The Psychology of Love

Like hunger, thirst, sleep and sex, love is essential for human survival. It can often feel so primal and mysterious that it may be hard for some of us to define. For thousands of years, we’ve tried to understand how love works by studying it and writing about it in songs and poetry. We’ve seen love play out so many times in movies and television shows that we find ourselves time and time again rooting for our favorite couples and wishing to live out our own wildest dreams.

But if love has the ability to inspire entire nations to act in the name of love — after all, Helen of Troy was said to launch a thousand ships based on her beauty alone — can we ever hope to understand the breadth and depth of true love and all of its qualities?

Ahead of Valentine’s Day, psychologist Susan Albers, PsyD, breaks down the various types of love based on one popular psychological theory, how we move between different stages of our relationships, and how love languages can impact the way we support each other when we need it most.

Index

    Different types of love

    There are a number of theories that categorize the kinds of love we experience in our lives (and some that even stem as far back as the ancient Greeks). Dr. Albers points to Robert Sternberg’s Triangular Theory of Love, in particular as one theory that’s inclusive and easy to understand no matter the kind of relationship you’re in.

    Sternberg’s theory proposes that all relationships are fundamentally based on three key components that function as the three points of a relational triangle: intimacy, passion and commitment.

    • Intimacy is based on an emotional bond and a feeling of closeness and comfort.
    • Passion includes sexual and physical attraction and that feeling of romance.
    • Commitment is the decision or choice to love another person and the efforts that someone is willing to do to maintain that relationship.

    “Attraction is more like a magnetic force you can feel,” says Dr. Albers. “When those fun butterfly feelings evolve into a warm sense of commitment and care for someone’s needs, this is a sign of love developing.”

    There are eight kinds of love that can occur based on varying levels of each key component. Each kind of love is different enough that you might find yourself maintaining relationships in several categories, but sometimes, a single relationship will evolve over time, transitioning among the types along the way.

    Non-love

    This type of love is a bit self-explanatory. In this type of connection, you’re indifferent to the other person. There’s no passion, no intimacy and no need for commitment. This person may be someone you see on the street, an acquaintance or someone you know very casually.

    Liking

    This type of love is the basis for most friendships. In this category, you’re high on intimacy but there’s no passion or commitment. In this type of love, you’re more focused on the real close bond you share with someone else, so you strengthen that bond over similar qualities, interests or characteristics.

    Infatuation

    High in passion, but without intimacy or commitment, this is what most people think of when they have a crush or experience love at first sight. You may not know someone on a deeper level, but you’ll experience real physical changes like the feeling of butterflies in your stomach or a sense of anxiousness or a flush of desire whenever you see or think about the person you’re attracted to. “A lot of relationships start out this way and then, if they’re going to be lasting, they turn over into something more romantic,” says Dr. Albers.

    Empty love

    If you’re experiencing high levels of commitment, but you’re without passion or intimacy, this is called empty love. Sometimes, this can be the starting point in an arranged marriage or couples find themselves experiencing this type of love if they’re staying together for their kids or not financially stable enough to leave a relationship. “Unfortunately, I think I see empty love the most in counseling,” says Dr. Albers. “This can feel like a really difficult place for people because they feel kind of stuck. They want to build more intimacy or passion because it was there initially.”

    Romantic love

    This type of love may encompass a few kinds of relationships. High in passion and intimacy, but without commitment, you may fall into this type if you’re dating someone but you’re not quite exclusive. Friends with benefits fall into this category, too, especially if you’ve known someone for a while and have a close bond. “Maybe they’ve been burned in the past or maybe they’re divorced and afraid of recommitting,” says Dr. Albers. “Maybe they feel that spark but they’re unsure if this is someone they want to commit to.”

    Companionate love

    Think of this stage as an elevated form of liking: Maybe you’ve been friends for years or you’re best friends who rely on each other through thick and thin. With high levels of intimacy and commitment, but no passion, these are some of your deepest bonds that can often lead to a lifetime of connection.

    Fatuous love

    This type of love burns bright and fast. High in passion and commitment, but without intimacy, this is a swift-moving relationship that evolves from one stage to the next quite quickly. Maybe you’re comfortable moving in or getting married much sooner than most. Sexual attraction is a huge driver for this kind of relationship, but perhaps you don’t know each other on a deeper level than in other relationships.

    “You feel a lot of sparks toward this person and you’re committed, but all of a sudden, you might start to realize that there’s no emotional connection,” explains Dr. Albers. “It’s hard to get out of this relationship because you’ve already tied yourself in.” And, when some relationships burn too bright too fast, they may burn out quickly, resulting in someone getting ghosted.

    Consummate love

    This is the kind of love that’s top tier, the one all the movies, books and songs try to capture in one fell swoop. Sternberg theorized that all relationships should try to achieve this type of love, but this is the most difficult love to achieve, as it requires a perfect balance among high levels of intimacy, passion and commitment.

    “This is the gold standard of relationships,” says Dr. Albers. “There are a lot of expectations or feelings in how your relationship should be, but the reality of life is that it’s hard to always feel passionate with your partner and sometimes it’s a challenge to have the time to connect with your significant other.”

    Regardless of where your relationship falls, it’s important to recognize that while there’s no wrong way to build a relationship, the kind of love you’re searching for depends on the degree you work on all three key components.

    “Relationships that are based on a single element are less likely to survive and keep going than one based on two or more aspects,” says Dr. Albers. “It’s helpful to know which pieces are missing or which pieces you want to build up in your relationship.”

    Stages of love

    So how long does it take for someone to fall in love?

    For some, it takes mere seconds and for others, it could take years. If someone has had more positive experiences and knows exactly what they want, love can happen more quickly than someone who might have experienced hard breakups or trauma. But it also depends on how you’re defining love and the strength of your connection.

    “Your history and the strength of your physical reactions can dictate how quickly you fall in love,” says Dr. Albers. “Some people call the first initial stage of infatuation love and other people move toward the last stage of attachment and that’s when they put the label of love on it.”

    Stage one: Falling in love

    Attraction comes at you fast. According to one study, it takes just one-fifth of a second for someone to know if they’re attracted to someone. That heady rush of dopamine brings on a flush of feelings, notably butterflies, intense longing and fixation. In fact, some neurobiological studies indicate areas of the brain become increasingly more excited when someone sees the face of the person they love or are attracted to.

    “Love starts in the brain, not the heart,” says Dr. Albers. “When people report being in love, they have a tsunami of activity in the brain.”

    Often, we’re attracted to someone that feels familiar, so if you happen to have a type, there’s probably a reason for that.

    “There is a lot happening unconsciously in terms of the pull toward someone and it’s usually because they’re familiar in some way, whether it’s their mannerisms, their demeanor or their presentation of the world,” explains Dr. Albers.

    However short-lived this first initial stage of love may be, there’s a certain level of excitement and drive associated with it to kickstart the rest of your relationship, should it go any further than love at first sight.

    Stage two: Getting to the good part

    If the first stage of falling in love is about attraction, the second stage is all about removing the rose-colored glasses and really seeing the person you’re attracted to. It’s normal to transplant expectations and desires on the person we’re attracted to in an effort to fit the mold for that theatrical romance we’ve always dreamed about. But that often means you’ll overlook red flags.

    “In the second stage, there’s some disillusionment,” says Dr. Albers. “You really get to know who they are instead of who you want them to be. If you continue to bond and like who you see, that’s what moves you into the next phase.”

    Sometimes, love can be challenging in that it fulfills a need in the moment, and then that need may eventually change over time. Sometimes, you might find that your needs are overlooked in exchange for prioritizing your partner’s needs, which results in a codependent relationship. But the biggest takeaway here is: If someone doesn’t love you on the same level you love them, that’s OK.

    “A lot of times, people take it personally,” says Dr. Albers. “Them not loving you has more to do with them than it does with you. The people who are the most successful at love are those that can accept the other person for who they are without trying to change them.”

    Stage three: Creating an attachment

    Over time, your dopamine levels tend to drop off so that the thrill of love and all that adrenaline you feel during initial attraction starts to settle down. As you further solidify your connection with your partner and create an attachment to them, your brain increases its levels of oxytocin and vasopressin, which help maintain that bonded feeling you have for longer periods.

    “Those feelings of lust and that wild excitement of attraction mellows and turns into feelings of connection,” says Dr. Albers. “It goes from fireworks to feeling like you care about that person’s needs and you’re interested in their future and you invest in them.”

    Once you’re attached to someone, they play a pretty significant role in your life even when you’re participating in the smallest, mundane, everyday activities. You tend to grow together and partner up: It’s your team against the world.

    And if at some point that attachment deteriorates and you end up growing apart from one another, you’re forever changed by it.

    “When people talk about people from their past that they’ve loved, they’ve been changed by it in some ways that can’t ever be undone,” says Dr. Albers. “They still play a role in your memory and care, and those experiences change what love means to you.”

    How your love languages affect your relationships

    With all the physical changes that come with falling in love, and all the added pressure of expectations versus reality, it can seem a bit daunting when trying to figure out how to strengthen relationships and maintain them long past the honeymoon phase. If you’re looking to start with simple solutions, Dr. Albers suggests considering the five love languages, a concept created by author Gary Chapman in 1992.

    “It’s a simple way to communicate the very important concept that there are various ways to feel loved,” says Dr. Albers.

    The idea poses that there are five main love languages in which we express love and want to be loved, and while you may find more meaningful experiences by expressing one of these languages, your partner may find more meaning in others. The key here is identifying how you want to be loved, but also finding ways to love your partner through these five areas:

    • Words of affirmation: Telling your partner what you love about them, small acts of praise or giving them compliments are small ways to express this love language — but it doesn’t have to stop at words.You can send a thoughtful card, email or text, or share a meaningful memory, photo, meme or social media post to drive this one home.
    • Acts of service: This love language is about picking up responsibility in small and meaningful ways. Maybe your partner doesn’t like doing a certain chore, so you pick that up for them. Or, it could be as simple as cooking them breakfast, bringing them a cup of coffee or offering to run errands when they’re short on time or feeling sick. “Love is a verb,” says Dr. Albers. “Do one thing each day to make your partner feel special.”
    • Quality time: If your partner loves new experiences and date night ideas, this might be the area to focus on. The key here is to give your partner your undivided attention. Maybe go on a walk, watch a movie or pick up a hobby together. Whatever you decide to do, it’s important to do it fully with your partner’s focus front and center. “You can do acts of service while spending time together,” says Dr. Albers. “When your partner is talking, put down your phone and really take in what they’re saying.”
    • Gift giving: Roses, jewelry or any small token of your affection — this one is pretty straightforward and tends to be amplified when important events, holidays or anniversaries roll around. And you don’t necessarily need to go big or go home — a gift can be something as simple as picking up their favorite snack for your next movie night.
    • Physical touch: This could be as simple as holding hands, cuddling, a kiss or a hug. If physical touch is high on your partner’s list, sexual intimacy may also rank high on their priorities. “The person who uses words to express their affection instead of touch may have to work a bit harder to get out of their comfort zone and think about connecting through touch,” notes Dr. Albers.

    The sooner you communicate with your partner, the easier it’ll become to love, elevate and support them. And if there is ever a lull in the relationship, turning to these love languages as life rafts may be key in getting things back on the right track.

    “You can identify what someone’s love language is at any point and it’s really a helpful tool in helping to express how you care about someone,” says Dr. Albers.

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