arts continue to be consumed by efforts to describe and understand romantic love. The book by Gabriel García Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera, is but one example of a story illustrating the power of enduring love, where a couple fall in love in their youth, go their separate ways during midlife and return to one another’s arms in their old age.
From the perspective of psychological science, good quality relationships of all kinds, including quality romantic relationships, have a profound impact on physical health and psychological well-being. However, the quality of romantic relationships is important, and potentially fragile, and the questions have to be asked, What makes a romantic relationship last?, and How does love change across the lifespan?
Previous research by Tucker and Aaron (1993) suggests that marital satisfaction is typically reported as highest in new marriages, lowering during midlife and improving later in life. The peaks and troughs of relationship satisfaction map onto different life stages. For example, midlife is considered a particularly stressful period for couples due to commitments such as work, child care, financial stresses and caring for older relatives. However, older adulthood is not without its challenges, with older adults facing transitions such as retirement, an empty nest and potential declines in health status.
Recent research completed by one of my doctoral students, Kate Burke, aimed to identify and examine relations between elements of romantic relationship success as described by younger and older adults using a collective intelligence methodology. The results were fascinating. The top-five most highly rated elements of successful romantic relationships for the older adults were Honesty, Communication, Companionship, Respect, and Positive Attitude, whereas as the top-five most highly rated elements of romantic relationship success for younger adults were Love, Communication, Trust, Attraction and Compatibility.
Notably, honesty was the most fundamental element of relationship success in the collective intelligence structural model developed by the older adult group. Honesty was not identified as an element of relationship success by the younger adult group. Older adults defined Honesty as being ‘able to confide in one another in a truthful way’. Honesty is an interesting concept as it involves self disclosure and risks putting an individual in a vulnerable position, and yet the ability to disclose honestly in a mindful, trusting and sensitive fashion can facilitate a deeper level of intimacy in the relationship. Furthermore, research has suggested that self acceptance increases with age and that with age, people have a stronger sense of their true self and less of a discrepancy between ‘real’ and ‘ideal’ selves. It is possible that the older adult group in Kate’s study were able to draw on their broad experience and have come to recognise honesty as critical to the long-term success of romantic relationships. In contrast, younger participants valued Trust and Communication as fundamental drivers of relationship success. Younger adults defined trust as being ‘able to rely on and be supportive of one another’ and ‘to be faithful to one another’.