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The Psychology of Love: Why do we love who we love?

Love is such a huge part of our every day life and yet most of us don’t know a whole lot about it.

We love grandma. We love ice cream. But is our love for ice cream the same as our love for grandma?

Probably not.

But… I guess that also depends on who your grandma is.

If you type “the psychology of love” into Google you’re most likely going to see an overwhelming amount of information, most of which contradicts each other.

Some say we fall in love with someone that is exactly like our parents *cough cough… Freud, a few say it’s purely our environment that determines who we love, and others say we don’t know, we never will know, so why try?

Throughout this article we’re going to take a moderate stance on love and focus on the most researched psychological perspectives. Please keep in mind, this does not encompass all of the differing perspectives on love, but if you’re interested here are a few books that take a more in depth look.

So first things first, what types of love are there?

Types of love

Robert Sternberg is the most prominent theorist on love. He presented the triangular theory of love which essentially breaks it down into three different parts:

  1. Intimacy

  2. Passion

  3. Commitment

Sternberg states that a relationship is most stable when it involves two or more of the items listed above, even though not all types of love do.

In 1986, Sternberg wrote a paper on his Triangular Theory of Love and stated that there are 8 different types of relational love that can occur. He also describes what components are needed to make up that type of love:

  1. Nonlove-

    1. Not involving intimacy, passion, or commitment (added later on)

  2. Liking-

    1. Intimacy - true friendships

  3. Infatuation-

    1. Passion - “love at first sight”

  4. Empty-

    1. Commitment - when a marriage turns into co-living

  5. Romantic-

    1. Intimacy and passion - they like each other and they want to touch each other

  6. Companionate-

    1. Intimacy and commitment - share your life with someone, but the passion is not there

  7. Fatuous love-

    1. Passion and commitment - a couple that gets married very quickly

  8. Consummate love-

    1. Intimacy, passion, and commitment - hardest to get and hardest to maintain

"Without expression," Sterberg warns, "even the greatest of loves can die" (1987).

So we understand what types of relationships we can have, but how do we go about choosing who to have them with?

But Why Them?

Do “opposites attract” or do “birds of a feather flock together?”

It turns out that both can be right.

Most of us choose someone based on things that we have in common. For instance, someone that is active will most likely want a friend or a partner that is also active.

But we can also choose people based on our needs: an unorganized person may want someone that is organized, a talker may want a listener, or an adventurer may want someone more stable to help balance them out.

According to John Honey, professor at Johns Hopkins University, who we love is also determined by our “love map.”

This “love map” is essentially coding that happens in our mind.

Those that abide by the “love map” theory believe that this inner wiring largely can be determined by our childhood experiences, including our relationships with our caregivers. This love map can lay out our desires for distinct personality types, appearances, smells, etc.

Keep in mind that this doesn’t mean your relationship with your caregiver is the sole reason behind choosing someone. People that have spent time reflecting on their past experiences and processing those things can work to adapt their love maps which may change what they’re looking for in a companion. This is especially true of someone that has had a difficult childhood.

Now that we have a basic understanding of how we choose the people in our lives, what is happening mentally?

The Mind in Love

You may be surprised to hear that being in love has a similar hormonal reaction as taking cocaine.

Umm… what?

There are a lot of hormones and neurotransmitters at play when we experience love, but one of the main ones is Dopamine.

Our brains release high levels of dopamine when we start to experience feelings of love. Dopamine is one of the hormones that causes us to feel pleasure, it’s the cause of the euphoric sensation we feel when we experience love or… when people take cocaine. This can lead to our hearts racing, sweaty palms, and gives us feelings of passion and anxiety.

Another hormone that we experience is Oxytocin. This is released when we experience any type of physical touch and is especially heightened during sex. This hormone leads to bonding and attachment in relationships. The lack of Oxytocin that people experience is part of the reason they become worried about sexless marriages.

Our brains are literally wired to attach us to people that we are attracted to through our love map. Which is such a beautiful thing!

But sometimes the hardest part is just finding the person you want… am I right?

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