Interestingly, some couples can manage to keep that first flush of love alive over years or even decades. Fisher and her colleagues recently demonstrated that happily married individuals (wedded for an average of 21 years) get that same activation of the ventral tegmental area just by thinking of their spouse and also have an activation in the brain's oxytocin-rich areas associated with long term romantic love. "Our study showed it's possible, though I doubt it's very common," admits Arthur Aron, the study co-author who is a professor of psychology at Stony Brook University.
There are ways to reignite the flame, though going out to your favorite restaurant for a Valentine's dinner is probably not one of them. "Research has shown that you both need to engage in something novel and challenging," to get your brain to produce that dopamine surge, Aron says. Thus, sharing a Cliff Bar on the banks of a river after rafting down white-water rapids could be the more romantic way to go. You can even tow along the kids, provided they're old enough to manage, say, the challenging mountain bike trail or ski slope. "Parents just need to remember to focus on each other during the activity and not just the kids if they want that romantic spark," Aron advises. Here are more novel activities to boost romance.
Such insights are influencing internet dating sites, as relationship researchers jump on board to work for them. Fisher, who serves as a scientific advisor for Chemisty.com, developed a questionnaire used to match people based on which chemical systems in their brain drive their personality. She claims in her new book, Why Him? Why Her?, that those who are novelty seeking and driven by dopamine, for example, do better with other novelty seekers, whereas those who are analytical and driven by testosterone are better suited for people who are empathetic and driven by estrogen. Gian Gonzaga, a senior research scientist at eHarmony.com who teaches psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, says the bulk of studies indicate that shared qualities are what drive people to form commitments to each other. "Having those common attitudes, interests, values, mutual understanding," he says, "is what makes people feel bonded. It's not just about sexual desire."