The Theory of Love

In accordance with the stipulations of the markup, I undertook a program of revisions to the paper. Many of the revisions were quite minor: in several cases, I changed a few words in order to eliminate the overuse of a word. In at least one case I had actually used two synonyms, so I deleted one. I definitely saw the wisdom in doing this: it made the paper flow much better. I also changed a few words that were red flags for categories of evidence, in order to ensure that the reader would not be misled.

Another, much more significant change I made was to reduce the number of quotations in order to bolster my own authorial voice. I realized that I relied overmuch on direct quotations initially, and forcing myself to actually sit down and think about how to synthesize the literature I was drawing upon was a good exercise, one that definitely strengthened my authorial voice.

I also revised a couple of paragraphs wherein I had originally summarized the work of different scholars, but failed to adequately connect it with the paper overall. By going back and working on these paragraphs again, I was able to connect them with the rest of the paper in a way that substantially improved how I used the information that I was presenting. All in all, I thought this was an immensely gratifying exercise, because it challenged me as a writer: I had to think about how I wanted to present these specific parts of the overall paper, and then edit them accordingly.

I also completely rewrote the conclusion. The comments pointed out that in the original conclusion, I essentially touched on a number of things that I had presented in the paper, in the order that I had presented them. What was needed was synthesis: I had to draw upon everything that I had written, and formulate and present a conclusion that embodied my thesis and all the material I had presented. Doing this was actually very enlightening, because it helped me to better appreciate what I was doing with the paper overall.

The Theory of Love: Road to a Successful Relationship

The study of romantic love and attraction is of considerable interest from the academic perspective of human behavior, and has much promise for practical application in identifying those factors that either promote or undermine marital success. Romantic love consists of more than one type of attraction, which in turn shapes the trajectory of successful relationships and underlies the failure of unsuccessful ones. Moreover, there are a number of predictors of marital success or failure that pertain either to the characteristics of the spouses, or to the nature of their relationship. The literature demonstrates that successful marriages are those based on commitment, and are both high quality and stable.

It is essential to differentiate between different kinds of love prior to examining those factors which may dispose either favorable or unfavorable sentiments in a marital relationship over time. As Crooks and Baur explain, there are arguably two main kinds of romantic love: passionate love and companionate love (182). Simply put, passionate love is infatuation: it is exciting, inasmuch as it is characterized by a great deal of lust and impulsive desire. Sexual desire is the hallmark of passionate love, making this form of romantic attraction very intense. Passionate love is the defining characteristic of many romantic relationships early on, often providing the spark that draws two people together.

However, there are some arguable shortcomings or downsides to passionate love. For one thing, when lovers are in the throes of passionate love, they often tend to downplay and overlook any faults that they might perceive in each other if they were only clearer-headed (182). Potential conflicts are avoided or brushed over, meaning that differences that might lead to serious problems are not exposed until after the relationship has been established. This may actually be beneficial early on, if it simply enables lovers to not fixate on disagreements or faults that might derail the relationship before it can really begin, and if they find ways to resolve conflicts and accept each others’ faults as the relationship matures. Of course, in many situations it goes farther than that, and two people end up together in haste, only to suffer disappointment. Indeed, as Crooks and Baur explain, passionate love belongs to the early stages of a relationship, and is typically very short in duration (182).

The dissipation of passionate love is the real gauntlet for romantic relationships, as Crooks and Baur explain: whether a relationship will continue, or at least continue in a form that both parties find fulfilling and satisfying, depends on whether or not the couple is able to develop companionate love (182-183). Although companionate love is less intense than passionate love, it is far more long-lasting and deep-rooted. Where passionate love is fiery, enticing, alluring and exciting, companionate love is thoughtful, committed, appreciative, and grounded in a thorough understanding of one’s partner (183). Simply put, companionate love is grounded in familiarity and makes possible a stable, supportive relationship, of a kind that simply is not possible with passionate love alone. Thus, companionate love is the pattern that healthy romantic relationships assume as they mature and both parties become used to each other.

This essential distinction underlies the work of psychologist Robert Sternberg, who refined the dichotomy between passionate and companionate love with his Triangular Theory of Love (Crooks and Baur 183). Following Sternberg, passion has addictive qualities (183). Passion provides motivation in the early stages of the relationship, then: it brings lovers together. In the Triangular Theory of Love, however, companionate love is divided into two components: intimacy and commitment (183). The distinction is an easy one to understand: intimacy is emotional; lovers who feel intimacy feel united, feel together. In essence, this is companionate love’s answer to passionate love. Through feelings of intimacy, lovers feel united, which is why this is such an important component of the model (183). The third component is commitment, which is more cognitive in nature. According to Sternberg, commitment is conscious: it involves the actual decisions made by both partners in a relationship to stick together, despite difficulties and challenges (183). In essence, this is what makes companionate love so strong: even where intimacy periodically fails, commitment can preserve a relationship until intimacy returns.

What, then, determines whether or not couples will feel such attractions? Is it true that ‘birds of a feather, flock together’, or that ‘opposites attract’? Here, it should be noted that modern Western societies, and those societies that are increasingly influenced by them, are unusual in this regard, inasmuch as personal factors of attraction are given the greatest weight in determining the choice of a marriage partner (Weiten, Dunn, and Hammer 307). In many societies that are still more traditional, notably in the Islamic world, sub-Saharan Africa, India, and China, marriages are often arranged between families, with factors such as status and the well-being of the respective families ranked above whether or not the bride and groom are ‘in love’ (307). However, in contemporary Western societies where personal attraction reigns supreme as the cardinal criterion for mate choice, one key trend is homogamy (Weiten et al. 307). Homogamy is the practice of marrying someone with similar characteristics, including age, level of education, physical attractiveness, beliefs and values, etc. (307). There is some evidence that homogamy produces better marriages: spouses who feel similar to each other tend, on average, to have an easier time relating to each other. One possibility here is that common ground in the form of similar characteristics and interests brings partners together, and helps them to preclude or resolve conflicts (Weiten et al. 307).

In a study of participants’ preferences in a speed-dating context, however, Luo and Zhang found no support for this similarity principle, the idea that people are attracted to those who are similar to them, and only modest support for the idea that people are attracted to those who like them, i.e. the so-called reciprocity principle (951-954). Of course, that was speed-dating, and it may be that the findings from that study are inapplicable, or at best only partially applicable, to considerations of what makes a marriage work or not. In fact, a great deal of research points towards the importance of similarity in shaping the overwhelming majority of interpersonal attraction, indicating that homogamy is both the prevalent pattern and a very effective one at that (Pines 59). And not only has similarity been correlated with feelings that one’s partner is enjoyable and exciting, but dissimilarity has been correlated with feelings of repulsion (59). This suggests that the idea that ‘opposites attract’ is not only most likely a myth, but a potentially harmful one as well, because it misleads and creates unrealistic expectations (59).

In addition, there are other predictors of marital success. Family background is a very important one, specifically any history of divorce in the family: unfortunately, individuals who come from a family wherein their parents divorced are more likely to undergo a divorce as well (308-309). In fact, the evidence seems to support a generational effect of divorce, based on how people learn to resolve conflicts from their parents. If the divorce is the result of the parents having very poor conflict-resolution skills, the same poor conflict resolution skills are often passed down to the children, who, when grown, marry and make the same mistakes (309). Thus, even a poor parental model can have a substantial influence on marital outcomes for the next generation.

An additional predictor of marital success is the ages of the couple when married (Weiten et al. 309). Couples who marry at younger ages are much more likely to get divorced than those who wait to get married (309). There may be a number of different reasons for this: people who marry earlier may have taken less time to select their marriage partners, and they may well have done so with a great deal less caution and foresight, than those who marry later (309). Maturity is another factor: not only do people who marry later give themselves more opportunities and time to mature and define themselves, but they are more likely to know what they really want from a spouse, and what they are prepared to give. And, too, the late teens and early twenties, ages that are considered very young for marriage by contemporary Western standards, are times of quite considerable personal change and maturation; consequently, young people who marry at these ages may later find that they have grown apart from their partners as a consequence of their maturation (309).

Greenberg and Goldman articulated a model of emotion-focused therapy (EFT) based on emotional schemata, and a paradigm of three main motivational systems: “attachment, identity maintenance and attraction” (283 orig. emph.). Their thesis is that when these systems are working well, a couple will experience an emotionally fulfilling relationship, one that will be stable and resilient in the face of challenges. Dysfunctions or conflicts in these systems, however, will drive the couple apart. The main task of the therapy, therefore, is to encourage and empower the partners to successfully strengthen these motivational systems between them: increasing attachment security, for example, by promoting intimacy; nurturing identity through empathy and validation, and fostering attraction by means of promoting novelty, as well as encouraging the expression of feelings that are positive (283).

Attachment, Greenberg and Goldman explain, is important because of the security that it provides: the attachment bond provides couples with a connection to each other, a (hopefully) comfortable bond that, if it works well, gives them stability and support in life (283). As such, these authors argue, the attachment bond is of foundational importance for regulating affect (emotional disposition), because it governs emotional arousal, as well as emotional distance and proximity (283). The ability of attachment to regulate emotional affect means that both partners are better motivated to have desirable feelings of security as opposed to undesirable ones of anxiety, and this, the authors argue, is the seminal motivation behind why people attach (283). Conversely, failure to attach, or any problem or dysfunction in the relationship that impairs the attachment bond, can in turn threaten the relationship and potentially lead to divorce (283).

Since couples’ conflicts, and how they handle them, are so central to whether relationships fail or succeed, it is therefore important to understand what these conflicts are really about. Greenberg and Goldman argue that identity maintenance is at the crux of these marital spats (284). This is because intimate relationships have tremendous effects on self-image and identity: the quality of the relationship, and the dynamics of personality, power, dominance and control between the partners, will determine much of how they perceive themselves (284). What this means is that if one partner feels that their identity is threatened by the other partner, or by their own role in the relationship, this may lead to resentment, insecurity, and the breakdown of the relationship. Greenberg and Goldman argue that identity “is dependent on our internalization of values and of how others see us,” meaning that the attitudes of one partner may greatly affect, and in some cases imperil, the self-image of the other (284). Of course, this can very easily be a two-way street, with both partners struggling to define themselves within the context of the relationship. The most important thing to understand, however, is that identity is at the root of these power struggles: the respective concerns of both partners in the pair-bonded dyad center on their own individual identities, and thus how they see themselves. Understanding this is the master key to an accurate perception of marital conflicts, which in turn can serve to ensure that couples are able to resolve these conflicts and preserve their relationship (284).

The third motivational system elucidated by Greenberg and Goldman is attraction and liking, the system responsible for the feelings that serve as the glue of the entire romantic relationship in the first place (285). This motivational system is responsible for positive feelings of excitement and interest between the two, and as such is foundational to the well-being of any relationship (285). Relationships that persist in the absence of such positive feelings of attraction and liking are loveless and joyless. Consequently, if a couple is having trouble in this area, one key strategy involves helping them to develop a counterweight: a repository of positive feelings which can help to preclude future conflicts. Of course, a significant deficit with respect to this motivational system plays an important role in many divorces, an important point which refers back to the distinction between passionate and companionate love (285).

The stability of relationships depends, to a considerable degree, on so-called ‘love dynamics’. Rinaldi, Rossa and Dercole conducted research on this important field, and differentiated between robust and fragile couples, as well as high and low quality relationships in order to ascertain the influences of such characteristics on relationship evolution (2446-2447). Couples with a fragile relationship have difficulty maintaining relationship quality in the face of disturbances: no matter how happy they are together when things are going well, they are, one might say, always one argument or obstacle away from a drastic reduction in relationship quality (2446). Robust couples, on the other hand, are capable of maintaining a high quality relationship even in the face of disagreements and discords (2446).

High quality relationships are, as one might intuit, characterized by positive affect and appeal, while low quality relationships are characterized by negative affect and appeal (Rinaldi et al. 2446). Robust couples may experience either type of relationship in the long run, but it is much easier for them to maintain a stable, high quality relationship than it is for fragile couples (2446). Moreover, robust couples, practically by definition, tend to be quite stable: thus, no matter where they start out, they will gravitate towards that stable state. Fragile couples, on the other hand, tend to vacillate between two poles, two stable equilibria, one positive and one negative (2447).

From the above, it is clear that a robust, high quality relationship should have the least likelihood of divorce, while a fragile, low quality relationship should have the greatest likelihood of divorce, with other types of relationships occupying a continuum between these two poles (Rinaldi et al.). Through the lens of exchange theory, it is possible to analyze couples’ motivations and decisions with respect to divorce (White and Klein 84). For example, if at least one partner compares their situation, their marriage, to other marriages and feels deprived, their satisfaction will suffer (84). This is a motive for divorce, but while some sense of feeling deprived or unsatisfied would seem to be a necessary condition for divorce in contemporary Western societies, it may not be a sufficient condition in and of itself: after all, many couples remain unhappily married (84).

The reason has to do with other constraints, possibly including the effects of divorce on children, or perceptions that it would be undesirable for personal, social, or religious reasons (White and Klein 84). One way to think of this is in terms of attractions, barriers, and alternatives: attractions between spouses act as the glue that holds the relationship together, making divorce less likely. Barriers are the costs associated with getting a divorce: time, legal headaches, considerations of money, the effects on dependent children if the couple has any, and any social ramifications (do they share many friends in common?) (84). Barriers, then, are forces that can make divorce less likely by aversive means: barriers are costly obstacles that must be overcome or cleared out of the way for divorce to take place (84). And finally, there is the question of alternatives: if a couple has little in the way of attractive alternatives to the relationship, or at least one partner doesn’t, then divorce is less likely (84). In other words, alternatives are the more proactive forces associated with divorce: they provide the benefits, the rewards for completing the divorce. If attractions and barriers are low, and alternatives are high, then divorce becomes very likely (84).

Consequently, from this perspective it is a cost-benefit analysis, and different spouses in different marriages will weigh the costs and benefits very differently (White and Klein 84). Though divorce is very common in contemporary society, it can still be socially costly depending upon one’s social circles, and of course there are the legal and financial considerations, and for some couples, dependent children (84). Whether or not an individual seeks divorce, then, will depend on whether or not the gains of divorce will be sufficiently profitable to justify the often quite considerable costs associated with the procedure (84).

However, as Lavner and Bradbury explain, things simply are not that simple. There is, in fact, very good evidence that some marriages that are high quality and stable for several years subsequently weaken, succumb to strain, and end in divorce (1-2). In a study of 136 couples who had been happily married and mostly reported satisfying, stable relationship trajectories over the course of the first four years of their marriage, Lavner and Bradbury found that by the time of the ten-year follow-up some 21 couples, 15%, had divorced (5). Of these, three divorces occurred prior to the fourth year of marriage, and overall, the findings demonstrated that divorce can occur even in marriages that were reported to be highly satisfying early on (5). In fact, the authors could find no significant differences in satisfaction between those who had divorced and those who had remained married by the time of the 10-year follow-up (5).

What, then, set the couples apart? The first interesting factor was age: the divorcees, even from very satisfied couples, tended to be of younger ages (Lavner and Bradbury 5). Two other predictors for divorce were lower incomes and coming from a family with divorced parents, on the husbands’ side but not the wives’ (5). Wives’ incomes and rates of parental divorce, however, were not significantly correlated with any trends in this regard (5). Even children seemed to make no difference at all: a total of 52 couples, 38%, had children within 4 years of marriage, and this had absolutely no discernible impact on whether or not they went on to divorce (5).

The more illuminating findings of Lavner and Bradbury with respect to predictors for divorce pertained to behavior and affect. In comparisons of interpersonal behaviors, they found differences not with positive capacities and affect, but rather with negative affect, skills, and behavior, notably husbands’ verbal aggression (5). These factors proved significant predictors of divorce: couples that divorced consistently displayed them to higher degrees than non-divorcing couples. As the authors explained, even though all the marriages were relatively low in distress, those couples that did engage in more negative patterns of affect and communication, i.e. anger and contempt, as well as such negative behavioral patterns as disagreement, blame, and invalidation, were significantly more likely to become divorced than those who used better communication strategies (6-7).

In the final analysis, there is much truth to the truism that communication is foundational to a successful relationship. Couples who communicate effectively have a much better chance of identifying problem areas, including perceived faults in each other as well as shared dynamics of behavior that are problematic. They are also much more likely to understand the identity considerations that a committed relationship will inevitably touch upon: the individual identities of each of the partners, which are in turn affected by their relationship to each other.

Once one understands this, other findings regarding the stability or instability of relationships begin to make a great deal more sense: homogamy, marriage based on preferences for similarities in one’s partner, seems to result in a better-than-average chance of successful communication between partners. This also explains the high divorce rates amongst couples who are married at a very young age, as well as those who are children of divorce: young couples often lack maturity, and children of divorce often inherit poor conflict-resolution skills from their parents. In conclusion, good communication on a foundation of mutual respect and trust appears to be the most important thing to ensure the success of a marriage.



Works Cited

Crooks, Robert L., and Karla Baur. Our Sexuality. 11th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2011. Print.

Greenberg, Leslie S., and Rhonda N. Goldman. “The dynamics of emotion, love and power in an emotion-focused approach to couple therapy”. Person Centered and Experiential Psychotherapies, 7.4 (2008): 279-293. EBSCOhost. Web. 13 Mar. 2013.

Lavner, Justin A., and Thomas N. Bradbury. “Why do even satisfied newlyweds eventually go on to divorce?” Journal of Family Psychology, 26.1 (2012): 1-10. EBSCOhost. Web. 13 Mar. 2013.

Luo, Shanhong, and Guangjian Zhang. “What leads to romantic attraction: Similarity, reciprocity, or beauty? Evidence from a speed-dating study”. Journal of Personality, 77.4 (2009): 933-964. EBSCOhost. Web. 13 Mar. 2013.

Pines, Ayala M. Falling in love: Why we choose the lovers we choose. 2nd ed. New York: Taylor & Francis Group, 2005. Print.

Rinaldi, Sergio, Fabio della Rossa, and Fabio Dercole. “Love and appeal in standard couples”. International Journal of Bifurcation and Chaos, 20.8 (2010): 2443-2451. EBSCOhost. Web. 13 Mar. 2013.

Weiten, Wayne, Dana S. Dunn, and Elizabeth Y. Hammer. Psychology applied to modern life: adjustment in the 21st century. 10th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2012. Print.

White, James M., and David M. Klein. Family theories. 3rd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc., 2008. Print.