What's Love Got to do With It? cover image

What's Love Got to do With It?

Dorian Minors • November 28, 2013

This article has been updated, but first appeared on our predecessor website, The Dirt Psychology. The idea there was to take psychological scholarship and make it intelligible. The Armchair Collective tries to go a little further than just psychology. This article was fun enough to keep.

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 says:

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. In fact, researchers are starting to believe that love has a very different role in relationships than Shakespeare could have imagined.

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 is?

What is

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 (like, say, having a successful career or wanting to start a family). We create action-routines to reach those goals, like going to the gym to stay healthy (and thus live long enough to do these things), or studying and working to position ourselves for success.

Berscheid points out that the more we rely on someone to facilitate or routines, and thus support us reaching our goals, 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.

The more of these interconnections we share with someone (called 'meshing'), and 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 more influence they have in that pursuit, and the more love we will feel for them. Put another way, and perhaps more accurately, the more holes in our life that would be opened, the more routines we would have to rebuild if they were to 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. 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, before it is a feeling.

Turning scholarship into wisdom we can use at The Armchair Collective.

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Dorian Minors

I mostly do brain science. Sometimes I train honeybees. I promise they're related. I made this site because there's no reason why scholars should be the only ones to own knowledge. My special interests are interpersonal relationships, the science of community, spirituality and the brain, and the neural basis of complex behaviour. I hope this stuff is as interesting to you as it is to me. You can find out more about me here.