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  • Published: 31 January 2024

A decade of love: mapping the landscape of romantic love research through bibliometric analysis

  • Yixue Han 1 ,
  • Yulin Luo 1 ,
  • Zhuohong Chen 1 ,
  • Nan Gao 1 ,
  • Yangyang Song 1 &
  • Shen Liu 1  

Humanities and Social Sciences Communications volume  11 , Article number:  187 ( 2024 ) Cite this article

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Given the limited availability of bibliometric and visual analysis on the topic of romantic love, the primary objective of the current study is to fill this gap by conducting a comprehensive visual analysis of relevant literature. Through this analysis, the current study aimed to uncover current research trends and identify potential future directions in the field of romantic love. The current study’s search criteria were met by an impressive 6858 publications found in the Web of Science database for the period between 2013 and 2022. A thorough analysis was conducted on the bibliographic visualization of the authors, organizations, countries, references, and keywords. Over time, there has been a remarkable surge in the number of significant publications. Among the authors in the field of romantic love, Emily A. Impett has emerged as the most prolific. The Journal of Social and Personal Relationships is indeed one of the top journals that has published a significant number of articles on the topic of romantic love. During the preceding decade, the University of California System emerged as a prominent producer of publications centered around romantic love, solidifying the United States’ position as a dominant player in this field. In recent times, there has been a significant surge in the popularity of keywords such as “same-sex,” “conflict resolution,” and “social relationships” within academic literature. These topics have experienced a burst of attention, as evidenced by a substantial increase in references and citations. Through the use of visualization maps and analysis of key publications, the current study offers a comprehensive overview of the key concepts and potential avenues for future research in the field of romantic love. Gaining a deep understanding of the complex dynamics and societal implications of romantic love has been instrumental in formulating policies that embody increased compassion and support. As a result, these policies have played a pivotal role in fostering resilient familial ties and contributing to the enduring stability and prosperity of our social fabric.

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Introduction, the development course of romantic love.

Romantic love, as defined by Hatfield and Rapson ( 1987 ) as an intense longing for union with another, has long been recognized as a driving force behind some of humanity’s most remarkable achievements. Studies by Bartels and Zeki ( 2000 ) and the work of Fehr ( 2013 , 2015 ) have further emphasized its profound impact. Previous research has suggested that romantic love has a crucial role in the development and maintenance of romantic relationships. It involves a transition from the significant investment of time and attention in the initial stages to enhanced communication and satisfaction in committed partnerships (Mizrahi et al. 2022 ). However, recent research has shown that in the United States, the divorce rate has consistently remained at historically high levels. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ( 2017 ), ~40–50% of first marriages end in divorce. In recent times, there has been a trend toward shorter and more prevalent romantic relationships. Alirezanejad ( 2022 ) found that different generations of women have maintained distinct expectations and experiences when it comes to love. Additionally, the significance of commitment in romantic relationships has witnessed a decline. These findings also indicate that there are additional factors at play that influence the dynamics between romantic love and the duration of relationships. The triangular theory of love, being one of the most widely used theories on romantic love, proposes that romantic love consists of three components: intimacy, passion, and an absence of commitment, alongside a willingness to invest resources without expecting reciprocation (Jimenez-Picon et al. 2022 ). The Love Attitude Scale (LAS) developed by Clyde and Susan Hendrick has been a significant contribution in the study of romantic love using psychometric methods. Tobore ( 2020 ) introduced a comprehensive four-fold framework that aims to elucidate the dynamics of how love evolves and diminishes. This framework includes the elements of attraction, empathy or connection, trust, and respect. As a result, the enigmatic and unique nature of romantic love has captivated the attention of scholars from various disciplines, including psychology, biology, sociology, and neuroscience. These scholars have conducted extensive research and investigations into the complexities of romantic love. Thus, the present study conducted a comprehensive and in-depth analysis and discourse on romantic love, spanning multiple research domains. Additionally, the publication emphasized the influence of romantic love on positive emotions as well as its association with various negative behaviors. Furthermore, it underscored the importance of utilizing bibliometric analysis as a valuable approach to study and understand romantic love.

The research directions of romantic love in different disciplines

Psychologists have focused on exploring the relationship between romantic love and negative emotions in individuals with mental illnesses. Lafontaine et al. ( 2020 ) found a correlation between romantic love insecurity, specifically anxiety and avoidance, and the occurrence of intimate partner violence (IPV). This pattern of behavior was shown to undermine relationships and diminish individuals’ sense of security. Moreover, individuals with schizophrenia and other mental health conditions faced significant challenges in building and sustaining healthy interpersonal connections, partly due to the enduring stigma associated with mental illness (Budziszewska et al. 2020 ). Biological researchers have delved into the physiological activities and responses associated with romantic love. Furthermore, biological research has demonstrated that communication plays a crucial role in enhancing romantic relationships by facilitating physiological and behavioral adaptations between partners. For instance, a study by Zeevi et al. ( 2022 ) revealed that men and women in a romantic relationship can enhance their romantic interest in each other by synchronizing their skin electrical activities and modifying their behavior. These findings suggest that the social adaptation of the sympathetic nervous system and motor behavior play a critical role in the romantic attraction between partners. Furthermore, recent biological research conducted by Kerr et al. ( 2022 ) has discovered a correlation between unsuitable adult attachment in romantic relationships and the interpersonal circumplex, which is a component of personality pathology. Furthermore, a sociological study on pair-bonding conducted by Fletcher et al. ( 2015 ) highlighted that romantic love is intricately linked to the evolution and survival of Homo sapiens, making it a biologically significant function with profound evolutionary implications. Neuroscientists have examined the activation of different brain regions that are triggered by romantic love activities. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has emerged as a prominent technique for studying the neurobiological basis of love. Researchers such as Acevedo et al. ( 2020 ) and Chester et al. ( 2021 ) have utilized fMRI to investigate the neural correlates of romantic love and gain insights into the brain mechanisms underlying this complex phenomenon. Neuroscientists have identified specific brain regions associated with love, including the insula and anterior cingulate cortex. These regions are involved in the processing of emotional experiences related to valued objects. A study by Bartels and Zeki ( 2000 ) highlighted the involvement of these brain regions in the experience of romantic love, shedding light on the neural mechanisms underlying the emotional aspects of love. The activation of reward-related areas in the brain, particularly those rich in oxytocin, has been observed in individuals experiencing love. Studies by Acevedo et al. ( 2012 ) and Bartels and Zeki ( 2004 ) have shown that regions associated with reward processing, such as the ventral tegmental area and nucleus accumbens, are involved in the experience of romantic love. Indeed, the involvement of the reward system in love has surpassed expectations. During the initial stages of romantic love, research conducted by Fisher et al. ( 2010 ) has shown that reward-related brain regions, including the bilateral ventral tegmental areas, are activated more strongly compared to the later stages of passion.

The social impact of romantic love

Undoubtedly, falling in love has a profound impact on people’s daily lives, as highlighted by research conducted by Quintard et al. ( 2021 ). Falling in love has been associated with enhanced well-being and has been correlated with fervor, activity, pleasure, and other positive emotions, as noted in research conducted by Langeslag ( 2022 ). However, it is important to acknowledge that the pitfalls of romantic love are often overlooked. Research, such as that conducted by Lonergan et al. ( 2022 ), has found associations between romantic love and criminal activity as well as psychological disorders. Additionally, studies by Aron et al. ( 2005 ), Merritt et al. ( 2022 ) and Li et al. ( 2022 ) have highlighted the presence of unpleasant affective states such as hyperarousal, anxiety, and depression in the context of romantic love. In recent decades, romantic love has undergone significant transformations that have had a substantial impact on both personal and societal life, as emphasized by research conducted by Reis et al. ( 2013 ).

The necessity of bibliometric analysis

Bibliometrics is a field that encompasses the quantitative study of documents, aiming to provide researchers with insights into academic, technological, and scientific advancements (William and Concepción 2001 ). The methodology utilized a range of techniques, including author analysis, concept mapping, clustering, factor analysis, and citation analysis, to investigate historical data and assist scholars in identifying significant trends and emerging directions within their disciplines (Daim et al. 2006 ; Hou et al. 2022 ). The term “bibliometrics” was coined by the distinguished British scientist Allen Richard in 1969, replacing the previously employed term “statistical bibliography.” In recent years, there has been a surging interest in this approach, with a growing number of researchers incorporating it into their work. Bibliometric analysis has been employed in various research domains, including the study of romantic love. These analyses offer valuable insights into the research areas that have been investigated, as well as potential future trends, challenges, and opportunities in the field. To the best of our knowledge, there have been limited previous publications that have specifically analyzed romantic love based on the triangular theory of love development and explored the concept across different disciplines.

In the current study, we utilized state-of-the-art analytical tools, including CiteSpace (6.2.R2), VOSviewer (1.6.18), Microsoft Excel (2019), and Scimago Graphica (1.0.26), in conjunction with the most recent data obtained from the Web of Science (WOS) core collection database. These tools allowed us to conduct a comprehensive bibliometric and visual analysis of publications related to romantic love published in the last decade. By employing these cutting-edge tools and leveraging the extensive data available from WOS, we aimed to gain valuable insights into the research landscape surrounding romantic love during this specific time frame. Our study aimed to achieve several objectives. First, we sought to identify the current research hotspots and trends within the field of romantic love. Second, we aimed to conduct an in-depth examination of visual maps and seminal articles, providing a comprehensive overview of the literature.

Material and methods

Data acquisition and search strategy.

The Web of Science (WOS) platform served as a valuable resource, containing a vast collection of over 9000 significant academic articles. This database stands as one of the oldest and most comprehensive citation index records, encompassing a wide range of disciplines, including social science, engineering technology, biomedicine, arts and humanities, and various other subjects. Since its establishment in 1900, the Web of Science (WOS) has served as a cornerstone of scholarly research and has wielded significant influence within academic circles (Ellegaard and Wallin 2015 ). The quantitative analysis feature of the platform facilitated the acquisition of various types of information related to scholarly publications. This included data on the annual number of papers published, papers published by state or region, popular journals within specific disciplines, frequently utilized publishing houses, and highly downloaded and cited literature. Indeed, references that receive multiple citations play a crucial role in providing a robust foundation for the study of romantic love, as emphasized by Xu et al. ( 2022 ).

The subject matter of romantic love and its interrelation with romantic relationships has a profound impact on the satisfaction and longevity of love between individuals, as highlighted by Zagefka ( 2022 ). Passionate love is a fundamental concept within romantic relationships, as emphasized by Mizrahi et al. ( 2022 ). Sternberg’s triangular theory of love stands as one of the most substantial and frequently referenced frameworks for understanding love, as noted by Sorokowski et al. ( 2021 ). To comprehensively explore the topic, the search strategy incorporated the inclusion of the following elements: The topic could encompass “romantic love,” OR “passionate love,” OR “romantic relationship,” OR “triangular theory of love.”‘ The search was conducted within the Web of Science Core Collection database, which covers the time period from 2013 to 2022. The database indexes the Science Citation Index Expanded (SCI-EXPANDED) and Social Science Citation Index-Expanded (SSCI-EXPANDED). The search was limited to publications written in the English language. To refine the search and focus on specific types of publications, certain categories were excluded from the search results. These excluded categories included early access, book chapters, proceeding papers, data papers, and retracted publications. By excluding these categories, the search aimed to prioritize reviews and articles, which are typically considered primary sources of scholarly information. As a result of these refined search criteria, a total of 6858 relevant items were identified and included in the analysis.

The retrieval strategy employed in this research was designed to maintain the integrity and impartiality of the search process (see Fig. 1 ).

figure 1

To ensure that the search results were not influenced by daily database updates, all searches were conducted on a single day, specifically on March 26, 2023.

Analysis tool

For bibliometric analysis, the current study utilized a powerful combination of CiteSpace (6.2.R2), VOSviewer (1.6.18), Microsoft Excel (2019), and Scimago Graphica (1.0.26). These state-of-the-art software tools seamlessly integrated insights from scientometrics, information science, computer science, and other related fields to generate highly intuitive and informative visual maps. These maps revealed the development trajectory and structural underpinnings of scientific research. Indeed, each of these four software applications held unique and irreplaceable significance, excelling in specific domains of bibliometric analysis. Excel, for instance, demonstrated unparalleled proficiency in the intuitive transformation of charts. CiteSpace specialized in the clustering of topics and the delineation of the spatio-temporal background of words. VOSviewer played a pivotal role in both displaying and analyzing keywords, leveraging its distinctive capabilities. Lastly, Scimago Graphica contributed significantly to the geographical perspective of statistical analysis, offering insights that were unmatched in their comprehensiveness. Collectively, these tools not only proved indispensable but also brought their individual strengths to the forefront, contributing uniquely to the overall analytical landscape. Indeed, the Excel program was commonly employed to comprehensively analyze key data points such as the number of published papers, frequency of citations, and matched published documents. It was also employed to synthesize all the information for creating intuitive visual representations (Fig. 2 ) to illustrate the trends in the number of publications, citations, and their corresponding fitting functions during different periods. The use of CiteSpace in the current study was focused on highlighting the most salient occurrence burst on a timeline map and detecting the centrality of romantic love studies (Zhang et al. 2022a ). In order to attain a comprehensive understanding of the progress in romantic love research, an evolutionary analysis was undertaken, utilizing CiteSpace’s burst function. Co-occurrence analysis on pertinent keywords is another valuable method used to gain insights into the relationships and patterns among keywords in a specific research domain. Indeed, the analyses conducted, including the evolutionary analysis and co-occurrence analysis, facilitated an examination of the prevailing themes and trends of romantic love across different generations from a chronological perspective. VOSviewer, a powerful visualization tool, was utilized in the current study to portray the borders of romantic love with varying color clusters. It also facilitated the exploration of the co-occurrence of authors, institutions, and keywords associated with romantic love. The circles of various colors and sizes were used to represent the occurrence frequency of distinct cluster words and different keywords, respectively. The examination of keywords in the current study, augmented by chart analysis, delved into a more profound, comprehensive, and scientific level. Scimago Graphica 1.0.18, a tool designed for visualizing international collaboration, proved highly effective in the current study for facilitating the visualization of international collaboration (He et al. 2022 ). By organically combining the atlas and the world map, researchers were able to intuitively observe differences in the number of publications across various countries and the extent of national collaboration between different regions.

figure 2

The trend exhibited an upward trajectory, with an estimated 938 publications in 2021, compared to 502 publications in 2013. Notably, the annual publication volume in the field of romantic love had reached its peak in 2021, as indicated by the fitted equation. However, it is worth mentioning that there was a slight decrease in publication numbers during specific periods. From 2017 to 2018, the annual publication count declined from 644 to 608. Similarly, from 2019 to 2020, there was a minor decrease from 872 to 861 publications annually. Additionally, there was a slight decline from 2021 to 2022, with the number of publications decreasing from 938 to 817 annually.

In the previous study, a comprehensive range of factors was considered to provide a thorough and scientifically rigorous atlas analysis of romantic love research. These factors included the annual publication rate, citation counts, H-index, impact factor, centrality, and occurrence/citation burst. An increase in the volume of publications can indicate the growth of a field and provide insights into future research directions (Wang 2016 ). While the number of citations a paper receives may not directly measure an author’s academic influence, it can indicate the recognition of the author’s work by peers worldwide. The “H-index” was a tool for evaluating academic influence, where a researcher with an “H-index” of 10 had 10 papers that had been cited at least 10 times (Wang et al. 2021 ). Since its inception in the 1950s, the impact factor has been widely regarded as a prominent index for ranking scientific literature. It has become an emblem of the prestige and significance of journals and authors in determining the relevance of a journal (Oosthuizen and Fenton 2014 ). For the current study, Journal Citation Reports (JCR) were utilized to calculate impact factors (2021). The centrality of research objects can indeed reflect their impact on the entire field, with greater centrality indicating a greater representation of homologous study content within a subject area. In the study conducted by Gao et al. ( 2021 ), betweenness centrality scores were adjusted to the range of [0, 1]. Specifically, if the betweenness centrality score of a main keyword exceeded 0.10, it was considered to indicate the significance of the study target. In the study conducted by Xu et al. ( 2022 ), the concept of a “burst term” was utilized to refer to an unexpected term that emerged in the research, potentially indicating new directions or orientations discovered during the investigation. The Kleinberg burst detection method, which is implemented in the CiteSpace software, was employed to identify these burst terms and highlight them as indicators of frontier research.

Publication outputs

A total of 6858 records met the search criteria. As depicted in Fig. 2 , the number of annual publications in the field of romantic love has shown a consistent upward trend since 2013. This increase is accompanied by a corresponding surge in citation counts, as indicated by the fitted equation. Citation counts in the field of romantic love have also experienced a significant upsurge since 2013, with an approximate 90-fold increase by 2022. Furthermore, based on current trends and fitting curves, the number of studies in this field is expected to continue rising, with an increasing number of researchers focusing on this topic.

Distribution by journals

The current study retrieved a total of 6858 records from 1251 journals, with ~33.79% of the material published by 20 publications that released more than 50 papers in this field. The top ten journals, accounting for 23.78% (92–400) of all papers published, had an average publication count of 134 papers per journal (see Table 1 ). Among them, the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships (400 publications, IF 2021 = 2.681) had the highest number of papers on romantic love research, followed by Personal Relationships (189 publications, IF 2021 = 1.528), and Personality and Individual Differences (185 publications, IF 2021 = 3.950). Notably, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology was the most influential professional core journal in this field, boasting the highest impact factor (8.460). Both European and American journals have made significant contributions to this field, with the United States and the United Kingdom accounting for 40% and 50% of the top 10 journal publishing countries/regions, respectively. The impact factors of the top 10 most-published journals ranged from 1.528 to 8.460, with an average of 4.070. It is worth noting that publishing romantic love-related articles in high-impact journals remains challenging.

Distribution by authors and research areas

A staggering 15,088 authors contributed to the total number of papers. In Fig. 3 , the collaborative efforts of the writers were illustrated through a network map, where the connections between the nodes signified their collaborative affiliations. Among the top three clusters, the red cluster included authors Joseph P. Allen, Martine Hebert, and Marie-France Lafontaine, who had converged due to their shared research interests in adolescent dating violence and aggression (Cenat et al. 2022 ; Niolon et al. 2015 ). The blue cluster consisted of authors Frank D. Fincham, James K. Monk, and Ashley K. Randall, who had explored the interplay between relationship satisfaction, stress, and relationship maintenance in romantic relationships (Randall and Bodenmann 2017 ; Vennum et al. 2017 ). The yellow cluster included authors Todd K. Shackelford, William J. Chopik, and Justin K. Mogilski, whose work focused on the topic of polygamy (Moors et al. 2019 ; Sela et al. 2017 ). Martine Hebert, Todd K. Shackelford, Frank D. Fincham, and Emily A. Impett emerged as the cooperative network’s central nodes, underscoring their crucial role in advancing research on romantic love.

figure 3

The authors’ cooperative network was partitioned into eight distinct clusters.

Table 2 provided a rundown of the most productive authors, with their published works ranging from 28 to 74 publications, averaging 41. The H-index, a yardstick for measuring academic influence, was employed to assess their impact. Notably, Emily A. Impett emerged as the dominant force within the cohort of scholars dedicated to the study of romantic love, having authored the most papers among the group (74 publications, H-index = 38). Additionally, Nickola C. Overall (42 publications, H-index = 19) and Amy Muise (60 publications, H-index = 30) also featured prominently as leading contributors to the field.

Table 3 and Fig. 4 displayed the number of publications in different fields of study related to the topic of romantic love. Notably, publications in the fields of biology, neuroscience, and economics were also included in Table 3 . The humanities were increasingly collaborating on romantic love research. Furthermore, the topic of romantic love was gaining popularity in the fields of psychology and sociology.

figure 4

The field of psychology, including psychology and psychiatry, was significantly ahead. The field of sociology encompassed various topics in the social sciences, including sociology and social work.

Distribution by country and institution

A total of 6858 publications had been published and disseminated to 104 countries and regions worldwide. In the country analysis, Scimago Graphica had been used to explore the geographic collaboration network of participating nations. The participants of the current study were drawn from 104 different countries spanning Asia, Africa, Europe, North America, and South America, with Europe exhibiting the highest level of overall engagement, underscoring the global trend toward collaboration. The United States and the United Kingdom had demonstrated the greatest degree of cooperation. Notably, China, South Africa, Spain, Italy, France, and other countries with high cooperation densities had formed the most significant multi-center cooperation network in this field (see Fig. 5 ). Figure 6 illustrated international collaboration.

figure 5

By leveraging Scimago Graphica, it was possible to merge geographical perspectives with national publications and collaborative relationships, providing an intuitive and scientific method to illuminate the various conditions of countries involved in the research on romantic love.

figure 6

The largest blue cluster was comprised of the United States, China, Switzerland, Turkey, and Norway, demonstrating collaboration across the Americas, Europe, and East Asia.

Table 4 outlined the specifics of the top ten countries in the landscape of romantic love research. The United States topped the list with 4092 publications, followed by Canada with 802 publications, and the United Kingdom with 540 publications. It is noteworthy that the majority of publications were disseminated from high-income countries, aligning with the overall prosperity of those nations. Most papers were disseminated in high-income countries. This trend might have stemmed from the overarching principles governing scientific inquiry, or it could be attributed to authors in these nations having the freedom to engage in research spanning areas not necessarily centered on economic growth. However, within the realm of general well-being, this emerges as a pertinent concern. Primarily, high-income countries historically boasted more affluent reservoirs of research resources, encompassing financial backing, cutting-edge equipment, and a pool of adept talent. This affluence empowered researchers in these nations to embark on a diverse array of investigations, spanning domains intricately tied to economic growth and extending to those delving into broader realms such as general well-being and social development. The discernible divergence in resource allocation likely contributed to the disproportionate prevalence of publications in high-income countries. Secondarily, the scrutiny of whether the romantic love research domain intricately correlates with economic growth warrants profound contemplation. At times, the merit of research doesn’t solely reside in its potential to spur short-term economic growth but extends to its impact on the overarching well-being and sustainable evolution of society. High-income countries, historically oriented toward prioritizing protracted social well-being, manifested a proclivity to endorse research that, while not directly contributing to economic growth, played an indispensable role in the comprehensive development of society. Institutional collaboration was vividly portrayed in Fig. 7 , which consisted of six clusters. A total of 3328 institutions contributed to the 6858 articles on romantic love. Of the top 10 organizations, universities occupied the top spot (as indicated in Table 5 ), with the State University System of Florida (246 publications), the University System of Ohio (248 publications), and the University of California System (365 publications) leading the pack. Notably, nine out of the top 10 institutions hailed from the United States, which was a testament to the country’s exceptional research prowess in this field.

figure 7

The red cluster denoted collaboration among Florida State University, University of Michigan, University of Washington, and Indiana University; the green cluster represented Ohio State University, University of Basel, and Nanyang Technological University; while the blue cluster embodied York University, the University of Toronto, Northwestern University, and Carleton University. Northwestern University, Florida State University, the University of Minnesota, and the University of Toronto were the major nodes in the cooperative network.

Analysis of references

Reference analysis played a critical role in bibliometric research, as the references with the highest citation bursts formed the foundation of knowledge at the forefront of research (Fitzpatrick 2005 ). In Fig. 8 , the current study presented the most relevant references on romantic love, which had experienced a surge in citations over the past decade. By the end of 2022, Mikulincer and Shaver’s ( 2016 ) articles had seen a significant increase in their citation counts, with the highest spike (14.35) observed in 2016, followed by Wincentak et al.’s ( 2017 ) studies (9.9). These two studies had been widely cited over the years and accurately captured the latest trends in romantic love research.

figure 8

These references were represented by red and green bars, indicating their frequent and less frequent citation, respectively.

Mikulincer and Shaver’s ( 2016 ) delved into the causes and methods for measuring individual differences in adult attachment, as well as how to modify attachment styles, using several empirical studies. Additionally, they explored the cutting-edge genetics, neurological, and hormonal substrates of attachment, expanding the impact model’s depiction of how the attachment system functioned. In the study, Wincentak et al. ( 2017 ) discussed the prevalence of dating violence among adolescents of different genders using a meta-analysis method, while also examining the potential regulatory effects of age, demographics, and measurement. Research has shown that in adolescent dating violence, the crime rate of women was significantly lower than that of men. Based on the analysis of these articles, current research trends in romantic love included adult attachment and the examination of adolescents’ irrational beliefs about love and the resulting adverse consequences, such as dating violence.

Analysis of keywords

Keyword burst refers to keywords that have shown a sharp increase in frequency over time, enabling the assessment of the current study focus in this area and reflecting the development pattern of future research. The current study extracted the burst terms of various years in the area of romantic love to obtain the burst terms of various years in the area of romantic love (see Fig. 9 ). As we’ve seen, the field had a diverse range of research interests. By the end of 2022, the three words with the highest peak were “same-sex” (2020–2022), “conflict resolution” (2020–2022), and “social relationships” (2020–2022):

Same-sex: in a society that valued heterosexual relationships, same-sex relationships were often met with shame and stigma, leading to additional pressures uniquely linked to their sexual orientation and partnership (Feinstein et al. 2018 ; Rostosky and Riggle 2017 ). Moreover, the online conduct of gay individuals has been demonstrated to have significant implications for their sexual risk behaviors and emotional well-being in romantic relationships (Zhang et al. 2022b ). The development of effective dual interventions has been shown to enhance the health and well-being of same-sex couples and their families. These interventions should also educate parents about the potential negative effects of heteronormative assumptions and attitudes on their children’s positive adolescent development (Pearson and Wilkinson 2013 ).

Conflict resolution: previous research has shown the irony that a person’s favorite individual, such as their romantic partner, is often the very person with whom they engage in destructive behavior during conflicts, making this destructive response one of the most challenging issues in relationships (Alonso-Ferres et al. 2021 ). As a result, it was critical to effectively resolve conflicts in a constructive manner. The emergence of computer-mediated communication (CMC) as a novel conflict resolution approach prompted researchers to explore this matter. Ultimately, they discovered that there were no differences in pain, anger, and conflict resolution levels between face-to-face and CMC discussions (Pollmann et al. 2020 ). Another study focused on neural activity during conflict resolution, revealing that mediation could enhance conflict resolution and was linked to increased activity in the nucleus accumbens, a crucial area of the brain’s reward circuit (Rafi et al. 2020 ). The finding emphasizes the importance of identifying neural mechanisms that could enhance conflict resolution and improve relationship outcomes. By exploring various conflict resolution approaches and associated neural mechanisms, researchers can facilitate a deeper understanding of how to successfully resolve conflicts and enhance relationship satisfaction.

Social relationships: long-term relationships are vital to the mental health of both humans and animals. Positive emotions and experiences, such as romantic or platonic love, play a significant role in the establishment and maintenance of social bonds. With this in mind, researchers integrated brain imaging studies on emotions characterized by social connections to investigate whether and how humans and animals experience social emotions and influences similarly in the context of social relationships (Zablocki-Thomas et al. 2022 ). An ecological and cross-cutting perspective study found that black Americans viewed their partner’s interactions regarding discrimination as an opportunity for their romantic partner to offer support, as revealed in semi-structured interviews (Rice 2023 ). Furthermore, as romantic relationships represent one of the most unique types of social connections, researchers utilized functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanning techniques to explore the neurobiological mechanisms of romantic relationships (Eckstein et al. 2023 ), offering valuable insight for the preservation and maintenance of social relationships and interactions.

figure 9

Over the last 10 years, the most popular keywords were “same-sex” (11.07), “dating relationships” (9.22), and “HIV” (9.05), indicating high demand for these topics in recent years. The keywords with the longest blasting times were “dating relationships” (2014–2017) and “delinquency” (2014–2017). The phrases that were still trending in 2022 were hotspots.

Figure 10 illustrated the relationship between keywords. The connection strength between two nodes was a quantitative measure of their relationship. The most frequently used keyword, “romantic relationship,” was represented by the largest node in Fig. 10 (see Table 6 ). The “romantic relationship” (2036) node had thicker lines than “attachment” (766), “gender” (728), “satisfaction” (664), “behavior” (529), “marriage” (508), “commitment” (419), “adolescents” (417), “associations” (395), and “intimate partner relationship” (336). The nodes had a minimum link strength of 150. The close connections between “romantic relationship” and “marriage,” “commitment,” and “intimate partnership” demonstrated the importance of stable, long-term relationships in maintaining romantic love (Fu et al. 2012 ).

figure 10

The connection strength between two nodes was a quantitative measure of their relationship. The total link strength of a node was the sum of its link strengths relative to all other nodes (Liao et al. 2018).

Keywords are essential in identifying the central themes and prospective avenues of a publication. By examining the co-occurrence of keywords, one can discern the current trajectory of research and development in a specific field (Zhang et al. 2022c ). In the present investigation, a total of 16,148 keywords were extracted from 6858 articles related to romantic love, with 10,571 being used only once, accounting for 65.46% of the total keywords. Through keyword co-occurrence analysis, six distinct color-coded clusters were identified, comprising attachment, gender, romantic relationships, personality, communication, and dynamics. The red cluster, attachment, delved into the complex relationships among commitment, fulfillment, companionship, and attachment insecurity. To address the diminished satisfaction in partner relationships caused by attachment insecurity, promoting healthy dualistic coping strategies (DCS) was recommended (Peloquin et al. 2022 ). The green cluster, gender, focused on the issues of dating violence victimization experienced by young individuals of different genders, with sexual minorities being particularly vulnerable to bullying (Cosma et al. 2022 ). The blue cluster, romantic connections, primarily examined the link between depressive symptoms and violent intimate partner relationships. Recent studies showed that dating violence and peer victimization were prevalent among young individuals (Smith et al. 2021 ) and that dating aggression was associated with both internalized and externalized psychopathology in young couples (Lantagne and Furman 2021 ). Additionally, the misuse of internet dating may lead to depression (Toplu-Demirtas et al. 2020 ). Apart from the six clusters mentioned, there was a noticeable trend toward integrating research with neuroimaging technology, which might lead to the emergence of new clusters in the realm of romantic love. The interconnectedness of attachment, gender, and romantic relationships was evident in the strong theoretical foundation and widespread attention these clusters received, whereas the clusters of personality, communication, and dynamics were more peripherally related. Due to their significance, future research on romantic love will continue to explore topics such as intimate partner violence, teenage dating violence victimization, attachment insecurity, and sexual abuse, with a focus on the three interconnected clusters of attachment, gender, and romantic relationships. In traditional notions, our understanding of romantic love had primarily consisted of terms such as romantic relationships and intimate commitments. However, practical issues such as misperceptions about love and a lack of regard for partners have gradually shifted the subject matter of research pertaining to romantic love toward dating violence. The research trajectory demonstrates a shift in the focus of romantic love research from a more idealized perspective toward a more realistic one. Finally, Fig. 11 displayed a keyword timeline graph that depicted when the most prevalent keywords first appeared and their evolving importance over time.

figure 11

This keyword timeline graph was depicted when the most prevalent keywords first appeared and their evolving importance over time.

The current study used advanced bibliometrics and literature data visualization techniques with CiteSpace, VOSviewer, and Web of Science to examine the growth of research publications in the field of romantic love, as well as the main research nations, journals, and emerging trends. The thorough review provided insight into the present status of development and research in this field, while also clarifying the historical path of scholarship and providing clear guidance for future research. Using bibliometric methods, the study investigated romantic love research from 2013 to 2022. The results showed a steady increase in publications on this topic, with a slight decrease noted in 2019, likely due to the detrimental impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on academic research. However, the analysis of current trends indicates a projected increase in research output on romantic love in the coming years.

Romantic love has been a global phenomenon, with Europe and the United States leading in widespread participation and clear concentration. Among the top 10 countries producing research in this field, the United States led with 4092 publications between 2013 and 2022. China, ranking fourth in terms of publications, emerged as the most prolific developing nation (328). However, compared to the United States, China lagged behind in publications and international collaboration. Therefore, China needs to expand its research efforts in this area and broaden its international partnerships. The top ten research institutions, mainly universities, played a vital role in advancing this field. Notably, nine out of ten of these institutions were located in the United States, further highlighting the preeminent position of American academic institutions in this area of study.

In the current study, we have discovered noteworthy findings regarding notable authors in the field of romantic love. The research studies have primarily focused on four distinct perspectives: the Limerence Theory, the Rate of Change in Intimacy Model, the Self-Expansion Model, and the Triangular Theory of Love. These perspectives have proposed four possible sources of romantic passion and assessed empirical evidence for and against each. Among the authors, Emily A. Impett has emerged as the most prolific author (Carswell and Impett 2021 ). Frank D. Fincham, who has the highest H-index, has conducted extensive research on the interplay between mindfulness and idiosyncratic mindfulness in romantic relationships. Notably, his research on adolescent intimate partner violence has received the most citations (Cui et al. 2013 ; Frank and Ross 2017 ; Kimmes et al. 2018 ). Furthermore, we found that an author’s centrality and citation frequency did not always correlate with their number of publications, indicating that various factors had contributed to an author’s academic influence (Zhang et al. 2022a ).

The term “burst term” refers to a term that unexpectedly appears in research and may indicate new directions or a novel perspective derived from research (Xu et al. 2022 ). According to Fig. 8 , the following references experienced a citation burst by the end of 2022: (1) Mikulincer and Shaver ( 2016 ) delved into the causes and measures of individual differences in adult attachment, explored the modifiability of attachment styles, and unveiled cutting-edge research in genetics, neurology, and hormones associated with attachment. They also extended the impact model’s depiction of the attachment system’s operation. (2) Wincentak et al. ( 2017 ) conducted a meta-analysis to investigate the prevalence of dating violence among adolescents of various genders, while also examining the potential impact of age, demographic factors, and measurement methods. Their findings suggested that the rate of perpetration of dating violence was significantly higher among male adolescents than female adolescents. In other words, male adolescents were more likely to engage in dating violence than their female counterparts. This gender difference in dating violence rates highlighted the need for targeted prevention and intervention efforts to address this issue among young people.

CiteSpace displayed keywords in bursts, as shown in Fig. 9 . These data were significant for reference in cutting-edge prediction research. The terms “same-sex,” “conflict resolution,” and “social relationships” might be used frequently in the coming years, indicating potential areas of focus within the domain of romantic love:

Same-sex: same-sex relationships faced unique pressures and stigma in a society that largely valued heterosexual partnerships, leading to feelings of shame and additional stressors based on sexual orientation (Feinstein et al. 2018 ; Rostosky and Riggle 2017 ). Notably, studies have revealed that the online behavior of gay individuals could significantly impact their emotional well-being and sexual risk behaviors within their romantic relationships (Zhang et al. 2022b ). To improve the health and well-being of same-sex couples and their families, effective dual interventions have been developed, including educating parents about the potential harm caused by heteronormative assumptions and attitudes on their children’s adolescent development (Pearson and Wilkinson 2013 ).

Conflict resolution: prior research has revealed the paradox that a person’s beloved partner, such as their significant other, is often the individual with whom they engage in harmful behavior during conflicts. The negative reaction could be one of the most challenging issues in a relationship (Alonso-Ferres et al. 2021 ). Therefore, it is imperative to resolve conflicts in a successful manner. Computer-mediated communication (CMC) has emerged as a novel approach to conflict resolution, and researchers have investigated this matter, concluding that there are no disparities in the levels of pain, anger, and conflict resolution between face-to-face and CMC discussions (Pollmann et al. 2020 ). Another study explored the neural mechanisms during conflict resolution, and researchers discovered that mediation could improve conflict resolution and was linked to elevated activity in the nucleus accumbens, a crucial area in the brain’s reward circuit (Rafi et al. 2020 ).

Social relationships: long-term relationships play a critical role in maintaining the mental health of both humans and animals. Positive emotions and emotional experiences, such as romantic or platonic love, are intricately linked to the formation and sustenance of social bonds. To gain insights into how social emotions manifest in both humans and animals, researchers integrated brain imaging studies of emotions associated with social connections (Zablocki-Thomas et al. 2022 ). From an ecological and cross-cutting perspective, another study found that Black Americans viewed their partner’s interactions around discrimination as an opportunity for their romantic partner to provide support, as revealed in semi-structured interviews (Rice 2023 ). Furthermore, given the unique nature of romantic relationships in social interactions, researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) techniques to investigate the neurobiological mechanisms of such relationships (Eckstein et al. 2023 ), which could serve as a reference for the preservation and cultivation of social relationships.

To our knowledge, our study represented a novel application of quantitative bibliometric tools such as CiteSpace and VOSviewer to analyze the literature on romantic love over the past decade. While our analysis yielded intriguing insights into the research landscape of this field, our study was not without limitations. First and foremost, our sample was limited to articles and reviews available in a single database, and thus, may not have been fully representative of the entire research landscape on this topic. Second, the current study restricted our data collection to English-language publications, and future studies may benefit from including publications in other languages to ensure a more comprehensive analysis. Additionally, including different types of publications, such as conference papers and working papers, might have provided further insights into recent advancements in the field. Furthermore, it could be acknowledged that the analysis in the current study could be expanded to consider the contributions of other scholars and institutions in the field, beyond those captured by our data set. Finally, while the bibliometric tools used in our analysis were objective, our interpretation of the results remained subjective and may have been subject to varying interpretations.

Concluding remarks

Research significance and future development.

The present study’s comprehensive analysis of the literature on romantic love, as well as its reporting of research findings across diverse domains over the past decade, offered a solid groundwork for future research and potential worldwide applications. From 2013 to 2022, a staggering 6858 articles and reviews on romantic love were published globally, indicating a bright future for this field of inquiry. In terms of research potency, the United States led the pack, with the University of California System accounting for the majority of publications in the area of romantic love, and Emily A. Impett ranking as the most prolific contributor. The Journal of Social and Personal Relationships had published the most articles on romantic love research, while the most recent trends in romantic love-related keywords included “same-sex,” “conflict resolution,” and “social relationships.” The current research was predominantly centered around intimate relationships, evolutionary psychology, sexual orientation, and symptoms of depression. The trends elucidated by these findings underscore the holistic and interdisciplinary nature of romantic love within the realms of psychology, sociology, biology, and neuroscience. Subsequent investigations into romantic love hold the promise of a more profound amalgamation of methodologies derived from psychology and neuroscience, thereby illuminating the physiological underpinnings of love and emotional experiences. This prospect entails a meticulous exploration of brain activity, probing how intricate psychological processes intertwine with biology to forge the intricacies of romantic relationships. Furthermore, romantic love research stands poised to cultivate seamless integration and interdisciplinary cooperation across a spectrum of fields in the future, yielding profound ramifications.

Method limitation

The current study, which utilized tools such as CiteSpace and Vosviewer for a quantitative analysis of the literature on romantic love over the past 10 years, is the first of its kind to our knowledge. Our investigation, though producing intriguing results through bibliometric analysis and visualization of related articles, is not without its limitations. Firstly, the samples utilized were limited to a single database (WOS), which may not encompass all relevant publications on the subject. Secondly, the scope of our data collection was limited to articles and reviews in English only, leaving out potential information from other types of publications such as working papers and conference papers. In future studies, a broader consideration of different languages should also be given. Additionally, the neural mechanism and physiological function of romantic love remain an under-researched area with limited empirical evidence to support ongoing controversy.

Data availability

Original data for the current study are available via this link: https://rec.ustc.edu.cn/share/0d874150-b039-11ee-be97-f5a41b2eeb6e .

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This research was supported by the Starting Fund for Scientific Research of High-Level Talents at Anhui Agricultural University (rc432206) and the Outstanding Youth Program of Philosophy and Social Sciences in Anhui Province (2022AH030089) to SL.

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Han, Y., Luo, Y., Chen, Z. et al. A decade of love: mapping the landscape of romantic love research through bibliometric analysis. Humanit Soc Sci Commun 11 , 187 (2024). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41599-024-02665-7

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Regulation of Romantic Love Feelings: Preconceptions, Strategies, and Feasibility

* E-mail: [email protected]

Affiliations Department of Psychological Sciences, University of Missouri–St. Louis, St. Louis, Missouri, United States of America, Department of Psychology, University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland, United States of America

Affiliation Institute of Psychology, Erasmus University Rotterdam, Rotterdam, The Netherlands

  • Sandra J. E. Langeslag, 
  • Jan W. van Strien

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  • Published: August 16, 2016
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Table 1

Love feelings can be more intense than desired (e.g., after a break-up) or less intense than desired (e.g., in long-term relationships). If only we could control our love feelings! We present the concept of explicit love regulation, which we define as the use of behavioral and cognitive strategies to change the intensity of current feelings of romantic love. We present the first two studies on preconceptions about, strategies for, and the feasibility of love regulation. Questionnaire responses showed that people perceive love feelings as somewhat uncontrollable. Still, in four open questions people reported to use strategies such as cognitive reappraisal, distraction, avoidance, and undertaking (new) activities to cope with break-ups, to maintain long-term relationships, and to regulate love feelings. Instructed up-regulation of love using reappraisal increased subjective feelings of attachment, while love down-regulation decreased subjective feelings of infatuation and attachment. We used the late positive potential (LPP) amplitude as an objective index of regulation success. Instructed love up-regulation enhanced the LPP between 300–400 ms in participants who were involved in a relationship and in participants who had recently experienced a romantic break-up, while love down-regulation reduced the LPP between 700–3000 ms in participants who were involved in a relationship. These findings corroborate the self-reported feasibility of love regulation, although they are complicated by the finding that love up-regulation also reduced the LPP between 700–3000 ms in participants who were involved in a relationship. To conclude, although people have the preconception that love feelings are uncontrollable, we show for the first time that intentional regulation of love feelings using reappraisal, and perhaps other strategies, is feasible. Love regulation will benefit individuals and society because it could enhance positive effects and reduce negative effects of romantic love.

Citation: Langeslag SJE, van Strien JW (2016) Regulation of Romantic Love Feelings: Preconceptions, Strategies, and Feasibility. PLoS ONE 11(8): e0161087. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0161087

Editor: Alexandra Key, Vanderbilt University, UNITED STATES

Received: March 8, 2016; Accepted: July 31, 2016; Published: August 16, 2016

Copyright: © 2016 Langeslag, van Strien. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License , which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

Data Availability: Our data cannot be made publicly available for ethical reasons. That is, participants were not asked for permission for their data to be shared. Parts of the data are available on request. Please send requests to Sandra Langeslag ( [email protected] ).

Funding: The authors received no specific funding for this work.

Competing interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

Introduction

Romantic love strikes virtually everyone at least once (i.e., its lifetime prevalence approaches 100%) [ 1 ] and has a great impact on our lives. Romantic love has positive effects on individuals and society as a whole. For example, love is associated with positive emotions such as euphoria [ 2 ] and romantic relationships enhance happiness and life satisfaction [ 3 ]. But love also has a negative impact on individuals and society. For example, love is associated with stress [ 4 ] and jealousy [ 5 ], and romantic break-ups are associated with sadness and shame [ 6 ], a decrease in happiness and life satisfaction [ 7 ], and depression [ 8 ]. The high prevalence of love combined with its significant positive and negative impact on individuals and society make it an important research topic.

The word ‘love’ has many different meanings and may have different meanings to different people. Researchers have proposed several taxonomies of love, with various numbers of love types or components [ 9 – 13 ]. In this study, two types of love feelings are considered: infatuation and attachment. Infatuation is the overwhelming, amorous feeling for one individual, and is similar to the concepts ‘passion’ or ‘infatuated love’ [ 10 ], ‘romantic love’ [ 11 ], ‘passionate love’ [ 12 ], and ‘attraction’ [ 13 ]. Attachment, on the other hand, is the comforting feeling of emotional bonding with another individual, and is similar to the concepts ‘intimacy’ with ‘decision/commitment’ [ 10 ], and ‘companionate love’ [ 10 – 12 ].

Love feelings are sometimes weaker than desired. Infatuation is typically most intense at the early stages of love after which it decreases relatively quickly [ 13 – 15 ] and attachment takes some time to develop [ 13 – 15 ] after which it decreases over the course of decades [ 16 ]. The decrease of infatuation and attachment over time threatens the stability of romantic relationships. Indeed, falling out of love is the primary reason for divorce [ 17 ]. Love feelings can also be stronger than desired. People may, for example, be in love with someone who does not love them back or who has broken up with them. Clearly, it would be advantageous if we could regulate love feelings at will, so that we could up-regulate them when they are weaker than desired, and down-regulate them when they are stronger than desired.

We define love regulation as the use of behavioral or cognitive strategies to change the intensity of current feelings of romantic love. In an interview study, participants reported that their love feelings were involuntary and uncontrollable [ 2 ]. Nevertheless, three lines of research suggest that love regulation may actually be feasible. First, it is well known that people can regulate their emotions [ 18 – 21 ], which entails generating new emotions or changing the intensity of current emotions using behavioral or cognitive strategies [ 20 ]. There are multiple emotion regulation strategies, including situation selection, distraction, expression suppression, and cognitive reappraisal. Situation selection is to avoid or seek out certain situations to change the way you feel (e.g., attending a party to have fun) [ 21 ]. Distraction entails performing a secondary task to reduce the intensity of emotions (e.g., playing a video game to forget about a bad incident at work) [ 20 ]. Expression suppression involves inhibiting the expression of an emotion (e.g., keeping a poker face) [ 22 ]. Cognitive reappraisal involves reinterpreting the situation to change the way you feel (e.g., decreasing or increasing nervousness by reinterpreting an upcoming job interview as an opportunity to learn more about the company or as a once in a lifetime opportunity, respectively) [ 22 ]. Emotion regulation can be used to up- and down-regulate positive and negative emotions [ 23 ] and may happen implicitly or explicitly [ 18 ].

However, love is sometimes considered a motivation (or drive) rather than an emotion [ 24 ]. One reason why love would not be an emotion is that it elicits different emotions depending on the situation. Reciprocated love, for example, may elicit the emotion euphoria, while unreciprocated love may elicit the emotion sadness. It is therefore important that a second line of research has shown that people can use cognitive strategies to regulate their motivations, including sexual arousal [ 25 ], excitement about monetary reward [ 26 – 29 ], and craving for alcohol, food, and cigarettes [ 30 , 31 ]. The evidence that motivations can be regulated intentionally supports the idea that explicit love regulation may be feasible.

Finally, a third research line has shown that people think more favorably of their romantic partner than objectively justified [ 32 , 33 ]. Importantly, people who idealize their partner and whose partners idealize them have happier relationships [ 34 ]. These findings suggest that implicit up-regulation of love feelings for the current romantic partner is feasible and that it contributes to relationship satisfaction.

Even though this last research line shows that people can regulate their love feelings implicitly, there are no studies that provide information about the deliberate, explicit up- and down-regulation of love feelings. In two studies, we systematically examined preconceptions about, strategies for, and the feasibility of explicit regulation of love feelings. The first goal was to determine whether people think that love feelings can be controlled or not. Participants answered a series of questions that measured perceived control over love feelings and previous research [ 2 ] led us to hypothesize that people would perceive love feelings as uncontrollable. The second goal was to reveal which strategies people use when they try to up- and down-regulate their love feelings. Participants responded to four open questions and we expected that people would report the use of typical behavioral and cognitive emotion regulation strategies mentioned above. First, we conducted a pilot study (Study 1) and then we conducted another study (Study 2) to confirm the findings of the pilot study.

In addition, Study 2 employed a love regulation task to achieve the final research goal, which was to examine if people can intentionally up- and down-regulate love feelings. In this first empirical test of the feasibility of love regulation, we focused on the reappraisal strategy because it is considered effective in altering feeling intensity and beneficial for cognitive and social functioning [ 21 ]. Situation-focused reappraisal entails changing the emotional meaning of a situation by reinterpreting it [ 21 ], for example by focusing on positive or negative aspects of the situation, or by imagining a positive or negative outcome [ 35 ]. The use of cognitive reappraisal to regulate love feelings is related to the notion that cognitive processes, including making attributions, are associated with relationship satisfaction [ 36 , 37 ]. We focus on the intensity of infatuation and attachment rather than relationship outcomes, since love feelings do not occur exclusively in the context of romantic relationships [ 14 ].

Because it depends on the situation whether people would benefit from love up- or down-regulation, we tested a group of people who were involved in a romantic relationship and a group of people who had recently experienced a romantic break-up. People who are currently in a romantic relationship were expected to benefit from love up-regulation, because that would stabilize their relationship. People who have just experienced a break-up, in contrast, would benefit from love down-regulation, because that could help them cope with the break-up. Because previous research has shown that intense feelings of romantic love can be elicited by viewing pictures of the beloved [ 38 ], pictures of the (ex-)partner were used to elicit feelings of love, which participants were instructed to regulate in an explicit regulation task. Because self-reports are the only way to assess phenomenology (i.e., how someone feels) [ 39 ], participants rated how infatuated and how attached they felt after each regulation condition. It was hypothesized that love up-regulation would increase feelings of infatuation and attachment, whereas love down-regulation would decrease feelings of infatuation and attachment in both groups. It is of course important to dissociate between the concept of love regulation and the well-established concept of emotion regulation. Therefore, participants also rated how negative or positive they felt after each regulation condition. It was expected that love up-regulation would make the relationship group feel more positive, while love down-regulation would make them feel more negative. The opposite pattern was expected for the break-up group: feeling more negative following up-regulation and more positive following down-regulation. This hypothesis shows how love regulation is theoretically distinct from emotion regulation. That is, love regulation targets the intensity of love feelings rather than emotions. Of course, the change in love feelings may in turn influence emotions or affect. The direction of the effect of love regulation on emotion or affect may differ depending on the context, as indicated by the hypothesized opposite effects of love regulation on emotion/affect in the relationship and break-up groups.

Even though self-reports gain a unique insight into what people experience, they also suffer from social desirability biases and demand characteristics [ 40 , 41 ]. Therefore, in addition to subjective self-reports, we used event-related potentials (ERPs) as a more objective measure of love regulation success. ERPs have been used before to study emotion regulation and to study romantic love, but not to study love regulation. The late positive potential (LPP) reflects multiple and overlapping positivies over the posterior scalp beginning in the time range of the classic P300, i.e., around 300 ms after stimulus onset. The LPP amplitude is typically enhanced for negative and positive compared to neutral stimuli [ 19 ] and is therefore thought to reflect the affective and motivational intensity of information and the resulting motivated attention [ 42 ]. Correspondingly, we have shown that the LPP is enhanced in response to pictorial and verbal beloved-related information compared to control information [ 32 , 43 , 44 ]. Importantly, the LPP amplitude is modulated by emotion regulation instructions according to the regulatory goal: emotion down-regulation reduces the LPP amplitude, while emotion up-regulation enhances the LPP amplitude [ 27 , 45 – 49 ]. The LPP amplitude can therefore be used as an objective measure of regulation success [ 19 ]. Because the LPP reflects affective and motivational significance and the resulting motivated attention, rather than valence [ 42 ], regulation effects in the LPP amplitude reflect how regulation changes the affective and motivational intensity of information and the amount of motivated attention allocated to that information. It was expected that love up-regulation would enhance the LPP in response to pictures of the (ex-)partner in both groups, which would indicate that love up-regulation would enhance the affective and motivational significance of, and the resulting motivated attention to the (ex-)partner. Love down-regulation, in contrast, was expected to reduce the LPP amplitude to (ex-)partner pictures in both groups, which would indicate that love down-regulation would reduce the affective and motivational significance of, and the resulting motivated attention to the (ex-)partner.

Study 1 –Methods

Participants.

Thirty-two participants (18–30 yrs, M = 21.4, 7 men) who were in love by self-report were recruited from the University of Maryland community in the US. Being in love was an inclusion criterion because some of the questions assessing perceived control over love feelings (see below) contained a blank in which the participants had to mentally insert the name of their beloved. The study was approved by the Institutional Review Board of the University of Maryland and written informed consent was obtained. Participants were remunerated with $10.

First, participants completed some questions about their love feelings and their romantic relationship [ 44 ]. Participants also completed the Infatuation and Attachment Scales (IAS) [ 14 ], and the Passionate Love Scale (PLS) [ 50 ] to assess the intensity of infatuation and attachment. Then, participants completed 17 questions to assess perceived control of love feelings (Cronbach’s alpha = .93), see the S1 Appendix . These questions were phrased to measure perceived control over love in general, and over infatuation and attachment specifically. They were also phrased to measure perceived control over one’s own vs. people’s love feelings, and over the intensity and object of love feelings. Participants responded using a 9-point Likert scale (1 = totally disagree, 9 = totally agree).

Subsequently, participants answered four open questions about the use of behavioral and cognitive strategies in the contexts of heartbreak and long-term relationships. We distinguished between emotion regulation and love down-regulation in the context of heartbreak by asking two questions: “What do you do or think to feel better when you have a broken heart?” (i.e., emotion regulation), “What do you do or think to decrease feelings of love when you have a broken heart?” (i.e., love down-regulation). In addition, we distinguished between maintaining relationships and love up-regulation in the context of long-term relationships by asking two questions: “What do you do or think to maintain a long-term relationship?” (i.e., maintaining relationships), and “What do you do or think to prevent that feelings of love decline in a long-term relationship?” (i.e., love up-regulation). If participants had not experienced heartbreak or any long-term relationships, they replied with what they think they would do in those circumstances.

The mean score on the 17 perceived control questions was subjected to a one-sample t -test against 5, to test if it differed from neutral. In addition, responses on subsets of the 17 questions that measured perceived control over a certain aspect of love were averaged to obtain measures of perceived control over seven different aspects of love (love in general, infatuation, attachment, self, people in general, intensity of love, and object of love). Five paired sample t -tests were conducted to test for differences in perceived control between related aspects of love (i.e., love in general vs. infatuation, love in general vs. attachment, infatuation vs. attachment, self vs. people in general, and intensity vs. object of feelings).

The responses to the four open strategy questions were analyzed qualitatively. Many participants listed multiple strategies in response to each of the four open strategy questions. Each strategy was scored as being an exemplar of a certain category. A priori categories were emotion regulation strategies such as reappraisal, distraction, and suppression [ 20 , 21 ]. In the heartbreak context, reappraisal was subdivided into “focus on the negative aspects of the beloved/relationship”, “think of negative future scenarios”, “think about the positive aspects of the situation”, and “other”. In the long-term relationship context, reappraisal was subdivided into “focus on the positive aspects of the beloved/relationship”, and “think of positive future scenarios”. Other categories such as avoidance (see Tables 1 and 2 ) were added on the basis of participants’ responses.

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Study 1 –Results

Participant characteristics.

All participants had an opposite-sex beloved. Twenty-seven (84%) of the participants reported to be in a relationship with their beloved, which supports the idea that love does not occur exclusively in the context of relationships [ 14 ]. See Table 3 for the other love characteristics.

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Means (ranges in parentheses).

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Perceived control

The mean score on the 17 perceived control questions was 4.5 ( SD = 1.4). A one-sample t -test revealed that this tended to be lower than 5 (= neutral), t (31) = -1.9, p = .066, which implies that participants perceive love feelings as neither controllable, nor uncontrollable, or as somewhat uncontrollable, if anything. See Table 4 for the mean perceived control over the seven different aspects of love. Participants felt more in control of feelings of attachment than infatuation, t (31) = 2.4, p = .022. There was no difference between the perceived control over the own vs. people’s feelings, t (31) = 0.5, p = .64. Participants felt more control over the intensity than the object of their love feelings, t (31) = 2.1, p = .047.

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See Tables 1 and 2 for the regulation strategies reported. In the context of heartbreak, participants mostly used distraction, social support, and reappraisal. Distraction (e.g., watching TV, listening to music, focusing on work or school, or exercise) and seeking social support (e.g., talking to or spending time with family/friends) were used more to feel better than to decrease love feelings. In contrast, reappraisal was used more to decrease love feelings than to feel better. Reappraisal by focusing on negative aspects of the beloved was the most popular reappraisal strategy. Examples of other reappraisal strategies were thinking that time will heal, finding someone else to love, or focusing on positive aspects of oneself or one’s life. Thinking about positive aspects of the situation (e.g., focusing on the advantages of being single or being hopeful for the future), as well as avoidance (i.e., not talking about the beloved, getting rid of all pictures, and eliminating all contact) were moderately popular strategies to decrease love feelings. Strategies such as reappraisal by thinking about negative future scenarios (“it just wasn’t meant to last”), eating/smoking, and expressing emotions (“cry”) were used least often. None of the participants reported the use of suppression. Two participants reported that they did not, or could not, decrease love feelings.

In the context of long-term relationships, participants stressed the importance of communication/honesty and undertaking (new) activities with their beloved. Communication/honesty was deemed important for maintaining long-term relationships, whereas undertaking (new) activities with the beloved, which is a situation selection strategy, was mostly used to prevent love feelings from declining. Other strategies such as expressing love feelings to the beloved, trust, spending (quality) time with the beloved, loving unconditionally/making compromises, the two reappraisal strategies, and spending time apart from the beloved were mentioned as well. Six participants stated that love feelings would not decline if the relationship was good and/or that they would end the relationship if love feelings would decline.

In short, several behavioral and cognitive strategies were used in the contexts of heartbreak and long-term relationships. Some of these strategies were the typical cognitive and behavioral emotion regulation strategies, such as reappraisal, distraction, and situation selection. While some strategies seemed specific for feeling better during heartbreak or for maintaining long-term relationships, strategies such as reappraisal by focusing on negative aspects of the beloved or the relationship and undertaking (new) activities with the beloved seemed specific for down- and up-regulation of love feelings, respectively.

Interim Discussion

The results of this first exploratory study show that people perceive love feelings as neither controllable, nor uncontrollable (or as somewhat uncontrollable, if anything). People did perceive more control over some aspects of love than others and the majority of people reported to use a variety of strategies when heartbroken or when in a long-term relationship. Some strategies seemed specific for changing the intensity of love feelings, rather than for regulating emotions or maintaining relationships. Because this was only a pilot study with mostly female participants, we conducted a follow-up study (Study 2) to replicate and confirm these preliminary findings in a more gender-balanced sample. As mentioned in the introduction, Study 2 also included a love regulation task to test the feasibility of love regulation.

Study 2 –Methods

Twenty participants who were in a romantic relationship (19–25 yrs, M = 21.7, 10 men) and 20 participants who had recently experienced a romantic break-up (19–26 yrs, M = 21.9, 10 men) were recruited from the Erasmus University Rotterdam community in The Netherlands. For brevity, we will use the words ‘partner’ and ‘relationship’ in the remainder of the paper regardless of whether the relationship was ongoing or had dissolved. Inclusion criteria were normal or corrected to-normal vision, right-handedness (as determined by a hand preference questionnaire [ 51 ]), no use of medication known to affect the central nervous system, and no mental disorders. The reason for excluding participants with mental disorders was that many mental disorders are associated with emotion dysregulation [ 23 ], which indicates that love regulation may also be different in patients than in healthy controls. Four participants had to be excluded from the EEG analyses because of experimenter error during the EEG recording ( n = 3) or too many artifacts ( n = 1, more information below). Therefore the EEG analyses are based on 18 participants who were in a romantic relationship (19–25 yrs, M = 21.8, 9 men) and 18 participants who had recently experienced a romantic break-up (19–26 yrs, M = 21.7, 8 men). The study was approved by the Psychologie Ethische Commissie of the Erasmus Universiteit Rottterdam and written informed consent was obtained. Participants were remunerated with course credit or €15.

Questionnaires

In addition to the questions about their love feelings and their romantic relationship [ 44 ], the 17 perceived control questions (Cronbach’s alpha = .92), the four open regulation strategy questions, the Infatuation and Attachment Scales (IAS) [ 14 ], and the Passionate Love Scale (PLS) [ 50 ] used in Study 1, participants completed the Emotion Regulation Questionnaire (ERQ) [ 22 ] to assess individual differences in the habitual use of reappraisal and suppression. Participants also completed the Positive Affect Negative Affect Schedules (PANAS) twice, once about the last two weeks and once about this moment [ 52 ].

Participants provided 30 digital pictures of their partner. There were no other requirements than that the pictures had to contain the partner. Therefore, the pictures could display parts of the partner (e.g., just the face) or the whole body of the partner, people other than the partner, a variety of facial expressions, objects, and scenery. The pictures were presented to elicit love feelings [ 38 ] and to help the participant come up with negative or positive aspects of the partner/relationship and future scenarios (see below). It is important to note that the variety of information on the pictures does not confound the effects of regulation, because the same 30 partner pictures were presented in each regulation condition. For the same reason, differences in picture content between the two groups could not confound the differences in regulation effects between groups. In addition, the pictures ensure high ecological validity, as the partner is typically encountered in a wide variety of contexts and with varying facial expressions. The neutral stimuli were 30 neutral pictures displaying humans from the International Affective Picture System (IAPS) [ 53 ] with neutral normative valence ( M = 5.4, SD = 0.5) and low normative arousal ( M = 3.5, SD = 0.5) ratings, see S1 Text .

Love regulation task

Participants completed a love regulation task, see Fig 1 , while their electroencephalogram (EEG) was recorded. In the first two blocks, participants passively viewed partner and neutral pictures (order counterbalanced between participants). In the third and fourth block, participants were instructed to up- and down-regulate their love feelings in response to the partner pictures (order counterbalanced between participants) using reappraisal. Up-regulation instructions were to increase love feelings by thinking about positive aspects of the partner (e.g., “He is so funny”) or relationship (e.g., “We get along so well”), or positive future scenarios (e.g., “We’ll get married”). Down-regulation instructions were to decrease love feelings by thinking about negative aspects of the partner (e.g., “She is so lazy”) or relationship (e.g., “We often fight”), or negative future scenarios (e.g., “We won’t stay together forever”). Participants could use the information in the picture for inspiration. For example, the partner wearing a yellow shirt and standing next to a friend on a picture could inspire the participant to up-regulate love feelings by thinking “I love that yellow shirt he’s wearing” and to down-regulate love feelings by thinking “He is always hitting on that friend, and he might cheat on me one day”. These are instructions of situation-focused reappraisal, which involves reinterpreting “the nature of the events themselves, reevaluating others’ actions, dispositions, and outcomes” rather than self-focused reappraisal, which involves altering “the personal relevance of events” ([ 35 ], p. 484). That is, focusing on negative/positive aspects of the partner involves a reevaluation of the partner’s dispositions (“My partner is a wonderful person” when focusing on positive aspects vs. “My partner is a terrible person” when focusing on negative aspects), focusing on negative/positive aspects of the relationship involves a reevaluation of the relationship (“I am/was in a good relationship” when focusing on positive aspects, and “I am/was in a bad relationship” when focusing on negative aspects), and imagining positive/negative future relationship scenarios involves reevaluation of outcomes.

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Please note that the stimulus in this figure is not actually one of the pictures that were submitted by the participants. Instead, it is an IAPS picture [ 53 ] that resembles the kinds of pictures that participants submitted.

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Each block started with an instruction word (‘view’, ‘increase’, ‘decrease’) for 4 sec and consisted of 30 trials. Trial structure was: fixation cross for 900–1100 ms, picture for 3 sec, and blank screen for 2 sec. After each block, participants completed four ratings on a 1–5 scale: infatuation, attachment, valence, and arousal, and they also completed the PANAS at this moment [ 52 ]. After the regulation task, participants wrote down what they had thought to up- and down-regulate love feelings to verify that they had followed the instructions.

EEG recording and preprocessing

The EEG was recorded using a 32-channel amplifier and data acquisition software (ActiveTwoSystem, BioSemi). The 32 Ag-AgCl active electrodes were placed upon the scalp by means of a head cap (BioSemi), according to the 10–20 International System. Vertical electro-oculogram and horizontal electro-oculogram were recorded by attaching additional electrodes (UltraFlat Active electrodes, BioSemi) above and below the left eye, and at the outer canthi of both eyes. Another two electrodes were attached to the left and right mastoids. An active electrode (common mode sense) and a passive electrode (driven right leg) were used to comprise a feedback loop for amplifier reference. All signals were digitized with a sampling rate of 512 Hz, a 24 bit A/D conversion and a low pass filter of 134 Hz. The EEG data were analyzed with BrainVision Analyzer 2 (Brain Products, Gilching, Germany). Per participant, a maximum of one bad electrode included in the analyses (see below) was corrected using spherical spline topographic interpolation. Offline, an average mastoids reference was applied and the data were filtered using a 0.1–30 Hz band pass filter (phase shift-free Butterworth filters; 24 dB/octave slope) and a 50 Hz notch filter. Data were segmented in epochs from 200 ms pre-stimulus until 3000 ms post-stimulus onset. Ocular artifact correction was applied semi-automatically according to the Gratton and Coles algorithm [ 54 ]. The 200 ms pre-stimulus period was used for baseline correction. Artifact rejection was performed at individual electrodes with the criterion minimum and maximum baseline-to-peak -75 to +75 μV. Because at least 12 trials are needed to adequately estimate emotion regulation effects in the LPP amplitude [ 55 ], the one participant that had fewer than 12 trials left per electrode per condition was excluded from the EEG analyses, as mentioned above. At the three electrodes used in the analyses (see below), the average number of accepted trials per condition ranged from 29.5 to 29.8 out of 30.

Statistical analyses

Questionnaire scores were analyzed with independent samples t -tests to test for differences between groups (adjusted t , df , and p values are shown when the Levene’s test for equality of variances indicated variance differences between the groups). Besides the one-sample t -test against 5 (= neutral), the perceived control scores were analyzed with three ANOVAs: one ANOVA with factors Love type (love in general, infatuation, attachment) and Group (relationship, break-up), one ANOVA with factors Self/People (self, people in general) and Group, and one ANOVA with factors Intensity/Object (intensity, object) and Group. Pearson correlation coefficients were computed between the seven perceived control scores and the two ERQ subscales across groups. Ratings and PANAS scores after the view conditions were analyzed with an ANOVA with factors Picture (partner, neutral) and Group. Ratings and PANAS scores following the three conditions with partner pictures were analyzed with an ANOVA with factors Regulation (view, up-regulation, down-regulation) and Group. In this analysis, only significant effects involving the factor Regulation are reported, because the main effect of Group is not relevant for the research question.

Because the LPP begins in the time range of the classic P300 [ 19 ] and can last as long as the stimulus duration [ 56 ], the ERP was quantified by mean amplitude measures in four time windows based on previous work [ 47 , 48 , 56 – 58 ]: 300–400 ms, 400–700 ms, 700–1000 ms, 1000–3000 ms. For each time window, mean amplitudes measures at Fz, Cz, and Pz were subjected to two ANOVAs. The first concerned the two view blocks and tested the factors Picture, Group, and Caudality (Fz, Cz, Pz). Only significant effects involving the factor Picture are reported, because those are relevant for the research question. The second ANOVA concerned the three blocks with partner pictures and tested the factors Regulation, Group, and Caudality. In this analysis, only significant effects involving the factor Regulation are reported, because those are relevant for the research question. When applicable, the degrees of freedom were corrected using the Greenhouse-Geisser correction. The F values, uncorrected degrees of freedom, the ε values and corrected probability values are reported. A significance level of 5% (two-sided) was selected and Fisher’s least significance difference (LSD) procedure was applied. This procedure controls type I error rate by conducting follow-up tests for significant main and interaction effects only. Those follow-up tests were paired samples t -tests testing differences between conditions across both groups (in case of significant main or interaction effects without the factor Group) or within groups (in case of significant interactions with the factor Group).

Study 2 –Results

Group characteristics.

All participants had an opposite-sex partner. The average time since the break-up was 3.0 months (range = 0.5–13.5). Ten of these break-ups were initiated by the partner, six by the participant, and four break-ups were a joint decision. See Table 4 for the other group characteristics and the statistics related to group differences. The relationship and break-up groups did not differ in how long they had known their partner for, how long ago their love feelings had started, and the duration of their relationships. The break-up groups did tend to report lower relationship quality than the relationship group. The break-up group also felt less attached and tended to feel more infatuated with their partner than the relationship group. Moreover, the break-up group tended to have experienced less positive affect during the past two weeks and had experienced more negative affect in the past two weeks and at the start of the testing session than the relationship group. Finally, the relationship and break-up groups did not differ in their habitual use of reappraisal and suppression. Thus, the two groups differed from each other on variables that can be expected to be related to whether someone is in a relationship or has experienced a break-up, but the groups did not differ on variables that should be unrelated to relationship status.

The mean score on the 17 perceived control questions was 4.5 ( SD = 1.4). A one-sample t -test showed that this was significantly lower than 5 (= neutral), t (39) = -2.2, p = .032, which suggests that participants perceive love feelings as uncontrollable. See Table 3 for the mean perceived control over the seven different aspects of love. There was a significant main effect of Love type, F (2,76) = 19.8, ε = 1.0, p < .001. Participants felt more in control of feelings of attachment than of feelings of infatuation or love in general, both p s < .001. In addition, there tended to be a main effect of Self/People, F (1,38) = 3.9, p = .056. Participants tended to feel that they were less able to control their love feelings than people in general are. Finally, there was a main effect of Intensity/Object, F (1,38) = 14.6, p < .001. Participants felt more in control of the intensity than of the object of their love feelings. In none of these analyses, the main effect of Group or interactions with Group were significant, all F s < 2.4, all p s > .13, so perceived control over different aspects of love feelings did not differ between the relationship and break-up groups.

The ERQ reappraisal score correlated positively with perceived control over individual love feelings, r (38) = .32, p = .044, and tended to correlate positively with perceived control over the intensity of love feelings, r (38) = .30, p = .056, and with perceived control over the object of love feelings, r (38) = .29, p = .075, see Fig 2 . These findings suggest that the more participants used the reappraisal strategy to regulate emotions in their daily life, the more they perceived love feelings as controllable.

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See Tables 1 and 2 for the regulation strategies reported. Participants mostly used distraction and reappraisal when heartbroken. Distraction was used more to feel better, while reappraisal by focusing on the negative aspects of the beloved/relationship was used more to decrease love feelings. The other strategies, such as reappraisal by thinking about the positive aspects of the situation, other ways of reappraising, avoidance, suppression (“making yourself strong (pretend) for the outside world”), eating/smoking, and expressing emotions were used least often when heartbroken. None of the participants reported the use of reappraisal by thinking about negative future scenarios. Two participants reported that they could not decrease love feelings. The use of the different strategies did not appear to differ between the relationship and break-up groups. Seeking social support was less popular in the current Dutch sample than in the US sample in Study 1.

Participants stressed the importance of communication/honesty and undertaking (new) activities with their beloved during long-term relationships. Communication/honesty was mostly used for maintaining long-term relationships. The break-up group used undertaking (new) activities with the beloved mostly to prevent love feelings from declining, while the relationship group used this strategy both to maintain their relationship and to prevent love feelings from declining. Strategies such as expressing love feelings to the beloved, spending (quality) time with the beloved, and loving unconditionally/making compromises were mentioned by some participants. The latter was used more for maintaining long-term relationships than for preventing love feelings from declining. Both reappraisal strategies (i.e., focusing on positive aspects of the beloved/relationship and thinking about positive future scenarios), trust, and spending time apart from the beloved were mentioned by some participants. Two participants specifically stated that love feelings would not decline if the relationship was good and/or that they would end the relationship if love feelings would decline. Other than the above-mentioned difference in the context of undertaking (new) activities, there were no obvious differences between the relationship and break-up groups. There were no major differences between this Dutch sample and the US sample in Study 1.

To conclude, participants reported to use several behavioral and cognitive strategies in heartbreak and long-term relationship contexts. As in Study 1, some of these strategies were the typical cognitive and behavioral emotion regulation strategies, such as reappraisal, distraction, situation selection, and suppression. As in Study 1, some strategies seemed specific for feeling better during heartbreak (i.e., emotion regulation) or for maintaining long-term relationships, while strategies such as reappraisal by focusing on the negative aspects of the beloved or the relationship and undertaking (new) activities with the beloved were used to down- and up-regulate love feelings, respectively.

See Fig 3 for the infatuation, attachment, valence, and arousal ratings at the end of each block in the regulation task.

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View blocks.

The infatuation ratings after the two view blocks showed main effects of Picture, F (1,38) = 27.1, p < .001, and Group, F (1,38) = 5.6, p = .023. Infatuation was higher after passive viewing of partner than neutral pictures, and higher in the relationship than the break-up group. Attachment ratings also showed main effects of Picture, F (1,38) = 23.9, p < .001, and Group, F (1,38) = 5.6, p = .023. Attachment was higher after passive viewing of partner than neutral pictures, and higher in the relationship than the break-up group. Thus, partner pictures elicited more feelings of infatuation and attachment than neutral pictures in both groups, which shows that the use of partner pictures was effective in eliciting love feelings [ 38 ].

For valence ratings, the main effects of Picture, F (1,38) = 9.9, p = .003, and Group, F (1,38) = 7.7, p = .008 were modulated by a significant Picture x Group interaction, F (1,38) = 20.7, p < .001. The relationship group felt more positive after passive viewing of partner than neutral pictures, p < .001, whereas the break-up group did not, p = .41. Arousal ratings showed a main effect of Picture, F (1,38) = 26.8, p < .001, which was modulated by a significant Picture x Group interaction, F (1,38) = 7.9, p = .008. The relationship group felt more aroused after passive viewing of partner than neutral pictures, p < .001, whereas the break-up group did not, p = .10. Thus, partner pictures elicited positive and arousing feelings in the relationship group but not in break-up group, which confirms that the two groups differed in anticipated ways.

Regulation blocks.

The infatuation ratings after the three blocks with partner pictures showed a main effect of Regulation, F (2,76) = 39.6, ε = .84, p < .001. Infatuation was lower after down-regulation than after passive viewing or up-regulation, both p s < .001. Attachment ratings also showed a main effect of Regulation, F (2,76) = 36.7, ε = .91, p < .001. Attachment was highest after up-regulation, intermediate after passive viewing, and lowest after down-regulation, all p s < .013. Valence ratings showed a main effect of Regulation, F (2,76) = 31.6, ε = .98, p < .001. Participants felt less positive after down-regulation than after passive viewing or up-regulation, both p s < .001. Arousal ratings showed no significant effects involving the factor Regulation, all p s > .26. To summarize, subjective love feelings were modulated in the expected directions by instructed love regulation in both groups. Up-regulation of love increased feelings of attachment, and down-regulation of love decreased feelings of infatuation and attachment. Finally, down-regulation of love decreased the pleasantness of feelings in both groups.

Positive and negative affect

See Fig 4 for positive and negative affect during the regulation task.

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https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0161087.g004

Positive affect after the two view blocks showed a main effect of Picture, F (1,38) = 27.2, p < .001, which was modulated by a significant Picture x Group interaction, F (1,38) = 21.7, p < .001. The relationship group experienced more positive affect after passive viewing of partner than neutral pictures, p < .001, while the break-up group did not, p = .71. Negative affect showed main effects of Picture, F (1,38) = 9.6, p = .004, and Group, F (1,38) = 25.7, p < .001, which were modulated by a significant Picture x Group interaction, F (1,38) = 8.7, p = .005. The break-up group experienced more negative affect after passive viewing of partner than neutral pictures, p = .006, while the relationship group did not, p = .69. In short, partner pictures elicited positive affect in the relationship group, but negative affect in the break-up group, again confirming that the groups differed in expected ways.

Positive affect after the three blocks with partner pictures showed a main effect of Regulation, F (2,76) = 21.3, ε = .94, p < .001, which was modulated by a significant Regulation x Group interaction, F (2,76) = 8.4, ε = .94, p = .001. While the relationship group experienced most positive affect after passive viewing of partner pictures, intermediate positive affect after up-regulation and least positive affect after down-regulation, all p s < .034, positive affect in the break-up group was not affected by instructed love regulation, all p s > .17. Negative affect showed a main effect of Regulation, F (2,76) = 6.4, ε = .74, p = .007, which was modulated by a significant Regulation x Group interaction, F (2,76) = 5.0, ε = .74, p = .017. The relationship group experienced most negative affect after down-regulation, both p s < .008, whereas negative affect in the break-up group was not affected by instructed love regulation, all p s > .67. To summarize, love regulation decreased positive affect in the relationship group, although down-regulation decreased positive affect more than up-regulation. Down-regulation also increased negative affect in the relationship group. Regulation of love feelings did not influence affect in the break-up group.

Event-related potentials

See Fig 5 for the ERP waveforms and Fig 6 for the scalp topographies of the differences between partner and neutral pictures in the view blocks. In all four time windows, there was a significant main effect of Picture (300–400 ms: F (1,34) = 72.6, p < .001, 400–700 ms: F (1,34) = 101.6, p < .001, 700–1000 ms: F (1,34) = 112.3, p < .001 and 1000–3000 ms: F (1,34) = 51.1, p < .001), indicating that the ERP between 300–3000 ms was more positive in response to the partner than neutral pictures. The interactions involving the factors Picture and Group were not significant in any of the time windows, all F s < 1, ns , which indicated that the ERP response to the partner compared to the neutral pictures did not differ between the relationship and break-up groups. Partner and neutral pictures differ in multiple ways: partner pictures were familiar to the participants, elicited emotional feelings, displayed at least one familiar person, and may have displayed the participant him-/herself. Because all of these factors modulate the ERP [ 32 , 42 , 59 – 61 ], it is not surprising that the ERP difference between partner and neutral pictures is so extended in time and topography, and similar between the two groups. Please note that the up- and down-regulation effects of interest discussed below involve comparisons between up- and down-regulation of responses to the partner pictures only.

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https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0161087.g005

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https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0161087.g006

See Fig 5 for the ERP waveforms and Fig 7 for the scalp topographies of the differences between regulation and view conditions. In the 300–400 ms time window, there were a main effect of Regulation, F (2,68) = 4.4, ε = .96, p = .018, and a Regulation x Caudality interaction, F (4,136) = 3.7, ε = .62, p = .020. The ERP was more positive for up-regulation than passive viewing at Cz and Pz, both p s < .004. In the 400–700 ms time window, there was a Regulation x Group x Caudality interaction, F (4,136) = 4.9, ε = .72, p = .004, but none of the post hoc tests were significant. In the 700–1000 ms, there were Regulation x Caudality, F (4,136) = 5.8, ε = .65, p = .002, and Regulation x Group x Caudality, F (4,136) = 5.2, ε = .65, p = .004, interactions. In the relationship group, the ERP was less positive for up- and down-regulation than passive viewing at Pz, both p s < .002. In the break-up group, none of the post hoc tests were significant. In the 1000–3000 ms time window, there was a Regulation x Group x Caudality interaction, F (4,136) = 2.7, ε = .78, p = .048. In the relationship group, the ERP was less positive for down-regulation than passive viewing at Cz and Pz, both p s < .041, and for up-regulation than passive viewing at Pz, p = .005. In the break-up group, none of the post hoc tests were significant. Inspection of the data revealed that even though the break-up group showed a less positive ERP for down-regulation at Cz (and at Pz to a lesser extent), the variation in ERP amplitudes was larger in the break-up group (down-regulation effect at Cz = -1.7 μV, SD = 4.0) than the relationship group (down-regulation effect at Cz = -1.6 μV, SD = 3.0), which explains why the effect did not reach significance in the break-up group.

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https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0161087.g007

To explore any associations between the LPP amplitude and self-reports measures, Pearson correlation coefficients were computed between regulation effects in the LPP amplitude and regulation effects in infatuation ratings, attachment ratings, valence ratings, arousal ratings, positive affect, and negative affect, across groups. Because the regulation effects were largest at electrodes Cz and/or Pz, LPP regulation effects were averaged across these two electrodes. In the 700–1000 ms time window, the up-regulation effect in the LPP amplitude was negatively correlated with the up-regulation effect in negative affect, r (34) = -.40, p = .015, see Fig 8 . This correlation was not inflated by the possibly outlying data point (i.e., up-regulation effect in negative affect = 1.5), because the correlation was even greater and more significant after exclusion of this data point, r (33) = -.44, p = .008. As can be seen in Fig 8 , the more participants showed an enhanced LPP in response to up-regulation compared to passive viewing between 700–1000 ms, the more their negative affect decreased as a result of love up-regulation. The other correlations between the up-regulation effects in the LPP amplitude in any of the time windows and the up-regulation effects in self-reports were not significant, -.31 < all r s(34) < .32, all p s > .063. None of the down-regulation effects in the LPP amplitude in any of the time windows were significantly correlated with down-regulation effects in self-reports, -.20 < all r s(34) < .24, all p s > .17.

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A negative up-regulation effect in negative affect means a reduction in negative affect due to love up-regulation. A positive up-regulation effect in the LPP amplitude means that the LPP was enhanced for love up-regulation.

https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0161087.g008

To summarize, up-regulation elicited a more positive ERP than passive viewing at midline centro-parietal electrodes between 300–400 ms. In addition, up- and down-regulation elicited a less positive ERP than passive viewing mostly at midline parietal electrodes between 700–3000 ms in the relationship group. The more love up-regulation enhanced the LPP amplitude between 700–1000 ms, the greater the decrease in negative affect by love up-regulation.

Because love feelings may be more or less intense than desired, it would be helpful if people could up- and down-regulate feelings of romantic love at will. In two studies, we examined preconceptions about, strategies for, and the feasibility of love regulation.

As expected, participants had the preconception that love is somewhat uncontrollable, as indicated by their scores on the series of questions assessing the perceived controllability of love feelings. Moreover, a few participants reported that they are unable to decrease love feelings when heartbroken. Some participants even stated that love feelings should not be up-regulated to maintain long-term relationships, because declining love feelings would indicate that the relationship is not meant to be. Research, however, has shown that infatuation (i.e., passionate love) and attachment (i.e., companionate love) typically do decline over time [ 14 , 16 ], so having this opinion might limit one’s chances of having long-lasting relationships. However, the mean score on the perceived control questions approached the midpoint of the scale, indicating that participants did not entirely reject the idea of controllable love. In addition, participants perceived some aspects of love to be more controllable than other aspects. Participants perceived feelings of attachment as more controllable than feelings of infatuation and they felt more in control of the intensity of love feelings than of who they are in love with. Finally, the more participants use the reappraisal strategy to regulate emotions in their daily life, the more they perceived love feelings as controllable, which provides a hint that reappraisal may be an effective love regulation strategy. Nevertheless, the questions about perceived control over love feelings have a couple of limitations. First, the two studies were conducted in different countries, in different languages, and with relatively small samples with different gender ratios. Second, in order to not be too statistically conservative in this explorative study, we did not correct for the number of statistical tests employed. Please note that the tests we performed are not independent, which reduces the chance of type I errors [ 62 ]. In addition, we used two-sided tests even when we had an a priori directional hypothesis. This was done to not increase the chance of Type I errors and to not exclude the possibility of observing any effects that were contrary to the hypothesis, again, because of the exploratory nature of the study. Finally, to the extent that the measures in Studies 1 and 2 overlapped, we base the conclusions above only on findings that replicated in both studies. This greatly reduces the chance that our conclusions are based on country-, language-, or gender-specific effects, or on spurious findings. It would be interesting to test whether perceived control over love feelings varies between regulation directions (i.e., whether people think it is easier to down-regulate love than to up-regulate love, or vice versa) in future studies.

We asked participants what they typically do or think when they are heartbroken and when maintaining long-term relationships. Participants reported the use of prototypical emotion regulation strategies such as reappraisal, distraction, and situation selection. Only one participant mentioned using suppression. Research has shown that expression suppression does not actually alter the intensity of feelings and that it has negative effects on cognitive and social functioning [ 21 ], so it might not be an adaptive strategy for regulating love feelings.

Importantly, responses to the questions suggested that there was a dissociation in the use of certain strategies for regulating actual love feelings (i.e., love regulation) versus feeling better during heartbreak (i.e., emotion regulation) or maintaining long-term relationships. In the context of heartbreak, reappraisal was often used, especially to decrease love feelings rather than to feel better. In contrast, distraction was used during heartbreak more to feel better than to decrease love feelings. It has been shown that people prefer to use distraction over reappraisal in situations in which emotions are very intense [ 63 ], which is often the case during heartbreak. Reappraisal may be more advantageous in the long run though, because decreasing love feelings might help people to move on after a break-up.

Some participants reported avoiding beloved-related cues, such as pictures or conversations, when heartbroken, which is a situation selection strategy [ 21 ]. It has been proposed that romantic love shows parallels to drug addiction [ 2 , 64 ]. Beloved-related cues elicit love feelings [ 38 ], just like drug-related cues increase drug craving [ 65 ], so avoiding beloved-related cues may reduce ‘craving’ for the beloved in the short term. However, one type of treatment for substance dependence and other mental disorders is exposure therapy, which is based on the mechanism of extinction [ 66 ]. Because avoidance of beloved-related cues might prevent extinction of the love feelings, it may not be a suitable strategy for down-regulating love feelings in the longer term.

In the context of long-term relationships, participants often mentioned the importance of communication/honesty and of undertaking (new) activities with their beloved. While communication/honesty was used more to maintain long-term relationships than to prevent love from declining, undertaking (new) activities with the beloved was mostly used to prevent love from declining. Previous work suggests that doing exciting things with the beloved may indeed be a successful strategy for love up-regulation [ 67 , 68 ]. Correspondingly, research on long-term romantic love has shown that married couples who engaged in novel and challenging activities together reported increases in love, closeness, and relationship quality [ 69 , 70 ]. Thus, undertaking novel and exciting activities with the beloved, which is a situation selection strategy [ 21 ], may be an effective behavioral strategy for up-regulating love feelings. Surprisingly, reappraisal was mentioned only infrequently in the context of maintaining long-term relationships. Given that reappraisal is an effective and healthy emotion regulation strategy [ 21 , 22 ], it may be an adaptive strategy to prevent love feelings from declining in long-term relationships.

The four open questions about the use of behavioral and cognitive strategies in the contexts of heartbreak and long-term relationships have some limitations. First, these data were analyzed qualitatively rather than quantitatively. Second, the other questionnaires and tasks used in both studies restricted the samples to participants who were in love (Study 1), who were in a romantic relationship, or who had recently experienced a romantic break-up (Study 2). Therefore, participants will have answered questions that did not match their current status (e.g., answering questions about heartbreak while in a happy relationship) or prior experience (i.e., some participants may have never been heartbroken or in a long-term relationship, in which case they replied what they think they would do in those circumstances). It is important to note that these four strategy questions were used more to explore what types of strategies people employ in their love life to aid the design of future studies on love regulation rather than to provide a stringent test of a priori hypotheses. Nevertheless, the current findings await confirmation in future studies with quantitative analyses and matching of questions with prior experience and/or current status.

In the four open strategy questions, we did not ask participants about the effectiveness of the strategies they listed. In Study 2, in contrast, we did assess the effectiveness of explicit love up- and down-regulation using the cognitive reappraisal strategy. We measured regulation success by asking participants how much infatuation and attachment they experienced after each regulation condition, because self-report is the only way to assess phenomenological experience [ 39 ]. When instructed to up-regulate love feelings by thinking about positive aspects of the partner or the relationship or imagining positive future scenarios, participants reported increased levels of attachment. Although love up-regulation numerically increased feelings of infatuation, this effect was not statistically significant. Thus, love up-regulation using reappraisal may be more successful for up-regulating attachment than infatuation. Future research could test whether other strategies may be more effective for up-regulating infatuations levels. Because long-term relationships are threatened by diminishing levels of infatuation and attachment over time [ 14 , 16 ], up-regulation of love feelings might help to stabilize long-term relationships. Although it has been shown before that people idealize their beloved [ 32 , 33 ] and that partner idealization is associated with greater relationship satisfaction [ 34 ], the current study is unique in showing that people are capable of up-regulating their love feelings deliberately and intentionally.

When instructed to down-regulate love feelings by thinking about negative aspects of the partner or the relationship or imagining negative future scenarios, participants reported decreased levels of infatuation and attachment, as expected. This has important implications for people whose love feelings are stronger than desired. For example, this finding suggests that after the dissolution of a long-term relationship, when levels of attachments are presumably higher than levels of infatuation [ 14 ], love regulation using reappraisal may be used to cope with the break-up by decreasing feelings of attachment. In addition, the current findings suggest that love down-regulation using reappraisal may be used to decrease feelings of infatuation, for example when early stage love feelings are unreciprocated or when someone develops a crush on someone else than their partner. Although previous studies have shown that people can implicitly derogate the attractiveness of people other than the current partner [ 71 , 72 ], the current investigation is unique because it reveals that people can deliberately down-regulate their love feelings for their (ex-)partner.

Because self-reports are the only way to assess subjective feelings [ 39 ], they are often used in behavioral and neuroimaging studies on emotion regulation as a way to assess regulation success (e.g., [ 49 , 57 , 73 , 74 ]). However, self-reports do suffer from desirability biases and demand characteristics [ 40 , 41 ]. Participants were not informed of the exact research purpose or hypothesis before testing, but they were instructed to increase or decrease their love feelings using cognitive reappraisal. So when they were asked to rate infatuation and attachment levels at the end of each block, their responses may have been biased by their perception of the study’s hypothesis. Still, the instructions mentioned ‘love feelings’ whereas the ratings mentioned ‘infatuation’ and ‘attachment’, which may have made our expectations a little less obvious. Also, even though we did not have different expectations about the feasibility of increasing and decreasing love, and participants had no reason to assume we had, the up-regulation effects in self-reported infatuation and attachment were numerically smaller (0.1 to 0.3 points on a 1–5 scale) than the down-regulation effects (0.5 to 1.0 points on a 1–5 scale), which makes it less likely that participants responded according to a perceived hypothesis rather than according to their feelings. Nevertheless, the current results await replication in studies in which the hypothesis would be more obscure to participants. This could for example be established by instructing participants to think about positive/negative aspects or future scenarios without mentioning that this is supposed to change the intensity of their love feelings. Also, note that the self-reports regarding valence, arousal, positive affect, and negative affect discussed next are less susceptible to demand characteristics since participants were not instructed to change how positive, negative, or aroused they felt.

Because it is important to dissociate the concept of love regulation from the well-established concept of emotion regulation, we asked participants how negative or positive they felt after each regulation condition. Participants who were in a romantic relationship with their beloved experienced more unpleasant feelings, less positive affect, and more negative affect following love down-regulation. This was expected, as down-regulation of love feelings for a current long-term partner is usually undesirable. However, also participants who had recently experienced a break-up unexpectedly experienced more unpleasant feelings after love down-regulation. It may be that love down-regulation by focusing on negative aspects of the partner or the relationship or imagining negative future scenarios makes people feel bad because it involves negative thoughts. Although the current study did not study the long-term effects of love down-regulation using reappraisal, it has recently been shown that thinking negative thoughts about the relationship has adaptive features when recovering from a romantic break-up [ 75 ]. So, it is important to investigate both the short- and the long-term effects of love regulation, as those may be dissociated.

Love up-regulation resulted in decreased positive affect in participants who were in a relationship, which was unexpected. This may have occurred because of the effort it takes to apply cognitive reappraisal [ 18 ]. It could be that people who are in a happy relationship (as indicated by self-reported relationship quality) may prefer to just look at their partner, rather than to have to come up with positive aspects of the partner or the relationship, or positive future scenarios on demand. We did not test the long-term effects of love regulation, but it might be that even though it may be cumbersome at this moment to use reappraisal to up-regulate love feelings, it may have beneficial long-term effects in the context of romantic relationships. Future studies are needed to replicate this unexpected effect, to determine why it occurs, to explore if and how it can be reduced, and to test if it is perhaps accompanied by an advantageous long-term effect. Even though love up-regulation resulting in decreased positive affect in participants who were in a relationship is in contrast to the hypothesis, it does show that participants were not just regulating their emotions. In that case, love up-regulation would have resulted in more positive feelings in both groups. This suggests that it is important to distinguish between the effects of love regulation on love feelings and on affect, as a desired effect in love feelings might not result in better affect in the short run.

Love regulation did not change subjective arousal (cf. [ 76 ]. It could be that the five-point rating scale we used was too coarse to detect any changes in arousal due to love regulation. It may be better to use a finer scale in future studies. Alternatively or additionally, recent work has shown that reappraising anxiety as excitement (i.e., changing the valence from negative to positive) improved performance in anxiety-provoking tasks compared to trying to calm down (i.e., reducing arousal) [ 77 ], so it may be more beneficial to change valence rather than arousal when regulating love feelings. More research is needed to test this suggestion.

Unlike the self-reported infatuation and attachment levels, the LPP amplitude is not a direct measure of love intensity. The advantage of the LPP amplitude over self-reported feelings is that it is not susceptible to social desirability biases and demand characteristics. Because the LPP amplitude is typically enhanced in response to both positive and negative stimuli, the LPP does not reflect whether a stimulus elicits positive or negative feelings. Instead, the LPP amplitude has been used as an objective measure of regulation success [ 19 ] because it reflects the affective and motivational significance of a stimulus and the resulting motivated attention instead [ 42 ]. So, the LPP amplitude in response to a picture of the partner indicates how emotionally or motivationally significant the partner is and how much attention is being paid to him/her. The instruction to up-regulate love feelings resulted in a more positive ERP between 300–400 ms (cf. [ 27 ]. The latency and the midline centroparietal topography of this regulation effect confirms that regulation instructions modulated the LPP component [ 42 ]. The enhanced LPP indicates that love up-regulation enhances the affective and motivational significance of, and the resulting motivated attention to the (ex-)partner. Because stronger love feelings would result in enhanced significance of the partner, the enhanced LPP with love up-regulation corroborates the self-report finding that people are able to up-regulate their love feelings deliberately.

Love down-regulation decreased the LPP amplitude between 700–3000 ms in participants who were in a romantic relationship, which indicates that love down-regulation reduced the affective and motivational significance of, and the resulting motivated attention to the partner. Because weaker love feelings would result in reduced significance of the partner, the reduced LPP with love down-regulation corroborates the self-report finding that people are able to down-regulate their love feelings deliberately. It is important to note that the ERP reflects brain activation elicited by events, which are the presentations of partner and neutral pictures in this case. A reduced LPP amplitude by down-regulation is therefore not at odds with the increased self-reported negative affect at the end of the down-regulation block. That is, a reduced affective and motivational significance of, and motivated attention to the partner pictures (as reflected by the LPP amplitude) may very well be accompanied by an increase in general negative affect that is not linked to the 3-sec presentation of a picture and will therefore not be reflected in the ERP (e.g., because the baseline correction removed the effect). It is interesting that the down-regulation effect occurred a few hundred milliseconds later than the up-regulation effect (cf. [ 78 ]), which suggests that love down-regulation takes more time to take effect than love up-regulation. The down-regulation effect in the LPP amplitude did not reach significance in participants that had experienced a break-up, which is ironic because love down-regulation might benefit them more than people who are in a happy relationship. Greater interindividual variation is the likely cause of the down-regulation effect not being significant in the break-up group. This variation may have been due to the break-up group being rather heterogeneous in terms of time since break-up, intensity of love feelings for the ex-partner, and levels of positive and negative affect, since factors like these may affect love down-regulation success.

In contrast to the hypotheses, and to the notion that the LPP amplitude is modulated by regulation instruction according to the regulatory goal [ 19 ], the LPP amplitude was numerically, but not significantly, enhanced for down-regulation between 300–400 ms in both groups, and significantly reduced for up-regulation between 700–3000 ms in participants who were in a romantic relationship. Interpreting the LPP amplitude as reflecting the affective and motivational significance of, and the resulting motivated attention to a stimulus [ 42 ], the significantly reduced LPP amplitude for up-regulation between 700–3000 ms in participants who were in a romantic relationship suggests that, even though up-regulation initially (i.e., between 300–400 ms) increases the significance of, and attention to a current partner, it reduces it eventually (i.e., after 700 ms). Interestingly, the up-regulation effect in the LPP amplitude between 700–1000 ms showed significant individual differences. Even though the LPP was reduced by love up-regulation at the group level, participants who actually showed a more enhanced LPP amplitude as a result of love up-regulation in this time window also showed a greater decrease in negative affect as a result of love up-regulation. Because correlation does not imply causation, this effect could be interpreted in several ways. It might be that love up-regulation only leads to a reduction in negative affect when it is successful (as indicated by an enhanced LPP). Future research will need to replicate this effect and clarify its interpretation.

The unexpected LPP findings challenge the interpretation of the regulation effects in the LPP amplitude. It is important to note that the observed pattern resembles some previous emotion regulation studies that have revealed numerically or significantly enhanced LPP amplitudes for down-regulation [ 27 , 48 , 57 , 76 ] and numerically reduced LPP amplitudes for up-regulation [ 46 ] as well. There are several potential factors that could have caused these unexpected effects in the current and previous studies, such floor and ceiling effects [ 27 , 46 , 48 ], presentation of regulation instructions in a blocked rather than an intermixed fashion [ 47 , 78 ], letting participants choose between different regulation strategies [ 57 ], or switching between up- and down-regulation. More research is needed to systematically test these and other factors to better understand the effects of regulation task characteristics on the LPP amplitude. For example, the first author is currently working on studies testing whether floor and ceiling effects cause the unexpected effects of emotion regulation instructions on the LPP. In addition, future studies could directly compare the effects of presentation of regulation instructions in a blocked versus an intermixed fashion, and the effects of letting participants choose between different regulation strategies versus instructing them to use one particular strategy. In addition, it would be informative to compare the effects of having participants perform both up- and down-regulation in a testing session versus only one of the two. Studies like those will provide more information about what exactly the LPP amplitude reflects in regulation tasks. Depending on the conclusions of those studies, the LPP amplitude may or may not have limited usability as a measure of regulation success. Alternative measures that could have merit as an objective measure of love regulation success in future studies are behavioral measures, skin conductance, heartbeat-related measures [ 79 ], facial electromyography [ 80 ], and activation of brain regions that have been associated with love [ 81 ].

To conclude, to the best of our knowledge, this is the first study concerning explicit regulation of love feelings. We argue that love regulation targets actual love feelings and we recognize that that in turn may affect emotions and relationship characteristics. The results showed that people have the preconception that love is somewhat uncontrollable. Nevertheless, they use various behavioral and cognitive strategies to cope with romantic break-ups and to maintain long-term relationships. In the context of heartbreak, distraction was used to feel better after a break-up (i.e., emotion regulation), while reappraisal was used to down-regulate love feelings. In the context of long-term relationships, communication/honesty was important for maintaining long-term relationships, while undertaking (new) activities with the beloved was used to prevent love feelings from declining (i.e., love up-regulation). These preconceptions of, and strategies for love regulation were replicated in two independent samples. Importantly, people were able to up-regulate their love feelings by thinking about the positive aspects of their partner and/or relationship and imagining positive future scenarios. People were also able to down-regulate their love feelings by thinking about negative aspects of their partner and/or relationship and imagining negative future scenarios.

This study, being the first of its kind, provides many suggestions for future research. In this study, we only tested the short-term effects of love regulation. For daily life applicability, it would of course be important that the effects of love regulation are long-lived and/or that people are able to perform love regulation habitually to obtain a sustained effect. Therefore, future studies should examine the long-term effects of love regulation, including its effects on well-being and relationship stability and satisfaction, as well as ways in which love regulation can become habitual. It would also be interesting to examine the effectiveness of behavioral and cognitive strategies other than reappraisal for regulating love feelings, including distraction, avoidance, and undertaking (new) activities with the beloved. In addition, it is important dissociate the effects of love regulation on love feelings and on affect, as a desirable effect on love feelings may be accompanied by an undesirable effect on affect, or vice versa. Love up- and down-regulation have numerous applications, ranging from stabilizing long-term relationships including marriages, reducing heartbreak after romantic break-ups, ameliorating unwanted crushes and forbidden loves, and perhaps even coping with the death of a beloved. In short, love regulation may increase the positive effects and decrease the negative effects of love on individuals and on society and therefore deserves much attention from the scientific community.

Supporting Information

S1 appendix. questions about perceived control over love feelings..

https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0161087.s001

S1 Text. Neutral IAPS pictures.

https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0161087.s002

Acknowledgments

We thank Annemieke van Arum, Mandy van Dijk, Liesbeth Janssen, and Ginger Sassen for help with the data collection.

Author Contributions

  • Conceptualization: SJEL JWvS.
  • Formal analysis: SJEL.
  • Investigation: JWvS.
  • Methodology: SJEL JWvS.
  • Resources: JWvS.
  • Software: SJEL.
  • Supervision: JWvS.
  • Visualization: SJEL.
  • Writing - original draft: SJEL.
  • Writing - review & editing: SJEL JWvS.
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Love and Relationship Satisfaction as a Function of Romantic Relationship Stages

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  • Published: 20 September 2023

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research paper about romantic love

  • Vicente Cassepp-Borges   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0001-8742-3097 1 , 2 ,
  • Joseph E. Gonzales 3 ,
  • Annabelle Frazier 3 &
  • Emilio Ferrer 2  

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The strong influence of the components of love in the relationship satisfaction is very described in the scientific literature. The current cross-sectional study evaluated the associations between participants’ love and relationship satisfaction across different phases of a relationship. For this propose, we recruited a sample of 1102 Brazilian participants, including 756 (68.6%) women and 346 (31.4%) men (mean age = 25.52 years, SD = 7.98), from 12 Brazilian states and the Federal District. Participants’ relationship was coded in order of bond levels: 0 - unrequited relationship, 1 - non-established relationship, 2 - dating, 3 - living together or engaged, and 4 - married. A linear regression analysis indicated that the influence of passion on relationship satisfaction is higher, and the influence of commitment is lower, in more advanced phases of one’s relationship. Multilevel regression showed the role of bond, interacting with the dimensions of love on the prediction of relationship satisfaction. The associations between types of love and relationship satisfaction differ across relationship stages. While the influence of passion and intimacy on relationship satisfaction grows across the relationships’ stages, the influence of commitment decreases. This study also suggests that type of relationship can be understood as an ordinal variable, instead of categorical.

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Across the body of literature on romantic relationships, broad consensus exists around the importance of both love and relationship satisfaction to relationship strength and longevity (Cusack et al., 2012 ; de Munck & Kronenfeld, 2016 ; Lemieux & Hale, 2000 ; Sorokowski et al., 2017 ). For example, greater relationship dissatisfaction (or conversely, lower satisfaction) has been associated with increased propensity for extra-marital affairs (Norgren et al., 2004 ), and ultimately, with relationship dissolution (Le et al., 2010 ). In dating relationships, lesser satisfaction over time has been predictive of dissolution, while continued satisfaction often resulted in increased commitment and marriage (Sprecher, 1999 ; Sprecher & Felmlee, 1992 ). Similarly, romantic love has been linked to relationship satisfaction, particularly in long-term committed relationships (Acevedo & Aron, 2009 ; Graham, 2011 ). In cohabiting couples, stronger feelings of love towards one’s partner predict intent to marry that partner (Wiik et al., 2010 ).

Relationship satisfaction has been broadly defined as a subjective assessment of the “goodness” or “badness” of a relationship (Gable & Poore, 2008 ), compared to other’s relations and experiences (Wachelke et al., 2004 ). The construct is frequently used to study different types of romantic relationships (e.g., committed, long-term relationships and uncommitted, short-term relationships) (Hendrick, 1988 ; Le et al., 2010 ), and many such investigations centered around relations between love for a relationship partner and satisfaction within the relationship (Graham, 2011 ; Masuda, 2003 ). Love styles, self-enhancement, personality, interaction patterns, emotional intelligence, partner support, depression, and economic factors are some determinants of relationship satisfaction (Farooqi, 2014 ), which can be classified in behavioral, cognitive, and emotional factors (Fincham & Beach, 2006 ).

Relationship status is important to relationship satisfaction. Married couples tend to be more satisfied with their relationship than unmarried cohabiters or re-partnered couples. More specifically, transitions into marriage are special periods that enhance relationship satisfaction (Lorber et al., 2015 ). Dating couples who report more relationship satisfaction are more likely to enter marriage (Keizer, 2014 ).

Love has been difficult to define operationally (Graham, 2011 ). A common approach to defining love is to perceive it as an attraction to another person (Langeslag et al., 2013 ), comprised of several central elements that varies across the different theories (Fehr & Russell, 1991 ). Sternberg ( 1986 , 1988 ) triangular theory of love, for example, defines love as the conjunction of the components: intimacy, passion, and commitment. Sternberg ( 1986 , 1988 ) original conceptualization has been credited as representing a good taxonomy of components comprising an overarching construct of romantic love (Aron & Westbay, 1996 ; Cassepp-Borges & Pasquali, 2012 ; Sorokowski et al., 2020 ). In his depiction of romantic love, Intimacy has been characterized by feelings of closeness and connection in the relationship. Passion reflected physical and sexual attraction, romance, the desire to be together, and excitement towards a partner. Finally, Commitment referred to the certainty of loving and being loved and the desire to maintain the relationship for the long-term.

The Evolution of Love

Sternberg ( 1986 ) hypothesized that components of love, as measured by the Sternberg ( 1997 ) Triangular Love Scale (STLS), have different courses in the evolution of relationships, with certain trajectories predicting relationship success. That is, intimacy is expected to increase throughout the relationship, with the potential to rise and fall for short periods of time. In contrast, passion often characterizes early phases of relationship development, and may dissipate over time or produce opposite feelings—like hate. Commitment is a dimension that takes longer to emerge in the relationship but tends to remain stable once it emerges. These description were corroborated by Wojciszke ( 2002 ). However, Sternberg ( 1986 ) did not present empirical evidence to substantiate his theoretical expectations.

Across several cross-sectionals analyses, Sternberg ( 1986 ) predictions have found relative support. For example, Acker and Davis ( 1992 ) found that while commitment was indeed higher for married couples, a decline in passion over time was only observed in female participants. In another analysis, all three STLS components were found to start at low levels in the beginning of relationships, and then increase over time, with intimacy and commitment attaining high levels even in short-term relationships (Yela, 1997 ). Furthermore, Yela ( 1997 ) found that, contrary to Sternberg ( 1986 ) expectations, passion developed slowly, not reaching the same levels as the other dimensions of love. Similarly, several studies have confirmed that higher early relationship commitment levels result in higher long-term commitment for participants who remain in their relationships, while initially low commitment levels are associated with relationship instability and dissolution (Dailey et al., 2013 ; Duemmler & Kobak, 2001 ).

The Interplay of Love and Relationship Satisfaction

As expected, several studies point to a strong relation between love (and the constructs of which it is comprised) and relationship satisfaction (Cassepp-Borges & Teodoro, 2009 ; Hendrick & Hendrick, 1989 ; Keizer, 2014 ; Lemieux & Hale, 2000 ; Masuda, 2003 ). For instance, Lemieux and Hale’s work (Lemieux & Hale, 2000 ) demonstrated that the STLS components (i.e., passion, intimacy, and commitment) are predictive of relationship satisfaction. In men, STLS components explained 73% of the total variance in relationship satisfaction scores, where commitment was the best predictor, followed in order by passion and intimacy. In contrast, 87% of the variability in women’s relationship satisfaction scores were predicted by the STLS—though the order of the constructs’ explanatory power was reversed, ranking intimacy, passion, and commitment. Across a metanalysis with 81 studies, Graham et al. ( 2011 ) similarly found a strong, positive association between love and relationship satisfaction. Using STLS components to predict relationship satisfaction in dating undergraduates, Madey and Rodgers ( 2009 ) reported that commitment and intimacy mediated the relation between secure attachment and relationship satisfaction, while passion was directly predictive of relationship satisfaction.

Relationship Stages

Relationship status has been used in multiple studies. Unfortunately, many of these studies use their own categorization of relationship status. For example, the social network Facebook allows the users to choose between 11 options, including “single,” “in a relationship,” “engaged,” or “married”, a system that has been used in studies (Orosz et al., 2015 ). Natividade et al. ( 2022 ) used the categories self, filial, parental, romantic, and friends for love, but a cluster analysis suggested that just three groups (self, romantic/friends, filial/parental) can summarize the love relationships. Many studies treat relationship status as binary, merging the various categories into two: “have a romantic partner” and “singles” (Adamczyk, 2017 ; Burchell & Ward, 2011 ). Treating relationship status as a categorical variable loses the important feature of describing the various phases in the growth of relationships.

Few studies have used relationship status considering the various stages, although some exceptions exist. For example, Guerrero and Andersen ( 1994 ) used six relationship stages: (1) not dating, (2) on a first date, (3) dating casually, (4) dating seriously, (5) marriage-bound, or (6) married. The proposal of Wojciszke ( 2002 ) was to create six stages, based on the levels of intimacy, passion, and commitment: (1) falling in love, (2) romantic beginning, (3) complete love, (4) companionate love, (5) empty love, and (6) dissolution. Other studies (Lemieux & Hale, 2002 ; Yela, 1997 ) have explored change in love and relationship satisfaction across relationship stages. Furthermore, despite the association between love and satisfaction, and the research evidence of phase-specific changes (or trajectories) in both constructs (Karney & Bradbury, 1997 ), phase-specific relations between love and relationship satisfaction have rarely been explored.

The Current Study

In this paper, we are interested in how intimate, committed, and passionate love differentially predict relationship satisfaction as a function of relationship type. Bond order is meant to function as a behavioral indication of increasing commitment to a romantic partner, starting off as low commitment relationships (e.g., casual relationships and dating) and transitioning into more committed relationships (e.g., cohabitation, engagement, and marriage) as partners’ mutual commitment to each other increases. However, the order of relationship progression is not a static rule. In some contexts, increased commitment in dating could result in transitioning to engagement, to cohabitation, or, in some cases, even directly into marriage.

The current research addresses these gaps and offers new insights into the developmental nature of romantic relationships. Along with shifts in the levels of love, the study presents an attempt to capture associations between differential compositions of love and relationship satisfaction across relationship stages. This study will address the issue of how to categorize (or order) the types of relationships. Previous studies showed how the types of love are associated with relationship satisfaction, but researches doing this analysis considering relationship stages are unknown.

This study raised the following hypothesis:

1.5.1 Bond, intimacy, passion, and commitment will have a positive influence in the relationship satisfaction.

1.5.2 The components of love will have different levels of association with relationship satisfaction across relationship stages. Considering that we found no prior study evaluating the trajectories of regression coefficients instead of means, the directions of these changes are exploratory.

Participants

Participants in this study included 1102 individuals from 12 Brazilian states and the Federal District (mean age = 25.52 years, SD = 7.98). Data collection was performed in at least one-third of the units of the Federation of each of the five geographic regions of Brazil. They were recruited by convenience in their colleges, workplaces, or neighborhoods, and did not receive any financial support to participate. The sample included 756 (68.6%) women and 346 (31.4%) men. Participants reported their sexual orientation (heterosexual: n = 1,028, 96.2%), relationship status (single: n = 775, 70.7%; married: n = 221, 20.2%), and whether they had children (no children: n = 867, 79.1%). The sample size was big to obtain sufficient participants in diverse subgroups.

We used the following measures. The descriptive statistics and the reliability analysis of the scales are available in Table 1 .

Demographic Questionnaire

The first instrument was a demographic questionnaire containing questions as sex, sexual orientation, date of birth, relationship length, relationship status, and having children. To answer the question about type of relationship, participants were requested to choose a person who they love(d) to answer the questions and the following scales thinking on him(her). The variable bond was extracted from the variable type of relationship.

Relationship Assessment Scale (RAS)

Participants completed an adapted version of the RAS (Hendrick, 1988 ), modified for Brazilian participants (Cassepp-Borges & Pasquali, 2011 ). The scale has 7 items (e.g., How good is your relationship compared to most?) measured in a Likert scale ranging from 1 to 7.

Sternberg’s Triangular Love Scale, Reduced (STLS-R)

Participants completed a reduced version (Cassepp-Borges & Pasquali, 2014 ) of the STLS (Sternberg, 1997 ), adapted for Brazilian participants from the complete, original version (Cassepp-Borges & Pasquali, 2012 ; Cassepp-Borges & Teodoro, 2007 ). The reduced version is composed of 20 items, extracted from 45 items of the complete STLS, evaluating intimacy (e.g., I communicate well with ___________., 7 items), passion (e.g., I especially like physical contact with ______., 6 items), and commitment (e.g., I cannot imagine ending my relationship with _________., 7 items). All the items have a blank space, that should be filled with the name of the beloved person of the respondent. Participants answered using a Likert scale with nine points, varying from 1 (“not at all”) to 9 (“Extremely”).

Data Analysis

Participants were asked to mark the option that represented their relationship type (see Table 2 ). Participants who answered the questionnaire based on other types of relationships (e.g., the beloved was a parent or sibling, n = 447) were excluded from further analyses, as these relationships were not the focus of this study.

The variable relationship type considered the following categories: (a) unrequited love, with low (or even null) romantic bond with the beloved, (b) non-established relationships (e.g., new or yet-to-be defined relationship), (c) dating, (d) cohabitation (unmarried romantic), (e) engagement, and (f) marriage. However, it is reasonable to group the categories cohabitation and engagement together, as representing a similar level of bond. Merging these two groups, we created an ordinal variable “bond,” growing from unrequited love to marriage. The inclusion of a group with unrequited love can be questioned, as this relationship stage does not necessarily indicate the beginning of a relationship. Unrequited relationship is a kind of love with the minimum possible level of bond. It is important to keep this group on the sample as a starting point. Love does not need a relationship to exist or even to be strong. The same argument is plausible to all categories (i.e., dating does not mean a beginning of an engagement, for example). Considering all types of relationships, we argued that an ordinal variable seems reasonable to capture the growth in bond. While this order does not necessarily represent the participants’ perceptions of their relationship bond, nor account for differences in relationship development which may be experienced by some participants, this is a useful approach to analyze the various groups, and has been previously used in past research (e.g., Cassepp-Borges & Teodoro, 2009 ). We also decided to use relationships’ stages instead of relationship length because of the weak correlations between relationship length with love ( r = .103, p < 0,001, R 2 = .01) or relationship satisfaction ( r = .176, p < 0,001, R 2 = .03).

Linear Regression

First, we performed one multiple linear regression for each of the five bond level groups, with relationship satisfaction as the dependent variable and love components as the independent variables in IBM SPSS Statistics 25®, considering the types of relationships. Second, we used a multilevel regression. Here, we also considered relationship satisfaction as the dependent variable but participants were now grouped by type of relationship. Intimacy, passion, commitment, sex, and bond level were the independent variables. Multilevel regression was conducted using the package lme4 (Bates et al., 2015 ) in R Studio.

This research was approved by the ethics committee of the Universidade de Brasília, Brazil, under the title “Amor: da adaptação de testes existentes à criação de um novo instrumento de mensuração.” After completing a brief demographic questionnaire, participants were instructed to select one person they love(d) and answer all the survey questions thinking about that person. The questionnaires were administered using pen and paper. The type of loved person was used to group participants into relationship categories. This resulted in the cross-sectional categorization of participants’ ratings of love and relationship satisfaction for relationship types that should represent increasing levels of relationship establishment, investment, and commitment. Participant choices of beloved person (by type) are detailed in Table 2 .

We examined the association of intimacy, passion, and commitment with relationship satisfaction using linear regression, separately for each group. To evaluate for potential differences in the relation between love subscales and relationship satisfaction as a function of bond, we carried out the analyses as a function of the bond-magnitude in the relationship. We used correlations to examine if the regression coefficients of the various components of love predicting relationship satisfaction have similar trajectories. The coefficient for intimacy was highly related to relationship satisfaction during the entire relationship cycle, with a tendency to increase across the stages. Passion had the smallest relation with relationship satisfaction, but the trajectory of the coefficient for intimacy is similar ( r = .772, p = .126, R 2 = .596) to passion coefficient. On the other hand, the regression coefficient for commitment decreases across the stages, whereas the coefficients for passion and intimacy increase. The correlations of commitment regression coefficients with passion ( r = −.938, p = .126, R 2 = .880) and intimacy ( r = −.610, p = .275, R 2 = .372) coefficients were negative. The correlations of bond order and the coefficients for passion ( r = .975, p = .005, R 2 = .951) and commitment ( r = −.945, p = .015, R 2 = .893) were strong and significant, but in opposite ways. Bond order had a positive non-significant correlation with the coefficient for intimacy ( r = .743, p = .151, R 2 = .552). These effects are strong, suggesting a clear tendency across the stages. Surprisingly, besides the small number of groups (five), some correlations are significant (Fig. 1 ).

figure 1

Cross-sectional evolution of the contribution of the 3 components of love in the explanation of relationship satisfaction. Note: The values in Fig. 1 should not be interpreted as means. They represent standardized beta values of independent variables for each group in the regression in which relationship satisfaction is the dependent variable. Error bars represents 95% confidence interval

Recognizing that the association between love and relationship satisfaction can vary between different groups, we performed a multilevel model. Because of the listwise exclusion method, this analysis had 1093 participants nested in six groups. The intra-class correlation (ICC) was .34, estimating that approximately 34% of the variability in relationship satisfaction was related to the variation between groups. This value justifies the need of the multilevel modeling, as regular linear regression does not consider these group effects.

Table 3 presents the results from the multilevel regression. All the variables were centered based on their respective means. For level 2 (group) variables, bond represents the level of bond attributed to the type of relationship (unrequited relationship = 0, non-established relationship = 1, dating = 2, living together or engaged = 3, married = 4). This variable is the same as type of relationship, except for merging the groups living together and engaged. Intimacy, passion, commitment, and sex values were measured at the individual level.

The results of this model indicate that the effects of the group variables are high, whereas the random effects are small. Considering the three dimensions of love (Sternberg, 1986 ) on average, the biggest change in the outcome variable is commitment, followed by intimacy. Passion had a negative and non-significant relation with relationship satisfaction. This unexpected effect is probably a suppression, considering the multicollinearity between the predictors and the inclusion of unrequited love participants. The effect for sex was significant. According to our results, women had an average of .11 points below the intercept in relationship satisfaction, whereas men had an average of .11 points above the intercept. The interaction of passion and bond, however, had a positive and significant effect. The interaction between bond and commitment was also significant, but with a negative sign. Finally, the variable bond had a significant effect that increased relationship satisfaction.

As hypothesized, we found correlations between the love factors. Several studies support the hypothesis that the STLS factors correlate with each other and with satisfaction relationship (Cassepp-Borges & Teodoro, 2007 , 2009 ; Hendrick & Hendrick, 1989 ; Lemieux & Hale, 2000 ; Masuda, 2003 ). The correlation between love and relationship satisfaction found in this paper is also an evidence of convergent validity of both scales (Urbina, 2004 ).

Love is a good predictor of relationship satisfaction. Our results showed high values of predicted variance, indicating the strength of this association. For example, love predicted more than 50% of the variance in relationship satisfaction in established relationships, and more than 30% in any other sample, like unrequited relationships or hookups.

Lemieux and Hale ( 2000 ) also sought to explain the association between relationship satisfaction (measured by RAS) and the three dimensions of love, but with a sample of participants with an average of 15.1 years of marriage. The dimensions appeared in the order commitment, passion, and intimacy for men, and intimacy, passion, and commitment for women. The study also reported higher levels of variance explained (73% for men and 87% for women), compared with the present study. In our study, the role of passion was suppressed by the presence of participants in unrequited relationships. However, we reinforced the strong role of love in the explanation of relationship satisfaction.

The results from multilevel modeling are consistent with the regression coefficients levels across relationship type points (Fig. 1 ). The positive interaction between bond and passion, the negative interaction of bond and commitment, and the non-significant effect of the interaction of bond and intimacy fit with the apparently linear trajectory of these three dimensions. All the three dimensions of love are important and have their particular contribution to relationship satisfaction. However, we should consider that passion interacts with bond, so the association of passion and relationship satisfaction depends on bond. Higher levels of passion in a non-stable relationship can lead to dissatisfaction. It is also important to note that the higher levels of satisfaction for males, relative to females, is congruent with a meta-analytic study (Jackson et al., 2014 ).

Furthermore, similar to what was found by Cassepp-Borges and Teodoro ( 2009 ), passion was negatively related to relationship satisfaction when considering the entire sample and subsamples of non-stablished relationship or forms of love that do not involve a reciprocal relation with a romantic partner. However, the association was positive when considering individuals involved in a romantic relationship (dating or higher level of bond). The negative sign of the passion coefficients in different groups is likely a suppression effect, caused by multicollinearity (Abbad & Torres, 2002 ). The probability of finding a suppression effect is higher when the correlation among the predictor increase (Friedman & Wall, 2005 ). This effect likely happened because the three dimensions of love were highly correlated. However, it is important to keep the three components of love in the model, in order to understand the relation of triangular theory of love (Sternberg, 1986 ) and relationship satisfaction. Moreover, the three components had positive regression coefficients when considering established relationships. Passion can lead to dissatisfaction in non-established relationships. One clue to explain the importance of passion can be found in the work of Madey and Rodgers ( 2009 ). In a sample of students involved in a romantic relationship, while intimacy and the commitment mediated the relation between attachment and relationship satisfaction, passion and secure attachment had direct paths to relationship satisfaction.

In spite of the relation between bond and commitment, the difference of these two variables is that bond is an observed behavior, while commitment is a perception of the relationship. Bond depends on the decision of the two partners, whereas commitment is associated just with the participants’ thoughts. Understanding the difference between both variables is crucial to understand why the commitment regression coefficients (a relation between cognitive commitment and relationship satisfaction) decrease while bond levels (a behavior) increase. The decrease in the association between commitment and relationship satisfaction as a function of the increase in the commitment in the relationship is intriguing. A plausible explanation for this is that, if the commitment is present in a verbal contract (in the case of dating), in an alliance (in the case of engagement), or in a document (in the case of the marriage), the importance of the commitment in the feelings of the partners decreases. Of course, we are not affirming that commitment is not important (the correlation between commitment and relationship satisfaction is still higher than .6 for all groups in an established relationship). Our argument is that, when the commitment in the relationship is established, or reached a ceiling, adding passion can increase relationship satisfaction. The importance of commitment is shared with passion. On the other hand, in the beginning of the relationship, when the commitment is lower, thinking about this would increase satisfaction.

The importance of intimacy over the other two dimensions had been constantly replicated in previous studies (Dela Coleta, 1991 ; Hassebrauck & Fehr, 2002 ; Madey & Rodgers, 2009 ). For example, Gottman and Silver ( 1994 ) created a theory in which he previews the success or the failure of a marriage with accuracy based on criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. All of these, called four horsemen of the apocalypse, are features related to intimacy. This dimension deserves special consideration in all phases of relationship development. The causes for success in the relationship of the sample, however, may be strongly related to the three dimensions of love (Sternberg, 1986 , 1988 ).

As expected based on the literature (Cassepp-Borges & Teodoro, 2009 ; Willi, 1997 ), the levels of love were higher when bond was higher. On the other hand, it is important to note the cross-sectional nature of our data: dissatisfied couples will finish their relationship in prior stages, decreasing the means of satisfaction in the initial cohorts (Berscheid, 2010 ). This effect was expected for the means, but we also examined changes in the regression coefficients across relationship phases. Our methodology is limited to address this question considering the regression coefficients. Other possible limitation of the cross-sectional design includes not being able to examine whether the scales kept the same properties in different groups. The RAS, for example, may be more reliable for well-stablished relationships (Graham et al., 2011 ). Our sample is relatively young, and the results cannot assess long-term marriages or marriages with children (Kowal et al., 2021 ). The sample is predominantly comprised of college students, with a significant proportion being females. These demographic aspects should be taken into consideration when extrapolating the findings to a broader population. The convenience procedure for sample recruiting and the use of sectional data instead of longitudinal data are limitations of these findings.

Implications and Applications

In this study, we attempted to separate relationship types when studying the association between love and relationship satisfaction. Despite being treated in the literature as a categorical variable, we conceptualized relationship type as an ordinal variable representing the degree of bonding and commitment they tend to involve. Although seemingly reasonable, this solution has the limitations of converting a categorical variable into an ordinal one, which is impossible (Pasquali, 2004 ). To be more precise, however, in this study we did not convert a categorical variable into an ordinal, but rather we recognized that we can extract more information from the variable type of relationship if we perceive an ordinal property. This was important to draw conclusions about a potential sequence underlying the different phases of one’s relationship. These categories are broader but similar to those used (“dating,” “living with,” and “married”) by Davies and Shackelford ( 2015 ). Obviously, our cross-sectional design is more limited than a longitudinal design. However, conducting a longitudinal study with the variable type of relationship is hard because of the nature of the variable, and there are not many studies doing so, although some do exist, such as Sprecher and Felmlee ( 1992 ) or Long et al. ( 1999 ).

This study helped to understand the importance of components of love on relationship satisfaction. In sum, our results indicate that relationship satisfaction depends on the stage of relationship. Some studies considered just groups of people involved in a relationship (Gable & Poore, 2008 ; Wachelke et al., 2007 ), or just a specific group like marriage (Contreras et al., 1996 ; Lemieux & Hale, 2000 ; Neff & Karney, 2005 ; Norgren et al., 2004 ; Willi, 1997 ). Other studies divided the sample into groups of different types of relationship (Cassepp-Borges & Teodoro, 2009 ; Hassebrauck & Fehr, 2002 ; Lemieux & Hale, 2002 ). We considered that it is important to research aspects of love and relationship satisfaction in prior stages than dating. Then, love can be examined in every stage. The Triangular Theory of Love (Sternberg, 1986 , 1988 ) should fit to all kinds of love (Sternberg, 1997 ). As each person live their relationship in their own way and their own time, measuring the stage of the relationship instead of the length of the relationship seems a reasonable and insightful approach to understand relationships. We encourage future researches to consider the potential ordinal property of relationship stages.

Data Availability

The database is available under request to the first author.

Code Availability

The code is available under request to the first author.

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This manuscript presents the influence of love on relationship satisfaction considering relationship stages. This manuscript also presents an innovative way to consider the variable type of relationship, understanding it as an ordinal variable. This method allowed to verify how the influence of the components of love was developed across the relationships stages and can be applied to future researches.

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Cassepp-Borges, V., Gonzales, J.E., Frazier, A. et al. Love and Relationship Satisfaction as a Function of Romantic Relationship Stages. Trends in Psychol. (2023). https://doi.org/10.1007/s43076-023-00333-4

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HYPOTHESIS AND THEORY article

Towards a comprehensive theory of love: the quadruple theory.

\r\nTobore Onojighofia Tobore*

  • Independent Researcher, San Diego, CA, United States

Scholars across an array of disciplines including social psychologists have been trying to explain the meaning of love for over a century but its polysemous nature has made it difficult to fully understand. In this paper, a quadruple framework of attraction, resonance or connection, trust, and respect are proposed to explain the meaning of love. The framework is used to explain how love grows and dies and to describe brand love, romantic love, and parental love. The synergistic relationship between the factors and how their variations modulate the intensity or levels of love are discussed.

Introduction

Scholars across an array of disciplines have tried to define the meaning and nature of love with some success but questions remain. Indeed, it has been described as a propensity to think, feel, and behave positively toward another ( Hendrick and Hendrick, 1986 ). However, the application of this approach has been unsuccessful in all forms of love ( Berscheid, 2010 ). Some social psychologists have tried to define love using psychometric techniques. Robert Sternberg Triangular Theory of Love and Clyde and Susan Hendrick’s Love Attitudes Scale (LAS) are notable attempts to employ the psychometric approach ( Hendrick and Hendrick, 1986 ; Sternberg, 1986 ). However, data analysis from the administration of the LAS, Sternberg’s scale and the Passionate Love Scale by Hatfield and Sprecher’s (1986) found a poor association with all forms of love ( Hendrick and Hendrick, 1989 ). Other studies have found a poor correlation between these and other love scales with different types of love ( Whitley, 1993 ; Sternberg, 1997 ; Masuda, 2003 ; Graham and Christiansen, 2009 ).

In recent years, the neuropsychological approach to study the nature of love has gained prominence. Research has compared the brain activity of people who were deeply in love while viewing a picture of their partner and friends of the same age using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and concluded that there is a specialized network of the brain involved in love ( Bartels and Zeki, 2000 ). Indeed, several lines of investigation using fMRI have described a specialized area of the brain mediating maternal love ( Noriuchi et al., 2008 ; Noriuchi and Kikuchi, 2013 ) and, fMRI studies have implicated multiple brain systems particularly the reward system in romantic love ( Aron et al., 2005 ; Fisher et al., 2005 , 2010 ; Beauregard et al., 2009 ). Brain regions including ventral tegmental area, anterior insula, ventral striatum, and supplementary motor area have been demonstrated to mediate social and material reward anticipation ( Gu et al., 2019 ). Although brain imaging provides a unique insight into the nature of love, making sense of the psychological significance or inference of fMRI data is problematic ( Cacioppo et al., 2003 ).

Also, there has been growing interests in the neurobiology of love. Indeed, evidence suggests possible roles for oxytocin, vasopressin, dopamine, serotonin, testosterone, cortisol, morphinergic system, and nerve growth factor in love and attachment ( Esch and Stefano, 2005 ; De Boer et al., 2012 ; Seshadri, 2016 ; Feldman, 2017 ). However, in many cases, definite proof is still lacking and the few imaging studies on love are limited by selection bias on the duration of a love affair, gender and cultural differences ( De Boer et al., 2012 ).

So, while advances have been made in unraveling the meaning of love, questions remain and a framework that can be employed to understand love in all its forms remains to be developed or proposed. The objective of this article is to propose a novel framework that can be applied to all forms of love.

Theoretical Background and Hypothesis Development (The AAC Model)

In the past few decades, the psychological literature has defined and described different forms of love and from these descriptions, the role of attraction, attachment-commitment, and caregiving (AAC), appears to be consistent in all forms of love.

Attraction theory is one of the first approaches to explain the phenomenon of love and several studies and scholarly works have described the importance of attraction in different forms of love ( Byrne and Griffitt, 1973 ; Berscheid and Hatfield, 1978 ; Fisher et al., 2006 ; Braxton-Davis, 2010 ; Grant-Jacob, 2016 ). Attraction has been described as an evolutionary adaptation of humans for mating, reproduction, and parenting ( Fisher et al., 2002a , 2006 ).

The role of attachment in love has also been extensively investigated. Attachment bonds have been described as a critical feature of mammals including parent-infant, pair-bonds, conspecifics, and peers ( Feldman, 2017 ). Indeed, neural networks including the interaction of oxytocin and dopamine in the striatum have been implicated in attachment bonds ( Feldman, 2017 ). The key features of attachment include proximity maintenance, safety and security, and separation distress ( Berscheid, 2010 ). Multiple lines of research have proposed that humans possess an innate behavioral system of attachment that is essential in love ( Harlow, 1958 ; Bowlby, 1977 , 1988 , 1989 ; Ainsworth, 1985 ; Hazan and Shaver, 1987 ; Bretherton, 1992 ; Carter, 1998 ; Burkett and Young, 2012 ). Attachment is essential to commitment and satisfaction in a relationship ( Péloquin et al., 2013 ) and commitment leads to greater intimacy ( Sternberg, 1986 ).

Also, several lines of evidence have described the role of caregiving in love. It has been proposed that humans possess an inborn caregiving system that complements their attachment system ( Bowlby, 1973 ; Ainsworth, 1985 ). Indeed, several studies have used caregiving scale and compassionate love scale, to describe the role of caring, concern, tenderness, supporting, helping, and understanding the other(s), in love and relationships ( Kunce and Shaver, 1994 ; Sprecher and Fehr, 2005 ). Mutual communally responsive relationships in which partners attend to one another’s needs and welfare with the expectation that the other will return the favor when their own needs arise ( Clark and Mills, 1979 ; Clark and Monin, 2006 ), have been described as key in all types of relationships including friendship, family, and romantic and compassionate love ( Berscheid, 2010 ).

Attachment and caregiving reinforce each other in relationships. Evidence suggests that sustained caregiving is frequently accompanied by the growth of familiarity between the caregiver and the receiver ( Bowlby, 1989 , p. 115) strengthening attachment ( Berscheid, 2010 ). Several studies have proposed that attachment has a positive influence on caregiving behavior in love and relationships ( Carnelley et al., 1996 ; Collins and Feeney, 2000 ; Feeney and Collins, 2001 ; Mikulincer, 2006 ; Canterberry and Gillath, 2012 ; Péloquin et al., 2013 ).

The AAC model can be seen across the literature on love. Robert Sternberg triangular theory of love which proposes that love has three components —intimacy, passion, and commitment ( Sternberg, 1986 ), essentially applies the AAC model. Passion, a key factor in his theory, is associated with attraction ( Berscheid and Hatfield, 1978 ), and many passionate behaviors including increased energy, focused attention, intrusive thinking, obsessive following, possessive mate guarding, goal-oriented behaviors and motivation to win and keep a preferred mating partner ( Fisher et al., 2002b , 2006 ; Fisher, 2005 ). Also, evidence indicates that attachment is central to intimacy, another pillar of the triangular theory ( Morris, 1982 ; Feeney and Noller, 1990 ; Oleson, 1996 ; Grabill and Kent, 2000 ). Commitment, the last pillar of the triangular theory, is based on interdependence and social exchange theories ( Stanley et al., 2010 ), which is connected to mutual caregiving and secure attachment.

Hendrick and Hendrick’s (1986) , Love Attitudes Scale (LAS) which measures six types of love ( Hendrick and Hendrick, 1986 ) is at its core based on the AAC model. Similarly, numerous works on love ( Rubin, 1970 ; Hatfield and Sprecher, 1986 ; Fehr, 1994 ; Grote and Frieze, 1994 ), have applied one or all of the factors in the ACC model. Berscheid (2010) , proposed four candidates for a temporal model of love including companionate love, romantic love, and compassionate love and adult attachment love. As described, these different types of love (romantic, companionate, compassionate, and attachment) all apply at least one or all of the factors in the AAC model.

New Theory (The Quadruple Framework)

The AAC model can be fully captured by four fundamental factors; attraction, connection or resonance, trust, and respect, providing a novel framework that could explain love in all its forms. Table 1 shows the core factors of love, and the four factors derived from them.

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Table 1. Factors of love.

Evidence suggests that both attachment and attraction play a role in obsession or passion observed in love ( Fisher et al., 2005 ; Honari and Saremi, 2015 ). Attraction is influenced by the value or appeal perceived from a relationship and this affects commitment ( Rusbult, 1980 ).

Connection or Resonance

Connection is key to commitment, caregiving, and intimacy. It creates a sense of oneness in relationships and it is strengthened by proximity, familiarity, similarity, and positive shared experiences ( Sullivan et al., 2011 ; Beckes et al., 2013 ). Homogeneity or similarity has been observed to increase social capital and engagement among people ( Costa and Kahn, 2003a , b ), and it has been described as foundational to human relationships ( Tobore, 2018 , pp. 6–13). Research indicates that similarity plays a key role in attachment and companionship as people are more likely to form long-lasting and successful relationships with those who are more similar to themselves ( Burgess and Wallin, 1954 ; Byrne, 1971 ; Berscheid and Reis, 1998 ; Lutz-Zois et al., 2006 ). Proximity plays a key role in caregiving as people are more likely to show compassion to those they are familiar with or those closest to them ( Sprecher and Fehr, 2005 ). Similarity and proximity contribute to feelings of familiarity ( Berscheid, 2010 ). Also, caregiving and empathy are positively related to emotional interdependence ( Hatfield et al., 1994 ).

Trust is crucial for love ( Esch and Stefano, 2005 ) and it plays an important role in relationship intimacy and caregiving ( Rempel and Holmes, 1985 ; Wilson et al., 1998 ; Salazar, 2015 ), as well as attachment ( Rodriguez et al., 2015 ; Bidmon, 2017 ). Familiarity is a sine qua non for trust ( Luhmann, 1979 ), and trust is key to relationship satisfaction ( Simpson, 2007 ; Fitzpatrick and Lafontaine, 2017 ).

Respect is cross-cultural and universal ( Frei and Shaver, 2002 ; Hendrick et al., 2010 ) and has been described as fundamental in love ( Hendrick et al., 2011 ). It plays a cardinal role in interpersonal relations at all levels ( Hendrick et al., 2010 ). Indeed, it is essential in relationship commitment and satisfaction ( Hendrick and Hendrick, 2006 ) and relationship intimacy and attachment ( Alper, 2004 ; Hendrick et al., 2011 ).

Synergetic Interactions of the Four Factors

Connection and attraction.

Similarity, proximity, and familiarity are all important in connection because they promote attachment and a sense of oneness in a relationship ( Sullivan et al., 2011 ; Beckes et al., 2013 ). Research indicates that proximity ( Batool and Malik, 2010 ) and familiarity positively influence attraction ( Norton et al., 2015 ) and several lines of evidence suggests that people are attracted to those similar to themselves ( Sykes et al., 1976 ; Wetzel and Insko, 1982 ; Montoya et al., 2008 ; Batool and Malik, 2010 ; Collisson and Howell, 2014 ). Also, attraction mediates similarity and familiarity ( Moreland and Zajonc, 1982 ; Elbedweihy et al., 2016 ).

Respect and Trust

Evidence suggests that respect promotes trust ( Ali et al., 2012 ).

Connection, Respect, Trust, and Attraction

Trust affects attraction ( Singh et al., 2015 ). Trust and respect can mediate attitude similarity and promote attraction ( Singh et al., 2016 ).

So, although these factors can operate independently, evidence suggests that the weakening of one factor could negatively affect the others and the status of love. Similarly, the strengthening of one factor positively modulates the others and the status of love.

Relationships are dynamic and change as events and conditions in the environment change ( Berscheid, 2010 ). Love is associated with causal conditions that respond to these changes favorably or negatively ( Berscheid, 2010 ). In other words, as conditions change, and these factors become present, love is achieved and if they die, it fades. Figure 1 below explains how love grows and dies. Point C in the figure explains the variations in the intensity or levels of love and this variation is influenced by the strength of each factor. The stronger the presence of all factors, the higher the intensity and the lower, the weaker the intensity of love. The concept of non-love is similar to the “non-love” described in Sternberg’s triangular theory of love in which all components of love are absent ( Sternberg, 1986 ).

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Figure 1. Description: (A) Presence of love (all factors are present). (B) Absence of love (state of non-love or state where all factors are latent or dormant). (C) Different levels of love due to variations in the four factors. (D) Movement from non-love toward love (developmental stage: at least one but not all four factors are present). (E) Movement away from love toward non-love (decline stage: at least one or more of the four factors are absent).

Application of the Quadruple Framework on Romantic, Brand and Parental Love

Romantic, parental and brand love have been chosen to demonstrate the role of these factors and their interactions in love because there is significant existing literature on them. However, they can be applied to understand love in all its forms.

Romantic Love

Attraction and romantic love.

Attraction involves both physical and personality traits ( Braxton-Davis, 2010 ; Karandashev and Fata, 2014 ). To this end, attraction could be subdivided into sexual or material and non-sexual or non-material attraction. Sexual or material attraction includes physical attributes such as beauty, aesthetics, appeal, wealth, etc. In contrast, non-sexual or non-material attraction includes characteristics such as personality, social status, power, humor, intelligence, character, confidence, temperament, honesty, good quality, kindness, integrity, etc. Both types of attraction are not mutually exclusive.

Romantic love has been described as a advanced form of human attraction system ( Fisher et al., 2005 ) and it fits with the passion component of Sternberg’s triangular theory of love which he described as the quickest to recruit ( Sternberg, 1986 ). Indeed, research indicates that physical attractiveness and sensual feelings are essential in romantic love and dating ( Brislin and Lewis, 1968 ; Regan and Berscheid, 1999 ; Luo and Zhang, 2009 ; Braxton-Davis, 2010 ; Ha et al., 2010 ; Guéguen and Lamy, 2012 ) and sexual attraction often provides the motivational spark that kickstarts a romantic relationship ( Gillath et al., 2008 ). Behavioral data suggest that love and sex drive follow complementary pathways in the brain ( Seshadri, 2016 ). Indeed, the neuroendocrine system for sexual attraction and attachment appears to work synergistically motivating individuals to both prefer a specific mating partner and to form an attachment to that partner ( Seshadri, 2016 ). Sex promotes the activity of hormones involved in love including arginine vasopressin in the ventral pallidum, oxytocin in the nucleus accumbens and stimulates dopamine release which consequently motivates preference for a partner and strengthens attachment or pair-bonding ( Seshadri, 2016 ).

Also, romantic love is associated with non-material attraction. Research indicates that many people are attracted to their romantic partner because of personality traits like generosity, kindness, warmth, humor, helpfulness, openness to new ideas ( Giles, 2015 , pp. 168–169). Findings from a research study on preferences in human mate selection indicate that personality traits such as kindness/considerate and understanding, exciting, and intelligent are strongly preferred in a potential mate ( Buss and Barnes, 1986 ). Indeed, character and physical attractiveness have been found to contribute jointly and significantly to romantic attraction ( McKelvie and Matthews, 1976 ).

Attraction is key to commitment in a romantic relationship ( Rusbult, 1980 ), indicating that without attraction a romantic relationship could lose its luster. Also, romantic attraction is weakened or declines as the reason for its presence declines or deteriorates. If attraction is sexual or due to material characteristics, then aging or any accident that compromises physical beauty would result in its decline ( Braxton-Davis, 2010 ). Loss of fortune or social status could also weaken attraction and increase tension in a relationship. Indeed, tensions about money increase marital conflicts ( Papp et al., 2009 ; Dew and Dakin, 2011 ) and predicted subsequent divorce ( Amato and Rogers, 1997 ).

Connection and Romantic Love

Connection or resonance fits with the intimacy, and commitment components of Sternberg’s triangular theory of love ( Sternberg, 1986 ). Connection in romantic love involves intimacy, friendship or companionship and caregiving and it is strengthened by novelty, proximity, communication, positive shared experiences, familiarity, and similarity. It is what creates a sense of oneness between romantic partners and it is expressed in the form of proximity seeking and maintenance, concern, and compassion ( Neto, 2012 ). Evidence suggests that deeper levels of emotional involvement or attachment increase commitment and cognitive interdependence or tendency to think about the relationship in a pluralistic manner, as reflected in the use of plural pronouns to describe oneself, romantic partner and relationship ( Agnew et al., 1998 ).

Research indicates that both sexual attraction and friendship are necessary for romantic love ( Meyers and Berscheid, 1997 ; Gillath et al., 2008 ; Berscheid, 2010 ), indicating that connection which is essential for companionship plays a key role in romantic love. A study on college students by Hendrick and Hendrick (1993) found that a significant number of the students described their romantic partner as their closest friend ( Hendrick and Hendrick, 1993 ), reinforcing the importance of friendship or companionship in romantic love.

Similarity along the lines of values, goals, religion, nationality, career, culture, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, language, etc. is essential in liking and friendship in romantic love ( Berscheid and Reis, 1998 ). Research indicates that a partner who shared similar values and interests were more likely to experience stronger love ( Jin et al., 2017 ). Indeed, the more satisfied individuals were with their friendships the more similar they perceived their friends to be to themselves ( Morry, 2005 ). Also, similarity influences perceptions of familiarity ( Moreland and Zajonc, 1982 ), and familiarity plays a role in the formation of attachment and connectedness because it signals safety and security ( Bowlby, 1977 ). Moreover, similarity and familiarity affect caregiving. Sprecher and Fehr (2005) , found compassion or caregiving were lower for strangers, and greatest for dating and marital relationships, indicating that similarity and familiarity enhance intimacy and positively influences caregiving ( Sprecher and Fehr, 2005 ).

Proximity through increased exposure is known to promote liking ( Saegert et al., 1973 ), familiarity and emotional connectedness ( Sternberg, 1986 ; Berscheid, 2010 ). Exposure through fun times and direct and frequent communication is essential to maintaining and strengthening attachment and connectedness ( Sternberg and Grajek, 1984 ). In Sternberg’s triangular theory, effective communication is described as essential and affects the intimacy component of a relationship ( Sternberg, 1986 ). Indeed, intimacy grows from a combination of mutual self-disclosure and interactions mediated by positive partner responsiveness ( Laurenceau et al., 1998 , 2005 ; Manne et al., 2004 ), indicating that positive feedback and fun times together strengthens connection.

Also, sexual activity is an important component of the reward system that reinforces emotional attachment ( Seshadri, 2016 ), indicating that sexual activity may increase emotional connectedness and intimacy. Over time in most relationships, predictability grows, and sexual satisfaction becomes readily available. This weakens the erotic and emotional experience associated with romantic love ( Berscheid, 2010 ). Research shows that a reduction in novelty due to the monotony of being with the same person for a long period is the reason for this decline in sexual attraction ( Freud and Rieff, 1997 , p. 57; Sprecher et al., 2006 , p. 467). According to Sternberg (1986) , the worst enemy of the intimacy component of love is stagnation. He explained that too much predictability can erode the level of intimacy in a close relationship ( Sternberg, 1986 ). So, novelty is essential to maintaining sexual attraction and strengthening connection in romantic love.

Jealousy and separation distress which are key features of romantic love ( Fisher et al., 2002b ), are actions to maintain and protect the emotional union and are expressions of a strong connection. Research has found a significant correlation between anxiety and love ( Hatfield et al., 1989 ) and a positive link between romantic love and jealousy in stable relationships ( Mathes and Severa, 1981 ; Aune and Comstock, 1991 ; Attridge, 2013 ; Gomillion et al., 2014 ). Indeed, individuals who feel strong romantic love tend to be more jealous or sensitive to threats to their relationship ( Orosz et al., 2015 ).

Connection in romantic love is weakened by distance, a dearth of communication, unsatisfactory sexual activity, divergences or dissimilarity of values and interests, monotony and too much predictability.

Trust and Romantic Love

Trust is the belief that a partner is, and will remain, reliable or dependable ( Cook, 2003 ). Trust in romantic love fits with the intimacy, and commitment components of Sternberg’s triangular theory of love which includes being able to count on the loved one in times of need, mutual understanding with the loved one, sharing of one’s self and one’s possessions with the loved one and maintaining the relationship ( Sternberg, 1986 ).

It has been proposed that love activates specific regions in the reward system which results in a reduction in emotional judgment and fear ( Seshadri, 2016 ). This reduced fear or trust has been identified as one of the most important characteristics of a romantic relationship and essential to fidelity, commitment, monogamy, emotional vulnerability, and intimacy ( Laborde et al., 2014 ). Indeed, trust can deepen intimacy, increase commitment and increase mutual monogamy, and make a person lower their guards in the belief that they are safe from harm ( Larzelere and Huston, 1980 ; Bauman and Berman, 2005 ). People with high trust in romantic relationships tend to expect that their partner will act in their interest causing them to prioritize relationship dependence over making themselves invulnerable from harm or self-protection ( Luchies et al., 2013 ). In contrast, people with low trust in their partner tend to be unsure about whether their partner will act in their interests and prioritize insulating themselves from harm over relationship dependence ( Luchies et al., 2013 ).

Trust takes time to grow into a romantic relationship. Indeed, people in a relationship come to trust their partners when they see that their partner’s action and behavior moves the relationship forward or acts in the interest of the relationship and not themself ( Wieselquist et al., 1999 ). Research indicates that trust is associated with mutual self-disclosure ( Larzelere and Huston, 1980 ), and positive partner responsiveness which are both essential to the experience of friendship and intimacy in romantic relationships ( Larzelere and Huston, 1980 ; Reis and Shaver, 1988 ; Laurenceau et al., 1998 ).

Also, trust influences caregiving and compassion. Evidence suggests that compassion is positively related to trust ( Salazar, 2015 ). Mutual communal responsiveness or caregiving in relationships in which partners attend to one another’s needs and welfare is done because they are confident that the other will do the same when or if their own needs arise ( Clark and Monin, 2006 ). Repeated acts of communal responsiveness given with no expectation of payback provide a partner with a sense of security and trust and increase the likelihood that they will be communally responsive if or when the need arises ( Clark and Monin, 2006 ), and contributes to a sense of love in romantic relationships ( Berscheid, 2010 ).

Loss or weakening of trust could spell the end of romantic love. Indeed, mistrust corrupts intimacy and often indicates that a relationship has ended or near its end ( LaFollette and Graham, 1986 ) and it makes mutual monogamy, and commitment difficult to achieve in a romantic relationship ( Towner et al., 2015 ). A study on individuals who had fallen out of romantic love with their spouse found that loss of trust and intimacy was part of the reason for the dissolution of love ( Sailor, 2013 ).

Respect and Romantic Love

Multiple lines of evidence suggest that respect is expected in both friendships and romantic relationships ( Gaines, 1994 , 1996 ). In romantic love, it entails consideration, admiration, high regard, and value for the loved one as a part of one’s life ( Sternberg and Grajek, 1984 ; Hendrick et al., 2011 ).

Gottman (1999) , found that the basis for a stable and satisfactory marital relationship is friendship filled with fondness and admiration ( Gottman, 1999 ). Respect is considered one of the most important things married couples want from their partner ( Gottman, 1994 ). Grote and Frieze (1994) , found that respect correlates with companionate or friendship love ( Grote and Frieze, 1994 ), indicating that respect is essential to intimacy and relationship satisfaction. Also, respect is positively correlated with passion, altruism, self-disclosure, and relationship overall satisfaction ( Frei and Shaver, 2002 ; Hendrick and Hendrick, 2006 ). It is associated with the tendency to overlook a partner’s negative behavior or respond with pro-relationship actions or compassion to their shortcomings ( Rusbult et al., 1998 ; Gottman, 1999 ).

Absence or a lack of respect could spell the end of romantic love. Research indicates that there is an expectation of mutual respect in friendship and most relationships and people reacted negatively when this expectation is violated ( Hendrick et al., 2011 ), indicating that a lack of respect could negatively affect commitment and attraction. Indeed, denial of respect is an important negative behavior in friendships and most relationships ( Gaines, 1994 , 1996 ) and a lack of respect is a violation of what it means to love one ‘s partner in a close romantic relationship ( Hendrick et al., 2011 ). Gottman (1993 , 1994) identified contempt, criticism, defensiveness, and stonewalling as four of the relationally destructive behavior and he labeled them as “the four horsemen of the apocalypse.”

Romantic love summary

Romantic love involves the interactions and synergistic interplay between respect, connection, trust, and attraction. All four must be present in love. Any event that results in the loss of any of these factors could cause romantic love to gradually decline and unless effort is made to replenish it, it will eventually fade or collapse. Romantic love is dynamic and requires significant investment from both partners to keep it alive.

Parental Love

Attraction and parental love.

Attraction plays an essential role in parental love and it could be material or non-material. Material attraction involves the child’s health, gender, accomplishments or success, and attractiveness. In contrast, non-material attraction includes traits such as intelligence, character, and other personality traits.

Evidence suggests that culture influences gender preference with attraction greater for sons in most cases ( Cronk, 1993 ). Indeed, mothers and fathers have been found to favor the more intelligent and more ambitious/industrious child ( Lauricella, 2009 ). Also, parental perception that investment in a child will cost more than the benefits to be gained from taking care of the child might influence negative behavior toward the child. Indeed, multiple lines of evidence suggest that parental unemployment increases the rates of child maltreatment and abuse ( Steinberg et al., 1981 ; Lindo et al., 2013 ). Research indicates that teen mothers who have poor social support reported greater unhappiness, were at greater risk for child abuse and often employed the use of physical punishment toward their child ( Haskett et al., 1994 ; de Paúl and Domenech, 2000 ).

Also, several studies have suggested that parents tended to favor healthy children ( Mann, 1992 ; Barratt et al., 1996 ; Hagen, 1999 ). However, when resources are plentiful, parents tend to invest equally in less healthy or high-risk children ( Beaulieu and Bugental, 2008 ), because they have abundant resources to go around without compromising the reproductive value of healthy children ( Lauricella, 2009 ).

Connection and Parental Love

Connection creates a sense of oneness between parent and child and involves caregiving, intimacy, and attachment. It is influenced by proximity, positive and unique shared experiences, and similarity along virtually every dimension between parent and child.

Proximity, and similarity increases attachment and intimacy between parent and child. Research shows that parents are perceived as favoring genetically related children ( Salmon et al., 2012 ), and evidence suggests that paternal resemblance predicted paternal favoritism ( Lauricella, 2009 ). Parental proximity and similarity to a biological child are unique because it is based on genes and blood. In contrast, intimacy between a parent and an adopted child is based solely on shared experiences and proximity and takes time to grow and on many occasions may not develop ( Hooks, 1990 ; Hughes, 1999 ).

Dissimilarities or discrepancy in values, attitudes, etc., can create problems between children and parents and can have a profound effect on their relationship. Indeed, evidence suggests that the rebel child tended to be less close to the parents ( Rohde et al., 2003 ). Research has found that adolescents who are less religious than their parents tend to experience lower-quality relationships with their parents which results in higher rates of both internalizing and externalizing symptoms ( Kim-Spoon et al., 2012 ). When parents and family members were very religious, and a child comes out as an atheist, relationship quality could suffer in the form of rejection, anger, despair, or an inability to relate to one another ( Zimmerman et al., 2015 ). A study of lesbian, gay, and bisexual youngsters, for patterns of disclosure of sexual orientation to families, found that those who had disclosed reported verbal and physical abuse by parents and family members ( D’Augelli et al., 1998 ). Honor killing of female children which have been reported in Pakistan and some parts of the Middle East because of deviation from traditional gender roles or crossing of social boundaries that are deemed as taboo in their culture ( Lindsey and Sarah, 2010 ), is another example of the negative effects of the discrepancy in values between parents and child.

Unique shared experiences between parent and child could increase connection. Bank (1988) observed that the development of favoritism seems to require that the “child’s conception or birth be unusual or stressful,” ( Bank, 1988 ). Evidence suggests that parents most favored child tended to be last-born child and this is linked to their unique position, vulnerability and neediness ( Rohde et al., 2003 ). Also, proximity, positive experiences and time spent together increases connection and intimacy. Research indicates that parents tend to give more love and support to the grown child they were historically closest to and got along with ( Siennick, 2013 ). A study of primiparous women found that mothers with greater contact with their infants were more reluctant to leave them with someone else, and engaged more intimately with their child ( Klaus et al., 1972 ).

Divorce could create distance between a parent and child, weakening connection and intimacy. Indeed, one of the outcomes of divorce is the lessening of contact between divorced non-custodial fathers and their children ( Appleby and Palkovitz, 2007 ), and this can reduce intimacy ( Guttmann and Rosenberg, 2003 ).

Also, parental separation distress, worry, and concern for their child’s welfare, academic performance, and future are expressions of connection and a lack thereof is a sign of poor connection. Indeed, the levels of concern and worry expressed between children and their parents influenced their perceptions of the relationship quality ( Hay et al., 2007 ).

Trust and Parental Love

Trust is essential to parental attachment, intimacy, and caregiving. When there is mistrust, attachment and intimacy between a parent and their child are disrupted or unable to blossom. In Africa and many parts of the world, there have been reports of children being condemned and abandoned by their parents simply because they are tagged as witches with mysterious evil powers ( Tedam, 2014 ; Bartholomew, 2015 ; Briggs and Whittaker, 2018 ). The tag of “witchcraft” stirs up fear and anger, causing the child to be perceived as a deadly threat which inevitably damages attachment, intimacy and eliminates the need for caregiving.

Research has found that firstborn children were most likely to be chosen as those to whom mothers would turn when facing personal problems or crises ( Suitor and Pillemer, 2007 ). This tendency may be linked to trust. Moreover, evidence suggests that the rebel child tended to be less close to the parents ( Rohde et al., 2003 ). In other words, the more obedient, and reliable child is likely to gain the confidence and intimacy of the parents. In contrast, the disobedient and unreliable child is excluded or kept at a distance. Also, trust and poor connection could influence inheritance and disinheritance decisions. Indeed, estrangement, alienation and disaffection of a parent toward a child could result in disinheritance ( Batts, 1990 ; Brashier, 1994 , 1996 ; Foster, 2001 ; Arroyo et al., 2016 ).

Respect and Parental Love

Respect in parental love entails treating the child with consideration and regard. This consideration and regard for the child are essential to intimacy, caregiving and attachment. Indeed, respect is foundational to a harmonious relationship between parent and child ( Dixon et al., 2008 ). Evidence suggests that humans possess an innate behavioral system that leads them to form an attachment to a familiar person who provides care, comfort, and protection ( Harlow, 1958 ; Bowlby, 1989 ). Repeated acts of caregiving contribute to a sense of love in all types of relationships ( Berscheid, 2010 ), reinforcing the role of parental caregiving in fostering intimacy and attachment with the child.

Taking care of an infant’s needs, and making sure they are safe and well, all fall under consideration and regard for the child. Child abuse and neglect ( Tedam, 2014 ; Bartholomew, 2015 ; Briggs and Whittaker, 2018 ), is a display of a lack of consideration for the child’s need.

Also, respect in parental love involves admiration. Research has found that fathers treated more ambitious/industrious sons with high regard, and both parents favored the more intelligent and more ambitious/industrious daughters ( Lauricella, 2009 ) indicating that a child that engages in activities or behavior that is highly regarded by their parents may gain favor with their parents, strengthening intimacy and vice versa.

Parental love summary

Parental love involves the interactions and synergistic interplay between respect, connection, trust, and attraction. Any event that results in the loss of any of these factors could cause parental love to gradually decline. In many cases, the behavior and actions of a child significantly influence parental love.

Brand love has been defined as the level of passionate emotional attachment a satisfied or happy consumer has for a brand and evidence suggests it is very similar to interpersonal love ( Russo et al., 2011 ).

Attraction and Brand Love

Attraction plays an essential role in brand love. Material attraction for a brand includes attributes like superior design, quality, and aesthetics, price, benefits, etc. Non-material attraction involves social status symbol, brand personality, uniqueness, distinctiveness, user experience, image, etc. evidence suggests that when talking about loved brands, people often talk passionately about the brand’s many attractive qualities such as its exceptional performance, good-looking design, value for money, and other positive attributes ( Fournier, 1998 ; Whang et al., 2004 ; Carroll and Ahuvia, 2006 ; Batra et al., 2012 ). Research on brand love has found that brand attractive attributes such as prestige or uniqueness influence brand passion which affects relevant factors such as purchase intention ( Bauer et al., 2007 ).

Also, brand attraction influences brand loyalty, and commitment. Indeed, research indicates that brand benefits influences brand loyalty or commitment ( Huang et al., 2016 ). Brand personality (image, distinctiveness, and self-expressive value) is strongly associated with brand identification and loyalty ( Kim et al., 2001 ; Elbedweihy et al., 2016 ).

Connection and Brand Love

Connection is essential to brand love. It involves brand attachment, commitment, and intimacy and it is strengthened by brand identification, image, familiarity or awareness, proximity, length or frequency of usage and similarity or congruences along virtually every dimension including values, lifestyle, goals, etc. between brand and customer. Brand awareness which means brand familiarity has been described as essential for people to identify with a brand ( Pascual and Académico, 2015 ), and it indirectly affects current purchases ( Esch et al., 2006 ).

Also, brand identification promotes a sense of oneness between a brand and a customer strengthening commitment and it is driven by brand self-similarity, brand prestige and brand distinctiveness ( Stokburger-Sauer et al., 2008 ). Indeed, brand identification contributes to the development of brand love and brand loyalty ( Alnawas and Altarifi, 2016 ) and brand image and identification influence loyalty and positive word of mouth ( Carroll and Ahuvia, 2006 ; Batra et al., 2012 ; Anggraeni and Rachmanita, 2015 ). Brand identity, values and lifestyle similarities to those of the customer appear to have a strong and significant relationship with brand love ( Batra et al., 2012 ; Rauschnabel and Ahuvia, 2014 ; Alnawas and Altarifi, 2016 ; Elbedweihy et al., 2016 ). Findings from research suggest that customer-to-customer similarity and sense of community drive consumer brand identification, loyalty, and engagement ( Bergkvist and Bech-Larsen, 2010 ; Elbedweihy et al., 2016 ).

Moreover, proximity and interaction play a role in brand love. Indeed, the duration of the relationship between a customer and a brand is essential in brand love ( Albert et al., 2007 ). Fournier (1998) , discussed interdependence which involved frequent brand interactions as necessary for a strong brand relationship ( Fournier, 1998 ). Similarly, Batra et al. (2012) found that having a long-term relationship, positive emotional connection and frequent interactions with a brand was an important aspect of brand love ( Batra et al., 2012 ). Indeed, shared experiences and history between a person and a brand can increase their emotional attachment, make the brand to become an important part of the person’s identity narrative and increases their loyalty to the brand ( Thomson et al., 2005 ; Pedeliento et al., 2016 ).

Just like romantic love, concern and worry and proximity seeking, or maintenance are an expression of emotional connectedness to the brand. Indeed, anticipated separation distress has been described as a core element of brand love ( Batra et al., 2012 ), and consumers are likely to feel strong desires to maintain proximity with their loved objects, even feeling “separation distress” when they are distanced from them ( Thomson et al., 2005 ; Park et al., 2010 ).

Also, novelty through continued innovation is vital to maintaining and strengthening both attraction and connection. According to the Harvard business review, the relationship between brand and consumer go through “ruts” and to “keep the spark” alive, innovation and news are essential ( Halloran, 2014 ). Research indicates that innovation plays a role in brand equity and it impacts brand identification or resonance ( Sinha, 2017 ).

Lack of brand familiarity or awareness, poor or negative user experience, a dearth of innovation and increased dissimilarities in values and lifestyles between brand and consumer can all weaken brand connection.

Trust and Brand Love

Trust is essential to brand attachment, intimacy, and commitment. It involves confidence and reliability, or dependability of the brand and it is influenced by brand image, familiarity, values, user experience, and quality. Indeed, brand trust directly influences brand love ( Turgut and Gultekin, 2015 ; Meisenzahl, 2017 ) and a strong relationship exists between brand love and brand trust and identification ( Albert and Merunka, 2013 ). Evidence suggests that brand familiarity influences brand trust ( Ha and Perks, 2005 ) and brand trust and experience, positively influence brand attachment ( Erciş et al., 2012 ; Chinomona, 2013 ; Chinomona and Maziriri, 2017 ).

Also, brand trust affects brand purchase, loyalty, and commitment. Evidence suggests that a strong relationship exists between brand love and brand trust, brand commitment, positive word of mouth, and willingness to pay a higher price for the brand ( Albert and Merunka, 2013 ). Research indicates that brand trust positively affects brand loyalty ( Setyawan and Kussudiyarsana, 2015 ), directly influences brand purchase intentions ( Yasin and Shamim, 2013 ) and positively influences current and future purchases ( Erciş et al., 2012 ). Indeed, more than any other factor, brand trust has been identified as essential for future purchases of a brand ( Esch et al., 2006 ). It is essential in determining purchase loyalty and attitudinal loyalty and it plays a role in brand market share ( Chaudhuri and Holbrook, 2001 ). Brand trust affects both affective and continuance commitment and affective commitment influences repurchase intention and loyalty ( Erciş et al., 2012 ).

Brand quality is essential to brand trust and love. Indeed, Fournier (1998) , discussed the role of brand quality in brand love and highlighted the role of trust in relationship satisfaction and strength ( Fournier, 1998 ). Also, brand trust has been found to positively affect resistance to negative information and repurchase intention ( Turgut and Gultekin, 2015 ).

Brand trust is weakened by poor user experience, brand quality, brand image, and a lack of brand familiarity.

Respect and Brand Love

Brand respect is essential in brand love and plays an important role in brand attachment, intimacy, and commitment. It is influenced by brand identification, values, image, experience, and quality. Brand respect is displayed by the customer in the form of high regard, admiration for the brand, brand loyalty and consideration or tolerance of negative information. Indeed, brand familiarity positively affects brand respect ( Zhou, 2017 ), indicating that brand familiarity increases regard for a brand. Evidence suggests that brand image positively influences brand respect and love ( Cho, 2011 ), indicating that brand image modulates a customer’s regard and admiration for a brand.

Brand respect influences brand commitment and loyalty. Indeed, a strong relationship has been found between brand respect and brand loyalty ( Cho, 2011 ) and brand admiration results in greater brand loyalty, stronger brand advocacy, and higher brand equity ( Park et al., 2016 ). Brand respect affects the behavioral outcomes of brand love such as affective commitment, and willingness to pay a price premium ( Garg et al., 2016 ; Park et al., 2016 ).

Also, evidence suggests that customers’ admiration or high regard for a brand contributes to why they tend to ignore negative information about the brand ( Elbedweihy et al., 2016 ). Fournier (1998) , included respect as one of the components of brand partner quality. This means that respect is one of the factors that reflects the consumer’s evaluation of the brand’s performance ( Fournier, 1998 ).

A lack of respect could negatively influence the relationship between a brand and a customer. Indeed, people react negatively when the expectation of respect is violated ( Hendrick et al., 2011 ) and a violation of expectation between brand and customer has been found to contribute to brand hate ( Zarantonello et al., 2016 ).

Brand love summary

Brand love involves the interactions and synergistic interplay between respect, connection, trust, and attraction. Any event that results in the loss of any of these factors could cause brand love to gradually decline and unless effort is made to replenish it, it will eventually fade or collapse. Brand love is dynamic and requires significant investment from the brand to keep it alive.

Strengths and Advances Made by the Quadruple Theory

The quadruple theory builds on many of the strengths of previous theories of love and it applies a temporal approach that has been proposed as the best way to understand love ( Berscheid, 2010 ). It goes further than previous theories for several reasons. Firstly, it could potentially be applied to any form of love although, only brand, romantic and parental love were discussed in this paper due to the paucity of scholarly articles on other forms of love. One of the reasons current love scales and approaches have been unable to be applied in all forms of love ( Hendrick and Hendrick, 1989 ; Whitley, 1993 ; Sternberg, 1997 ; Masuda, 2003 ; Graham and Christiansen, 2009 ), is because they capture only a part of the ACC model, unlike the quadruple framework which fully captures it.

Unlike previous theories, the quadruple theory’s application of the complex factor of connection/resonance gives it an edge in furthering our understanding of love. Proximity, positive shared experience, familiarity, and similarity are vital to connection and connection has the most profound influence on all the other factors.

Also, the dynamism and variation of these factors provide a fresh way to understand love from its development to collapse. As Figure 1 shows, love tends to take time to mature in a relationship and can die as these factors rise and decline. Figure 1 shows that variations in the presence of these factors represent different levels of love. Love in any relationship is influenced by the events in the environment it is embedded, and it responds favorably or negatively to these changes. Indeed, people get sick, old, lose their finances, travel in search of greener pastures creating distance, develop new interests different from their partner’s and all these influences the presence and absence of love. One brand becomes more innovative, improves its product quality and users experience over another and people gradually love it more than the one they previously loved. In other words, love is very dynamic and may be divided into high, moderate and low. Another point highlighted in Figure 1 is that the absence of one factor represents the absence of love and only the presence of all factors represents the presence of love. Indeed, the decline of a factor can be replenished in response to changes in the environment causing the reestablishment of love. Trust could decline but attraction and respect remain and over time trust could be replenished.

This dynamic understanding of love implies that it can be nurtured and sustained. As an example, for a brand to be loved and to maintain that love, it must make products that are attractive (appealing). It must be able to connect to its target customers by reaching out through adverts to achieve familiarity and it must ensure that its values, goals, actions are consistently similar to those of its customer base. Also, it must ensure its services and products and actions promote and maintain trust with its customers. It must respect (value) its customer’s interests and ensure that its services and products continue to receive the admiration of its customers. Table 2 describes how brand love can be nurtured and preserved.

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Table 2. Brand love can be nurtured and maintained.

Using this framework, a love scale or algorithm could be developed to ascertain the presence or absence of love in any relationship. Such a scale must effectively capture these four factors and must consider the type of love being calculated in its approach. As an example, in trying to create a scale for romantic love, sexual attraction, and activity may be important for attraction and connection (depending on the age of the partners) but would be unnecessary in the calculation of brand or parental love.

Major Challenges for the Theory

One of the biggest challenges the theory faces is the lack of psychometric data to prove many of its claims. Most of its arguments are based on decades of psychological data, but its lack of psychometric data weakens the theory significantly. Also, the entire premise of the theory is based on the ACC model, which has not been validated as essential or foundational to understanding love. Perhaps, something else needs to be added to the model that the theory may have missed. The argument that the quadruple theory captures the ACC model better than previous theories on love is an argument that has not been validated, and it remains to be seen if this is true. Also, the argument that it can be applied to all forms of love apart from the three discussed remains to be tested and verified.

Gaps currently exist in our understanding of love and evidences from the existing literature show that a framework that can be applied to all forms of love is needed. The quadruple theory hopes to be that framework. It is likely to broaden our understanding of the complex nature of love. It could make love less complex by making it something that can be cultivated or nurtured, regulated and preserved. Future research should consider the modulatory roles of peptides, neurotransmitters, and hormones on these factors and their influence on love as well as the integrated parts of the brain that modulates all these factors and how they work synergistically in different stages of love.

It is important to note that love is universal and applies to people of all cultures, races, ethnicities, religion and sexual orientations. Indeed, romantic love as described by the quadruple theory applies equally to heterosexual relationships and to the relationships of people in the LGTBQ community.

In conclusion, culture has a monumental influence on what people feel, think, and how they behave toward other people and things in their environment ( Karandashev, 2015 ; Ching Hei and David, 2018 ). So, it can be considered a modulating factor on the factors discussed and on love.

Author Contributions

The author confirms being the sole contributor of this work and has approved it for publication.

Conflict of Interest

The author declares that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.

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Keywords : triangular theory of love, Romance, brand love, parental love, maternal love, Meaning of love, Definition of love, am I in love

Citation: Tobore TO (2020) Towards a Comprehensive Theory of Love: The Quadruple Theory. Front. Psychol. 11:862. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2020.00862

Received: 20 September 2019; Accepted: 07 April 2020; Published: 19 May 2020.

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Copyright © 2020 Tobore. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY) . The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

*Correspondence: Tobore Onojighofia Tobore, [email protected]

Disclaimer: All claims expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of their affiliated organizations, or those of the publisher, the editors and the reviewers. Any product that may be evaluated in this article or claim that may be made by its manufacturer is not guaranteed or endorsed by the publisher.

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Sure, your heart thumps, but let’s look at what’s happening physically and psychologically

“They gave each other a smile with a future in it.” — Ring Lardner

Love’s warm squishiness seems a thing far removed from the cold, hard reality of science. Yet the two do meet, whether in lab tests for surging hormones or in austere chambers where MRI scanners noisily thunk and peer into brains that ignite at glimpses of their soulmates.

When it comes to thinking deeply about love, poets, philosophers, and even high school boys gazing dreamily at girls two rows over have a significant head start on science. But the field is gamely racing to catch up.

One database of scientific publications turns up more than 6,600 pages of results in a search for the word “love.” The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is conducting 18 clinical trials on it (though, like love itself, NIH’s “love” can have layered meanings, including as an acronym for a study of Crohn’s disease). Though not normally considered an intestinal ailment, love is often described as an illness, and the smitten as lovesick. Comedian George Burns once described love as something like a backache: “It doesn’t show up on X-rays, but you know it’s there.”

Richard Schwartz , associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School (HMS) and a consultant to McLean and Massachusetts General (MGH) hospitals, says it’s never been proven that love makes you physically sick, though it does raise levels of cortisol, a stress hormone that has been shown to suppress immune function.

Love also turns on the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is known to stimulate the brain’s pleasure centers. Couple that with a drop in levels of serotonin — which adds a dash of obsession — and you have the crazy, pleasing, stupefied, urgent love of infatuation.

It’s also true, Schwartz said, that like the moon — a trigger of its own legendary form of madness — love has its phases.

“It’s fairly complex, and we only know a little about it,” Schwartz said. “There are different phases and moods of love. The early phase of love is quite different” from later phases.

During the first love-year, serotonin levels gradually return to normal, and the “stupid” and “obsessive” aspects of the condition moderate. That period is followed by increases in the hormone oxytocin, a neurotransmitter associated with a calmer, more mature form of love. The oxytocin helps cement bonds, raise immune function, and begin to confer the health benefits found in married couples, who tend to live longer, have fewer strokes and heart attacks, be less depressed, and have higher survival rates from major surgery and cancer.

Schwartz has built a career around studying the love, hate, indifference, and other emotions that mark our complex relationships. And, though science is learning more in the lab than ever before, he said he still has learned far more counseling couples. His wife and sometime collaborator, Jacqueline Olds , also an associate professor of psychiatry at HMS and a consultant to McLean and MGH, agrees.

Spouses Richard Schwartz and Jacqueline Olds, both associate professors of psychiatry, have collaborated on a book about marriage.

Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

More knowledge, but struggling to understand

“I think we know a lot more scientifically about love and the brain than we did a couple of decades ago, but I don’t think it tells us very much that we didn’t already know about love,” Schwartz said. “It’s kind of interesting, it’s kind of fun [to study]. But do we think that makes us better at love, or helping people with love? Probably not much.”

Love and companionship have made indelible marks on Schwartz and Olds. Though they have separate careers, they’re separate together, working from discrete offices across the hall from each other in their stately Cambridge home. Each has a professional practice and independently trains psychiatry students, but they’ve also collaborated on two books about loneliness and one on marriage. Their own union has lasted 39 years, and they raised two children.

“I think we know a lot more scientifically about love and the brain than we did a couple of decades ago … But do we think that makes us better at love, or helping people with love? Probably not much.” Richard Schwartz, associate professor of psychiatry, Harvard Medical School

“I have learned much more from doing couples therapy, and being in a couple’s relationship” than from science, Olds said. “But every now and again, something like the fMRI or chemical studies can help you make the point better. If you say to somebody, ‘I think you’re doing this, and it’s terrible for a relationship,’ they may not pay attention. If you say, ‘It’s corrosive, and it’s causing your cortisol to go way up,’ then they really sit up and listen.”

A side benefit is that examining other couples’ trials and tribulations has helped their own relationship over the inevitable rocky bumps, Olds said.

“To some extent, being a psychiatrist allows you a privileged window into other people’s triumphs and mistakes,” Olds said. “And because you get to learn from them as they learn from you, when you work with somebody 10 years older than you, you learn what mistakes 10 years down the line might be.”

People have written for centuries about love shifting from passionate to companionate, something Schwartz called “both a good and a sad thing.” Different couples experience that shift differently. While the passion fades for some, others keep its flames burning, while still others are able to rekindle the fires.

“You have a tidal-like motion of closeness and drifting apart, closeness and drifting apart,” Olds said. “And you have to have one person have a ‘distance alarm’ to notice the drifting apart so there can be a reconnection … One could say that in the couples who are most successful at keeping their relationship alive over the years, there’s an element of companionate love and an element of passionate love. And those each get reawakened in that drifting back and forth, the ebb and flow of lasting relationships.”

Children as the biggest stressor

Children remain the biggest stressor on relationships, Olds said, adding that it seems a particular problem these days. Young parents feel pressure to raise kids perfectly, even at the risk of their own relationships. Kids are a constant presence for parents. The days when child care consisted of the instruction “Go play outside” while mom and dad reconnected over cocktails are largely gone.

When not hovering over children, America’s workaholic culture, coupled with technology’s 24/7 intrusiveness, can make it hard for partners to pay attention to each other in the evenings and even on weekends. It is a problem that Olds sees even in environments that ought to know better, such as psychiatry residency programs.

“There are all these sweet young doctors who are trying to have families while they’re in residency,” Olds said. “And the residencies work them so hard there’s barely time for their relationship or having children or taking care of children. So, we’re always trying to balance the fact that, in psychiatry, we stand for psychological good health, but [in] the residency we run, sometimes we don’t practice everything we preach.”

“There is too much pressure … on what a romantic partner should be. They should be your best friend, they should be your lover, they should be your closest relative, they should be your work partner, they should be the co-parent, your athletic partner. … Of course everybody isn’t able to quite live up to it.” Jacqueline Olds, associate professor of psychiatry, Harvard Medical School

All this busy-ness has affected non-romantic relationships too, which has a ripple effect on the romantic ones, Olds said. A respected national social survey has shown that in recent years people have gone from having three close friends to two, with one of those their romantic partner.

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“Often when you scratch the surface … the second [friend] lives 3,000 miles away, and you can’t talk to them on the phone because they’re on a different time schedule,” Olds said. “There is too much pressure, from my point of view, on what a romantic partner should be. They should be your best friend, they should be your lover, they should be your closest relative, they should be your work partner, they should be the co-parent, your athletic partner. There’s just so much pressure on the role of spouse that of course everybody isn’t able to quite live up to it.”

Since the rising challenges of modern life aren’t going to change soon, Schwartz and Olds said couples should try to adopt ways to fortify their relationships for life’s long haul. For instance, couples benefit from shared goals and activities, which will help pull them along a shared life path, Schwartz said.

“You’re not going to get to 40 years by gazing into each other’s eyes,” Schwartz said. “I think the fact that we’ve worked on things together has woven us together more, in good ways.”

Maintain curiosity about your partner

Also important is retaining a genuine sense of curiosity about your partner, fostered both by time apart to have separate experiences, and by time together, just as a couple, to share those experiences. Schwartz cited a study by Robert Waldinger, clinical professor of psychiatry at MGH and HMS, in which couples watched videos of themselves arguing. Afterwards, each person was asked what the partner was thinking. The longer they had been together, the worse they actually were at guessing, in part because they thought they already knew.

“What keeps love alive is being able to recognize that you don’t really know your partner perfectly and still being curious and still be exploring,” Schwartz said. “Which means, in addition to being sure you have enough time and involvement with each other — that that time isn’t stolen — making sure you have enough separateness that you can be an object of curiosity for the other person.”

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    This weakens the erotic and emotional experience associated with romantic love (Berscheid, 2010). Research shows that a reduction in novelty due to the monotony of being with the ... Firstly, it could potentially be applied to any form of love although, only brand, romantic and parental love were discussed in this paper due to the paucity of ...

  11. Love: A Biological, Psychological and Philosophical Study

    For more information, please contact [email protected]. Running head: LOVE. Love: A biological, psychological and philosophical study. Heather Chapman. University of Rhode Island Dedication. This paper is dedicated to the love of my life. Jason Matthew Nye. October 4,1973 - January 26, 2011 Abstract.

  12. (PDF) ROMANTIC LOVE-CHARACTERISTICS AND EFFECTS

    Romantic relationship, a widespread feature of human society, is one of the most influential factors in daily life. Although stimuli related to romantic love or being in a romantic relationship ...

  13. The$Psychology$of$Romantic$Relationships$ i$

    Prior research on self-monitoring suggests that high self-monitors are more likely to choose a romantic partner based on status and appearance. Conversely, low self-monitors put a greater emphasis on shared values and interests. In the current research, we examined the self-monitoring differences in both dating relationships and marriages.

  14. (PDF) Personality and Romantic Relationship Satisfaction

    Previous research of the social consequences of personality prominently focused on the effects of broad traits on romantic relationship satisfaction (RS) with metaanalytic and cross-cultural ...

  15. Scientists find a few surprises in their study of love

    One database of scientific publications turns up more than 6,600 pages of results in a search for the word "love." The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is conducting 18 clinical trials on it (though, like love itself, NIH's "love" can have layered meanings, including as an acronym for a study of Crohn's disease).

  16. (PDF) Role of Love in Relationship Satisfaction

    The questionnaire used in the present research is Sternberg's Triangular love scale (1997) which ... Tang, P. T. (2007). Romantic relationship: Love styles, triangular love and relationship .

  17. Love and Other Grades: A Study of the Effects of Romantic Relationship

    Of the few studies that have examined the effects of romantic relationships on academic performance, most have been concerned with adolescent students. ... Research in Higher Education 40(4): 461-485. Crossref. ISI. ... Love, sex, and crime: Adolescent romantic relationships and offending. American Sociological Review 73(6): 944-969 ...

  18. Romantic love Research Papers

    Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2015. 103-128. In this paper I am dealing with the conceptions of true, romantic love and love magic among the Hungarians of Gyimes. In accordance with Eva Illouz (1997) and Anthony Giddens (1992) my point is that "romantic love" is not a universal... more. Download.

  19. (PDF) The concept of love: an exploratory study with a ...

    The concept of love: an exploratory study with a. sample of young Brazilians. 1. Thiago de Almeida, José Fernando Bittencourt Lo mônaco. Department of Psychology of Learning, Development and ...