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SGL Spotlight: “What is This Thing Called Love?” ToolKit

By Deborah Tolman and Laura Hooberman

It seems that we are obsessed with love. We have even created a holiday to celebrate it; some might say a Hallmark Holiday that makes love into an idealised commodity, a thing that we are all supposed to want and to have, to get and keep–and romance is at its heart. So what is love and is it as important as we make it out to be? In a word, love is elusive. It may be the most popular topic for songs of all time, and the lyrics capture the conundrum of love. In fact, there is a lot of research that supports–or seems to support–many of them. Love can make you crazy: it can be pathological[1] or obsessive;[2] being love- sick may indeed be a real thing.[3] Love is addictive.[4] Love can break your heart, literally.[5] Turns out that a slew of love studies seem to stem from how love can be dangerous.  

The research on love is also elusive; it raises as many questions as it answers. Research reflects the larger social conundrum of defining what love is.[6] In fact, for a while, researchers were so flummoxed that they stopped doing research on love altogether.[7] Different types and dimensions of love have been identified; “passionate” love has been distinguished from “companionate” love and “intimacy”.[8] For our February ToolKit, we offer a critical perspective on the science of love, in particular, passionate love. To do so, we have to, well, put the science of love on trial.

One issue can be traced back to the conundrum of definition. But the “science of love” is also riddled with all kinds of invisible assumptions. The thing about assumptions is, while usually unintentional, they reflect unchallenged beliefs about what is normal and shape all aspects of research, from the questions that are asked, to the people who are studied, to the methods and scales that are used–to making sense of data. In fact, there are subtle and not-so-subtle social injustices weaving through this research that end up cementing how we think about love. Researchers make choices that can give the stamp of science to myths or prejudice that they themselves are not aware of. Whose love matters? Which interpersonal, social or even institutional contexts are implicitly condoned–and which are ignored or pathologized? What questions have not been asked or studied? What is measured and how? What are the faultlines in the science of love?

Since love is very difficult to define, it is also tricky to measure. It’s not surprising then that most of the research actually uses “stand ins”–proxies–for love, like relationship length or relationship satisfaction. While these can be indicators of love, they could just as easily not be. This kind of invisible assumption makes the science of love inexact at best. Furthermore, this body of research is often built on a hidden perspective: that legitimate love lives within traditional heterosexual relationships, usually dating or married couples, assumed to be monogamous. Until recently, virtually all people studied in love science were mostly Western, white, college-educated adults in heterosexual couples.[9] Without explicitly saying so, this communicates fears about heterosexual long-term relationships and marriage going awry, with loss of passionate love in particular the culprit, such as in a study called Does a long-term relationship kill romantic love?”.[10] Much of the science of love stems from evolutionary psychology, the belief that our current behaviors are explained by the survival needs of our ancestors, which is kind of an odd way to study current human experiences of love–and also heterosexist. From a social justice perspective, realities that may “kill” love, such as chronic housing or food insecurity, experiences with the criminal justice system, no access to services and medical care, or chronic illness, are never considered.

As technology develops, the study of love is migrating into neuroscience, an important advance, and right into the public eye. But why does this line of inquiry grab headlines? Well, it might make things easier if there was a magic bullet for love. In the end, biology alone does not solve the conundrum of love, although these studies give rise to more nuanced research. Take the study of oxytocin. This research is premised on “love not being just an emotion”.[11] Much of this research is done on animals.[12] Almost all study patterns of (heterosexual) pair-bonding.[13] However, neuroscientists van Anders and Gray (2015) tell us that the contexts and experiences within which love happens and hormones circulate is both missing from and critical to include in research on oxytocin.[14]

The good news is there are positive changes afoot in the science of love. Emerging research is starting to challenge traditional ideas of whose love matters and how love flourishes, adding complexity to what we know. Increasingly, new research includes people who used to be left out, treated as ineligible for love.[15] For instance, in a study of sexual and romantic experiences of transgender youth, 77% reported having fallen in love.[16] It turns out older people are finding love online.[17] Social neuroscience that does take context, sexual fluidity and gender fluidity into account is on the rise. Studies of polyamorous people that are not premised on finding out what is “wrong” help explain how jealousy is a part of all relationships, and that it can be dealt with rather than kill relationships.[18]

In the end, it seems like our real question about love is how to keep it alive. We know so little through research about the positive effects of passionate rather than companionate love. In February, 2020, we are more equipped than ever to flesh out this slippery and complex emotion. Bhana’s (2017) research with poor Black South African teens reminds us that love–the multidimensional feeling that can connect us so deeply and powerfully to another person–can and does flourish everywhere.[19] These adolescents underscore how and why love matters so much. The science of love can start from the premise that the powers of love can make us feel alive, bring us joy and be a force for justice for us all.

[1] Sophia, E. C., Tavares, H., Berti, M. P., Pereira, A. P., Lorena, A., Mello, C., … & Zilberman, M. L. (2009). Pathological love: Impulsivity, personality, and romantic relationship. CNS Spectrums, 14, 268-274.

[2] Lalande, D., Vallerand, R. J., Lafrenière, M. A. K., Verner‐Filion, J., Laurent, F. A., Forest, J., & Paquet, Y. (2017). Obsessive passion: A compensatory response to unsatisfied needs. Journal of Personality, 85(2), 163-178.

[3] Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K., & Wilson, S. J. (2017). Lovesick: How couples’ relationships influence health. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 13, 421-443.

[4] Reynaud, M., Karila, L., Blecha, L., & Benyamina, A. (2010). Is love passion an addictive disorder?. The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, 36, 261-267.

[5] Potu, K. C., Raizada, A., Gedela, M., & Stys, A. (2016). Takotsubo cardiomyopathy (broken-heart syndrome): a short review. South Dakota Medicine: The Journal of the South Dakota State Medical Assocation, 69, 169-171.

[6] Berscheid, E. (2010). Love in the fourth dimension. Annual Review of Psychology, 61, 1-25.

[7] Hatfield, E., Luckhurst, C., & Rapson, R. L. (2010). Sexual motives: Cultural, evolutionary, and social psychological perspectives. Sexuality & Culture, 14, 173-190.

[8] Sternberg, R. J. (1986). A triangular theory of love. Psychological Review, 93, 119.

[9] Thorne, S. R., Hegarty, P., & Hepper, E. G. (2019). Equality in theory: From a heteronormative to an inclusive psychology of romantic love. Theory & Psychology, 29, 240-257.

[10] Acevedo, B. P., & Aron, A. (2009). Does a long-term relationship kill romantic love?. Review of General Psychology, 13, 59-65.

[11] Carter, C. S., & Porges, S. W. (2013). The biochemistry of love: an oxytocin hypothesis. EMBO Reports, 14, 12-16.

[12] Young, L. J. (2009). Love: Neuroscience reveals all. Nature, 457, 148-148.

[13] Mercado, E., & Hibel, L. C. (2017). I love you from the bottom of my hypothalamus: The role of stress physiology in romantic pair bond formation and maintenance. Social and personality psychology compass, 11, e12298.

[14] van Anders, S. M., & Gray, P. B. (2015). Social neuroendocrine approaches to relationships. Emerging Trends in the Social and Behavioral Sciences: An Interdisciplinary, Searchable, and Linkable Resource, 1-15.

[15] Yarber, W. L., Sayad, B. W., & Strong, B. (2013). Human sexuality: Diversity in contemporary America. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

[16] Bungener, S. L., Steensma, T. D., Cohen-Kettenis, P. T., & De Vries, A. L. (2017). Sexual and romantic experiences of transgender youth before gender-affirmative treatment. Pediatrics, 139, e20162283.

[17] Malta, S. (2008, December). Intimacy and older adults: A comparison between online and offline romantic relationships. In T. arjoribanks, J. Barraket, J.-S. Chang, A. Dawson, M. Guillemin, M. Henry-Waring, et al., Re-imagining Sociology. Refereed Conference Proceedings. The Australian Sociological Association.

[18] Schubert, K. A. (2016). Polyamory. Encyclopedia of Family Studies, 1-3.

[19] Bhana, D. (2017). Love, sex and teenage sexual cultures in South Africa: 16 turning 17. Routledge.

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