“I believe in passion. Nothing else. Two years, no more. All right then: three.”
So said novelist and playwright Francoise Sagan (Françoise Quoirez) when asked about her belief in love. This from a woman who admitted also to having “loved to the point of madness.” Her words exemplify the concept L’amour dure trois ans (love lasts three years), also the title of a novel by French writer and critic Frédéric Beigbeder. Well then, the notion that romantic (or at least sexual) passion has a predictable shelf-life is popular in France.
Of course, we know this is not a hypothesis unique to the country that boasts the world’s most romantic capital city. The chronological limit of early infatuation in sexual relationships is a widespread and observable one. And the idea is supported by research. Anthropologists suggest the ‘two year limit’ is a universal constant, found in all societies.
About ten years ago, a study at the University of Pisa* appeared to find a chemical basis for this, concluding the physical chemistry that makes us sexually attractive to new partners lasts, at a maximum, around two years. In the earliest throes of passion, reduced concentrations of serotonin showed up in the blood of the study’s infatuated subjects. Low serotonin levels are also related to obsessive behaviours, which would presumably account for comparisons of love to a form of “madness”. This is evidently just one example of the ways chemicals can act to produce the ‘in love’ or infatuated state. However, after a typical time period, the chemical levels of the sweethearts returned to normal.
The fact this state is not permanent is not all bad news, we’re told. These ‘fixation’ chemicals may be replaced by other, stabilised hormones, potentially bonding people into long-lasting unions.
Nevertheless, it is no wonder so many readers seek out romantic novels (today’s best-selling fiction genre), or erotica, or a confluence of these two. In real life, most of us enjoy periods of crazy, lustful romance between none and a greedy handful of times . After it passes, what remains is the sagely nodding, ‘grown-up’ advice that we must work at our relationships, work to keep sex alive over the years, like tireless gardeners.
Which is all very well but… such pragmatism surely cannot match the idealistic allure of escapism. On the pages of a book, love and lust are eternally alive, the hero always hot and ready, and the climax of each happy ending preserved in ink, for ever after. That truly is escape from reality.
*Source: Gross, M. Cupid’s Chemistry, 2006. https://www.chemistryworld.com/feature/cupids-chemistry/3004560.article, retrieved 12 January 2018.