Love Definition

Love is often thought of as an intense and positive emotion that can be experienced for a variety of close others, including a romantic partner or spouse, close friends, children, parents, and other relatives. For more than three decades, social psychologists and other social scientists have been studying love. The type of love that has been most frequently measured and studied is the love experienced for a romantic partner. However, when social scientists began measuring love, they realized that there were many different types or subtypes, even in regard to a romantic partner.

Types of Love

LoveAn initial distinction was made between liking and love. One of the first psychologists to study love, Zick Rubin, discovered that people could distinguish between attitude statements that measured liking (items that referred to respect, positive evaluation, and perceptions of similarity) and attitude statements that measured love (items that referred to dependency, caring, and exclusiveness). His liking and love scales have been used in several research studies that have generated a number of interesting findings including (1) liking and loving are only modestly associated; (2) those who have higher scores on the love scale spend more time eye-gazing with their partner; and (3) higher scores on love are predictive of staying together over time.

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Social psychologists next distinguished between various types of love. The first distinction was between passionate Jove and companionate Jove. Passionate love is intense, exciting, and has the potential for both ecstasy (when things are going well) and despair (when things are not going well). Companionate love, however, is less intense and is referred to as affection that develops between two people whose lives are intertwined. Research suggests that in most dating and newly married relationships, both types of love exist. Passionate love tends to develop first, although it is also likely to dissipate first over time. Companionate love may take longer to develop but is likely to remain stable and not erode with the passage of time. Passionate love, as the more intense type of love, may sometimes increase because of misattribution of arousal. A person can become aroused because of an extraneous source such as consumption of caffeine or a frightful experience and then mistakenly attribute the arousal to passionate love for another, especially if the other is physically attractive. Although passionate love declines over years of marriage, research has revealed that if couples engage in exciting and novel activities together, the passion can be rekindled.

In a more recent typology, six types or styles of loving have been identified. These are eros (intense, passionate love), Ludus (game-playing love), storge (friendship love), pragma (practical love), mania (obsessive, dependent love) and agape (selfless love). These love styles may be considered to be attitudes or orientations toward a particular person (e.g., a romantic partner) but also may be considered to be stable orientations toward relationships. For example, some people may be thought of as erotic lovers, likely to experience this particular style of love regardless of the partner. However, people’s love-style experiences also may change as a function of the partner’s style of loving and how he or she behaves toward the other partner. The two types of love that are experienced to the greatest degree, especially among young adults, are eros and storge. In fact, most romantic relationships may have a combination of these two types of love. People experience a low level of ludus, which is good because this type of love does not lead to healthy and long-lasting relationships. Consistent gender differences have been found in the experience of love styles. Ludus is experienced to a greater degree by men than by women, and storge and pragma are experienced to a greater degree by women.

Love also has been described as a triangle, having three primary components: intimacy, passion, and commitment (pictorially presented as a triangle). Each component (triangle side) can range from low to high so that a number of different triangle shapes and sizes are possible. Intimacy refers to warmth, understanding, caring, support, and connection. Passion is characterized by physical attraction and arousal. Commitment refers to the decision to stay in the relationship and maintain it. The triangular model of love yields eight different love types ranging from nonlove (no intimacy, no passion, and no commitment) to consummate love (high on all three components). Romantic love, often experienced in young college romances, includes intimacy and passion but rarely includes long-term commitment. An empty-shell marriage has commitment, but may no longer have passion or intimacy.

Researchers have identified many other types of loving, including unrequited love (in which one loves another but isn’t loved back), limerence (an intense dependent type of love), lust, and friendship love. Although most social scientific research has focused on love for one specific person, typically a romantic partner, love can also be experienced for pets, God, strangers, and all of humanity. Compassionate love, for example, is the type of love that focuses on selfless caring for others, especially those who are in need or distressed. It’s similar to empathy but more enduring. Some nonprofit organizations, such as the Fetzer Institute located in Kalamazoo, Michigan, have recently become interested in promoting scientific study on compassionate love. The hope is that the more that can be learned about this type of love, including love as expressed for all of humanity, the more likely researchers can identify ways to increase it.

Attitudes about Love

Social scientists also have been interested in examining people’s attitudes about love. How important do people believe love is for entering and maintaining marriage (i.e., do love and marriage go together?) Do people believe that love is necessary to have premarital sex? What are people’s romantic attitudes about love? For example, do they believe in love at first sight and that love conquers all? These beliefs are important to study for many reasons, including that the attitudes and beliefs people have will affect their behaviors. Survey studies indicate that most young adults believe that one should not enter marriage without love. The disappearance of love from marriage over time is thought to be a sufficient reason for a divorce by most people. Although some young adults indicate that they believe that sex is okay in a casual relationship and even in a “hook-up,” most young adults and especially women and female adolescents believe that love and affection are necessary for premarital sexual activity. Finally, young adults have many romantic beliefs about love, including that if you love someone, other obstacles can be overcome and a love partner and relationship can be perfect. These beliefs have sometimes been referred to as positive illusions and have been found to be good for relationships because they contribute to people engaging in actions that lead to positive events in the relationship.

Falling in Love

Many people can remember the first time they had an upsurge of affection for another and may have labeled this turning point in the relationship “falling in love.” Researchers have identified the factors that lead to initial attraction as well as falling in love. People report that they fall in love because of desirable characteristics of the other (e.g., kindness, physical attractiveness) and because the other expresses attraction toward them, such as through eye contact. Falling in love can lead to an increased feeling of self-worth, at least in the initial stage and especially if it’s reciprocated.

Determinants of Love

Researchers also have tried to identify the factors that make love grow over time or at least not decrease. The most common way of studying determinants of love is to survey individuals about their relationship and have them complete a scale to measure how much they love their partners, and then also have them complete measures on several factors that are predicted to be associated with love. A design that follows the relationships over time is more useful than data at only one point in time for determining causal directions. Research has indicated that feelings of love are associated with factors such as self-disclosure, equity (fair exchange of resources), frequent and satisfying sex, and positive beliefs about the relationship. Research done by Diane Felmlee and Susan Sprecher also indicates that love increases when parents and friends support the relationship. Each of these factors that have been identified as determinants of love, however, also can be consequences of love. That is, when people feel more love, their self-disclosure, sex, fair exchange, and attempts to seek support from family and friends for the relationship may increase.

Implications of Love

Love is important to relationships, to individuals, and to society. Relationships that are loving are more likely to be satisfying and last over time. Individuals who experience love and support by others and also feel love for others are more likely to have high levels of mental and physical health. Society also benefits from people forming loving connections with each other. Love leads to reproduction (and replacement of members in a society), familial relationships for the raising of children to adulthood, and humanitarian efforts toward others. Social psychological investigation has helped significantly to expand the knowledge regarding the multidimensional nature of this important concept of love, as well as the attitudes associated with it. The scientific community and society has much to gain from the continued investigation of this pivotal and central human emotion.


  1. Felmlee, D., & Sprecher, S. (2006). Love. In J. E. Stets & J. H. Turner (Eds.), Handbook of sociology of emotions (pp. 389-409). New York: Springer.
  2. Hatfield, E., & Sprecher, S. (1986). Measuring passionate love in intimate relationships. Journal of Adolescence, 9, 383-410.
  3. Hendrick, S. S., & Hendrick, C. (1992). Romantic love. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
  4. Sprecher, S., & Toro-Morn, M. (2002). A study of men and women from different sides of earth to determine if men are from Mars and women are from Venus in their beliefs about love and romantic relationships. Sex Roles, 46, 131-147.