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Making Sense of Love and Romantic Relationships

Understanding the thoughts and feelings behind dating, mating, and relating.

Over the years, I have tried to write articles that help people at different stages of dating and relating. We have explored the research on how and where to meet potential partners, as well as how to start a new relationship with them. I have also discussed ways of preventing infidelity and maintaining commitment in long-term relationships.

While this step-by-step approach to love and relationships is important to solve immediate dating and relating problems, it does leave some "big picture" questions unanswered. For example, people often debate the relative importance of developing physical attractiveness versus highlighting more unique personality features and interests. They wonder why playing hard to get works in some situations and not others. They are often confused about why they are sometimes picked for friendships, but not as romantic partners.

All of these issues can be understood a lot more clearly, however, by first learning the basic dimensions and dynamics involved in love and romantic relationships. Therefore, in this article, we will look at the research concerned with those big picture explanations—and how they relate to the investments and trade-offs we all make to find and keep love.

Basic Dimensions of Love and Relationships

Within the research literature, intimate relationships have generally been studied from an emotional perspective and a more logical social exchange view as well...

Looking at romantic relationships from an emotional perspective, Hatfield and Rapson (1993) propose that there are two types of love—Passionate and Companionate. Passionate Love is characterized by intense emotions, obsessive thoughts, and a desire for union with a romantic partner. This is the feeling people are describing when they talk about being lovesick, obsessed, or infatuated with a partner. In contrast, Companionate Love is characterized by an emotional attachment and affectionate feelings toward a partner with whom the individual's life is deeply intertwined. This is the feeling people are describing when they talk about being comfortable, trusting, and intimate with a partner.

Exploring romantic relationships from a more evaluative and exchange-based perspective, however, Montoya and Horton (2014) conclude that there are also two dimensions involved in interpersonal attraction—Capacity and Willingness. Capacity is an evaluation of the partner's ability to facilitate the individual's goals and needs. Essentially, this is a pros-and-cons assessment of the partner, including the competencies and resources they possess. In contrast, Willingness is an evaluation of the partner's motivation to facilitate the individual's goals and needs. This is an assessment of the partner's likelihood of sharing their competencies and resources, including their morality and cooperation in an interdependent relationship.

Taken together, we can see that people are of two minds when making decisions about potential dates, mates, and relationship partners. On one hand, they consider the various ways a partner makes them feel on an emotional level. On the other hand, they think about the various trades and exchanges a partner provides on a practical level.

Making Sense of Love and Relationships

By evaluating relationship choices on these emotional and practical levels, it is possible to make some sense out of seemingly confusing and contradictory romantic behaviors. For example, we can now see why individuals may make various trade-offs when choosing a mate. We can also explain why we may have very different criteria for what we find emotionally appealing in a partner versus what we find compatible with our lives.

With this perspective, we can also see how the step-by-step development of relationships balances these various dimensions. For example, we often build an emotional connection through touching and making eye contact early in dating, as well as work toward building a more practical rapport through conversation. In more established relationships, we may give gifts, while also building an emotional sense of gratitude for each other.

Whatever stage or step you are on in your romantic relationship, it helps to evaluate things from both an emotional and a practical perspective. If your relationship starts to feel too much like a business partnership or dispassionate friendship, perhaps it is time to spice things up with an exciting activity together. If your relationship feels like it is lacking in substance and not meeting the needs of yourself and your partner, however, then perhaps it is time to pay more attention to the actual practical exchange between you both. Overall then, by considering and balancing these emotional and practical dimensions, you can build a more loving and satisfying intimate relationship.

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© 2016 by Jeremy S. Nicholson, M.A., M.S.W., Ph.D. All rights reserved.


Hatfield, E., & Rapson, R. L. (1993). Love, sex, and intimacy: Their psychology, biology, and history. HarperCollins College Publishers.

Montoya, R. M., & Horton, R. S. (2014). A two-dimensional model for the study of interpersonal attraction. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 18(1), 59-86.

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