Evolution of the Self

On the paradoxes of personality

The Hidden Role of Flattery and Baby Talk in Romantic Love

Can romantic love transport us back to babyhood bliss?

“O flatter me, for love delights in praises.” ~ Shakespeare, The Two Gentlemen of Verona

The above line provides a kind of paradoxical “antidote” for a more recent quote from Oscar Wilde’s comedy of manners, The Importance of Being Earnest. In this 1894 satiric play Wilde has a character intriguingly state: “The very essence of romance is uncertainty.” Assuming that this counter-intuitive perspective is on target, what might be one of the most effective ways to reduce lovers’ doubts—even though, ironically, these doubts might yet be intrinsic to their romance? What might help enamored partners assure themselves they were every bit as loved as they were loving? That their ever-growing—almost overwhelming—emotional commitment was shared?

When one is in love, nothing could make the lover happier than to feel secure about the other person’s returning that love: That the inflamed—and frankly obsessive—feelings about the object of their passion are in fact reciprocal. If love does in fact “delight in praises,” it is through this flattery that both parties can be encouraged and reassured that their relationship is exceptional, extraordinary, unique.

Besides, sharing one’s feelings of enchantment with the beloved may be one of the most compelling emotional drives imaginable—at times a need that’s simply overpowering. Popular songs talk about shouting it out from the rooftops, “globally” declaring how smitten one is with the beloved. And, unashamedly, lovers have even hired planes to carry banners—or “skywrite”—their head-over-heals passion. Should the loved object be even further beguiled by such unrestrained exhibitionist displays, how might this best be explained? Or, to put it a little differently, how is it that lavish acts of flattery can be so endearing?—that, beyond all reason, they can supercharge romantic feelings?

And here we might want to explore how both the affectionately flattering language of romantic—or passionate—love, and its particular neurochemistry, can blissfully transport us back to the earliest joys and gratifications of childhood. For example, consider the admittedly sappy terms of endearment below, which highlight not simply the wondrously captivating “baby talk” of love, but also its frequent allusions to childish sweets and delectables (especially pies!), primal rhymes, and cute/diminutive young animals, birds—and even insects:

· babe, baby, baby face, baby cakes, baby girl, baby doll, doll baby, and dolly boy;

· bugsy, chick, munchkin, pet, pussy cakes, and kitten [cf. (ahem!) sex kitten];

· buttercup; cookie face, cupcake, and gumdrop;

· cuddle bear and cuddly-wuddly;

· cutie and cutie pie;

· honey, honey bun, honey-bunny, snuggle bunny, and honey pie;

· love bug, lovey-dovey, and love muffin;

· poopsy and poopsy-woopsy;

· puddin’, puddin’ pie, and pumpkin;

· sugar, sugar daddy, sugar bun, sugar plum, and sugar pie;

· sweet, sweetie, sweetheart, sweet pea, and sweetie pie;

· toots, tootsie, tootsie-wootsy, and tootsie pie.

And this is just a sampling of such regressive—or “cutsey”—language. With a little reflection, doubtless you can come up with several other tender, doting, or mushy expressions.

The biochemistry of romantic partnerships also replicates the lovers’ earliest experiences of love and being loved by their parents. So, examining the main neurotransmitters involved in both scenarios:

· Dopamine activates the brain’s reward centers, so that an enamored couple is driven to spend as much time together as possible—as, similarly, a mother is with her infant. It’s released when a loving mother exhibits attachment behaviors with her baby and is linked to positive feelings of pleasure, excitement, and exhilaration; increased energy; and a heightened focus of attention.

· Phenylethylamine (or PEA)—also amphetamine-like—is the chemical correlate of the physical and psychological connection between lovers. It’s the love chemical, And it induces the same euphoric feelings—or “rush”—that mother (or possibly father) and child can have in each other’s close, alluring company.

· Oxytocin—the emotional attachment, or “bonding,” hormone—contributes further to the soothing, comforting, at times blissful feelings of intimate physical contact characteristic of both baby/mother love and romantic love. Early in life, it’s released both during nursing and parent/child touching and hugging. For romantic partners, it’s also triggered during orgasm. Additionally, when mother and baby are apart, they can each experience a powerful longing to re-unite—just as lovers can miss each other terribly even when separated for only brief periods.

Given all these similarities, it’s hardly coincidental that romantic partners not only complimentarily call one another “baby” but engage in “baby talk” similar to how parents talk to their actual babies.

Childhood—especially early childhood—is a time when the universal need to feel unconditionally accepted, cared and approved of, is paramount. It’s undeniable that in the glorious “heat” of a passionate attachment lovers get the most unreserved, criticism-free confirmation of their relational value. They feel fulfilled perhaps like never before (or at least not since infancy). And this gratification of their heart’s deepest desire to feel not just positively regarded but cherished and adored erases any and all anxiety about being abandoned—unquestionably, a child’s worst nightmare.

So how, precisely, does flattery fit into this larger dynamic? Certainly, the infatuated nicknames and ingratiating compliments might be spontaneous (and to the flatterer, in the moment they almost always feel spontaneous). But they can also be viewed as, however unconsciously, a major part of a lover’s strategy to persuade the one receiving such flattery to become as enamored with them as they are to their beloved. After all, they’re the ones responsible for giving the enamored object the rosy glow of feeling really, really special. The broad assortment of fervid words expressing adulation, admiration, affection, appreciation, devotion, fondness, praise, and downright reverence are instrumental in securing for themselves the loving feelings they themselves are so eager to put on verbal display. Besides, as pointedly articulated in a book published over a century ago, “The lover sees, thinks, and feels only in superlatives” (Henry T. Finck, Romantic Love and Personal Beauty, New York: Macmillan, 1887).

So what do some of these enthusiastic superlatives sound like? Consider the folflowing:

· I love hearing the sound of your voice!

· Really! I can’t help but look up to you! You’re so superior to me!

· I never thought I could feel this way!

· I can’t stop thinking about you!

· You’re always in my heart!

· I can’t tell you what your love does to me!

· You’re so sexy! Nobody could ever turn me on the way you do!

· You are so precious to me!

· When we’re not together, I miss you so much it hurts! [a "withdrawal" symptom, perhaps?]

· I can’t tell you what it does to me when I look into your eyes!

· To me, you’re the most beautiful [or handsome] woman [or man] in the world!

· You are so special to me!

Note that such utterances aren’t simply “lines” optimally phrased for seduction. They’re not crafted, contrived, or calculated to ensnare the one so prized. No, they’re impulsive and unpremeditated, with no purpose other than to permit the speaker to emote what she (or more often, he) is holding inside. Such amorous declarations both relieve internal pressure and feel good to say . . . just as—assuming the feelings are mutual—they feel really good to hear.

Not that flattery can’t be overdone—be overly saccharine or syrupy. But if the sentiment expressed is natural and authentic (however hackneyed!), it’s unlikely that it will be taken as spurious. And it will help assure the beloved that what’s “the real thing” for them is for you, too. That the words imply a loving, long-term commitment that will last even when the unsustainably blazing fire of romance ultimately dies down.


NOTE: If this article in some way “spoke” to you, and you think it might to others as well, please consider sending them the link. Additionally, if you'd like to check out other posts I've done for Psychology Today, click here.

© 2013 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D., who holds doctorates in English and Psychology, is a clinical psychologist and author of Paradoxical Strategies in Psychotherapy.


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