We all know the heartache of being apart from the one we love. But could that yearning to reunite actually be critical to forming an enduring bond? A groundbreaking new study suggests that how our brain reacts when we’re away from our partner may matter even more than how it lights up in their presence.1

The research, led by Dr. Zoe Donaldson at the University of Colorado Boulder, used innovative brain imaging techniques to track the neural activity of prairie voles, one of the few mammals that mate for life like humans do. By observing vole couples at various relationship stages, her team uncovered a unique cluster of cells in the brain’s reward center that consistently fired up when the rodents raced to rejoin their mate after a separation.1

Reunion longing beats “honeymoon phase” bliss

Surprisingly, the voles’ brains looked largely the same whether they were canoodling with their life partner or a random stranger. The distinctive neural signature only emerged when they were running back to their “person” after time apart.1

This suggests that our motivation to reunite may be even more important than the rush of feel-good chemicals we experience in the early infatuation stages of love. “In order to maintain relationships over time, there has to be some motivation to be with that person when you are away from them,” Donaldson explained. 1

Growing bonds light up the brain

The longer the voles had been a bonded pair, the stronger their drive to reunite became. After 20 days of cohabitation, a larger cluster of specialized cells fired up in the brain’s reward center as they scurried to reconnect compared to just a few days after first mating.1

So those pangs of longing to be back in our partner’s arms after a trip apart aren’t just a sign we miss them. They may actually be working to strengthen our connection over time.

When absence doesn’t make the heart grow fonder

However, the study also found that an entirely different group of brain cells activated when the voles approached an unknown peer versus their long-term mate.1 So if you’re finding yourself daydreaming more about hooking up with your attractive coworker than getting home to your partner after work, it could be a sign that something is off in your bond.

As humans, we’re hardwired to seek out close relationships for comfort, often through physical touch and quality time together.1,2 When a major piece of our bond is going unfulfilled, like during a period of long-distance or hectic schedules, we can start to feel disconnected and restless.2,3

Nourishing your bond from near or rar

The good news is there are ways to keep stoking your connection even if you can’t physically be together as much as you’d like:

  • Communicate regularly through texts, calls, or video chats3,4
  • Express your affection, appreciation, and longing to see them again3,4
  • Remind yourself what you love about your partner and why you chose them5
  • Plan special reunions and make the most of your time together4,6

Couples who go out of their way to make their partner feel loved and prioritized tend to have higher relationship satisfaction.5 At the end of the day, a little pining action might be exactly what your love life needs.

Reframing reunion yearning

“These negative feelings so many of us are experiencing right now may result from a mismatch: we have a neuronal signal telling us that being with loved ones will make us feel better, while practical restrictions mean this need is going unmet,” Donaldson added.1

The emotional ache of separation from our mate is real. But knowing it serves a purpose to make our bond stronger over time can help us reframe that longing as love in action.

So next time you’re missing your partner, let yourself fully feel that craving to be back in their arms again soon. Your brain is busy lighting up with loving anticipation that will keep your connection thriving for the long haul.


  1. Scribner, Jennifer & Vance, Eric & Protter, David & Sheeran, William & Saslow, Elliott & Cameron, Ryan & Klein, Eric & Jimenez, Jessica & Kheirbek, Mazen & Donaldson, Zoe. (2020). A neuronal signature for monogamous reunion. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 117. 201917287. 10.1073/pnas.1917287117.
  2. Debrot, A., Schoebi, D., Perrez, M., & Horn, A. B. (2013). Touch as an interpersonal emotion regulation process in couples’ daily lives: The mediating role of psychological intimacy. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39(10), 1373-1385. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167213497592
  3. Belus, J. M., Pentel, K. Z., Cohen, M. J., Fischer, M. S., & Baucom, D. H. (2019). Staying connected: An examination of relationship maintenance behaviors in long-distance relationships. Marriage & Family Review, 55(1), 78-98. https://doi.org/10.1080/01494929.2018.1458004
  4. Pistole, M. C., Roberts, A., & Chapman, M. L. (2010). Attachment, relationship maintenance, and stress in long distance and geographically close romantic relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 27(4), 535-552. https://doi.org/10.1177/0265407510363427
  5. Gordon, A. M., Impett, E. A., Kogan, A., Oveis, C., & Keltner, D. (2012). To have and to hold: Gratitude promotes relationship maintenance in intimate bonds. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 103(2), 257-274. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0028723
  6. Aron, A., Norman, C. C., Aron, E. N., McKenna, C., & Heyman, R. E. (2000). Couples’ shared participation in novel and arousing activities and experienced relationship quality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78(2), 273-284. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.78.2.273