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Relationships

What Is Love?

No, seriously. What does it mean to be in love?

Key points

  • Love involves some combination of intimacy, passion, and commitment.
  • Cross-cultural research provides evidence that these components are universal.
  • Of all the people in the world, there is likely just a handful at most in your lifetime with whom you will fall in love.

Dissecting the components of love, as research scientists like to do, seems a little unromantic perhaps. However, as humans, we are fundamentally sharing the same evolved brain in many respects, even if our experiences across our varying lives differ enormously. This means we can go far in the field of psychology in terms of understanding some universal experiences—one of which is love.

Can we really untangle the components of love?

Yes, yes we can!

Marcelo Rangel/Unsplash
Ever wonder whether it's love?
Source: Marcelo Rangel/Unsplash

New research reveals that there is considerable universality in our experiences of love, meaning that there appear to be some dimensions of love that are common across the world. Building upon a substantial body of research on love, a large survey across 25 countries reinforced evidence that there are three key components of love that typically characterize our romantic relationships (Sorokowski, 2021).

What are the three components of love?

These three components are (drumroll please): intimacy, passion, and commitment.

Intimacy refers to feelings of closeness and connection, warmth, caring, and sharing. Intimacy is not exclusive to romantic relationships of course, but it is a key “warm” component. Passion refers to intense feelings of attraction, and like a magnetic force, it feels very strongly like being drawn to someone emotionally and physically. Passion is the “hot” component. Commitment is more cerebral than intimacy and passion and is considered the “cold” component. It refers to the deliberate decision to invest in a relationship over the long term.

Sternberg’s Triangular Theory of Love (Sternberg, 1988) is relevant here as it indicates that our relationships involve combinations of these components, and these combinations occur at varying intensities. One can have passion, even commitment, but no intimacy for instance (think of a Vegas wedding scenario). Or one can have commitment to a relationship, but no passion nor intimacy (picture your grandparents’ traditional relationship after many years of strain, perhaps).

What if you don't have high scores across intimacy, passion, and commitment?

Some people experience high levels of intimacy, passion, and commitment simultaneously throughout the entire course of their relationship; this is definitely an ideal scenario but certainly not one that is typical. Others only experience high levels of one, or low levels of two.

Passion tends to peak fairly quickly (within 6-12 months), whereas commitment is the slow burner—it generally increases steadily for long-term relationships. Intimacy increases steadily at first then typically decreases over the long run.

If you expect that love should always feel like a roller coaster (high passion), you might be upset and worry that you have fallen out of love when your relationship moves into a more companionate (lower passion but growing intimacy) phase—more like a riverboat cruise than a roller coaster.

However, that shift is typical of romantic relationships and occurs because of the gains in comfort and closeness overall, which doesn’t always work well with the high-stakes intensity that passion involves, including those emotional highs and lows. These trajectories are normal, but there are some variations for sure.

Expect some fluctuations across the duration of your relationship

Most people need to work at keeping passion in their relationships, and commitment can be undermined by a wide range of events that can shake the foundation of your relationship. For example, infidelity can shatter commitment, as I’ve discussed before in this blog. But even gradual changes in partner’s life plans can also challenge commitment if it draws the partners apart.

Eric Ward/Unsplash
Source: Eric Ward/Unsplash

In sum, there are many paths to love, but three primary ingredients. Psychological research removes some of the mystery and drama that colors our romantic experiences. Of all the people across the world, there is likely just a handful at most in your lifetime with whom you will fall in love—maybe just one, maybe none. Despite all that we know, who a person will fall in love with and what keeps that love alive remain mysteries (for now).

References

Sternberg, R. J. (1986). A triangular theory of love. Intimacy, passion, commitment. Basic Books.

Sorokowski, P., et al. (2021). Universality of the Triangular Theory of Love: Adaptation and psychometric properties of the Triangular Love Scale in 25 countries. Journal of Sex Research, 58(1), 106-115.

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