- Love comes in many forms, but the feeling of love may follow after specific interpersonal dynamics.
- Responsiveness is a primary dynamic underlying the feeling of love.
- Love requires an experience of authentic connection.
- People see stability in the behavior of others as necessary for love.
"Am I in love?"
"Is this what love feels like?"
Have you ever asked these questions? For some people, these questions arise when a relationship is on the cusp of becoming something real. Other people find themselves puzzling about love in their long-term relationships: "Is this feeling love?" "Do I still love my partner?" "Does my partner still love me?"
To really know what love is, we need to 1) recognize its different versions, and 2) be able to describe exactly what people feel whenever they feel love. Most existing research has focused on the former, adding clarity to how different types of love differ from each other. Surprisingly little research has focused on the latter, making the recent research by Xia and colleagues (2023), out of the University of Alabama, an exciting advancement in relationship science.
Love Comes in Different Forms
Anyone who has loved a grandparent, a teacher, or a romantic partner knows that "love" comes in many forms. The field of relationship science has devoted considerable energy to articulating this diversity. Consider the taxonomy developed by Berscheid (2010):
- Romantic or passionate love: Some love is a high-intensity experience. Scholars use the terms romantic love or passionate love to describe a kind of love that includes sexual attraction, a wide range of intense emotions (high highs! low lows!), physiological arousal, and mental preoccupation.
- Companionate love: A peaceful, intimate type of love, companionate love is akin to friendship love and embodies care, concern, and closeness to another person.
- Compassionate love: Some love centers on our interest in serving another person, be they our child, friend, or parent. Compassionate love captures this other-orientated love, wherein we are deeply motivated to be there for another.
- Attachment love: Love can also feel like a tether, one that pulls us towards another in times of need. Attachment love refers to interpersonal bonds that define whom we seek and with whom we feel safest when we're distressed.
Naming variations of love is an exercise in identifying what makes some love different from other types of love. While helpful, this taxonomy circumvents a critical question: What is the same about these experiences that makes the specific feeling of "love"? In other words: What are the core features of love?
Scientists May Now Know the Core Features of Love
Recent research zeroed in on the feeling of love, with the goal of identifying its core features (Xia et al., 2023): what makes people feel loved? Critically, they pursued this question across a variety of interpersonal contexts. In other words, whether you're in the midst of a hot fling, missing your favorite cousin, or planning a party for your bestie, the feeling that arises as you consider these people—love—has some shared qualities.
A little more than 450 undergraduate students (majority white, female) were asked how their parents, partners, and friends make them experience the feeling of love (Xia et al., 2023). With this question and rigorous analysis of nearly 1,400 participant responses, the researchers were able to identify common themes that reveal the heart, as it were, of what makes love, love.
Love Is Responsiveness, Connection, and Stability
How do you know if what you're feeling is love? Based on Xia and colleagues' (2023) research, your relationship is marked by these core features.
- Positive responsiveness. People believe that love—all types of love—is felt when another person validates you, is sensitive and responsive to your needs, and shows caring. This positive responsiveness emerged as an essential feature of love (Xia et al., 2023). Looking closer, the researchers identified the actual behaviors that make up responsiveness. They include a) demonstrating affection, b) enhancing another's sense of self-worth, and c) providing support.
- Authentic connection. What does it feel like to experience intimacy without performance or facade? Authentic connection is the second core feature of love revealed in Xia et al.'s (2023) research. Love is felt when you're being who you really are, with vulnerability and openness, and experiencing belonging and togetherness with another person. The dynamics driving authentic connection include a) mutual affinity, when people want to be together and share experiences, and b) being "in tune," which is akin to interpersonal chemistry.
- Stability. The final relationship feature that leads to feelings of love is stability (Xia et al., 2023). It turns out that love tends to follow from steadiness, not uncertainty; from consistency, not unpredictability. Stability happens when people behave in ways that are a) unconditional, emphasizing acceptance, and b) dependable, which underscores the importance of reliability and trustworthiness.
Love is an Outcome of Specific Interpersonal Dynamics
People believe that the feeling of love comes from experiencing positive responsiveness, authentic connection, and stability (Xia et al., 2023). These core features seem to comprise the thread that weaves varied forms of love together, even as they might manifest differently.
For example, how a romantic partner uses affection to show positive responsiveness may be qualitatively different from how a parent or friend does so. Different behaviors can produce the same fundamental dynamic leading to love.
This work (Xia et al., 2023) makes important strides towards defining the feeling of love. Future work will benefit from extending beyond undergraduates to adults and older adults. Further, pushing beyond self-reports would be useful. We may be able to report on what we think the underpinnings of love are, but great insight could be gained by finding alternative ways to measure relationship dynamics and link them to what love is.
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Xia, M., Chen, Y., & Dunne, S. (2023). What makes people feel loved? An exploratory study on core elements of love across family, romantic, and friend relationships. Family Process, e12873.