This article examines the psychology behind long-lasting and satisfying romantic relationships.
If you want to understand what predicts relationship satisfaction and stability…
…and how romantic relationships consist of:
…you are going to enjoy this blog post.
Let’s dive right in!
The Human Need For Relationships
Humans are social animals: for our psychological well-being to remain intact and even thrive, we need to establish, maintain, and further invest in the relationships we have with other people.
If humans are made to feel socially rejected (in experimental settings or otherwise), there is an activation in a brain region called the anterior cingulate cortex, or ACC.
Among other things, the ACC receives interoceptive information, such as pain—both physical and psychological, since the brain does not make that distinction.
The same brain region also responds to discrepancies between what is expected and the actual outcome.
In other words:
The ACC is conflict monitoring and “is thought to function as an all-purpose ‘alarm’ that signals when ongoing behavior has hit a snag.”
Implicitly, that same brain region notices unexpected pain—such as sudden social rejection.
And since the brain does not make a distinction between physical and psychological pain (as seen in the overlapping neural and neurochemical substrates)…
…which leads people to use pain words for describing negative social events, such as one’s “heart being broken” or “feelings being hurt“…
…one can draw the conclusion that the need for social affiliation is deeply rooted in our biology.
What are the upsides of having adequate social support?
The Protective Functions of Adequate Social Support
The social aspect of human life is of great importance for regulating negative emotions, such as stress-induced anxiety.
High social support can enhance the resilience to stress, subsequently lowering acute stress levels in both humans and primates.
In the book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, Robert Sapolsky, professor of neurobiology at Stanford University, writes:
“Put a primate through something unpleasant: it gets a stress response. Put it through the same stressor while in a room full of other primates and…it depends. If those primates are strangers, the stress-response gets worse. But if they are friends, the stress-response is decreased.”
In other words:
The perceived closeness one feels toward one’s social group is relevant regarding the stress reductive tendencies that social interaction has.
These insights are relevant in other areas, too:
If an autistic individual—who has trouble engaging and interacting with their peers—is bullied, adequate social support can significantly reduce the negative effects of the bullying.
Such as decreasing the functional impairment in people with clinical depression, increasing their likelihood of recovering.
The risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, as a consequence of exposure to combat trauma inversely correlates with social support:
In other words:
Given that the social aspect of human life is important for psychological well-being, what are the dangers of ending up socially isolated?
High social support can enhance the resilience to stress, subsequently lowering acute stress levels in both humans and primates.Tweet
The Risks of Social Isolation
According to a report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, or NASEM, socially isolated people are at a significantly higher risk of premature death.
Furthermore, they are also at a 50 percent increased risk of developing various forms of dementia…
…29 percent when it comes to heart disease, and a…
…32 percent increased risk of stroke.
In that same report, social isolation was also associated with higher rates of mood disorders, such as depression, together with higher rates of reported feelings of anxiety and, tragically, suicide completion.
People who live in social isolation generally have overly active sympathetic nervous systems; the nervous system that drives the fight, flight or freeze response.
“loneliness heightens feelings of vulnerability and unconscious vigilance for social threat, implicit cognitions that are antithetical to relaxation and sound sleep.”
(We will return to the topic of sleep in just a second, stay tuned!)
Social isolation is likely to lead to higher blood pressure and thus platelet aggregation in the blood vessels, putting loners at a higher risk of developing heart disease.
Crunching the numbers:
Two to five times as likely compared to non-socially isolated individuals.
And once heart disease is a fact, the sufferer is more likely to die at a younger age.
What seems to be the strongest antidote to social isolation and all the health risks associated with it?
You guessed it!
Long-term and stable romantic relationships.
Romantic Relationships (Or How To Survive A Heart Attack)
When it comes to love and romantic relationships, people in long-term committed and satisfying relationships with a spouse have longer life expectancies and are on average happier than their single friends.
When the spouse passes away, the surviving partner is at a higher risk of dying than before.
After the Lebanese Civil War, parents of soldiers killed during battle showed no sign of increased risk of stress-related disease or mortality…
…except for those parents who were divorced or widowed.
A now classic study by Redford Williams, professor of psychiatry at Duke University, from 2001 showed that half of those admitted to the hospital due to heart disease were dead within five years of admission.
If, however, the heart disease patients were in a stable and satisfying relationship, this increased their chance of survival.
Those in a happy marriage, contrasted with those in a self-reported unhappy marriage, had a 30 percent higher chance of survival in the subsequent four years after suffering a heart attack.
An unhappy marriage is, at least to some extent, caused by the feeling that one’s relationship partner is not responsive to one’s needs.
Inadequate perceived partner responsiveness—defined as the extent to which people feel their partner is responsive to them.
And perceived partner responsiveness (or rather lack thereof) is also associated with an increase in mortality risk.
There are robust associations between satisfying long-term relationships and sleep:
One study, looking at undergraduate students, showed that there is an association between couple satisfaction and sleep.
And when couple relationship satisfaction increased…
…sleep duration increased, too.
Other research also shows that healthy romantic relationships promote good sleep quality, which buffers against stress and anxiety…
But what determines stability in long-term romantic relationships?
Let’s find out:
The Three Components of Love
In general, relationships are initiated by two people falling in love. At the early stage of a romantic relationship, the two generally experience an intense state of love; Ellen Berscheid and Elaine Walster call this passionate love.
This kind of love can be seen as a form of interpersonal attraction; an intense longing for union with each other.
After a while, the romantic relationship turns into what some researchers call companionate love.
It refers to deep feelings of intimacy and affection for a person whom one cares about.
In other words:
“The affection and tenderness we feel for those with whom our lives are deeply intertwined.”(Hatfield & Rapson, 1993, p. 9).
This kind of love does not necessarily mean an intense state of arousal and intrusive thoughts about the partner.
However, as Linda and Charlie Bloom put it:
“As partners grow to rely on, care for, and trust each other, a calm and deep kind of love emerges, holding the two people together. All the strongest, most successful marriages are those that are basically companionate, but the smart partners know how to sprinkle in the passion that keeps things interesting and alive.”
The question still remains:
What creates love and what predicts relationship satisfaction and stability?
Enter The Triangular Theory of Love.
A Triangular Theory of Love
In an article called A Triangular Theory of Love, Robert Sternberg, a psychology professor at Cornell University, suggested in a theoretical framework three components that are the building blocks of love and long-lasting romantic relationships…
…and different forms of love with varying stability.
Sternberg’s three components are:
- Intimacy: feelings of closeness, bondedness, and warmth in the loving relationship.
- Passion: drives that lead to romance, physical attraction, and sexual consumation.
- Commitment: the decision to love someone and to keep that love in existence.
According to Sternberg, love consists of each of these three components—or combinations of them—with varying degrees of intensity.
These structures result in several types of love with varying strength and predicted longevity (stay tuned!).
Sternberg also measured these three components across three subgroups, all of which will be briefly discussed in their relevant section.
These three subgroups are:
- Psychophysiological involvement: high, intermediate, and low.
- Temperature: hot, warm, and cold.
- Stability: stable and relatively stable.
To fully grasp these different forms of love and their underlying components, we must first thoroughly discuss Sternberg’s three components because discussing leads to understanding.
Starting with intimacy:
Intimacy: The Emotional Investment
In Sternberg’s model, intimacy “…encompasses feelings of closeness, connectedness, and bondedness one experiences in loving relationships.”
According to the theory, intimacy is what generates warmth in a loving relationship.
To some extent, the intimacy aspect can be viewed—however not exclusively—as coming from both partners’ emotional investments, stirring in each lover the desire to promote the welfare of the other.
Adequate intimacy means there is a need to experience happiness with that one other person.
High levels of intimacy also mean mutual trust; the ability to count on the loved one in situations that require trust, and the giving and receiving of emotional support (harking back to the part about the upside of emotional and social support).
Intimacy also encompasses intimate communication.
Self-disclosure, revealing personal and private information to the loved one about oneself, helps generate feelings of intimacy and closeness…
…subsequently helping to maintain that closeness throughout the duration of the romantic relationship…
…making the partners value having each other in their respective lives.
The bottom line:
The term intimacy originates from the Latin word intimus, which means “most inner.”
Intimacy thus refers to both what is privately and closely held, as well as how deep we allow another person to gaze into our innermost thoughts and emotions.
In that sense, intimacy emerges when we gradually allow that one person to partake in our most private, unexpressed thoughts and feelings.
Out of all the three components, intimacy can be viewed as:
- Needing intermediate psychophysiological involvement.
In terms of volition, however one chooses to invest and increase the intimacy in the relationship is under conscious control.
Unlike the next component, which is passion.
Intimacy emerges when we gradually allow that one person to partake in our most private, unexpressed thoughts and feelings.Tweet
Passion: The Motivational Involvement
According to Sternberg’s theory, passion is the motivational involvement; physical attraction, and sexual consummation.
Early in the article, Sternberg writes that “…sexual needs may well predominate in this experience.”
Other needs also contribute to feelings of passion.
Such as self-esteem, nurturance, and self-actualization.
The passion component is highly and reciprocally interactive with the former, intimacy, component.
Feelings of intimacy may come from the extent to which one’s needs for passion are met in a romantic relationship…
…and passion may be aroused by feelings of intimacy.
In some romantic relationships, the passion component develops immediately, whereas the intimacy aspect comes later.
From that point of view, feelings of passion represent the motivational aspect that draws the romantic partners toward each other.
But the intimacy component helps sustain closeness.
The bottom line:
Passion develops as the psychophysiological need for the other.
There is a strong desire to be near the partner, intrusive thoughts about that one person may occupy most of one’s cognition, and a sense of distress emerges when the two are separated and can only be reduced by being physically close to the romantic partner.
In terms of the underlying components, passion can be viewed as:
- Relatively unstable.
- Needing high psychophysiological involvement.
But since passion does not live at its peak at all times, and feelings of intimacy may fluctuate, there must be something else that can keep a romantic relationship afloat during times of instability.
Decision/Commitment: The Cognitive Decision
According to Sternberg’s theory, this component represents the decision that one loves their partner and the long-term commitment to maintain that love.
This component encompasses the cognitive elements that go into the decision-making process regarding the underlying potential and existence for a long-term commitment to maintain a loving relationship.
Jordan Peterson, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto, maintains that a reason that people marry is that a robust commitment is built into marital vows, saying that one does not leave in hard times.
Peterson continues by saying that if the commitment does not exist—and as one partner inevitably manifests their flaws, and the other partner threatens to leave—maiserable relationship conditions ensue.
What can happen in the absence of a robust commitment?
This situation could potentially lead the romantic partners to never admit that they are wrong…
…and that they will be walking on eggshells.
Because one wrong step could end the entire relationship; something that would obliterate the motivation to solve hard problems—especially of the emotional variety.
What seems to be the solution?
The key, according to the decision-commitment component, is to understand that neither partner is perfect, and with that knowledge both make a decision not to leave.
Especially when times are rough.
As Sternberg writes:
“…there may be times[…]when the decision/commitment component is all or almost all that keeps the relationship going.”(Sternberg, 1986, p. 123).
According to Sternberg, this component has two temporal aspects.
The short-term and the long-term:
The short-term aspect: the decision that one loves a particular person.
The long-term aspect: the commitment to maintain and sustain that love.
To nuance this, the two aspects do not necessarily go together.
Commitment does not always imply a decision.
However, the decision usually precedes commitment in both a temporal and logical sense.
In that the short-term aspect, that one loves a particular person, happens before the long-term aspect, the conscious and cognitive commitment to maintaining love.
The bottom line:
The decision/commitment component means that one does not leave one’s partner when times are rough and the other person manifests their flaws, and vice versa.
As well as the cognitive motivation to work on rekindling the passion component and finding the way back to intimacy if the romantic partners would ever find themselves being at a deficit regarding either quality.
In terms of the underlying aspects, decision/commitment can be viewed as:
- Low psychophysiological involvement.
What forms of love do various components of this love theory maintain are possible?
Let’s find out!
Different Kinds of Love
According to the theory, there are different kinds of love based on the various interrelationships between the three components.
Let’s list them and discuss them briefly.
Non-love: the absence of all three components.
Liking: intimacy alone. It refers to the feelings in a relationship characterized as friendship. There is a sense of closeness and warmth but in the absence of passion and long-term commitment.
Infatuation, or infatuated love, is “love at first sight.” In other words, only passion.
This kind of love emerges from passionate arousal without intimacy and a long-term commitment.
Infatuation is usually characterized by high psychophysiological arousal, manifested as somatic symptoms (increased heartbeat and the release of various relevant hormones).
This love would be what the psychologist Dorothy Tennov (1928-2007) called limerence: a state encompassing obsessive thoughts and fantasies, resulting in a deep desire to form a relationship with another and to see one’s feelings reciprocated.
Empty love: a form of love emanating from merely the decision/commitment component; in the complete absence of passion and intimacy.
This love would be the stagnant relationship, having gone on for years without mutual emotional involvement, or intimacy, and physical attraction, or passion.
Usually, this marks the beginning of the end of a long-term relationship.
Romantic love: consists of intimacy and passion in the absence of the commitment to maintain that love in the long term.
In a sense, this is liking with arousal from physical attraction and its accompaniments.
In a state of romantic love, the lovers are drawn towards each other physically and emotionally, yet without any decision favoring the long-term aspect of love.
Companionate love: the combination of intimacy and commitment/decision, in the absence of passion.
In a sense, this love refers to a long-term and committed friendship or marriage where the physical attraction, or passion, has subsided.
Fatuous love: a combination of passion and commitment, in the absence of intimacy.
This would be the typical Hollywood-like love.
This kind of love is fatuous (foolish or silly) in that the commitment to pursue something long-term is based solely on the passion component, without the element of intimacy.
Passion can arise immediately, whereas intimacy takes time to develop, which is why this kind of love is fragile and volatile.
And then finally:
The Complete Form of Love
Finally, Sternberg maintains there is something called consummate love, or what he calls complete love. This form of love sits in the middle and contains all three components:
This form of love is usually the one people strive for.
Especially when it comes to romantic relationships.
If two people manage to attain this goal of meeting all the criteria and having their romantic relationship contain all three components, there is:
Adequate physical attraction that draws the two lovers toward each other by psychophysiological arousal; intrusive thoughts and the desire to be near.
There are also high levels of intimacy in that one can expect emotional support—and to count on the loved one in times of need. As well as creating and maintaining the sense of intimacy through self-disclosure and intimate conversations.
There is also the commitment to maintain that love in the long-term, and perhaps the decision to take further action to solidify the romantic relationship, as in marriages.
So, in conclusion:
Having all of the three components increases the likelihood of subsequent deep love that is likely to last, given that each of the lovers maintains and works actively to sustain the love by making further emotional investments into the relationship.
How To Build Romantic Relationships: Discussion
At some point in a romantic relationship, your partner becomes the person that has the deepest understanding of who you are; the one most responsive to your emotional and cognitive needs.
Given that humans are social animals and that we reduce stress by engaging in conversations regarding what is troubling us, one of the most stress-reducing activities available would be to share your innermost thoughts and emotions with your romantic partner; increasing the sense of intimacy—building on an established, solid foundation.
Moreover, you and your partner can also make a commitment and decide that when things are rough, and the burden of life is too much to bear, you can reduce that burden by allowing your partner to partake in the lifting.
That, by creating a culture in your relationship where you can—and will—talk about what is heavy to carry so that the weight is lifted from your shoulders and the world seems a bit brighter because of it.
These behaviors can lead to you and your partner maintaining adequate levels of self-esteem by nurturing your relationship and your partner’s psychological needs, which can pave the way toward self-actualization; all facets of the passion component.
In the final analysis, the triangular theory of love is one of many theoretical frameworks explaining how love emerges. And how it is sustained throughout one’s life.
This means there are probably several shortcomings with this particular theory.
Yet, thinking in these terms—initiating the thinking process regarding what makes a romantic relationship emerge and subsequently thrive—will probably make one more receptive to the various cues and signals concerning the health of one’s romantic relationship.
And if one thinks more deeply about what goes into making (or breaking) romantic relationships, Sternberg’s theory may work as a tool to keep steady an ongoing and invigorating romantic bond and—perhaps—more elegantly rekindle the flame anew, would it lose its original luminosity.