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Reader Questions About the Psychology of Love

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How does the study of love differ than studying other topics?

In the past, there has been considerable controversy surrounding the scientific study of love. A lot of people view love as mysterious and unquantifiable. During the 1970s, a U.S. Senator named William Proxmire gave psychologist Elaine Hatfield what he called "the Golden Fleece Award." Essentially, he accused her of wasting taxpayer dollars on useless research on love. At the time, many people agreed with him. (If you're interested in reading more about this, Hatfield offers a great recap of the whole controversy here.)

Since then, research on love has helped changed how we view parenting, education, and child development. There is a lot of variability in how love is studied. Harry Harlow's famous attachment experiments involved depriving infant monkey's of all social contact, which demonstrated how devastating a lack of love can be to normal development. Today, most researchers utilize self-report surveys to gather information on attitudes, perceptions, and reactions to love.

Throughout time, psychologists have come up with different models of love. Is there one that is currently more agreed with than others?

Perhaps the best-known model today is Sternberg's Triangular Theory of Love. The reason this theory gets a lot of attention is because it combines many of the elements found in earlier theories of love. According to Sternberg, there are three essential elements of love: intimacy, passion, and commitment.

A relationship built on only one of these elements is generally considered weak, while one built on two or more elements is much more lasting. For example, a combination of passion and intimacy would be what Sternberg refers to as 'passionate love.' A combination of intimacy, passion, and commitment forms what is known as 'consummate love.'

Are there recent studies linking the bonds between children and parents’ love for each other to an adult’s love to their partner?

Yes. There has been quite a bit of research in this area recently. Traditional belief has suggested that while parent-child relationships serve as an important basis for future relationship styles, the earliest relationships between parents and children don't necessarily define how a person will behave in relationships as an adult. However, some recent research has demonstrated that the link between our earliest love relationships and adult relationships may be stronger than previously thought.

A recent study that appeared in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that early social experiences have an important effect on adult romantic relationships. Many studies have demonstrated that individuals who are viewed as securely attached in childhood grow up to have healthier and longer-lasting adult relationships. However, research has also consistently shown that people can overcome poor attachment in childhood to develop healthy romantic relationships as adults. You can find more about the connection between childhood attachment and adult relationships in this article: Attachment Styles

What do you believe defines love?

People often describe love as mysterious and enduring (although the divorce rate in the U.S. indicates otherwise). I think that Sternberg's definition of love is a good one: Love involves some combination of intimacy, passion, and commitment.

Does love place high medically, regarding people needing help with it? (Whether this be by seeing a therapist to discuss their problems or getting treated for depression or other things.)

One of the most common assessments given by doctors and therapists is called a "Global Assessment of Functioning." This assessment is designed to look at all aspects of a person's life in order to see how well the individual is functioning. Love falls under the umbrella of social functioning. Problems with love and interpersonal relationships can be an indicator of major problems, so most professionals take this information very seriously.

There has also been a recent surge in what is known as "attachment therapy." This is a fairly broad term that refers to a number of therapeutic practices designed to help children develop normal attachments. There is quite a bit of controversy surrounding this practice because there have been a number of incidents of reported child abuse and even deaths associated with some extremely questionable therapy techniques. However, most doctors and psychologists agree that difficulty with love relationships ranks as a serious medical condition that demands some type of intervention.

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