What Is Romantic Love?
Is it an evolutionary adaptation, a social construct, or something else?
Posted Feb 09, 2020
It's important to distinguish: romantic love (also known as romance) has a more specific meaning, and refers to “intense attraction that involves the idealization of the other, within an erotic context, with the expectation of enduring for some time into the future.”1 In today’s post, I examine four ways of looking at romance.
1. Romantic love as an evolutionary adaptation.
Let me start with one of the less romantic views of romantic love, which suggests love is a product of forces that increase the chances of passing on one’s genes to future generations.
Some readers may be thinking that passing on one’s genes requires sex only, so what’s love got to do with it (as Tina Turner might say)?
To explain, let me first note we often seek romantic partners who have high levels of certain qualities (e.g., health, beauty, wealth). Assuming we succeed in acquiring a partner with those qualities, however, we face two problems.
One, those qualities do not last (e.g., our partners grow old, get ill, lose their high-paying jobs). Second, we may be tempted by individuals with greater positive attributes (e.g., richer, younger, smarter, prettier).
Love evolved as a solution to what Buss calls the “problem of commitment.” It is only when we love our partner that we refuse to leave them even if they lose what we value in them (e.g., money, looks, abilities) or if someone “better” comes along.
2. Romantic love as what unites us with our partner.
Switching now to what may be the most romantic view of love, let us talk about soulmates. In Plato’s The Symposium, Aristophanes gives the following famous story as the origins of soulmates:
Aristophanes says human beings were initially round (their sides and backs formed a circle), had four arms and legs, and one head with two faces which looked in opposite directions. As such, humans were very powerful. So Zeus decided to “cut them in two [so] they will be diminished in strength.”5
We human beings, as these split bodies, spend our lives seeking our other halves, so we can be whole again. It is this “desire and pursuit of the whole” that we call "love."
The idea of us looking for our other halves—and the idea that like attracts like—makes sense to many people because we often find ourselves attracted to those with whom we share much in common.
Research also supports this view. For instance, a 2006 study, in which participants rated various aspects of a married couple based on pictures of their faces, found “perceived age, attractiveness, and some personality traits [such as extraversion and conscientiousness] were similar between partners.”6
3. Romantic love as a blind force.
They say love is blind but is Cupid blind, too? In other words, do we fall in love with random people?
If love is a blind force, then romance might be triggered by chance encounters with random individuals—not by recognition of meeting a potential soulmate.
This view has also received research support. For instance, attraction is influenced by proximity. According to Zajonc’s “mere repeated exposure” theory, when we have regular contact with a stimulus, we develop a preference for that object, person, etc.7 This means we are more likely to feel attracted to—and form a romantic relationship with—our coworkers, classmates, or neighbors than with strangers.
Nevertheless, evidence showing that our choice of romantic relationships is influenced by proximity may pose a challenge to the more starry-eyed views of romantic love as possible only between soulmates.
4. Romantic love as a sociocultural construct.
Could it be that how we define love says more about our society and culture than it does about some absolute and universal concept of true love? Perhaps.
For instance, intimacy is an important element of romantic love, but what we consider intimate relationships in America arose in the early nineteenth century; they did so in the context of rapid modernization and urbanization, and the separation of the world of home from work. As one author put it: “Individualism and intimacy are the Siamese twins of modernization.”9
Nonetheless, even if we were to assume the essence of romantic love is universal and refers to the same thing today as it did many years ago, evidence suggests romantic love was often much less important in the past.
Case in point, in ancient Greece, marriage functioned as a means of reproduction and control over the inheritance of property; however, as societies changed over time so did the institution of marriage. Consequently, a new need arose for a type of love capable of bringing two people together in a “monogamous, lifelong, nuclear family-like bond,” a love that could take the place of “work previously done by patriarchal financial arrangements.” Romantic love became important in part because society “created certain specific work for it to do.”10
See if you spot any similarities in how your family, friends, or strangers celebrate this holiday. Contemplate what these similarities tell you about traditions and societal expectations (wherever you happen to be living in 2020), the significance of romance, what it means to be romantic, and the right way to celebrate love (e.g., with chocolates, cards, flowers). Consider whether it is possible for you to celebrate love differently. What would such a celebration of love look like?
Facebook image: G-Stock Studio/Shutterstock
1. Jankowiak, W. R., & Fischer, E. F. (1992). A cross-cultural perspective on romantic love. Ethnology, 31, 149-155.
2. Buss, D. M. (1988). Love acts: The evolutionary biology of love. In R. J. Sternberg & M. Barnes (Eds.), The psychology of love (pp. 100– 118). Yale University Press.
3. Buss, D. M. (2000). The dangerous passion: Why jealousy is as necessary as love and sex. Free Press.
4. Buss, D. M. (2006). The evolution of love. In R. J. Sternberg & K. Weis (Eds.), The new psychology of love (pp. 65– 86). Yale University Press.
5. Bury, R. G. (1932). The Symposium of Plato. Cambridge University Press.
6. Little, A. C., Burt, D. M., & Perrett, D. I. (2006). Assortative mating for perceived facial personality traits. Personality and Individual Differences, 40, 973-984.
7. Zajonc, R. B. (2001). Mere exposure: A gateway to the subliminal. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 10, 224–228.
8. Gottman, J. M., & Levenson, R. W. (2000). The timing of divorce: predicting when a couple will divorce over a 14-year period. Journal of Marriage and Family, 62, 737–45.
9. Gadlin, H. (1977). Private lives and public order. In G. Levinger & H. L. Raush (Eds.). Close relationships: Perspectives on the meaning of intimacy (pp. 33-72). University of Massachusetts Press.
10. Jenkins, C. (2017). What love is: And what it could be. Basic Books.