Romantic love has been found in every historical era and in every culture for which data are available. To those familiar with the research literature, romantic love today is no longer the mystery it has been considered to be throughout the ages. Nevertheless, there is much more to learn, and romantic love remains a thriving topic of research for social psychologists.
Aspects of romantic love are found in many animal species, and love may have played a central role in shaping human evolution. In humans, romantic love is a source of some of the deepest joys and greatest problems, including depression, abandonment rage, stalking, suicide, and homicide. Therefore, social psychologists and other scientists have devoted a great deal of research to understanding romantic love.
Romantic Love Definition
People generally understand love by its resemblance to a prototype, which means a standard model or idea (as one would recognize a bird by its resemblance to a robin). The protoypical features of love encompass, in order of centrality, intimacy, commitment, and passion. Scientists, by contrast, define love in a more formal way—for example, as the constellation of behaviors, cognitions, and emotions associated with a desire to enter or maintain a close relationship with a specific other person.
Much research on love has focused on types of love, including distinguishing romantic love from more general kinds of love, such as familial love or compassionate love for strangers. Romantic love, which is associated with dependence, caring, and exclusiveness, is also distinguished from liking, which emphasizes similarity, respect, and positive evaluation. Moreover, passionate love (the fervent desire for connection with a particular other person) is also distinguished from companionate love (the warm feelings one has for people with whom one’s life is interconnected). Items on the standard research measure of passionate love focus on such things as wanting to be with this person more than with anyone else, and melting when looking into this person’s eyes. A similar distinction is between those whom one “loves” and the subset of these with whom one is “in love.”
Another well-researched approach identifies six love styles: eros (romantic, passionate love), ludus (game playing love), storge (friendship love), pragma (logical, “shopping-list” love), mania (possessive, dependent love), and agape (selfless love). Yet another influential approach, the triangular theory, conceptualizes love in terms of intimacy, commitment/decision, and passion, the various combinations of which define diverse types of romantic love.
Biological Basis of Romantic Love
Biological research suggests that birds and mammals evolved several distinct brain systems for courtship, mating, and parenting, including (a) the sex drive, characterized by a craving for sexual gratification; (b) attraction, characterized by focused attention on a preferred mating partner; and (c) attachment, characterized by the maintenance of proximity, affiliative gestures and expressions of calm when in social contact with a mating partner, and separation anxiety when apart. Each neural system is associated with a different constellation of brain circuits, different behavior patterns, and different emotional and motivational states. With regard to human love, one can equate “attraction” with passionate love and “attachment” with companionate love. Recent studies using functional magnetic resonance imaging of the brain indicate that these three neural systems are distinct yet interrelated.
Predicting Falling in Love
Numerous experiments have identified factors that lead to liking, in general, and to many forms of loving. These factors include discovering that the other person likes one’s self; attraction to the other’s characteristics, including kindness, intelligence, humor, good looks, social status; similarities with one’s self, especially in attitudes and background characteristics; proximity and exposure to the other; and confirmation and encouragement from one’s peers and family that this is suitable partner. In the context of falling in love, discovering that the other likes one’s self and that he or she has desirable and appropriate characteristics is especially important. In addition, a well-researched predictor specific to falling in love is the arousal-attraction effect— being physiologically stirred up at the time of meeting a potential partner (e.g., one study found that men who met an attractive woman when on a scary suspension bridge were more romantically attracted to her than were men who met the same woman on a safe bridge; another study found that individuals felt greater romantic attraction to an individual whom they met just after running in place for a few minutes!).
Effects of Falling in Love
Those experiencing intense passionate love report a constellation of feelings including focused attention on the beloved, heightened energy, sleeplessness, loss of appetite, euphoria and mood swings, bodily reactions such as a pounding heart, emotional dependence on and obsessive thinking about the beloved, emotional and physical possessiveness, craving for emotional union with the beloved, and intense motivation to win this particular partner. Studies have also found that when someone is intensely in love, and that person’s romantic passion is reciprocated, the lovers experience an increase in self-esteem and an expanded, more diverse sense of one’s self.
Autobiographical accounts of being rejected and of being the undesired object of someone’s attraction have reported that rejection can lead to strong organization as well as strong disorganization of thoughts, behaviors, and emotions. Both the rejector and rejectee largely express passive behaviors, both are unhappy with the situation, and both usually end up disappointed. A large survey study found that the intensity of a person’s feelings of unrequited love can be predicted by how much the individual wants the relationship, how much he or she likes the state of being in love (whether reciprocated or not), and whether the rejectee initially believed his or her love would be reciprocated.
Maintaining Love over Time
Longitudinal studies report that passionate love regularly declines after an initial relationship period of 1 to 3 years. Evolutionary anthropologists suggest that this decline is because the basic function of love (to promote the breeding process with a specific individual) was designed to dissipate and change into feelings of attachment so partners could rear their child together in a calmer state. One psychological explanation for this emphasizes habituation. Another psychological explanation argues that passionate love arises from the rapid increase in intimacy or interpersonal connection, which inevitably slows down as one gets to know the partner. Whatever the reason for the typical decline, love does not inevitably weaken. In one study following newlyweds for 4 years, about 10% maintained or increased their relationship satisfaction.
Furthermore, some studies have found a small percentage of long-term married people have very high levels of passionate love. How might this happen? One clue is from experiments and surveys showing an increase in passionate love in long-term relationships in which partners do challenging and novel activities together.
How Does Romantic Love Work?
Love as Emotion and Motivation
Love, especially “moments of love,” are very emotional (indeed, “love” is the first example most people give when asked to name an emotion). However, love, especially passionate love, may not be a specific emotion in its own right. Rather, passionate love may be better described as a goal-oriented state (the desire for a relationship with a particular partner) that can lead to a variety of emotions depending on the partner’s response. Also, unlike basic emotions, passionate love is not associated with any specific facial expression, it is more focused on a highly specific goal, and it is particularly hard to control (it is almost impossible to make yourself feel passionate love for someone). Similarly, brain scan studies show that passionate love engages a common reward-area brain system across individuals, a system similar to that which becomes active when one takes cocaine, but the emotional parts of the brain show different patterns for different individuals.
Love and Sex
People typically feel sexual desire for a person they passionately love, but they may not feel passionate love for all of the people whom they sexually desire. This distinction between these systems is also seen in studies of neural systems active in brain functioning and in varying behavioral responses in laboratory experiments.
Love and Attachment
Attachment theory posits that a key factor in adult love is whether during infancy one’s primary caregiver (usually one’s mother) provided a secure base for exploration. Research shows that those who had inconsistent caregiving are much more likely to experience intense passionate love as adults; those who had consistent lack of attention in infancy are especially unlikely to experience passionate love. Some evidence also indicates that the brain systems engaged by passionate love may differ according to one’s attachment history.
The self-expansion model posits, with research support, that the exhilaration and intense focused attention of passionate love arise from the rapid rate of coming to feel as if the other is part of oneself that is often associated with forming a new romantic relationship, but that companionate love arises from the ongoing greater opportunities offered by the partner and the potential for loss to the self of losing the partner.
Love as a Story
An influential (though little researched) idea is that loving relationships can be described accurately by the people involved through narrative autobiographies, often suggesting culturally prototypical “stories.” For example, the story of a couple locked in constant struggle is common, as is the story of couples growing to love each other over time.
One evolutionary view (noted earlier), based on animal studies and some recent brain scanning studies, proposes that passionate romantic love evolved to motivate individuals to select among potential mating partners and focus their courtship attention on these favored individuals, thereby conserving precious courtship and mating time and energy. Another influential line of evolutionary thinking is based on the idea that when choosing a mate, a woman is making a bigger investment than is a man. This approach has emphasized gender differences, for example, in what features are desirable in a mate (across cultures, women give more weight to a man’s social status; men, to a woman’s good looks). Finally, some recent theorists interpret various studies as suggesting that romantic love is an elaboration of the basic bonding system between infants and parents.
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- Baumeister, R. F., & Wotman, S. R. (1992). Breaking hearts: The two sides of unrequited love. New York: Guilford Press.
- Fisher, H. (2004). Why we love: The nature and chemistry of romantic love. New York: Henry Holt.
- Pines, A. M. (1999). Falling in love: Why we choose the lovers we choose. London: Routledge. Tennov, D. (1999). Love and limerence: The experience of being in love. Lanham, MD: Scarborough House.