The psychology of Love, Relationships, Attraction & Romance

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Relationships play a crucial role in our lives. Some could be rather short-term and insignificant, like interactions with a shop-keeper or a receptionist, while some could be long-lasting and impactful. ‘Birds of a feather flock together,’ it’s true! Your friends, romantic partners, and family contribute to the person you are. This article will explore the psychology of relationships, attractions, and love – the variety of relationships we develop, who we fall in love with, what we find attractive in partners, the types of love and affection, how relationships form, and, most importantly, how we maintain these relationships. 

5 Foundations of Love, Friendship, and Attraction

1. Belongingness: Do you feel connected?

Humans are social animals and they seek to have long-term, stable, and strong interpersonal connections. We strive to belong. Research[1] suggests that belongingness strongly affects a person’s emotional patterns and cognitive processes. On the other hand, a lack of such relationships results in ill effects on health, adjustment, and well-being. A recent study[2] showed that relocated individuals were less likely to feel homesick when the community accepted them. This creates a healthy opportunity for new relationships.

2. Proximity: How close are you to someone?

Do you think that if you didn’t live beside your neighbor for the past so many years, you still would’ve been friends? Or perhaps if your best friend weren’t seated next to you in class, you never would’ve met and begun a friendship? The more often people are exposed to a specific person, thing, or even idea, the more likely they are to develop favorable attitudes towards it/them. Familiarity creates liking, usually. Zajonc called this the mere exposure[3] effect. An experiment[4] highlighted this by having four women of similar appearance attend classes as students in a college without interacting with students. At the end of the term, students found the women to be similar and attractive. 

3. Observable Characteristics: What do you see in others?

We’ve all heard the phrase ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’; however, facial cues often guide your first impressions of a person. A person’s looks affect many important social outcomes like decisions about relationships – selecting romantic partners, hiring decisions, and even small-talk. The ‘what is beautiful is good’ effect (the beauty stereotype) has an evolutionary basis, where attractive people are assumed to have upward economic mobility, positive personality traits, and the ability to provide more relationship satisfaction. Research[5] shows that physically attractive people can positively influence hiring decisions and influence judgments in serious criminal allegations. 

4. Similarity: How alike are you?

Implicit egotism implies that humans have a subliminal preference for things they associate with themselves. Studies[6] show that people who share common opinions or have similar attitudes, especially political or religious ideologies[7], are more likely to have a satisfying relationship. But haven’t we always said that opposites attract? Research[8] suggests that people in satisfying interpersonal relationships view their partners as similar to them. Implicit egotism implies that humans have a subliminal preference for things they associate with themselves.

5. Reciprocity: Is there a mutual give-and-take?

Reciprocity[9] – a give and take attitude – is also closely related to interpersonal attractiveness. It is typically effective in most types of relationships. People desire reciprocal respect and love. But there is another angle to reciprocity. In a study[10], reciprocity in rating physical attractiveness depended on the other’s rating. So you might find someone more attractive simply because you know they like you. This reciprocity may seed a yet-to-form relationship just by knowing what a potential partner thinks about you. Go ahead and tell others you like them.

The foundation of love and friendship is usually proximity, belongingness, similarity, observable personality + behavior, looks, and mutual give-and-take, according to studies. Click To Tweet

Sources of Liking based on Social Interaction

Some people have better social skills, which help them effectively communicate and socialize. Those skills usually get others to accept them more freely. Like that one extrovert friend who can talk to anyone, say the right things, and ends up being liked by everybody. Some valuable social skills[11] (with a political – social dynamics – approach) are:  

  1. Social Astuteness (social perception) – It is the ability of a person to perceive and understand others from their personality traits to their feelings and intentions. Socially astute people are good at forming strong, positive interpersonal relationships. 
  2. Interpersonal Influence – This refers to a person’s capacity to change another person’s beliefs or ideas through techniques like persuasion.
  3. Social Adaptability – As the term suggests, it refers to a person’s ability to adapt to various social situations and effectively interact with others. 
  4. Expressiveness – It is the ability to express emotion in a way that others can read easily.

A common first-date tactic is to get your partner confused/mixed-up between thrilling arousal and liking/sexual attraction. People do this by taking dates to gigs, horror movies, adventure sports, etc. Here, people may think the source of arousal is attraction when, in fact, it is an activity like watching a horror movie. This is called the misattribution of arousal[12]. Social interactions that involve non-sexual arousing emotions like fear, thrill, horror, adrenaline rush, and anxiety can facilitate a sense of liking or sexual arousal.

How does Personality affect Relationships?

The OCEAN Model of Personality includes five personality traits of which extraversion (a tendency to be outgoing, energetic, and sociable) and agreeableness (a tendency to be trustworthy and altruistic) are related to high relationship satisfaction and intimacy.[13] Conscientiousness, the tendency to be organized and efficient, is related to greater intimacy. People with narcissism[14], the personality trait wherein people have an inflated view of themselves, reported less commitment to their relationships because of alternatives for dating partners. 

A study[15] that examined resilients (can control motivation, impulses, and adjust to the environment), undercontrollers (low impulse & motivation control, poor adjustment), and overcontrollers (high impulse & motivation control, poor adjustment) saw that resilient adolescents had good quality friendships and romantic relationships. The core themes for interpersonal chemistry are reciprocal candor (honest openness), mutual enjoyment, attraction, similarities, personableness (positive impression, affable), love, instant connection, and indescribable factors. Similarities are, typically, more characteristic of friendships than romantic chemistry. 

A theory of Romantic Relationships and Love

Although a love triangle is a problem, in reality, it is a solution to understand love.

Sternberg’s Triangular Model of Love: Robert Sternberg’s[16] triangular theory of love says that love has three components – intimacy, passion, and decision/commitment. Intimacy refers to the degree of closeness between two individuals and the bond formed. Passion is based on sexuality, physical attraction, and romance Commitment is the set of thought processes like deciding to be in a relationship with the person & pondering over the implications of a long-term relationship. Of the three, passion appears less stable and not guaranteed, while intimacy and commitment are somewhat necessary to form a close relationship. In this triangular theory, combinations of the three elements allow for seven different types of relationships. 

Source[17] Sternberg’s triangular model of love
  1. Liking – Liking includes only one element of the three – intimacy that allows for a friendship without any passion or long-term commitment.
  2. Companionate Love – It includes a combination of intimacy and commitment. It is a close, long-term friendship that typifies a healthy marriage where the passion has faded.
  3. Empty Love – This includes only commitment, and as it says, it is empty, with no intimacy or passion.
  4. Fatuous Love – Commitment is formed based on passion without any intimacy, a somewhat shallow relationship.
  5. Infatuation – This is passionate and obsessive and resembles love at first sight and is pure passion.
  6. Romantic Love – Here, individuals are physically and emotionally attracted to each other but haven’t committed to the relationship. 
  7. Consummate Love – A combination of all three elements. It is the ideal perfect love that is difficult to attain and maintain. 

There is another perspective on love – it is a product of an ’emotion complex’, neurobiological abstraction of lust, and experience. You can check it out here.

What do we seek in a relationship and what is attractive?

We can’t exactly generalize our relationship needs, physical and psychological preferences, and tendencies under one paradigm, so let us explore what individual studies have found.

  1. Trustworthiness and cooperativeness are, expectedly, extremely important in mate selection[18]
  2. Sexual economics theory[19] says that heterosexual sex is a marketplace deal in which the woman is the seller, and the man is the buyer. The price is paid in nonsexual resources. Women compete on sex appeal and promise faithfulness. They intend to get a man who will provide resources. Men, on the other hand, compete to amass said resources to get a sexual partner. Agreeableness, extraversion, and conscientiousness can also help a relationship initiate. 
  3. In a study,[20] women wanted increased emotional and companionate behaviors, instrumental support, and parental involvement in their partners, while men wanted greater increases in sex. 
  4. Even in casual (friends with benefits)[21] relationships, women viewed the relationship as more involved and emotional while men tended to see it as more casual with an emphasis on sexual benefits. 
  5. Women also prefer taller[22] partners, where women reported that they were most satisfied when their partner was approximately 21cms taller than them. Men were seen to be more satisfied when they were approximately 8cms taller than their partners. 
  6. From an evolutionary[23] perspective, a study saw that women prefer men who have good-gene indicators like their masculinity, sexiness, good investment indicators like their potential income, good parenting markers like a desire for home and children, and good partner indicators like being a loving, trustworthy partner.
  7. Large eyes, prominent cheekbones, a large chin, a big smile, and high-status clothing are considered attractive[24] in a man. 
  8. Evidence[25] suggests that women’s physical attractiveness plays a strong role in men’s preferences for a partner than a man’s physical appearance in a women’s choice of partner. However, since the study is old, cultural shifts in preferences are very likely.
  9. A study[26] on American women suggests that women can compromise on their partner’s physical attractiveness in favor of resources and other qualities they bring into a relationship.
  10. Research[27] also suggests that those who see themselves as a future married homemaker look for a partner who can provide for the household. Anticipated roles can influence mate choices. 
  11. Based on a study on heterosexual women[28], those who rate themselves as very attractive (even though others could disagree) may have a preference for men with more masculine facial features. The study supports the idea that a woman’s self-judgment of attractiveness plays a role in masculinity preferences.

The Psychological effects of Family Relationships

Familial relationships are the most important relationship one has. As we grow, our relationships with our family members change; however, it is still a constant foundation for our social being. 

Parent-child relationship 

Good parent-child interactions and overall parenting are vital to becoming socially well-adjusted. Bowlby established the concept of attachment styles that refer to how secure a person feels in interpersonal connections or relationships. The two basic attitudes that decide one’s attachment style are – self-esteem, which is based on social cues of how valued or accepted they are, and interpersonal trust (social expectations and beliefs in each other), which is the perceived trustworthiness and reliance one can have on the caregiver. Based on the above two dimensions, we get four types of attachment styles – 

  1. Secure Attachment Style (high self-esteem and high trust) – Secure individuals have long-lasting, satisfying, and committed relationships and lead well-adjusted lives. Secure attachment style emerges from good parenting where parents aren’t insecure about their children, and the child isn’t wholly dependent on the parent for everything. 
  2. Fearful-Avoidant Attachment Style (low self-esteem and low trust) – These individuals tend to have unhappy relationships or may not form close ones. It is a result of distant or absent parenting. 
  3. Preoccupied Attachment Style (low self-esteem and high trust) – Such individuals crave closeness and readily form relationships, are seen as clingy too. Since they have low self-esteem, they expect to be rejected and consider themselves unworthy. 
  4. Dismissing Attachment Style (high self-esteem and low trust) – This style leads people to think that they deserve good relationships; however, they don’t trust others. 

Attachment styles are not set in stone and can be changed. 

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Holistic familial relationships 

Family relationships don’t occur singularly but in a holistic sense with members other than your parents like siblings and your grandparents. Siblings[29] aid the psychosocial and cognitive development of an individual. This is also seen in high-conflict homes[30] where individuals who had sibling support were more positively adjusted that those who had low-sibling support and only children. When sibling commitment[31] is consistent throughout their lifespan, their communication, as well as affectionate based emotional support, also remains constant.

Cohesive relationships with one’s grandparents have been seen to reduce depressive symptoms within a child, especially in single-parent families. For adults, research[32] has shown that caring for grandparents can reduce the dissatisfaction caused by loneliness (Aloneliness) and also improve their physical and mental health. 

Friendships and Wellbeing

All of us establish close relationships with peers and classmates right from when we’re kids. Some of them last for decades and some are momentary. These relationships emerged perhaps because you both were in the same school or the same neighborhood. Friendships reduce feelings of loneliness, which can be detrimental to one’s health. An experiment[33] used an online Friendship Enrichment Program to reduce loneliness and was effective in doing so. Loneliness and social disconnectedness among adults are also related to childhood friendship experiences, especially when other stress factors and barriers threaten wellbeing. For example, research [34]suggests that immigrant adolescents who had same-generation friends had lesser negative health outcomes. It’s not just wellbeing, childhood relationships[35] can have an effect on cognitive functioning and status too.

How are relationships maintained?

Let us look at the Investment Model[36] of Romantic Associations by Caryl Rusbult.

This theory states that commitment to a person depends on the satisfaction level, quality of alternatives, and investment size. The model states that people have more relationship satisfaction if they receive more rewards than costs. They are also more satisfied when there are no better alternatives, i.e., the alternative partner doesn’t provide more rewards than the current partner. The investment in the relationship includes both tangible and intangible resources. Rusbult[37] also identified maintenance mechanisms necessary to maintain a relationship – 

  • Accommodation:[38] using behaviors and actions that promote relationships without keeping a tally of costs and rewards. It is a willingness to act constructively. 
  • Willingness to sacrifice[39] – putting your partner’s interests before yours. 
  • Forgiveness – the ability to forgive mistakes and shortcomings. 
  • Positive illusions [40]– seeing the positives about your partner. 
  • Ridiculing alternatives – reducing potential options by seeing them in a negative sense or derogating them. 

Relationships are also affected by your thinking styles[41]. There are 2 ways in which people think about their partners. 

  1. Relationship-enhancing: In this attribution or thinking style, a person attributes positive situations to a partner’s personality or qualities and negative ones to an external cause or the partner’s temporary state. For example, if your partner surprised you with a necklace, it’s because he loves you and is thoughtful. On the other hand, if he is late for your movie night, it’s because he got stuck in traffic. 
  2. Distress-maintaining: This style is exactly the opposite where one attributes positive and negative situations to their partner’s negative aspects; like their personality traits or beliefs like they intended to cause hurt or show neglect (which often leads to anger). For example, he got you the necklace because he’s guilty about something or he is late for your movie night because he forgot about it or didn’t care enough. 

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