What Is Romantic Love?

Man kissing a woman's neck while she smiles and holds a coffee cup

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Although there isn’t one clear definition, romantic love is most often thought of as a combination of attraction and idealization that can result in (or from) a bonded relationship. Romantic love has inspired artists for centuries and been the subject of countless plays, songs, movies, books, and other creative endeavors.

As anyone who's been in love knows, love is complicated and capable of eliciting strong emotions, from elation to heartbreak. Romantic relationships go through ups and downs—from that initial, intoxicating "honeymoon" phase to a sense of disappointment, and, ideally, to a state of acceptance and a desire for permanence. It can be challenging to move through these phases, but the reward is a healthy, long-term relationship.

Romantic Love vs. Other Kinds of Love

According to Sternberg's triangular theory of love, there are three components of love: intimacy, passion, and decision/commitment. These can apply in romantic relationships and other interpersonal relationships. The presence, absence, and combination of these three components make up seven different types of love.

  • Friendship: Intimacy without passion or commitment
  • Infatuation: Passion without intimacy or commitment
  • Empty love: Commitment without passion or intimacy
  • Romantic love: Passion and intimacy without commitment
  • Companionate love: Intimacy and commitment without passion/sexual desire; this could also be called "platonic" love
  • Fatuous love: Commitment and passion without intimacy
  • Consummate love: Commitment, passion, and intimacy; represents an ideal relationship

Phases of Romantic Love

Romantic love often progresses through some of Sternberg's types of love in a few predictable stages. A relationship may start out as friendship or infatuation, and then proceed to romantic love and eventually consummate love. Or, it might develop from infatuation to romantic love but then become companionate or empty.

Infatuation

During the infatuation phase, also known as lust, you feel exhilaration, passion, and elation when you and your lover are together. Neurochemicals in the brain, such as dopamine and norepinephrine—also known as the "feel-good" chemicals—are released. These chemicals make us giddy, energetic, and euphoric, sometimes leading to decreased appetite and insomnia. You actually can be so "in love" that you can’t eat or sleep. 

The high you feel during the infatuation phase leads you to idealize the other person and want to be with them constantly; you think about them all the time.

Because this person seems perfect during this phase, you are also unable to see your lover's flaws and shortcomings—hence the saying "love is blind." Typically, the infatuation phase lasts for around six months to a year.

Disillusionment

The first sign that the infatuation phase is wearing off is a sense of disillusionment. Reality sets in and you start to notice flaws in your partner. Some of the same traits that you found so attractive at first start to show their downside. For example, someone who seemed confident and decisive at first might now seem rude and close-minded.

Additionally, as the high wears off, you both start to show your true personalities and aren't as forgiving and unselfish as you were when your partner seemed like they could do no wrong. While at first, you may have gone out of your way to accommodate the other person, you may start to feel like your own needs aren't being met.

As idealization fades, you may find yourself feeling resentful that your partner is no longer causing that wonderfully infatuated feeling anymore. In some cases, serious problems, like addiction or abusive tendencies, can reveal themselves, and potentially be dealbreakers.

Challenges

The relationship now faces a turning point. Getting through this phase requires the ability to compromise, to speak up about your needs and wants, and to learn how to resolve conflict productively. Rather than trying to change your partner, your focus should be on learning to respect each other. You will discover if, ultimately, you both have the desire to make the relationship work.

Being able to manage the inevitable bumps in the road is a good indicator that the relationship can evolve into something more long-lasting and stable. 

Committing to a person who inspires romantic feelings, and communicating your dreams, desires, and thoughts to one another, can lead to true intimacy and attachment, the next stage of love.

Mature Love

Just because the passion doesn't stay red-hot and unrelenting doesn't mean that love doesn't continue. Mature love (or consummate love, in Sternberg's theory) is the kind of devotion found in long-term relationships and successful marriages. In mature love, two people are together because they want to be together and not just because they feel an irrational desire or need to be with one another.

Signs of mature love include acceptance, emotional support, commitment, calmness, respect, caring, kindness, friendship, and consideration. Cementing this phase is oxytocin, sometimes called "the cuddle hormone," because it compels you and your partner to get close and to bond.

Scientific research suggests that the brain activity of couples in mature relationships is very similar to the brain activity of those newly in love. Just because you're not pining for the person doesn't mean it's not true love; in fact, mature love is usually deeper and more meaningful (not to mention much more sustainable) than its younger counterpart.

Romantic Love and Sexual Desire

For most couples, sexual desire is an important part of a romantic relationship. Although it is of course possible to have sexual attraction without an emotional bond, and vice versa, romantic love usually includes both. And since the brain responds in similar ways to both, researchers speculate that they reinforce each other.

Evolutionary psychologists suggest that when sexual desire is paired with love, it creates a stronger bond. This keeps couples together, which benefits their children.

A Word From Verywell

Romantic love may mean different things to different people. What's most important is that you and your partner are on the same page. Shared intimacy and passion can often lead to a strong, shared commitment to another person and to a lasting relationship.

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5 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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