I couldn't help cringing yesterday when I heard a marriage therapist comment on Good Morning America about the state of South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford's marriage. "I see this all the time," marriage therapist Terry Real said on the broadcast. "The big secret . . . 'I'm not in love with my wife.' Not being in love with your spouse is part of marriage. It doesn't mean you're in a bad marriage . . . It's perfectly normal not to be in love."
Can a marriage truly work if a couple isn't in love? I pose that question to Helen Fisher, a relationship researcher at Rutgers University and author of Why We Love, and she responds with an interesting statistic: More than 80 percent of men and women say they wouldn't marry a person they weren't in love with—even if they were compatible in all other ways. What's more, it's certainly possible to be deeply in love after decades of marriage. Fisher and her colleagues recently demonstrated through brain imaging that a group of happily married individuals (wedded for an average of 21 years) have activation in the same areas of their brains, when thinking of their spouses, as those who are newly in love.
This brain region, called the ventral tegmental area, produces the brain chemical dopamine, a powerful stimulant that triggers feelings of euphoria and ecstasy. Those in the early stage of love also have lower activity in the cortical areas of the brain, says Fisher, the ones responsible for decision making. That could explain Sanford's rash oh-so-secret trip to Argentina and his rambling confessions revealing that he had numerous flirtations with other women and that his Argentine paramour was his "soul mate."
Yet he also eagerly promised to try to "fall back in love" with his wife of 20 years. But that may not be possible if he's already in love with someone else. "That dopamine surge causes focused attention," says Fisher. "The brain only lets you concentrate on one person at a time." If you think you're in love with two people, she adds, you're probably not in love with either one of them.
Sanford is most likely a little off-kilter from being love struck. "In that stage, it's very difficult to control. It's a drive like hunger, thirst, and ambition," says Fisher. "You can't turn the system off like a spigot." Unfortunately, breaking off the love affair probably won't strengthen Sanford's marriage. "There's a term called frustration attraction; when you're not with a person, you like them even more," she says. "The other woman may be camped out in his head."
Fisher says it often takes a few years to get over someone you love, and, even then, you never quite forget that person. While couples can still feel emotionally attached when a partner is in love with someone else, that attachment may not be enough to make a marriage work. At this point, she says, Sanford and his wife need to have a heart-to-heart to decide what they want out of their relationship. Certainly, their four young sons will factor in the discussion, but Fisher says, ultimately, the wife needs to decide: "Is she willing to live with a man who loves another woman? It's very difficult to build an intimate relationship when a partner's head is somewhere else."