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How Love Helps Us Feel Like We Matter

Fall in love with someone worthy who makes you feel significant.

Key points

  • Falling in love follows its own formula: You fall in love with someone appealing who loves you in return.
  • Love is a major source of feeling significant, but it competes with other such sources, like a career.
  • People are willing to love someone with less merit if they are loving and adoring, and vice versa.

Co-authored by Arie W. Kruglanski and Dan Raviv

A baby is crying in its crib. What does it want? Attention from its parents, of course. The infant in life’s first phase is already demanding recognition. The baby has begun its quest for significance, a quest that will endure throughout its lifetime.

The tiniest human cannot put any of this into words, but from our first day on Earth, we find that love is essential, as it signals to us that we matter. “You’re nobody ‘til somebody loves you,” Dean Martin crooned in a hit song of the 1960s, and a century-and-a-half earlier philosopher Georg Wilhelm Frederick Hegel declared, “To exist is to be recognized.”

Love is a major way to convey such recognition. Metaphorically, “Love makes the world go around,” as another hit song put it. How and why that globe-spinning energy operates has been the subject of literature, plays, movies, and all manner of cultural discussion. Part of the subject’s allure is the alleged mystery of how love impacts us, with poets, playwrights, filmmakers, and thinkers portraying this force as irrational, guided by passion as opposed to reason.

Yet there is a logic to the phenomenon: the logic of love. You love in order to be loved in return, particularly by someone worthy and admired whose love for you gives you significance. Or perhaps you love because you are expected to: It is part of your value system, the social norm that you observe—for example, you are supposed to love your family and God.

Both reciprocated love and prescribed love have a key aspect in common: the appreciation they elicit from others. They make you feel significant, communicating that you matter and cannot be ignored.

Viewed through the prism of the significance quest theory (SQT), loving is more selfish than people realize. You love someone to aggrandize your importance—to that person, to the wider community, and to yourself. Your choices in love are, mostly subconsciously, designed to satisfy your own need for significance.

Merit and Appreciation

There are two intertwined ways in which a partner’s love bestows significance on an individual. We call them “merit” and “appreciation," respectively.

Merit pertains to the perceived characteristics of the partner that the actor deems desirable. Partner merit is subjective, though it is largely affected by the social norms of one’s society. Among domains of merit prevalent in most societies are power, wealth, beauty, courage, patriotism, status, and so on. Nonetheless, an individual may find desirable and meritorious some unique characteristics that are valued in smaller reference groups but not necessarily in the larger social milieu—for instance, a partner’s musicality, multilingualism, or enological expertise.

A partner's perceived merit may also be context-dependent. An attribute that may appeal in one context (e.g., a firefighter’s courage, or a bodyguard’s devotion) may lose its luster in an alternative context (e.g., at a cocktail party with smooth-talking, upper-crusty, and well-tailored friends). The fit of the partner’s characteristics to norms that govern a situation may also impact attraction to the partner. People feel embarrassed when their romantic partners use humor in inappropriate contexts, and concerns about one’s social image are exacerbated when a partner engages in socially undesirable behavior.

Appreciation pertains to the significance-boosting care and concern that a warm, loving partner provides. Positive regard and affection, adoration, responsiveness, understanding, and attentiveness are all ways of showing appreciation.

Of course, the most desirable love-partner is someone high on both “merit” and “appreciation”—an admired and valued partner who returns the appreciation. In fact, we have theorized and found in empirical studies that merit and appreciation are both necessary conditions for falling in love. You are unlikely to fall in love with someone who completely lacks merit in your eyes, no matter how much they appreciate you. You are also unlikely to fall in love with someone who shows you no appreciation, no matter how attractive or meritorious they might be.


Intriguingly, above minimal acceptability, merit and appreciation compensate for each other. People are willing to love someone low on merit—for instance, someone less attractive or accomplished—if they are very loving; that is, higher on the appreciation dimension. Too, people are willing to compromise on appreciation: They may fall in love with someone who is less appreciative or adoring if they are higher on merit—that is, very attractive, charismatic, or influential.

A love relationship is, in a certain sense, an exchange relationship. You lend your worthy attributes and your tender care to your beloved, and she/he offers you their good attributes and caring in return. In the intriguing economics of significance, you get what you pay for; to paraphrase Stephen Sills’s hit song, “If you can’t be with the one you love, [you must] love the one you’re with.”


As a source of significance, spousal love and family can be seen as competing with work and career. Especially in “big careers”—politics, sports, the media, entertainment, or academia—maintaining one’s supreme standing often requires exhausting effort and time investment. These deplete the resources one can devote to relationships, including the ties of love with one’s spouse and children.

Throughout our lives, love in its various forms is a powerful source of feeling significant and worthy. Intriguingly, love is both selfish and selfless. It is selfish because it is driven by people’s fundamental need for significance and mattering. But it is selfless in its reciprocation of affection. It is about giving, even as it is also about receiving.

While love is not the only source of significance, and is occasionally sacrificed for one’s career, it is a particularly basic such source without which life often seems lackluster and empty.

Facebook image: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock


Kruglanski, A.W., Molinario, E., Jasko, K. Webber, D., Leander, N.P. & Pierro, A. (2022). Significance Quest Theory. Perspectives in Psychological Science

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