Romantic love is part ancient attachment system, 1 part caregiving system, 2 and part modified mating system. 3 But it is much more than the sum of its parts. It is an extraordinary psychological state that launched the Trojan War, inspired much of the world’s best (and worst) music and literature, and gave many of us the most perfect days of our lives. But romantic love is widely misunderstood, and looking at its psychological subcomponents can clear out some puzzles, and guide the way around love’s pitfalls.
The modern myth of true love, upon which most Western-educated youth are raised, involves these beliefs: true love is passionate love that never fades; if you are in true love, you should marry that person; if love ends, you should leave that person because it was not true love; and if you find the right person, you will have true love forever.
If true love is defined as eternal passion, it is biologically impossible. To see this, and to save the dignity of love, you have to understand the difference between two kinds of love: passionate and companionate.
Berscheid & Walster 4 define Passionate love as a “wildly emotional state in which tender and sexual feelings, elation and pain, anxiety and relief, altruism and jealousy, all exist in a confusion of feelings”.
Passionate love is the love you fall into. It is what happens when Cupid’s Golden Arrow hits your heart, and, in an instant, the world around you is transformed. You crave union with your beloved. You want, somehow, to crawl into each other.
Companionate love, in contrast, is “the affection we feel for those with whom our lives are deeply intertwined”. Companionate love grows slowly over the years, as lovers apply their attachment and caregiving systems to each other, and as they begin to rely upon, care for, and trust each other.
Passionate love is a drug. Its symptoms overlap with those of heroin (euphoric well-being, sometimes described in sexual terms) and cocaine (euphoria combined with giddiness and energy). Passionate love alters the activity of several parts of the brain, including parts that are involved in the release of dopamine. Any experience that feels intensely good releases dopamine, and the dopamine link is crucial here because drugs that artificially raise dopamine levels, as do heroin and cocaine, put you at risk of addiction.
If you take cocaine once a month, you won’t be addicted, but if you take it every day, you will. No drug can keep you continuously high. The brain reacts to a chronic surplus of dopamine, develops neurochemical reactions that oppose it, and restores its own equilibrium. At that point, tolerance has set in, and when the drug is withdrawn, the brain is unbalanced in the opposite direction: pain, lethargy, and despair follow withdrawal from cocaine or from passionate love.
Since passionate love is a drug, it must wear off eventually. No one can stay high forever (although if you find passionate love in a long-distance relationship, it’s like taking cocaine once a month; the drug can retain its potency because of your suffering between doses).
Passionate love does not turn into companionate love. Passionate love and companionate love are two separate processes, and they have different time courses. Their diverging paths produce two danger points, two places where many people make grave mistakes.
Passionate love ignites, it burns, and it can reach its maximum temperature within days. During its weeks or months of madness, lovers can’t help but think about marriage, and often they talk about it, too. Sometimes they even offer and commit to marriage. This is often a mistake. People are not allowed to sign contracts when they are drunk, and people should not be allowed to propose marriage when they are high on passionate love.
The other danger point is the day the drug weakens its grip. Passionate love doesn’t end on that day, but the crazy and obsessional high period does. Breakups often happen at this point, and for many couples that’s a good thing. But sometimes breaking up is premature, because if the lovers had stuck it out, if they had given companionate love a chance to grow, they might have found true love.
True love does exist, but it is not, and cannot be passion that lasts forever. True love – the love that undergirds strong marriages – is simply strong companionate love, with some added passion, between two people who are firmly committed to each other.
Companionate love looks weak in the six-month graph because it can never attain the intensity of passionate love. But if we change the scale from six months to 60 years, it is passionate love that seems trivial, a moment’s flash, while companionate love can last a lifetime.
Notes & excerpts from The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, by Jonathan Haidt.* Chapter 6: Love and Attachments
* sounds like “height”, not “hate” – or this post would’ve been titled Haidt on Love, because I am addicted to bad puns
Image credits: Time Clipping Cupid’s Wings, by Pierre Mignard; Forest fire, by Wikiimages; Fig 6.1, Jon Haidt; Fig 6.2, Jon Haidt
- According to Bowlby (1969/1982), the function of the attachment system is to protect a person from danger by assuring that he or she maintains proximity to caring and supportive others (attachment figures) who provide protection, support, and relief in times of adversity. The attachment system is most evident during infancy and childhood but continues to be important across the life span. More here. ↩
- Caregiving refers to a broad array of behaviors that complement a relationship partner’s attachment behaviors or signals of need. Bowlby says that the caregiving system is designed to provide protection and support to others who are either chronically dependent or temporarily in need. More here. ↩
- Mating systems are descriptions of who mates with whom in the animal world. In simplest terms, definitions of mating systems are based on how many mates an individual acquires during the breeding season. More here. ↩
- Berscheid, E., & Walster, E. H. (1978). Interpersonal attraction. New York: Freeman. ↩