• Question: What actually is love?

    Asked by ZachE to Mioara, Jaime, Ed, Caroline W, Amanda on 8 Nov 2023.
    • Photo: Ed Morrison

      Ed Morrison answered on 8 Nov 2023:

      I’ll try a scientific answer, but I will say that’s not the only way to understand love.

      Love is a feeling that helps us to maintain a relationship with those that are important to us. There are actually several different types of love, with different functions, different brain systems, and different chemicals involved.

      For example, love between parent and child is based on the attachment system, which evolved in mammals to bond mothers to their young. It is based on chemicals like vasopressin and oxytocin. Humans (unlike most animals) also use this system to bond adults together in long-lasting relationships. Most animals just mate and then ignore each other afterwards!

      Falling in love is based on the attraction system, which evolved to encourage animals to pick a particular partner to mate with. It is based on chemicals like dopamine, which orient us towards one particular persons above anyone else. Dopamine is responsible for the feelings of excitement, sleeplessness and even obsession that you experience when falling in love. We share this systems with many other speces.

      There are other love systems too, like lust, based on things like testosterone.

      Having said all that, understanding love through music, poetry, dance and so on is equally interesting. People throughout the ages have used art to express and try to understand love.

    • Photo: Caroline Wesson

      Caroline Wesson answered on 8 Nov 2023:

      This is a great question and one that’s actually much harder to answer than you may realise! As with so many things in psychology, love is a concept that is really difficult to define and explain.

      Part of the problem is that love takes many forms. For some people when they think of love, they’re thinking of something passionate, for others it’s about infatuation, for others it’s romance, for others it’s sexual attraction, and for others it’s companionship.

      From a social psychological perspective (my area of expertise), there have been huge debates about what love is. Back in the 1970s a psychologist called Rubin made the distinction between liking (which we can say is the desire to interact with the person you have your sights set on) and loving (which is where trust is added into the equation).

      Hatfield (1987) went on to identify two different kinds of love: passionate love and companionate love. By passionate love they’re talking about attraction, arousal, and intense emotions whereas companionate love is friendship, attachment, and affection. This distinction is important because it allows us to factor in love that is felt for friends and family not just romantic partners. Whereas passionate love, not surprisingly, is something that occurs between romantic partners, companionate love can be felt for friends, family, as well as partners. Companionate love brings with it trust, respect and caring.

      Many psychologists focus on love in a romantic context rather than love felt for family and friends. Sternberg came up with the very influential triangular theory of love where he argues that there are three components of love – intimacy, passion, and companionship. The presence, or absence, of each of these components characterises a different form of love. If they’re all missing, then this is no love whereas if all three are present this is the ultimate form of love – companionate love. But in between these there are different forms of love, the most common of which are companionate love (where commitment and intimacy are present, but passion is missing) and romantic love (where passion and intimacy are present, but commitment is missing). During the course of a relationship you can go through many different forms of love.

      There are many other social psychological explanations of love and there are cultural variations in this. It’s also important to be mindful of same-sex relationships, which are under researched. Is love the same here? Generally, we find that yes, same-sex relationships mirror those of opposite sex relationships but there are some differences (including stress within the relationship that arises from discrimination). Although I’ve focused on trying to explain what love is from a social psychological perspective, there are also explanations from other perspectives in psychology, such as psychobiology.

      So there you are, what is love? It’s depends!

    • Photo: Jaime Benjamin

      Jaime Benjamin answered on 15 Nov 2023:

      That is a great and really BIG question. Thank you so much for asking it.

      It is something scientists have defined in many ways as we try to understand it. We could talk about synapses that fire when you see the face of a special person, or the dopamine that gets released when you interact with them, but I don’t think it is far to boil a feeling and experience down to the purely biological mechanisms.

      Sometimes, its a product of the language we use. We might say “I love my parents”, “I love my friends”, “I love my boyfriend/girlfriend” or even “I love chocolate”. But we know that it is not the same type of love each time.

      To “Love” something usually means there is an element of trust.

      Sometimes we talk about being “in love” were we mean we trust someone and have some sexual attraction to them. We can “passionate love” where there are intense emotions of both great joy and pain, or “companionate love” which is more akin to a friendship with less intense emotions but great comfort and understanding.

      There are different styles to love – sexual, fun, friendship, selfless, possessive or practical.

      One researcher (Sternberg if you want to look it up) – suggests that ALL loves consist of different levels of 3 key things: Emotional Intimacy (warmth and sharing), Passion (Sexual attraction), and Commitment (willingness to stay with the person).

      Relationships will change overtime how much of each element they have. An arranged marriage might start with nothing but commitment, but with time come the intimacy and maybe passion. A new relationship usually starts off romantic with high amount of passion and intimacy but no commitment but overtime, all those things can change as well.

      In western societies like the UK – we have an idealisation of “consumate love” which has all three elements in high levels. However, different cultures across different times will have different ideas of what love is.

      I hope this has started to answer your question. Unfortunately, it might leave you with more questions like “is the love a parent has for a child, the same as the love a child has for a parent?” or “can you be in love with more than one person”.