Psychological Research on Love and Its Influence in Adult Human Relationships

All my life I have been stereotyped as a “bluestocking”. So, I was surprised when I was asked to write this article about love and sex in human relationships. During the first several decades of my life my first priorities were: to absorb as much education and knowledge as possible, to make some extraordinary discoveries in science, and to earn a Nobel Prize to make my parents very proud and happy. It took me a lot of effort to be the best: 11 years in mathematical school and 10 years in musical school (practicing 3–4 hours daily, playing piano and doing homework till 1 am). I tried to do my best by studying for 6 years at the prestigious Moscow University. My days were filled with six hours of lectures and trips to the library. The following three years after graduation from the University were spent writing my dissertation.

Now, here is this topic about love. The subject without any movie, novel, poem and song cannot exist. The topic of love has fascinated scientists, philosophers, historians, poets, playwrights, novelists, and songwriters, as well as all other human beings.

I decided to look at this subject from a scientific point of view. It was very interesting to search and to write this article, and I hope that it will be interesting to you to read it. It is ironic, that as I am writing this article on Saturday in the empty Riordan Clinic, while drinking tea and eating chocolate that I found a love poem from “Romeo and Juliet” inside the wrapping.

Whereas psychological science was slow to develop an active interest in love, the past few decades have seen considerable growth in research on the subject. The excellent review of the central and well-established findings from psychologically informed research on love and its influence in adult human relationships is presented in this article:

“Love. What Is It, Why Does It Matter, and How Does It Operate?” H Reis and A Aron. The brief summary of the ideas from this article is presented below.

Any popular contemporary ideas about love can be traced to the classical Greek philosophers. Prominent in this regard is Plato’s Symposium, a systematic and seminal analysis, whose major ideas have probably influenced contemporary work on love more than all subsequent philosophical work together.

On the other hand, four major intellectual developments of the 19th and 20th centuries provided key insights that helped shape the agenda for current research and theory of love.

The first major intellectual development was the work of Charles Darwin, who proposed that reproductive success was the central process underlying the evolution of species. Evolutionary theorizing has led directly to such currently popular concepts as mate preference, sexual mating strategies, and attachment, as well as to the adoption of a comparative approach across species.

A second development was the work of Sigmund Freud. Contemporary research and theory on love features many psychodynamic principles that were first introduced by Freud, such as the importance of early childhood experiences, the powerful impact of motives operating outside of awareness, the role of defenses in shaping the behavioral expression of motives, and the role of sexuality as a force in human behavior

A third historically significant development was the work of Margaret Mead. Mead’s vivid descriptions of cultural variations in the expression of love and sexuality led researchers to consider the influence of socialization and to recognize cultural variation in many aspects of love.

During the 1970s, the emerging women’s movement also contributed to a cultural climate that made the study of what had been traditionally thought of as “women’s concerns” not only acceptable, but in fact necessary for the science of human behavior.

At the same time, social psychologists were beginning work that would show that adult love could be studied experimentally and in the laboratory.

Any history of psychological research on love would be incomplete without reference to “l’affaire Proxmire”. In March 1975, William Proxmire, a powerful U.S. Senator, gave the first of a series of so-called Golden Fleece Awards to Ellen Berscheid and Elaine Hatfield, the two most prominent love researchers of the time. They had recently received a federal grant for their work. To some, their work was a gross misuse of federal tax-payer dollars and a topic “better left to poets.” For the ensuing years, that ill-informed and ignoble proclamation cast a pall not only on Berscheid and Hatfield but on any scientist interested in studying love. To this day, politics occasionally obstructs funding for research on love.

Despite the political barrier to love research in the U.S., other countries, particularly Canada, have taken a more enlightened view, as have at least two private foundations.

What is Love? According to some authors, love is defined as a desire to enter, maintain, or expand a close, connected, and ongoing relationship with another person.

Considerable evidence supports a basic distinction, first offered in 1978, between passionate love (“a state of intense longing for union with another”) and other types of romantic love, labeled companionate love (“the affection we feel for those with whom our lives are deeply entwined”). The evidence for this distinction comes from a variety of research methods, including psychometric techniques (e.g., factor analysis, multidimensional scaling, and prototype analysis), examinations of the behavioral and relationship consequences of different forms of romantic love, and biological studies, which are discussed in this article.

Most work has focused on identifying and measuring passionate love and several aspects of romantic love, which include two components: intimacy and commitment. Some scholars see companionate love as a combination of intimacy and commitment whereas others see intimacy as the central component, with commitment as a peripheral factor (but important in its own right, such as for predicting relationship longevity). In some studies, trust and caring were considered highly prototypical of love, whereas uncertainty and “butterflies in the stomach” were more peripheral.

Passionate and companionate love solves different adaptational problems. Passionate love may be said to solve the attraction problem—that is, for individuals to enter into a potentially long-term mating relationship, they must first identify and select suitable candidates, attract the other’s interest, engage in relationship-building behavior, and then go about reorganizing existing activities and relationships so as to include the other. All of this is effortful, time-consuming, and disruptive. Consequently, passionate love is associated with many changes in cognition, emotion, and behavior. For the most part, these changes are consistent with the idea of disrupting existing activities, routines, and social networks to orient the individual’s attention and goal-directed behavior toward a specific new partner.

Sexual desire is often substantially linked to passionate love, although existing evidence suggests that they are empirically and functionally distinguishable. For example, romantic attraction and sexuality involve different brain systems, a contention supported de novo by recent functional magnetic resonance imaging studies.

Considerably less effort has been devoted toward understanding the evolutionary significance of the intimacy and commitment aspects of love. However, much evidence indicates that love in long-term relationships is associated with intimacy, trust, caring, and attachment, all factors that contribute to the maintenance of relationships over time.

More generally, the term companionate love may be characterized by a communal relationship: a relationship built on mutual expectations that one’s self and a partner will be responsive to each other’s needs.

It was speculated that companionate love, or at least the various processes associated with it, is responsible for the noted association between social relatedness and health and well-being. In a recent series of papers, it was claimed that marriage is linked to health benefits.

Having noted the positive functions of love, it is also important to consider the dark side. That is, problems in love and love relationships are a significant source of suicides, homicides, and both major and minor emotional disorders, such as anxiety and depression. Love matters not only because it can make our lives better, but also because it is a major source of misery and pain that can make life much worse.

One particularly timely prediction is that psychological theories of love are likely to become more biologically informed, in the sense that the psychological and behavioral phenomena associated with love will have clear, comprehensible, and distinguishable neural and hormonal substrates. This will be useful not so much for the intrinsic purpose of identifying the brain and body regions in which love occurs, but rather because the identification of neural and hormonal circuits corresponding to particular experiences and behaviors will allow researchers to sort the various phenomena associated with love into their natural categories.

For example, it will be important to further distinguish passionate love from companionate love on the one hand and from lust (i.e., sexual feelings) on the other. This distinction will be important for a key reason: although current evidence strongly suggests that these three forms of love involve different biological systems, different functions, different behaviors, and different consequences, much thinking in both popular culture and in the scientific literature conflates them. It will also be valuable to examine how neural activations of passionate and companionate love evolve in a given relationship over time, corresponding to experiential changes.

It is also believed that research will address how culture shapes the experience and expression of love. Although both passionate and companionate love appears to be universal, it is apparent that their manifestations may be moderated by culture-specific norms and rules.

Passionate and companionate love have profoundly different implications for marriage around the world, considered essential in some cultures but contra-indicated or rendered largely irrelevant in others. For example, among U.S. college students in the 1960s, only 24% of women and 65% of men considered love to be the basis of marriage, but in the 1980s this view was endorsed by more than 80% of both women and men.

Finally, the authors believe that the future will see a better understanding of what may be the quintessential question about love: how this very individualistic feeling is shaped by experiences in interaction with particular others.

The other interesting reading:

Why Love Has Wings and Sex Has Not: How Reminders of Love and Sex Influence Creative and Analytic Thinking (J.A. Forster). This article examines cognitive links between romantic love and creativity and between sexual desire and analytic thought based on construal level theory. It suggests that when in love, people typically focus on a long-term perspective, which should enhance holistic thinking and thereby creative thought, whereas when experiencing sexual encounters, they focus on the present and on concrete details enhancing analytic thinking. Because people automatically activate these processing styles when in love or when they experience sex, subtle or even unconscious reminders of love versus sex should suffice to change processing modes. Two studies explicitly or subtly reminded participants of situations of love or sex and found support for this hypothesis.

Passion, Intimacy, and Time: Passionate Love as a Function of Change in Intimacy (R.F. Baumeister, E. Bratslavsky) To build on existing theories about love, the authors propose that passion is a function of change in intimacy (i.e., the first derivative of intimacy overtime). Hence, passion will be low when intimacy is stable (either high or low), but rising intimacy will create a strong sense of passion. This view is able to account for a broad range of evidence, including frequency of sex in long-term relationships, intimate and sexual behavior of extraverts, gender differences in intimate behavior, gain and loss effects of communicated attraction, and patterns of distress in romantic breakups.

Linking Romantic Love with Sex: Development of the Perceptions of Love and Sex Scale (Susan S. Hendrick) Pilot work and three studies detail the development of the ‘Perceptions of Love and Sex Scale,’ a measure of how people view the link between love and sex in their romantic relationships. College students generated descriptive responses to a query about the connections between love and sex in their romantic relationships. Samples from studies were combined for a variety of analyses, including confirmatory factor analyses, correlations, hierarchical regression analyses, and sex comparisons. The final version of the scale yielded 17 items on four subscales (Love is Most Important, Sex Demonstrates Love, Love Comes Before Sex, and Sex is Declining) with acceptable psychometric properties and expected correlations with measures of other relationship constructs.

TO LOVE, OR NOT TO LOVE. Love Stories of Later Life: A Narrative Approach to Understanding Romance (Amanda Smith Barusch. Oxford University Press, 2008.) This book is a qualitative study employing in-depth interviews and an open-ended survey distributed on the Internet. Barusch (a professor of social work) focused her study on four research questions. They include, but are not limited to 1. How do older adults describe and experience romantic love? 2. How do gender, culture, and age influence the lived experience of romantic love? 3. Is it possible to fall in love at advanced ages? If so, how do adults describe this experience? Do their descriptions differ from those offered by younger people? 4. How do older adults interpret their lived experiences of romance?

Barusch writes with two different ‘voices’ for two different audiences. First, she writes for academic gerontologists who have an interest in the study of late relationships. Second, she writes for elders who want to gain insight into romantic and sexual relationships in later life. She hopes that this audience will gain strength and insight by reading her book. The book is delightful, hopeful and inspiring.

It is rare for an author to successfully address two such diverse audiences. We encourage you to read this fine work.