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The Psychology of Love

Ahh February, the month of love! With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, we will all be faced with a barrage of commercials pushing candy, flowers, and greeting cards at us. But what is love REALLY all about? The answer isn’t quite as simple as dimming the lights, lighting some candles, and serving dinner on your grandma’s china. There are actually several different types of love, and we experience these different types at different stages in our relationships. When we are babies, our first loves are our parents. The warmth, nurture, and affection they show us helps us form those early attachments and once we do, we have the capability to continue to form secure attachments throughout our lives. The love hormone, oxytocin, surges in both parties through hugging, kissing, and holding, and it is so soothing and bonding that those connections typically last a lifetime. As adults, if we have healthy relationships, we feel safe and secure and are comfortable with close and intimate contact. If for some reason there was a breakdown in those initial attachments though, we can be insecure in our attachments, uncomfortable with being close to others, and can demonstrate addictive or destructive behaviors to ourselves and others. I actually started my career in Social Psychology, working with parents, children, teens, and families, and then later worked with addicts. What we learn very early on about relationships with our parents and the role models we have for romantic relationships, is very indicative of what your future relationships will look like. For today, let’s talk about what happens when you have a healthy relationship, and go through the cycles every relationship can experience.

The first thing to know when looking at romantic relationships is what the magic formula is. Psychologist Robert Sternberg’s theory on the 7 types of love explains that the ingredients to love are intimacy, warmth/closeness, passion, and commitment. Love is like a cocktail, and there are 7 different variations based on which of those ingredients are added. The first combination is that of friendship, which consists of intimacy only. When you feel love for a friend, you have that closeness with them, but not the passion or commitment that you may experience with a romantic relationship. The second type of love is infatuation, and as you may have guessed, this one is straight passion. That’s when you have that initial physical attraction to someone, but no closeness and no commitment. But when you go to the complete opposite end of the spectrum, you get empty love, which is 100% commitment, with no
passion or intimacy. The fourth type of love is what we think of when you are in a dating relationship. You have the passion and intimacy, but you don’t have the commitment involved. Companionate love is when you have both intimacy and commitment, but you are lacking in the passion department. Many of us think that is how marriage is long term. We strive for that closeness and commitment but resign ourselves to thinking that passion will naturally fade. And fatuous love is defined by its commitment that is motivated by passion but is missing intimacy. Think of that whirlwind romance in the movies where someone gets swept off their feet and gets married in a wave of passion.

So what is the ideal that we are all striving for? That is the seventh and final type of love, which is consummate love. It’s the trifecta of intimacy, passion, and commitment all in one. Now that doesn’t mean that over the years a relationship doesn’t evolve, going through all or most of the different stages at one point or another. But it does mean that when you look at the relationship as a whole, it has a nice harmony of all 3 ingredients, like the perfect mixed drink. Not too sweet, not too sour, not too boring, and not too overpowering. It’s smooth, satisfying, and is well balanced. While we are being hit over the head with Valentine’s propaganda this month, take a look at your own romantic relationship-if you’re in one- and see what the ingredients are. Then ask yourself if you’re happy with the mix, or if you want to add a little extra passion, increase your intimacy, or dial up the commitment level. Or perhaps you aren’t
currently in a relationship, and you can look back at past relationships and see what were the key missing components that led to that relationship not lasting. Whichever is the case, decide what the perfect love cocktail looks like to you, and then mix it up!

If you’d like to explore further what having the support of a mental wellness coach looks like, let’s talk.