4 Common Questions About the Science of Love

Questions about love
Learn the answers to some common questions about the psychology of love. Joe Regan / Moment / Getty Images

In the past, there has been considerable controversy surrounding the scientific study of love. A lot of people view love as mysterious and unquantifiable. Here are four common questions about the role of love in psychology.

1. How does the study of love differ from other topics?

During the 1970s, a U.S. Senator named William Proxmire gave psychologist Elaine Hatfield what he called "the Golden Fleece Award." Essentially, he accused her of wasting taxpayer dollars on useless research on love.

At the time, many people agreed with him.

Since then, research on love has helped change how we view parenting, education, and child development. There is a lot of variability in how love is studied. Harry Harlow's famous attachment experiments involved depriving infant monkeys of all social contact, which demonstrated how devastating a lack of love can be to normal development. Today, most love researchers utilize self-report surveys to gather information on attitudes, perceptions, and reactions to love.

2. Throughout time, psychologists have come up with different models of love. Is there one that is currently more agreed with than others?

Perhaps the best-known model today is Sternberg's Triangular Theory of Love. The reason this theory gets a lot of attention is that it combines many of the elements found in earlier theories of love. According to Sternberg, there are three essential elements of love: intimacy, passion, and commitment.

A relationship built on only one of these elements is generally considered weak, while one built on two or more elements is much more lasting. For example, a combination of passion and intimacy would be what Sternberg refers to as "passionate love." A combination of intimacy, passion, and commitment forms what is known as "consummate love."

3. Are there recent studies linking the bonds between children and parents’ love for each other to an adult’s love to their partner?

Yes. There has been quite a bit of research in this area recently. Traditional belief has suggested that while parent-child relationships serve as an important basis for future relationship styles, the earliest relationships between parents and children don't necessarily define how a person will behave in relationships as an adult. However, some recent research has demonstrated that the link between our earliest love relationships and adult relationships may be stronger than previously thought.

Many studies have demonstrated that individuals who are viewed as securely attached in childhood grow up to have healthier and longer-lasting adult relationships. However, research has also consistently shown that people can overcome poor attachment in childhood to develop healthy romantic relationships as adults.

4. Do people sometimes need help with love, whether by seeing a therapist to discuss their problems or getting treated for depression or other mental disorders?

One of the most common assessments given by doctors and therapists is called a "Global Assessment of Functioning." This assessment is designed to look at all aspects of a person's life in order to see how well the individual is functioning.

Love falls under the umbrella of social functioning. Problems with love and interpersonal relationships can be an indicator of major problems, so most professionals take this information very seriously. Most doctors and psychologists agree that difficulty with love relationships ranks as a serious medical condition that demands some type of intervention.

One type of therapy that's used to help with interpersonal difficulties such as love is interpersonal therapy, which focuses on attachments and solving problems with interpersonal relationships. It's a short-term therapy based on the belief that issues in our interpersonal lives may manifest in psychological disorders and symptoms such as depression.

Sources:

Gleeson G, Fitzgerald A. Exploring the Association between Adult Attachment Styles in Romantic Relationships, Perceptions of Parents from Childhood and Relationship Satisfaction. Health. July 2014;6:1643-1661. doi:10.4236/health.2014.613196.

Kumar SA, Mattanah JF. Parental attachment, romantic competence, relationship satisfaction, and psychosocial adjustment in emerging adulthood. Personal Relationships. November 9, 2016(23):801–817. doi:10.1111/pere.12161.