The Psychology of Love

Estimated read time 6 min read

Love has fascinated researchers for decades. We look at what experts have learned about the origins and psychology of love.

Love is a powerful, complex emotional experience that involves changes in your body chemistry, including your neurotransmitters (brain chemicals). It impacts your social relationships in varied ways, affecting how you relate to others around you.

There are many types — like the love you share with your partner, family, and friends — and each version you feel is unique. It can fill you with emotions ranging from joy to heartbreak.

What is love?

Love is an emotion of strong affection, tenderness, or devotion toward a subject or object. When you love a person you experience pleasurable sensations in their presence and are sensitive about their reactions to you.

Research from 2016Trusted Source points to neuropeptides and neurotransmitters as the source of love. Feelings of love help us form social bonds with others. As social creatures, these natural chemicals developed to help us survive by encouraging:

  • mutual support
  • reproduction
  • cooperation

It seems like so much more, though. Calling love an interaction of brain chemicals doesn’t quite describe how it can warm your heart and captivate your soul.

The psychology of love 

Attachment is a component of love. Strong attachment bonds set mammals apart from many other types of animals, though other groups — including fish and birds — also form strong social connections to help them survive.

2017 review describes four types of mammalian attachment bonds as:

  • pair bonds, where individuals form a close, long-term social connection
  • bonds between parents and their infants
  • bonds between peers
  • conspecific bonds, or bonds between individuals of the same species

Most instances of human love fall into one of these categories. For example, the love you feel for a close friend could be classed as a peer bond.

A romantic relationship is a type of pair bond. It can start as mutual attraction and evolve into love over time.

When you like someone, you enjoy their companionship and care about their well-being. When you love them, those feelings are unconditional.

Physical effects of love

Love can do more than help you bond with another person. It can even impact your physical health.

Love may affect your immune system. A 2019 study found that falling in love resulted in immune system changes similar to protective viral infection responses.

It might also safeguard against cancer, according to a 2021 study that found tissue from pair-bonded mice was less likely to grow tumors than tissue from mice with disruptions to their pair bonds.

Can you control whether you fall in love?

You might feel like you have no control over the love you feel, but researchTrusted Source says otherwise. Love is like an emotion that you can regulate by generating new feelings or changing the intensity of the feelings you have.

Emotional regulation strategies include:

  • Situation selection: avoiding or seeking situations based on how they make you feel.
  • Distraction: engaging in another activity to reduce the strength of your feelings.
  • Expression suppression: hiding how you feel.
  • Cognitive reappraisal: changing your thoughts so that your feelings can change.

So, if you’re disappointed because the love you feel isn’t reciprocated, you may be able to take your mind off it.

The triangular theory of love

American psychologist Dr. Robert Sternberg theorizes that love is based on three domains:

  • intimacy (emotional)
  • commitment (cognitive)
  • passion (physical)

Each domain represents a triangle corner in Sternberg’s triangular theory of loveTrusted Source. The theory accounts for seven different kinds of love, based on which domains are involved. We look at these types of love below.

Types of love

The seven kinds of love in Sternberg’s triangular theory cover a range of relationship types:

  • Liking. You share emotional intimacy, but there’s no physical passion or commitment. Friendship falls under this category.
  • Infatuation. Passion is the key component of infatuation. If you’re physically attracted to another person but haven’t developed emotional intimacy or established a commitment, this is infatuation.
  • Empty. What Sternberg calls “empty love” is a committed relationship that lacks passion or intimacy. Examples include an arranged marriage or a previously emotional or physical relationship that’s lost its spark.
  • Romatic. When you’re romantically involved with another person, you share physical passion and emotional intimacy, but you haven’t made any long-term plans or commitments.
  • Companionate. You are committed and emotionally connected, such as best friends or family. Marriages can also be companionate if the passion is gone, but you still share the commitment and emotional bond.
  • Fatuous. If you’ve been swept up by passion into an engagement or marriage without emotional intimacy, this is fatuous love.
  • Consummate. Consummate love is the goal for many when they envision marriage or a spousal partnership. This kind of love includes commitment, passion, and emotional intimacy.

Let’s recap

Love comes in many forms. You can love more than one person simultaneously, in different ways.

Emotional intimacy is present in many relationships, but not all. The same is true for passion and commitment.

Attachment is another relationship element that may be present in love. Positive attachments are emotionally supportive and provide you with a feeling of security.

Last medically reviewed on September 20, 2022

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