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How Long Does It Last?

( Originally Published 1957 )

The familiar words "falling in love" suggest a rather sudden emotional change. Is the process typically sudden, and how do its "time phases" compare with those of the sexual impulse?

This is not the kind of behavior of which measurements have been made. Most of our "knowledge" here is an accumulation of scattered observations and experiences. It seems safe enough to say that while the excitement of genital desire, like that of fear or anger, may be quickly induced, amorous emotion, typically, must first germinate and mature. Stendhal, long ago, listed a series of stages through which, he believed, sexual love develops. Genital desire is an "appetite" which, in man, for example, and despite variations in vigor, appears to be fairly readily excitable much of the time. Amorous feeling, called by some a "sentiment," is an emotion which grows little by little during a period of contacts. The former is more like a mechanism in readiness, awaiting its stimulus; the latter must begin, like a new interest, relatively weak at first, gradually expanding in scope and increasing in strength. Only "attraction" can occur "at first sight"; genuine attachment, expressing a fully matured emotion, must have time. An immediate fixation would be, Brittain thinks, "psychologically as impossible as maturity at birth, or education `while you wait'."

In their end phases, similarly, sexual impulse and amorous emotion differ. The impulse is "extinguished in an act; there is a tension, a spasm, and a release." Amorous decline, in its "natural history" and apart from extraordinary incidents, is progressive in course. Ordinarily it does not revert, like the genital urge, in an instant from utmost intensity to zero. Finck who stressed the distinction between amorous ("romantic") and marital love, saw the change from one to the other as a gradual one, comparable "to a modulation in music, in which some of the tones in a chord are retained while others are displaced by new ones." (26) That the two desires may even function in reverse phase is suggested by Symonds, who writes: "Sensual pleasure be-comes extinguished when satisfied, whereas love continues unabated, indeed, is enhanced the more satisfaction a person derives from another."

Estimates of the life span of the amorous state range from weeks to years, but with the frequent assertion that durations of several years are a rarity. "People may love each other for years, even decades," writes Jessie Bernard, but "they can re-main `in love' only for a matter of months, rarely of years." (4) Another observer has expressed what is probably a typical view: "... all of us who have passed through the first three or four decades of life must have found by personal experience, first of all, that `being in love' is the most exalted of human experiences; secondly, that this period of exaltation is limited in time lasting, it may be, but for a few weeks, it may be for a few months, but rarely extending into years. Loving is one thing; `being in love' is another." " (52) The doctrine of the brevity of amorous emotion is neither modern nor confined to the western world. The Greeks, according to Sumner, "conceived of it as a madness by which a person was afflicted through the caprice or malevolence of some god or goddess. Such a passion is necessarily evanescent. The ancient peoples in general, and the Semites in particular, did not think this passion an honorable or trustworthy basis of marriage." (58) Again: "In India gandharva marriage is one of the not-honorable forms. It is love marriage. It rests on passion and is considered sensual; moreover, it is due to a transitory emotion."

The study made by Dr. Albert Ellis of the amorous experiences of college students gives information on how long these attachments lasted. Concerning "infatuations," three out of four of the students reported that the experience lasted less than a year, while a little less than half indicated that they usually remained "in love" less than a year; one in four, that the experience endured a year or more. On the other hand, when asked about the length of attachment to the "most-loved male," only one in four of the students reported loves lasting less than a year, while 70 per cent stated that this attachment lasted a year or more. There was evidence that the "greatest" attachments were considerably longer than the "usual" ones. Only 3 per cent of the students were, at the time of the study, married to the "most-loved male." The distinction between a "love affair" and an "infatuation" is of high importance for later discussion. The difference is real we believe and its meaning is essential to an understanding of amorous emotion.

Despite the meagerness of exact information in this region of emotional life the view seems established that amorous and genital desires differ very markedly with respect to the time factor. There are other differences, too. The differences between these two kinds of sexual interest are, in fact, Dr. Reik thinks, "of such a decisive nature that it is very unlikely they could be ... of the same origin and character."

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