More Than Mortal

The science of the human quest for meaning, significance, and self-transcendence.

Love Conquers Death

Does love really conquer all?

Like other animals, humans strive for survival. However, we are unique in our ability to fully contemplate our mortality. And, as I have noted in previous posts, this awareness has interesting, ironic, and sometimes dangerous implications. People cling to their religious beliefs, struggle to live up to cultural standards of value (even if such standards are maladaptive), and go to great lengths to deny the fact that they are just as screwed as every other biological organism. One topic I have yet to touch on rega
rding the many ways people navigate existential concerns about mortality is romantic love. Can love protect us from our concerns about death? When we say love conquers all, do we also mean love conquers death?

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This is the question that a group of researchers from Israel have been considering for the last decade or so. Social psychologists Mario Mikulincer, Gilad Hirscherberger, and the late Victor Florian proposed that close relationships, and specifically romantic relationships, provide psychological security when people are faced with situations that trigger thoughts about death. First, according to these researchers, close relationships have an evolutionary basis as they help ensure the survival of our genes. However, love isn't just about getting laid and making sure our offspring have a fighting chance. In addition, and critically, love helps regulate distress.

It starts with our parents. Babies are extremely helpless. They rely almost entirely on their caregivers for nurturance and security. Thus, the infant quickly learns to associate comfort and protection with mom and dad. When a baby is distressed (e.g., hungry, cold, scared, uncomfortable), her or his caregiver usually alleviates this distress. Quite simply, when we are babies and children, our close relationships with our caregivers provide us with the protection (physical and psychological) we need from all of our basic concerns. One of the most prominent theories in psychology, attachment theory, is based on this idea.

The problem is we grow up and learn that mom and dad are just as screwed as we are. When we were little, they gave us food, shelter and security. However, as we get older, we realize that our parents cannot protect us from everything. They cannot protect us from our mortal vulnerabilities. This is when we start to turn to other sources of security (religion, group identities). Our security blanket was mom and dad, but now it is our cultural beliefs that make us feel more than mortal.
So where does love come in? According to Mikulincer and colleagues, as well as a number of other researchers who use attachment theory to study adult romantic relationships, when we are older, we don't just rely on our cultural beliefs and group identities for psychological security. We, or at least many of us, still turn to close relationships to regulate distress. However, instead of our parents, we turn to our romantic partners. How does this work?

First, as previously noted, romantic love promotes gene replication and survival. And we gain some psychological comfort from feeling that our family will live on even after we die. Second, our romantic relationships give life meaning and this helps us feel more than mortal. People love to believe in things like romantic destiny (i.e., having a soul mate). I don't want to be a buzzkill, but there is no real good reason to believe in such things. However, believing in these things makes us feel magical and special, not creaturely and mortal. Third, a close relationship expands our sense of self. The longer people are together, the more their conceptions of self merge. This is what some researchers call a relational self (a self defined by a romantic partnership). And, like having children, this broader sense of self means that our identities are not tied to our mortality. Through our relationships and children, we transcend death. Such feelings are quite comforting and thus serve to regulate distress related to an awareness of mortality.

All of this may sound good but is there any scientific data to support it? Yes. In a series of studies, Florian, Mikulincer, and Hirscherberger found that when people were thinking about death, they responded with increased commitment to their romantic relationships. In another study, they found that when people were thinking about death, giving them an opportunity to think about their commitment to a romantic partner eliminated the need to turn to other cultural means of coping with concerns about death. Finally, and quite fascinatingly, these researchers found that having people think about problems in their romantic relationships actually increased thoughts related to death. That is, when the security blanket of love was compromised, concerns about death rose to the surface. More recent studies have further explored these issues but the bottom line is there is evidence that love conquers death, or at least the psychologically threatening nature of death.

In a world that is growing increasing secular and culturally diverse, perhaps it is comforting to know that love can offer the psychological security that we often think of people getting from their religions and cultural identifications. This isn't to say that religion or cultural and group identities will go away, or that they should. It is simply to say that our romantic relationships may offer us a viable and potentially more desirable way to cope with existential concerns about mortality. Religion can offer great comfort, but it also has contributed to a number of social problems and cultural conflicts. Cultural identities have their perks, but they also can promote bias, prejudice, and violence. Romantic love may thus be a healthier and more socially advantageous way to find psychological security for a species fully aware of its date with death.

Further reading:

Florian, V., Mikulincer, M., & Hirschberger, G. (2002). The anxiety-buffering function of close relationships: Evidence that relationship commitment acts as a terror management mechanism. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82, 527-542.

Clay Routledge is an associate professor of Psychology at North Dakota State University.

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