What's Love Got to do With It?

November 28, 2013

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We often think of love as the be-all and end all of a relationship. It turns out, that love doesn't really have much to do with how strongly we feel for someone.

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This article has been updated, but first appeared on our predecessor website, The Dirt Psychology.


In a society so influenced by popular-culture, love is often the first and foremost consideration in our decision-making: in the media, love trumps careers and opportunity or even friendship and family. Romeo said:

I defy you stars

Because despite all the obstacles to his love for Juliet, he's going to lean into it anyway, with predictable results. Unfortunately, like Juliet's relationship with Romeo, this idea is fatally flawed.

Our first clue

One area of study recently has focused on the differences between your standard Western marriages and those that have been arranged. Surprisingly, arranged marriages are associated with the same amount of love and relationship satisfaction, if not more than those that have been chosen by the spouses.

The implication of this finding is that what we traditionally think of as 'love' has very little to do with how much we end up loving someone. Those initial fires don't necessarily predict deep, loving and satisfying relationships. This makes sense somewhat: we know that temporary madness we might feel for someone on first meeting doesn't last, and there's research to explain why.

But this does beg the question, what does predict it?

What does

For this, we're going to consult what has been called 'the backbone' of psychology's approach to intimate relationships. Hal Kelley and his colleague John Thibaut developed what is known as Interdependence Theory. Basically their work showed us that relationship substance and satisfaction is largely a function of the ways each person influences each other.

A very important scholar for romantic research delves into this a little deeper. Ellen Berscheid's research tells us that the substance of a relationship is in the number and strength of the connections people have. She takes her cues from George Mandler's interruption theory of emotion. Mandler says we all have higher-order goals. For example, say, having a successful career or wanting to start a family. To achieve these goals, we create chains of 'action-routines'. A morning routine, for example, consists of a series of small routines that prepare us for success in the day. A series of health-related activities, like eating well and exercising, all link together to support goals around longevity and wellbeing. Our lives are littered with these chains of routines we've designed, consciously or not, to position ourselves for success.

Berscheid, in her emotion-in-relationships model, points out that the more we rely on someone to facilitate these action-routines of ours, and thus support us reaching our goals, the more they influence us and the stronger we will feel about them. They might be your study buddy, your gym spotter, your Wednesday night dinner companion. These things are all forms of connection, or as Berscheid calls them, interconnections.

Each routine we share with someone is an interconnection. The more of these interconnections we share with someone, or to put it another way, the more chains of routines we 'mesh' with someone else, the more substantial they are in our pursuit of our goals. Our gym buddy may not be as important to us as someone we do all our other recreational activities with, for example. The number, diversity, and significance of our interconnections will determine how strongly we feel about them. The more we 'mesh', the more we love. Put another way, and perhaps more accurately, the more routines we would have to repair should they leave, the more we care for them.

It is these interconnections that determine how much we love someone, not the amount of nervous butterflies they produce.

What's so important about these interconnections?

The reason these interconnections matter has to do with the fact that our routines are the source of our emotions. When a routine is 'interrupted', we feel an emotion. Normally, our routines act as something of an autopilot for us--Mandler describes it as a kind of mindlessness. If something gets in the way of our routine, we're jolted out of autopilot and forced to resolve the issue.

Emotions that stem from these interruptions can be both good and bad. The key is that they are an interruption. If we buy someone flowers, we've interrupted their routine. Assuming they like you, it's a positive one. If we're buying flowers for someone everyday, it's no longer an interruption. It's the routine. It's only when we miss a day, that it becomes an interruption, and now perhaps a negative one.

When these routines are 'meshed' with someone else, now we're both subject to the same potential for interruption. We're both responsible for the emotion that emerge.

The strength of the connections determines the strength of the relationship

Consider two people have joined a sports team. A friendship blossoms and a routine is meshed. Now, should one of you leave, it's a shame but not a disaster. Only a fledgling friendship, and only one small gap needs to be filled.

But consider instead that the two of you decided to try for the national team. Now you're attending two practices a day together, training in the gym together, eating the same diet, and relying on one another for motivation. This becomes a more poignant goodbye. More routines meshed, a more meaningful friendship, and more emotion evoked by the departure.

Consider also that our hypothetical friends have different backgrounds. Perhaps one just moved to the town and this friendship might be the only serious friendship they have. The other has lived in the town their whole life. Outside of the sport they have friends scattered in many domains of their life. The friendship is more meaningful for the former because the significance of the routines are more substantial. The goodbye will hurt just as asymmetrically.

The significance, the diversity, and the number of our routines determine the emotions we feel for the other. Both when we come together, and when we fall apart.

Interesting dynamics explained by the theory.

A common dynamic in the counselling room is the tragedy of relationships too well-meshed. In relationships where the partners are so intertwined in one another's lives that they never 'interrupt' one anothers routines, no emotions are generated--good or bad. The relationship seems boring, right up until they decide to end it. All of a sudden everything is torn apart and the emotion can be overwhelming.

Counterintuitively, sometimes we can incorporate seemingly negative things into our meshed chains. A couple that spends their time screaming at one another, poking fun, and being rude, might seem like a unhealthy relationship. Often this is true. But sometimes,despite seeming problematic, they might actually generate little emotion. These behaviours might have become part of the routine, and so they aren't an interruption.

But most crucially, as we grow and change, we often change our routines in line with new goals and broader horizons. When this happens, it's very possible that this can contribute to painful interruptions to those routines we share with our friends, families, and partners. It's always worth considering how our new ambitions might affect the ambitions of those we surround ourselves with.

So, why mesh at all?

This all begs a question. So much room for error. Why do we do this sort of meshing at all? Commonly, the interconnections we make are incidental. Products of a process of exploring the interests of people who interest us. More commonly, it's because for people we care about, we want nothing more than to help them reach their goals. And so, we do what we can to carry them there.

And so, as much as I hate to quote Nicholas Sparks, he had it right:

Love is sustained by action, a pattern of devotion in the things we do for each other every day

Love is a verb first--a thing that we do--before it is a feeling.

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