14Nov

What The Stones Teach Us About Lasting Love

Originally published in the October 20, 2013 issue of Psychology Today.

For half a century, the Rolling Stones have been pissing each other off. Not that this is unusual in a rock band—power trips and girlfriend stealing come with the territory. For the Stones, there’s been violence (Charlie Watts punched Mick Jagger for calling him “my drummer” ) and verbal slaps (Keith Richards and Watts referred to Jagger as “that bitch Brenda” in front of him). They regularly bedded each other’s lovers: Richards’ long-term partner, Anita Pallenberg, allegedly was afraid her second child was Mick’s (it wasn’t), and Richards had a payback dalliance with Jagger’s then girlfriend, Marianne Faithfull. (“While you’re missing it, I’m kissing it,” he revealed in his memoir, Life.) And, like many front men, Jagger tried to turn his bandmates into his subordinates.

Yet unlike most bands, the Rolling Stones are still at it and touring five decades in. What’s their secret? While we can’t know for sure what keeps the band together after so many years, recent research into relationships suggests that the simple answer may be commitment.

The Rolling Stones in concert, 1981

The Rolling Stones in concert, 1981

“We’re a band, we know each other,” Richards noted in his memoir; when in crisis, they solve the problem, “because the Stones are bigger than any of us.” The possibility that the Rolling Stones simply made the conscious choice to stay together—and then remade that choice every time their relationship was tested—makes them a case study in commitment for both social and working groups, as well as for couples.

Commitment, it turns out, is more important for relationship longevity than doing or saying the right things, according to a study of two generations of marriages in the Journal of Marriage and Family. The authors report that the most important factor in predicting whether unions last is the degree of commitment to staying together—even more than the extent of any fighting. This may help explain how the Stones, who do not exhibit exemplary relationship skills (“I gave no reaction at all to Mick about Anita,” wrote Richards), can be so resilient.

Of course, money probably also plays a role in keeping the band together—the Stones barely need to talk to each other to cash in with a concert—yet there’s reason to believe it’s not the main thing. They likely make enough from their back catalog to live comfortably for the rest of their lives. (Many less successful bands, such as The Smiths, have turned down large sums because they refused to share the stage again.) Neither is it likely that the need to encounter their adoring crowds is what primarily motivates the band to forgive and forget. The members of the Stones have had relatively successful side and solo projects—the band is hardly their only avenue for recognition.

The notion that the band might stay together because of money, applause, or status corresponds to what psychologists call a “bank account” approach to relationships: People remain in a couple because they feel that they get more out of being in it than by opting out. They keep track and keep score: Am I getting my benefits? Are they worth putting up with things I don’t like? If yes, they stay. If no, they split.

Seems logical, but this approach does not bode well for relationship resilience, according to a recent Journal of Personality and Social Psychology study. Researchers followed 172 couples for the first 11 years of marriage and found it takes a deep level of commitment to hold a couple together. “When people are in it for the long term, they are often willing to make sacrifices and view themselves as a team,” study coauthor Thomas Bradbury has said. In a “bank account” relationship, people are less willing to make sacrifices for the sake of keeping the relationship going. They may split as soon as a more appealing alternative presents itself.

It seems very possible that the Stones’ commitment guided the performers out of the hurt they caused each other—and it made their relationships stronger over time, growing their capacity to withstand setbacks. Rather than becoming a source of resentment that eventually built up to a band-destroying crescendo, for the Stones, each indiscretion may have been an opportunity to reflect on whether they were still committed and to decide in the affirmative.

“We’d been together 25 years or so before the shit really hit the fan,” wrote Richards about a crisis with Jagger in the 1980s, “so the view was, this was bound to happen. Now’s the test. Does it hold together?” It appears that the musicians accepted that vulnerability to pain is part of the deal, and let it go. As Jagger once noted about the hurt between Richards and him, “Time, I reckon, to move on.”