When friends of mine are in a relationship they see long-term potential with, they often come to me, their sex and relationship researcher friend, and ask questions about “how do you know?” or “how long is long enough before we take the plunge?” This question also often comes up from students during lectures on intimate relationships.
My answer is always two years plus or minus six months. This isn’t just a random number I made up. It is based on some pretty solid research.
First, I need to give you a little bit of a background on the research literature of love and attachment.
Love has been conceptualized as either passionate or companionate by researchers Hatfield and Walster.
- Passionate Love: Characterized by an intense emotional state where one longs for union with their partner. This tends to be accompanied by strong sexual desire between partners.
- Companionate Love: Characterized by an intense state of connectedness, trust, and reciprocal respect for a partner. Strong sexual desire tends to be replaced with increased intimacy.
As one might expect, passionate love usually occurs in the early stages of a relationship or the time that is often referred to as the “honeymoon period”. Companionate love usually develops over time in the later stages of the relationship.
Research by Tennov found that the transition between passionate to companionate love typically occurs within two years plus or minus six months (ah, the magic number surfaces!).
Passionate love early on in a relationship may involve obsessive components such as high engagement with the partner, increased sexual activity, and even perceiving a partner as central to one’s life. Research by Acevedo and Aron has shown that although the obsessive elements decrease over time, there is potential for some of the romantic elements such as strong sexual desire to be maintained in long-term relationships.
It is my belief that those couples who successfully maintain the romantic elements from passionate love in the companionate stages are the couples who have the potential to be truly happy and satisfied in a very long-term relationship. And you won’t know how well your relationship functions in the companionate stage of love until you get there.
The field of research on attachment is really massive, and this post is no place to summarize everything there is to know. However, with regard to the two years plus or minus six months rule I tell my friends and students, attachment theory also plays a role. Research by Winston has found that attachment bonds take from one and a half to three years to form from the time the relationship was initiated, again, bringing us back to this two years plus or minus six months guideline.
Now, it is important to note that the two year plus or minus six month rule is only a guideline. Certainly there are successful couples out there that were only together a couple of months before getting married that have happily stayed together for many years. There are also couples out there that dated for many years before deciding to get married only to find a divorce right around the corner.
Life is interesting like that.
But if you are looking for some sort of assurance from science, I think the two year plus or minus six month rule is a pretty good guideline.