Romantic love has been largely ignored as a topic for research in the marriage and family field. A partial explanation for this paucity of research is that theories of romantic love have not been fully developed, have not been systemic in nature, have not been based on research in related fields (such as primatology and evolutionary psychology), and have not reflected neuroscience research findings. The purpose of this essay is to integrate recent research in evolutionary psychology, primatology, social psychology, and neuroscience into a theory of romantic love under the umbrella of systems theory. The result is the development of systems/dialectical theory, combining systems theory and the dialectical theory of Klaus Riegel.
This theory suggests that romantic love is a dynamic phenomenon based on the interplay of four dimensions: 1) the inner/biological, 2) the individual/psychological, 3) the social/cultural, and 4) the outer/physical. Romantic love may be stronger in some periods of a person’s life than others and can influence the very nature of attraction because of the particular interaction of two or more of these dimensions.
A Systems/Dialectical Theory Of Romantic Love
Love and marriage are interrelated in American society. In fact, the institution of marriage is based on the uniting of two individuals who have pledged themselves to each other and who are drawn together because of romantic feelings for each other. While the initial experience of romantic love can be exhilarating and bolstering to self-esteem, the maintenance of romantic love in the marriage can become a source of disappointment to one or both spouses. It is not uncommon that the loss of romantic love can signal the end of the marital relationship.
Although romantic love has played such a central role in marriage, it has not played a role in the marriage literature. In the past several years, however, researchers have begun to view romantic love as a multidimensional concept including biological, social, cultural, and psychological factors worthy of research. Discovering the importance of romantic love for the courtship and mating process through research would increase our knowledge of both stability and satisfaction in intimate relationships.
According to Helen Fisher, romantic love provided the impetus for child rearing in primitive societies. In order to raise children in primitive societies, it was necessary for females to attach themselves to a male. The division of labor in primitive societies, in which females cared for the young and prepared food and males protected the unit from wild animals and hunted for food, was developed. According to Fisher, these primitive pairings stayed together about four years, or until the offspring was old enough to be less attached to the mother. If another child was born during this four-year period, it would delay the breakup through the infancy period of the second child.
This view of romantic love is that it is neither permanent nor exclusive. Flings with other partners provided a more variant biological gene pool and helped insure the survival of the species. Fisher believes that both males and females participated in this type of philandering. It is estimated that this biological drive for increasing the genetic pool has resulted in the current ratio of one in ten babies born in North America not being the offspring of the woman’s husband.
While Fisher’s ideas are interesting, it is worth noting that many authors have stated that exclusivity is an essential characteristic of romantic love not found in friendship. It is also true that while divorce rates have drastically increased in American society, life-long partnerships of married and unmarried couples still occur in approximately 50% of relationships.
In the field of evolutionary psychology, researchers have concluded that men and women are not only different in beliefs and attitudes about love, but that the difference is consistent across cultures. Generally, men are more concerned about attractiveness and youth, while women are more concerned about the mate’s ambition and social status. Women have more biological investment in a child than men, so they tend to assess male partners on their ability to provide resources and protect both mother and child (i.e. their parenting ability).
Another finding of evolutionary psychologists is that the reproductive success of men ultimately depends on the women’s health and youth. It could be that modern man’s concern about feminine beauty and youthful appearance is merely the biological legacy of determining the health and fertility of potential partners. For example, a recent researcher found that men value the women’s figure because it provides a rough assessment of her health. While the weight or overall body structure is relatively unimportant in determining the woman’s health, men tend to unconsciously regard the ratio of waist to hips as the determining factor. For example, healthy women generally have a waist-to-hip proportion in which the hips are roughly a third larger than the waist.
Recently, romantic love has been labelled an addiction by Fisher and co-researchers based on the fact that romantic love activates the reward network of the brain in the same way that cocaine activates the reward network. The researchers attempt to link a similar progression in drug addiction to addiction to love. Noting that love is a natural addiction and drug addiction is an unnatural hijacking of the reward is the starting point for viewing love as an addiction.
Recently, Roberts and Roberts argued that love, as well as other natural behaviors that activate the reward network, should not be considered addictions. They point out that, apart from the activation of the reward network, there is little common ground between love and drug addiction. This is true for both the progression over the life course and for clinical treatment.
New research indicates that attractiveness, along with its cultural, social, and psychological aspects also appears to have biological features. For example, researchers have found that faces are rated most attractive when they are near the average. The average face tends to be more symmetrical with less distinctive features. Unconsciously, people rate the average face healthier and more resistive to disease.
Evolutionary scientists also are concerned about the existence and survival of homosexuality. The emerging view of evolutionary scientists about homosexuality is that sexual orientation is fluid or plastic rather than comprising a strict either/or dichotomy. They view it as a variant of the human sexual continuum. Such practices in New Guinea and Australia in which men have sex with boys as part of the rites of passage into manhood illustrates the fluid nature of homosexuality. It can also be illustrated through a common pattern of homosexual behavior which oscillates between frequency and intensity of homosexual behavior. For example, a man may have periods in his life in which he is exclusively homosexual and periods in which he is bisexual or heterosexual.
Other recent research on romantic love suggests that the high feeling derived from being in love is caused by chemicals produced in the body. For example, amphetamine type chemicals such as, dopamine, norepinephrine, and phenylethylamine (PEA) are produced in the body when one feels attracted to another person. The romantic feeling of being out of control may have roots in the production of chemicals in the body rather than being related to personality types or psychological factors. This high may be so desirous that an individual unwittingly continues certain behaviors in an attempt to prolong it.
The high produced from PEA and other chemicals related to romantic love is somewhat short-lived. It is believed that the body becomes tolerant to this high and cannot produce enough to keep pace with the demand for it. Building tolerance to these natural chemicals may explain why a new lover may help recreate this high by producing more PEA. Many people may get caught in the cycle of establishing new love relationships to stave off the let down from reduced levels of PEA.
Many people, however, live together for many years and become quite satisfied with their relationship despite the reduction of PEA. Psychobiologists believe that another group of natural chemicals, endorphins, are active in long-term relationships. In contrast to PEA, endorphins produce feelings of security, peace, and calm. These chemicals may be related to the negative emotions caused by loss of attachment when a long-term relationship ends.
Other researchers on romantic love have recently concluded that many cultures in the world embrace romantic love. In contrast to the widespread belief that romantic love is a Western invention, similar patterns of romantic love are shared cross-culturally. Consequently, romantic love is considered a multidimensional concept, including biological, cultural, social, and psychological aspects. A cultural phenomenon would be expected to be less widespread in use and be idiosyncratic to the particular culture. While romantic love may be repressed by cultural sanctions, there seems to be evidence that some people “fall in love” in all cultures. The frequency with which persons fall in love is probably related to cultural restrains and expectations.
In sum, the research cited above reflects biological, cultural, social, and psychological factors that contribute to the phenomenon of romantic love. How these factors are linked in the development and maintenance of romantic love in a relationship will be discussed below.
Theory Development in Romantic Love
Past theories of love include Maslow’s hierarchical perspective of love, Lee’s styles of loving, Ira Reiss’ wheel theory, and Sternberg’s triangular theory. Although these theories of love have been used to describe the development and maintenance of love in adult romantic relationships, none have been developed to describe its process and to identify the treatment issues in working clinically with couples. None reflect current psychobiological research on romantic love.
More recently, attachment theory was applied to romantic love relationships. Hazen and Shaver applied the three attachment styles of love — anxious/avoidant, insecure, and secure attachment — to marital couples. With some degree of predictability, they were able to show how marital couples interact with each other similarly to their attachment style to their parents as children. Findings by several other researchers support the work of Hazen and Shaver and have been able to predict the stability and dissolution of marital relationships based on the style of attachment.
Clinical application of attachment theory with couples who are insecurely attached to their spouses has been the focus of clinical writers. Johnson and Greenberg apply their “emotion-focused” approach by using primary emotions such as fear and hurt as change agents. Roberts combines attachment theory and symbolic-experiential therapy in a four-step program to identify and understand each partner’s attachment style and to create new experiences to facilitate change in the relationship.
While attachment theory has provided much interest recently as a theory for adult romantic relationships, a number of weaknesses reduce its overall applicability. In the attachment perspective, individuals are identified in certain categories of attachment to intimate partners. In Johnson and Greenberg, past attachment to the mother, or primary caregiver, is seen as the prototype for attachment in adult romantic relationships. Viewing romantic love as being tied to childhood experiences is somewhat inconsistent with a systems or recursive model, in which various present and future outcomes are possible.
Another weakness in applying attachment theory to adult romantic love relationships is the difficulty in explaining why some people who form insecure relationships with their mothers have secure relationships with their spouses, or vice versa: why some people who form secure relationships with their mothers may have a life-long problem of forming appropriate intimate relationships.
In addition, the attachment literature is based on research using a dyadic model. Even studies that address attachment to other members of the family such as to the father and siblings, tend to use a “multiple” dyadic approach. In other words, traditional attachment theory views relationships as summative of different dyads rather than as reflecting the integration of the larger emotional relationship network. The major shortcoming of this approach is that it does not address how the multiple dyads function together as a family unit.
Some researchers have noted this problem and attempted to address it. For example, some research has attempted to observe the mother-child-father (triadic) relationship rather than breaking it into dyads. These studies generally have found that there is a difference in findings according to whether one looks at dyadic or triadic relationships. These studies fail to give a conceptual framework for understanding why these differences occur, however, or what they mean.
Studies in primatology have found that in primates the father’s relationship with his offspring is directly related to his relationship with his offspring’s mother. This relationship with the mother is a better predictor of parenthood for the male than whether he is biologically related to her offspring. This means that parenthood for the male primate (baboons) is tied to the relationship with the mother. If the mother is friends with the male, she will allow him to have a long-term relationship with her offspring.
Other recent research in primatology has found that primates relate to one another in triangles rather than in separate dyads. Primates tend to manage tension and conflict through third parties, which most often are close-kin relationships. This triangling in primate relationships explains not only how individual behavior is governed by relationships with others but also how attachment may reflect the emotional context in which the mother and child interact.
Consequently, attachment must be seen as triadic rather than a dyadic relationship. The mother’s relationships with others mediate her attachment with her infant. For example, when the mother is emotionally distant from others, she may relate to her infant in a manner that increases emotional sensitivity to her. The emotional intensity of such relationships may mean that the mother fuses with the child inappropriately and sets a scenario in which the child acts out.
The child becomes “wired” to a mother who is reflecting her current state of other relationships and general state of emotional being. In this sense the child attaches not only to the mother, or primary caregiver, but to the caregiver’s total emotional network. Applied to romantic love, viewing attachment as triadic implies that romantic relationships may represent a response to one’s total, dynamic rather than static, emotional field.
There is a need for a new theory of love in intimate relationships that is consistent with recent research findings. The new theory should be able to explain how biological, social, cultural, environmental, and psychological factors affect the romantic process. In addition, there is a need for a theory that is systemic in nature, which not only describes the process but also forms the basis for working clinically with couples. None of the theories of love link theory and clinical application in a way that effectively explains the process.
A Systems/Dialectical Approach To Romantic Love
The purpose of this section is to describe how a systems/dialectical approach could be helpful in understanding the formation and maintenance of adult romantic relationships.
The individual’s state at any given point presupposes a contradictory state. Alternate explanations exist for the same concept. Experiences, such as love, are always open to more than one explanation. Love is, therefore, a changing concept as a result of changes and conflicts in the physical, biological, psychological, and social dimensions of a person’s life. Love may mean different things at different times.
Klaus Riegel’s Theory of Human Development based on dialectics combined four interdependent dimensions: 1) inner/biological; 2) social/cultural; 3) individual/psychological; and, 4) outer/physical. He believed that human development takes place through the interplay of these four dimensions. The developmental process is not predetermined and is similar to a dialogue in which discordinate elements are synthesized. The background is not static but dynamic and linked by a feedback system of the present interaction of the four dimensions. For Riegel, development is a dynamic process in which both the individual and the context are altered.
A systems/dialectical approach to romantic love combines a systemic orientation and Riegel’s four dimensions of development. How one views love and responds to another person in a love relationship represents the dynamic interplay of these dimensions at any one point in time. In one stage in development, conflicts and resolutions in the inner/biological may be more involved, while in another stage, the outer physical and the social/cultural may be more involved. Change in one dimension will always result in a change in one or more of the other dimensions. How these dimensions affect the experience of romantic love will be discussed in greater detail below.
The Inner/Biological Dimension
Initially, the presence and quantity of certain chemicals in the body may have a significant effect on the expression of romantic love. For example, during attraction the individual may be affected by the presence of phenylethylamine (PEA), dopamine, and norepinephrine. Recent focus on the biological dimension is on dopamine, which is produced initially as the reward network of the brain is activated. No doubt, the experience of new love is satisfying, and at times overwhelming, as a response to the brain producing the natural high chemicals.
In a systems/dialectical perspective, the production of these natural chemicals represents the inner/biological dimension of the person’s life. In this developmental period of love, this dimension dominates the person’s view of love. Because of the chemical change in the brain in the inner/biological dimension affects the individual/psychological dimension resulting a feeling of bonding and love for the other person.
This period in the development of love is important because of the long-term effect on the future development of the relationship. Romantic love is the reason most persons pursue long-term relationships and may continue to pursue them to some degree throughout the life course. How and to what extent it continues will depend on the interaction with other dimensions of development.
The Individual/Psychological Dimension
The individual/psychological dimension refers to emotions and other psychological factors affecting cognition and behaviors. Romantic love is viewed as primarily an emotion that culminates in cognition. This means that one relates to the other in terms of an emotional response that is later understood and expressed in terms of a cognitive process. For example, one experiences the feeling of love and afterwards acknowledges that he/she is in love with the other person.
There is some recent research evidence that states some primary emotions, such as fear, may bypass the neo-cortex and go first to the emotional part of the brain. It can be assumed that love should be understood as a primary emotion, as opposed to secondary or reactive emotions, which initially bypasses the cognitive structure of the brain. The emotional response with its shot of chemicals happens first, followed by the labeling, or cognitive processing.
While we do not know the exact process whereby infants form attachments with their caregivers, we do know that a similar process occurs during courtship. The psychological dimension of the attachment process suggests that attachment, although dynamic and changing, is an automatic response to the caregiver’s emotional field and not subject to rational decision-making processes.
Attachment in adult love relationships can be viewed as a type of a priori response in which one fuses with the emotional field of the other person despite cognitive awareness that the relationship may not be a good one. For example, one may fall in love with another who one knows in a rational sense is inappropriate, but cannot kept from doing so. The kind of attachment process, described as insecure, is seen as one in which an individual may respond, “I know this isn’t right, but I can’t help myself. I’m so in love with him.”
The Social/Cultural Dimension
This process of attachment experienced in the individual/psychological dimension also has certain social and cultural dimensions that make one feel at ease with some persons more than others. It seems evident that initially persons are attracted to others who are similar to themselves. Perhaps their limited social life has some significance to this selection process. Later in life, after a person has more experiences and formed relationships to a variety of persons, the social/cultural dimension may be less influential. This is especially true today when the internet has changed the social and cultural regulations for meeting persons and ultimately forming a romantic relationship.
The Outer/Physical Dimension
The outer/physical dimension may affect the process of attraction and intimacy. Studies show that we are attracted to others whom we consider physically attractive. Physical attraction may be the major reason why we consider some people to be potential partners. In this regard, the outer/physical dimension may strongly affect other dimensions including the inner/biological and the social/cultural since some potential partners would be chosen or eliminated solely on the basis of their physical appearance. It seems also true that as one ages, subsequent partners may not be as physically attractive as the first partner the outer/physical dimension may be affected more by the social/cultural dimension. In other words as one ages companionship which is embedded in the social/cultural dimension may be more important than the attractiveness of the other person.
The systems/dialectical approach to love can explain different scenarios of love including the possibility that one marries initially to separate from home, has children, meets someone on the job that he/she “falls in love” with, and leaves his/her marriage partner. This kind of romantic awakening is not uncommon in middle-age. A systems/dialectical approach suggests that conflicts in one, or between two or more, of the four dimensions may be responsible for this sudden shift in behavior.
For example, the individual/psychological dimension of the person may be affecting his/her present relationships in such a scenario. Perhaps a man feels old and unattractive. When he is responded to sexually by a young attractive woman, his self-image improves. The inner/biological dimension may be affected by the production of chemicals that reinforce this improved self-esteem. His dissatisfaction with his physique, however, may create a conflict in his outer/physical dimension that drives him to join a health club to get in shape.
A systems/dialectical approach suggests that the experience of love is never a constant in one’s life and is altered by the interplay of the four dimensions. Alternate experiences of love appear and disappear in one’s life in reference to dynamic changes in physical, biological, psychological, and social dimensions.
Benefits of A Systems/Dialectical Perspective
A systems/dialectical approach to a theory of love is a viable alternative to other theories of romantic love for a number of reasons. First, the process involved in adult romantic relationships is dynamic and changing. While this point is not necessarily different from other views, reasons for the change in how love is experienced are different from a systems-dialectical perspective. For example, the popular view that romantic love is unstable and gives way to a more permanent expression through the development of companionate love is a static and linear view of love.
Recent research found that, contrary to popular opinion, couples in long-term relationships can grow happier with age and are emotionally vital throughout the marital process. There is no one love process that couples are limited to as they move through stages together.
Consistent with a systems perspective, a circular view of love suggests that love changes because of the dialectical process in which different dimensions come into conflict with each other. Change is inevitable because of the interplay of the different dimensions at any given time. While change is constant, the direction and pathway of change is not predetermined. This approach suggests that for some people, romantic love does not decline, but rather takes different forms and, for others, romantic love may be revived in different life-cycle stages.
This position suggests that different alternatives exist for the same experience. For example, not everyone experiences romantic love the same way initially in a relationship, or as the relationship progresses. Clinicians often hear a wife or husband say, “I did not really love my spouse when we married,” or “I never really loved him. I got married to get out of the house. But I learned to love him after a while.” Research and clinical observation indicate that these different outcomes occur.
The very nature of a romantic relationship is dialectical. For example, the male gender presupposes female gender. Each is defined and enlarged by the other. Likewise, the very nature of love is paradoxical in that love presupposes non-love and each has meaning because of the other. The act of “falling in love” is understood through the act of “falling out of love.” Passion and romantic love can be meaningful only as one fully understands and acts on the opposite of romantic love — the will, or decision to love. Romantic love with its characteristic of emotional fusion is given its meaning for the individual by incorporating the opposite of emotional fusion, or the will or decision to love.
Second, a systems/dialectical model presupposes a bidirectional view of reality. There can be no cause and effect reasons given for the process of change in love. A change in love changes both love and the context in which love is experienced. In other words, a change in love changes both the person’s emotions and cognitions about love and the relationship in which love is experienced.
Third, a systems/dialectical approach to romantic love views changes in love as both continuous, gradual, or nonstage-like change; and discontinuous, stage-like, or irreducible to previous elements. The common view that love represents only continuous change — romantic love changing into companionate love, which changes into devitalized love, for example — does not seem consistent with how love is experienced by many people. When one “falls out of love,” for example, there is a fundamental change in which predicting the pathway of future change is very difficult.
The best predictor for future change in love seems to be in terms of probable changes, referred to as probablistic. Romantic attractions to others are not the same in all life-cycle periods. For example, researchers have concluded that in a remarriage one is much more likely to choose someone less homogamous than in the first marriage. This change in attraction to others is viewed as resulting from a change in the very structure of what one considers romantically attractive. Potential partners that were previously eliminated can be considered desirable at a later life stage.
With regards to homosexuality, this view would be very similar to the emerging view of evolutionary scientists that homosexuality is fluid rather than an either/or dichotomy. For example, a man may be bisexual during part of his life, exclusively homosexual at another stage, and again bisexual at another stage.
Finally, a systems/dialectical theory of romantic love explains the complexity of love and the impossibility of reducing it to typologies as in Lee’s styles of loving, or to interrelated principles as Sternberg did in the triangular theory. It also suggests that while attachment is a psychological factor affecting romantic love, it must be viewed as triadic rather than dyadic. In addition, this theory explains how romantic love can be expressed differently in the lives of people because of distinctive situations.