If psychologists could define love, they’d be far ahead of every poet, playwright, and songwriter who’s ever tried to put this elusive feeling into words. Love mostly provides pleasure, but as many of us know, that pleasure can come with a heavy price.
It may be more correct to view love not as an emotion, but a state or situation that can produce emotions both positive and negative. Still, that begs the question—what is the nature of this state, and why is it so important to our sense of well-being to have those pleasurable feelings?
Unlike the great writers and artists who’ve grappled with the question of love, psychologists take a more pragmatic approach as they try to break it down clinically into its component parts. According to University of Maryland psychologist Sandra Langeslag, working with her Dutch associates Peter Muris and Ingmar Franken, it’s not so important to define love per se, but to define the “symptoms” that go along with it. These symptoms fall into the categories of behavioral, affective (emotional), cognitive, and physical. Notice that they’re talking about “romantic” love, not the kind of love that’s simmered down from blazing hot to comfortably simmering, also called companionate love. In romantic love, your passion is still high as well as your intimacy.
According to Langeslag and her team, romantic love equals a mixture of infatuation and attachment. Infatuation is the heady feeling you experience when you’re in the throes of a crush. The attachment piece refers to the desire to bond with another creature, whether it’s a romantic partner, a favorite pet, or your favorite relative. Thus, Langeslag and her colleagues believe that you can be high on infatuation and low on attachment with regard to another person because the two qualities are independent of one another.
Infatuation may bring with it those strong pleasurable feelings, as I noted earlier, or it can be associated with anguish, anxiety, distress, and misery. Because of this, Langeslag and her team believe that infatuation provides higher arousal levels than does attachment. It’s infatuation that will put you through the highs and lows as you pick the petals off the daisy wondering if he/she loves you or loves you not.
When your attachment to your partner is strong, solid and, as psychologists call it, secure, your emotions will remain on a more or less even keel. If you’re insecurely attached, in contrast, you may either fret constantly about whether or not your loved one will be there for you (“anxious attachment”) or dismissively push those you care about away (“avoidant attachment”).
The perfect combination, Langeslag and team propose, is to be high on both infatuation and attachment. This is perhaps why, in looking at the 12 ties that bind, the research I reviewed on successful long-term marriages shows that partners who stay together still care about what their partners are doing and want to be with them. However, because the highs and lows of infatuation do tend to smooth out over time, it’s more likely that people in it for the long haul are companionate — highly attached but only moderately (if at all) infatuated.
With this as a background, it’s time for you to see how your feelings measure up on the two dimensions of infatuation and attachment. You’ll know, after completing this 20-item test, whether you’re high on one, both, or neither based on comparisons with the numbers from Langeslag et al.’s study
Rate yourself from 1 = strongly disagree to 7 = strongly agree and respond according to your current love interest or romantic partner:
- I stare into the distance when I think of ________.
- I feel that I can count on __________.
- I get shaky knees when I am near ____________.
- I am prepared to share my possessions with ____________.
- I would feel lonely without ______________.
- My feelings for ____________ reduce my appetite.
- My thoughts about ____________ make it difficult for me to concentrate on something else.
- ____________ is the one for me.
- I am afraid that I will say something wrong when I talk to ___________.
- ____________ knows everything about me.
- I hope my feelings for __________ will never end.
- I get clammy hands when I am near __________.
- I feel emotionally connected to ____________.
- I become tense when I am close to ____________.
- ___________ can reassure me when I am upset.
- I have a hard time sleeping because I am thinking of ___________.
- I search for alternate meanings of ____________’s words.
- ____________ is the person who can make me happiest.
- ____________ is a part of my plans for the future.
- I am shy in the presence of _____________.
Now add up your scores on each set of items:
Set 1: Items 1, 3, 6, 7, 9, 12, 14, 16, 17, 20
Set 2: Items 2, 4, 5, 8, 10, 11, 13, 15, 18, 19
Have you figured out which set reflects which component of romantic love? If your psych radar is turned on, you’ve concluded that Set 1 measures infatuation and Set 2 measures attachment.
Now that you’ve totaled your scores, see how you compare with the study’s samples, which consisted of nearly 560 adults ranging from the late teens through the mid-50s, and about 2/3 female.
If your infatuation score was between about 40 and 45, and was approximately equal to your attachment score, then you’re most like people who were not yet in a romantic relationship with the object of their desire. The highest infatuation scores were, in fact, highest among the U.S. sample (45 on average). Partners who had either gotten married, were living together, or who were dating had infatuation scores between 20 and 30 among the Dutch and slightly higher among the Americans. People either cohabiting or married had the highest attachment scores, in the 60s and above.
So now, looking back at your scores, it’s likely the longer you’ve been involved with your partner, the more likely your infatuation score would dip beyond the midpoint of the 1-7 scale, but your attachment score would be at or near 7. We might conclude that the lower your infatuation score and the higher your attachment, the more likely it is that yours is a love that will endure, a finding that fleshes out the results of other studies showing how stress, dissatisfaction, and even educational level can contribute to marital unhappiness.
Other results from the study support the idea that it’s important to distinguish between attachment and infatuation. People in relationships for longer periods of time were lower on infatuation and higher on attachment. Part of the reason for this might have to do with another fascinating result: In both U.S. and Dutch samples, high scores on infatuation were positively related to unhappy feelings. Conversely, people with high attachment scores reported lower levels of unhappy feelings.
If you want your relationship to be a happy and enduring one, it’s the attachment component of love that will make this happen. By knowing how the numbers add up, you can see how both you, and your loved one, can enrich and enhance yours.
Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2014
Langeslag, S. J. E., Muris, P., & Franken, I. H. A. (2013). Measuring romantic love: Psychometric properties of the Infatuation and Attachment Scales. Journal of Sex Research, 50, 739-747. doi: 10.1080/00224499.2012.714011