It’s perhaps the biggest question there is, debated for centuries by philosophers and poets.

But what does psychology have to say about love?

Love in psychology and psychiatry

Evolutionary psychology sees love as a 'psychological adaption', a mechanism that helps us solve problems and increases our chances of survival. Parental love ensures a child’s safety. Family love leads to social systems that again increase our odds of survival, and romantic love keeps us monogamous, meaning we are less likely to fall prey to sexually transmitted diseases.

Psychiatry, with it's connection to neuroscience, gives us red flags about how addictive love can be. A 2017 study published in the journal Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology, reviewing prior research around the relationship between addiction and love, even provocatively suggests that at it's beginnings, all love triggers addictive neurochemical responses and behavior/reward cycles in the brain.

Not very romantic, is it? But these are just two branches of the field of psychology.

In general, psychology sees love as more of a social (how we interact) and cognitive (how we think) phenomenon.

Models of love in psychology

To explain love as a cognitive and social phenomenon, psychologists have turned to models. These models for love are admittedly not new. They arose from a surge of research on the topic in the 1970s and 1980s, with others building on the research since then. But they can still give us interesting ways to answer for ourselves the question of 'what is love'.

The triangular theory of love

Created by American psychologist Robert Sternberg, the triangle is a simple system that attempts to explain all kinds of love.

At it’s base are three main components, the three points of the triangle: intimacy, passion, commitment. From these three components arise eight types of love.

If you work with just one point, you get things like empty love (commitment without anything else), lust (just passion), and friendship (just closeness/intimacy).

Ideally, a a healthy romantic relationship of course is seen to contain all points, called 'consummate love'.

The colour wheel of love

This is again a way of categorising types of love. It divides love into six types, or ‘colours’ including:

  • Eros (idealisation)
  • Ludos (love as a game/excitement)
  • Storge (friendship, stability)
  • pragma (practical)
  • mania (highs and lows, obsession)
  • agape (selfless/unconditional).

The prototype model

The basic idea behind this rather complicated model is that we grow concepts in layers, from the bottom up, including our concept of love. Think of a child learning about fruit, then apple, then a Granny Smith, gradually honing in on a more detailed idea of something.

So we create our ‘prototype’ of love with our own life experience and influences.

Maternal love becomes the baseline here, and was in fact found to be the most quoted example of love by researchers looking at this prototype model (read more about this model and all the models of love here).

Later research on the prototypye model carried out by psychologists Arthur Aron and Lori Westbay found that all the dimensions that arose could be reduced to passion, intimacy, and commitment. This aligns the prototype model with the triangular model.

The Love Scale

An idea of romantic love put forth by psychologist Elaine Hatfield, this divides romance into compassionate or ‘companionate’ love, and passionate love.

Compassionate love is based around trust, affection, and respect, and passionate love is rather what it sounds like -- sexual attraction and intense emotions. Passionate love can settle into compassionate love over time.

Although at first the theory leaned toward suggesting that compassionate love was the recipe for a long-term relationship, more recent research suggests we need a balance of both types to have relationship success.

What is love? Look at what it isn't

What these models prove is that love is complicated and multi-faceted. And it's also hard work. Note that most models include a mention of commitment.

And note what is missing from the models, showing what love is not. This includes:

I can't commit to a relationship or find love

If we can't feel connected to others, or feel anxious in relationships, or just don't know how to love? It usually means that our childhood didn't give us the tools we need. Or, worse, threw difficult or abusive experiences at us that left us with negative core beliefs that hold us back from intimacy.

Ready to resolve the childhood issues that stop you from finding love? And learn how to relate in ways that make connection easier? Find a therapist you like, book now, and make this the week you move forward.

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