Theories of Love

I can’t remember how and why this idea got brought to my attention (maybe it was the Poly Forum), but I find it so thought-provoking: defining love and finding different ways of conceptualizing it. In one of the articles I stumbled upon (and I can’t find it now), the author mentions that there are x number of words for snow in different Eskimo languages, and so of course it makes sense we get confused when we only have one word (love) to describe a vast array of feelings toward others. 

I know for myself, I use the word love in relation to: my parents and sister and other family members, my primary partner, really close platonic friends, other partners that I feel especially connected to (and I may or may not have romantic feelings as well for those other partners), our pup, and my favorites (weather, movies, books, music, colors, scenery, activities, hobbies, clothes, etc), as well as many other things I am sure. When I took German in high school and college, I recall all of my teachers discussing with my classes that in Germany, you simply do not use the word “love” (“liebe”) in reference to anything other than people. To convey how much you dig an inanimate object, you use the various words for “like.” I remember that struck me, since I grew up using the word love for everything that struck my fancy. For me, the word love encompasses a wide continuum of positive, caring, and loving feelings toward something or someone.

So, I decided to investigate popular ways within psychology of thinking about love. This was my favorite article, and since it did such an awesome job of summarizing the main ideas, I wanted to just include it here:

“My Favorite Unromantic Theories of Love

Do psychological theories of love leave something to be desired?

Why are we drawn to certain people and not others? What makes us fall in love–and stay in love? Poets delve into the mystery of love with beautiful sonnets, musicians seek to capture its subtle essence in song, and many others feel that their love is divinely inspired. Social and personality psychologists, on the other hand, break love down into simple shapes, colors, and equations, the most popular of which are described below. These theories may seem to reduce love to something more mundane and unexciting, but they also have a certain elegance of their own. 

1. The love triangle. According to Robert Sternberg’s Triangular Theory of Love (2004), love consists of three components, intimacy (emotional closeness), passion (sexual and romantic attraction), and commitment. The ideal form of love for a romantic couple (Consummate love) involves all three components, but it is not easy to maintain, as the passionate spark tends to fade over time. Sternberg also describes six other combinations. Romantic love involves intimacy and passion without commitment and is more common in the teenage and young adult years. Companionate love involves intimacy and commitment without passion and is typical of close friends, and sometimes long-term marriages. Infatuated love involves passion only and often occurs at the very beginning of a relationship. Empty love involves commitment with no intimacy or passion, as in an arranged marriage—but it may grow into other forms of love over time. Finally, Fatuous love is like getting engaged after dating for three weeks— it involves passion and commitment, but no deeper intimacy.

2. The color wheel. John Lee (1973) identified six styles of love and referred to them as the “colors of love,” although they are do not correspond to actual colors. The first style, Eros, is characterized by idealization of one’s partner and strong romantic feelings. Ludus is characterized by a need for excitement and a view of love as a game—research suggests that men are more likely than women to be ludic. Storge is characterized by stability and friendship, similar to Sternberg’s companionate love. Pragma is characterized by practical considerations, such as looking for a “checklist” of traits. Storge and pragma are more common among women. Mania involves obsession, jealousy, and extreme ups and downs. Agape refers to selflessness and unconditional compassion. To find out your love style, you can take a test here. 
3. The mere exposure effect. This is one of the most memorable concepts from my first psychology class and is probably the most unromantic theory of all. The mere exposure effect, discovered by Robert Zajonc (1968), refers to our tendency to like things that are familiar to us—that is, those things and people that we are exposed to most often. The mere exposure effect helps to explain propinquity, the idea that one of the main determinants of interpersonal attraction is physical proximity. In one famous series of studies conducted by Leon Festinger and others (1950), the development of friendships in an apartment complex was directly related to the distance between apartments—people were more likely to become friends with neighbors who lived even just slightly closer, and those who they happened to pass more often on the way down the stairs or to the mailbox. While there may be some degree of randomness and luck in the attachments we form, this doesn’t mean that relationships based on proximity are any less genuine and meaningful. But it does suggest that we might have a whole different life if we’d just happened to live on a different hall in college.
4. The clone attraction. Do opposites attract, or do birds of a feather flock together? Research suggests that the latter is more often true. People are more attracted to those who are similar to themselves in pretty much every way, ranging from personality to religious beliefs to physical appearance, and more similar couples tend to be happier. In one study, participants reported being most attracted to morphed versions of their own faces (though the interpretation of this finding is controversial). Although there are advantages to genetic diversity, there may be social and practical disadvantages. The more similar a couple looks, the easier it could be for the father to recognize if a child is not his own, which could support an evolutionary argument for attraction to physically similar others. To see the effects of similarity in action, the following website contains a slideshow of clone-like celebrity couples. (Even Heidi Klum and Seal, whose ethnic backgrounds are different, share surprisingly similar facial structure—their marriage recently ended, but it lasted longer than most celebrity couples’ marriages do). You can also just open any newspaper to the nuptials page.  5. The commitment equation. How committed are you to your partner? Research suggests that it depends on three main factors: 1) how invested you are in the relationship (i.e., what you’ve sacrificed/costs of leaving the relationship), 2) how much you get out of the relationship, and 3) whether there are attractive alternatives. Caryl Rusbult developed the Investment Model by studying college students’ relationship trajectories—in statistical analyses, these three variables emerged as the strongest unique predictors of commitment. Here is the equation: 
Commitment = investment + (rewards – costs) – attractive alternatives
The investment model helps to explain why people might stay in an abusive or unhappy relationship—there may be children involved, financial dependence, or a lack of external social support. It may also explain why people who have too many attractive alternatives available sometimes have trouble settling down. 
Although it is unlikely that any single account will fully capture what for most of us is a very personal and complex experience, the scientific study of love need not diminish its magic. If anything, it might help us love more wisely, with greater appreciation for the social, biological, and cultural forces that shape the choices we make.”

The most popular theory, from what I have been able to gather, is Sternberg’s Triangular Theory of Love.

I find this theory quite fascinating. If you read Sternberg’s ideas about “consummate love,” it sounds quite idealized and “perfect,” and like he places quite a value judgement on these different types of love. For example, from the Wikipedia page on the theory, it mentions that:

Consummate love is the complete form of love, representing an ideal relationship which people strive towards. Of the seven varieties of love, consummate love is theorized to be that love associated with the “perfect couple.” According to Sternberg, these couples will continue to have great sex fifteen years or more into the relationship, they cannot imagine themselves happier over the long-term with anyone else, they overcome their few difficulties gracefully, and each delight in the relationship with one other.[7] However, Sternberg cautions that maintaining a consummate love may be even harder than achieving it. He stresses the importance of translating the components of love into action. “Without expression,” he warns, “even the greatest of loves can die.”[8] Thus, consummate love may not be permanent. If passion is lost over time, it may change into companionate love.”

Yikes, I say. J and I talked about this, and he had the great insight that this theory seemed similar to Arianne Cohen’s The Sex Diaries Project, except Cohen’s work doesn’t place a value judgement on the various types of relationships (dalliancing, solo, partners, lovers, aspirers, poly). It seems like if I were to mesh the Triangular Theory and Cohen’s ideas, I would maybe say lovers operate primarily within romantic love and aspirers operate primarily within companionate love. Except I can’t quite see where Cohen’s partners would fit in the triangle. (There is no need to fit these two models together, except it was interesting to try 🙂 ) I am not sold on Sternberg’s model simply because of the value judgement placed on consummate love as the “ideal form” for romantic partners. in addition, I think there are probably degrees of each of his types of love depending on how much of each element is present (in romantic love, for instance, perhaps one at first experiences a lot of passion with some intimacy and then perhaps it shifts to less passion and more intimacy).

However, what does resonate for me with the Triangular Theory is capturing different feelings that I might use the word “love” to capture. For instance, the love I feel for family members and close, long-time friends would probably be captured by companiate love. The love I feel for J is definitely a combination of intimacy, passion, and commitment. The love I feel for other partners may be a deep liking (based on the presence of intimacy) or some kind of romantic love (based on various combinations of intimacy and passion).

Food for thought 🙂

“It is possible for two people to deeply, profoundly love each other but not be good life partners.” ~Franklin Veaux

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