5 Psychological Theories of Love

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Why do people fall in love? And why are some forms of love long-lasting while others are so fleeting? Psychologists and researchers have proposed several different theories of love to explain how it forms as well as how it endures.

Love is a basic human emotion. But understanding how and why it happens is not necessarily easy. In fact, for a long time, many suggested that love was something too primal, mysterious, and spiritual for science to ever fully understand.

Still, many have tried to learn more about this feel-good emotion. Here are five of the major theories proposed to explain love and other emotional attachments.

Liking vs. Loving

In 1970, psychologist Zick Rubin proposed an explanation for the difference between liking and loving. Sometimes we experience a great amount of appreciation and admiration for others. We enjoy spending time with a person and want to be around them. This is "liking," according to Rubin, and doesn't necessarily qualify as love.

Love is much deeper, more intense, and includes a strong desire for physical intimacy and contact. People who are "in like" enjoy each other's company, while those who are "in love" care as much about the other person's needs as they do their own.

Rubin believed that romantic love is made up of three elements:

  • A close bond and dependent needs
  • A predisposition to help
  • Feelings of exclusiveness and absorption

Based on these elements, Rubin devised a questionnaire to assess a person's attitudes toward others. He found that scales ranging from liking to loving provided support for his conception of love.

The Color Wheel Model of Love

In his 1973 book The Colors of Love, psychologist John Lee compared styles of love to the color wheel. Just as there are three primary colors, Lee suggested that there are three primary styles of love:

  • Eros: The term Eros stems from the Greek word meaning "passionate" or "erotic." Lee suggested that this type of love involves both physical and emotional passion. It represents love for an ideal person.
  • LudusLudus comes from the Greek word meaning "game." This form of love is conceived as playful and fun but not necessarily serious. Those who exhibit this form of love are not ready for commitment and are wary of too much intimacy. So, it represents love as a game.
  • StorgeStorge stems from the Greek term meaning "natural affection." This form of love includes familial love between parents and children, siblings, and extended family members. This love can also develop out of friendship, where people who share interests and commitments gradually develop affection for one another. Therefore, it represents love as friendship.

Lee’s 6 Styles of Loving

Lee later proposed that just as the primary colors can be combined to create other colors, the three primary styles of love could also be combined to create secondary love styles. So, in 1977, Lee expanded the list of love styles.

The three new secondary love styles were:

  • Mania: A combination of Eros and Ludus, representing obsessive love
  • Pragma: A combination of Ludus and Storge, representing realistic and practical love
  • Agape: A combination of Eros and Storge, representing selfless love

Triangular Theory of Love

In 1986, psychologist Robert Sternberg proposed the triangular theory of love. Under this theory, love has three components:

  • Intimacy
  • Passion
  • Commitment

Different combinations of these three components result in different types of love. For example, combining intimacy and commitment results in compassionate love while combining passion and intimacy leads to romantic love.

According to Sternberg's triangular theory, relationships built on two or more elements are more enduring than those based on a single component. Sternberg uses the term consummate love to describe combining intimacy, passion, and commitment. While this type of love is the strongest and most enduring, Sternberg suggests that this type of love is also rare.

Attachment Theory of Love

In 1987, Cindy Hazan and Phillip Shaver, two researchers from the University of Denver, theorized that romantic love is a biosocial process similar to how children form attachments with their parents. Their theory is modeled on psychologist John Bowlby's attachment theory.

According to Hazan and Shaver's attachment theory of love, a person's attachment style is partially formed by the relationship they had with their parents in childhood. This same basic style then continues into adulthood, where it becomes part of their romantic relationships.

The three styles of adult attachment are:

  • Anxious/ambivalent: A person with this style often worries that their partner doesn't love them. Sometimes they want to be with their partner so much that it scares the other person away.
  • Avoidant: Someone with this style is uncomfortable getting close to others. They also typically experience difficulty with developing trust.
  • Secure: As its name suggests, the secure attachment style involves being secure in the relationship. Someone who is secure has very few worries of abandonment or fears of someone else getting too close.

Based on Hazan and Shaver's research, secure attachment is the most common style. This is followed by the avoidant attachment style, then anxious/ambivalent attachment.

Hazan and Shaver also proposed that one's experiences in love and attachment affect their beliefs, which affect their relationship outcomes. It is a cyclical process that can be okay for people with a more secure attachment style but could also create issues for someone who is avoidant or anxious/ambivalent in their relationships.

Compassionate vs. Passionate Love

In 1988, psychologist Elaine Hatfield proposed that there are two basic types of love: compassionate love and passionate love.

  • Compassionate love is characterized by mutual respect, attachment, affection, and trust. This love usually develops out of feelings of mutual understanding and shared respect for one another.
  • Passionate love is characterized by intense emotions, sexual attraction, anxiety, and affection. When these intense emotions are reciprocated, people feel elated and fulfilled, while unreciprocated love leads to feelings of despondency and despair.

Hatfield suggests that passionate love arises when cultural expectations encourage falling in love, when the person meets one's preconceived ideas of ideal love, and when one experiences heightened physiological arousal in the presence of the other person.

Passionate love is transitory, according to Hatfield, usually lasting between 6 and 30 months. Ideally, passionate love leads to compassionate love, which is far more enduring.

While most people desire relationships that combine the security and stability of compassionate love with intense passionate love, Hatfield believes that this is rare.

A Word From Verywell

Many theories exist about how love forms and evolves. Each one contributes to what we know about this emotion in its own way, providing several possible explanations for how love-based relationships begin, grow, and change.

7 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Cramer K, Marcus J, Pomerleau C, Gillard K. Gender invariance in the Love Attitudes Scale based on Lee's color theory of love. Test Psychomet Methodol App Psychol. 2015;22(3):403-413. doi:10.4473/TPM22.3.6

  3. Sternberg RJ. A triangular theory of love. Psychol Rev. 1986;93(2):119-135. doi:10.1037/0033-295X.93.2.119

  4. Langeslag SJ, van Strien JW. Regulation of romantic love feelings: Preconceptions, strategies, and feasibility. PLoS One. 2016;11(8):e0161087. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0161087

  5. Hazan C, Shaver P. Romantic love conceptualized as an attachment process. J Personal Social Psychol. 1987;52(3):511-524. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.52.3.511

  6. Hatfield E. Passionate and compassionate love. In Sternberg RJ, Barnes ML, eds.: The Psychology of Love. Yale University Press.

  7. Earp BD, Wudarczyk OA, Foddy B, Savulescu J. Addicted to love: What is love addiction and when should it be treated?Philos Psychiatr Psychol. 2017;24(1):77–92. doi:10.1353/ppp.2017.0011

Additional Reading

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.