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Gordon, R.M. (2006) "What Is Love? A Unified Model of Love Relations" Issues In Psychoanalytic Psychology, 28,1, 25-33

Gordon, R.M. (2006e) "What Is Love? A Unified Model of Love Relations" Issues In Psychoanalytic Psychology, 28,1, 25-33

What Is Love? Toward A Unified Model of Love Relations

What is love? No one theory can explain it. I offer a unified model in order to better integrate the contributions from such areas as evolutionary psychology, psychoanalysis and social psychology.  I use a heuristic pyramid with five levels. Starting at the base, they are Species Traits, Individual Traits, Relational Internalizations, Beliefs and finally Current Context. The conceptual linkages between these levels or constructs are the degree of biology verses degree of psychology and its place in time. As you move up the pyramid, you are moving from our species biological history to the current psychological context. Each level puts a dynamic influence on the others. This unified model allows for an integration of research, treatment and hopefully a better conceptualization of love relations.

What Is Love? Toward A Unified Model of Love Relations

Gerd H. Fenchel (G. Fenchel, 2005) recently asked, “What is love?”  In order to explore this ancient mystery, Fenchel drew on psychoanalysis, biology, culture and religion (G. H. Fenchel, 1998), and summarized his work on the subject in his recent book Psychoanalytic Reflections on Love and Sexuality (G. Fenchel, 2006). Fenchel concluded that “… if our love is to be successful, we must learn the ways of love, the meaning as it were, of our humanity” (2005, p.65). I agree with Fenchel that we need to use both a wide and concentrated lens. There is no single theory or discipline that has adequately explained the complexity of our humanity and love relations. Biology helps us understand the mechanics. Psychoanalysis helps us to understand and even treat our unconscious distortions, desires and self-defeating repetitions. Social psychology helps us to understand the external forces that affect us as members of an interpersonal-cultural context.  They all have made separate contributions in the understanding of love.

Ayala Malach Pines (Ayala M. Pines, 1999) in her review of love relations believed that an integration of evolutionary theory, psychoanalytic theory, and social psychological theories are “… not only possible, but necessary… Biological forces…affect falling in love. Different childhood experiences influence the different romantic choices… social norms prescribe the mating game.” (p. 123-124). But how can one integrate these often contradictory theories into a unified model for the sake of research and case formulation?

I hope to contribute to an integration of theories of love relations by introducing a heuristic pyramid comprised of five main constructs.  I refer to these theoretical constructs as “levels” (Gordon, 2006). Starting at the base are Species Traits, then Individual Traits, Relational Internalizations, Beliefs and finally Current Context (see figure 1).  

Figure 1. The Five Levels of Constructs Contributing to Love Relations

 Biology is at the base and environmental psychology is at the top. The conceptual linkages between these levels or constructs are the degree of biology verses degree of psychology and its place in time. As you move up the pyramid, you are moving from our species biological history to the current psychological context. Every level exerts a dynamic influence on one another.

 I will briefly introduce each of the five levels. I am neither an expert in all the levels, nor can I devote the necessary space for a fair review of each level and their controversies. I only hope to pull together data that is often divergent, unrelated or contradictory into a unified model. I hope to encourage further research that may modify and improve upon this model.

At the base of my pyramid are our Species Traits that we possess as a result natural selection throughout our evolutionary history. It is the expression of how our species acts in general. Helen Fisher (Fisher, 2000) found that humans and other mammals have evolved three emotion systems in love relations: the sex drive, attraction and attachment. Each emotion system is associated with a discrete constellation of brain circuits, and each evolved to direct a specific aspect of mating, reproduction and parenting. The sex drive is characterized by the craving for sexual gratification which encourages the reproduction of a species.  Attraction is characterized by increased desire and focused attention on potential mates.

David Buss (Buss, 1994, 1999, 2000; Buss & Cantor, 1989; Buss & Malamuth, 1996) surveyed10,047 people from 37 cultures and found that biology is stronger than culture when it comes to attraction.  Buss reported that universally men preferred youthful, healthy looking women, and women preferred men with attributes of success and power.  Buss believes that youthful, healthy looking women provide triggers to their greater chance of bearing healthy offspring.  He also felt that powerful and successful men were not only more able to be protective of their mates and offspring, but to be able to pass on their valuable qualities to their children.  Buss found that sexual orientation had little effect on what men and women found attractive. They still followed the same patterns but only expressed them towards their own gender.

The development of an attachment system allows for protection and nurturing behaviors for the couple and towards the offspring. The attachment continues until it is no longer biologically necessary. These three constellations of brain circuits: sex drive, attraction and attachment are a result of evolutionary history and form the basis of our species specific experiences and behaviors in our love relations.

Some individuals see to be highly affected in their love relations by these primitive instinctual influences. While others seem to have integrated these urges into a mature personality system.

The next level, Individual Traits is due to genetic, epigenetic (or non-DNA cellular transmission of traits) and early environmental influence. Research has found a heredity basis for individual temperament and a relationship between infantile temperament and personality traits in adulthood (Ahadi, 1994; Akiskal & Akiskal, 2005; Aron, 2004; Benjamin, Ebstein, & Belmaker, 2002; DiLalla & Jones, 2000; Ebstein, Benjamin, & Belmaker, 2003; Halverson, Kohnstamm, & Martin, 1994; Maier, Minges, Lichtermann, Franke, & Gansicke, 1995; Roy, Neale, & Kendler, 1995; Saudino, 2005; Spotts et al., 2005; Strelau, Zawadzki, Oniszczenko, Angleitner, & Riemann, 2002; Zuckerman, 2003). 

Epigenetic biological transmissions of heredity in mammals include prenatal hormone influences. Fetal testosterone (FT) level measured in the amniotic fluid has been found to play a central role in brain development and social behavior. FT in humans has been found to have an inverse relationship to vocabulary size in children 18 and 24 months old; amount of eye contact varied quadratically with FT level in children 12 months of age, and FT was negatively correlated to the quality of social relationships and attentional focus in four year old children (Knickmeyer, Baron-Cohen, Raggatt, & Taylor, 2005; Lutchmaya, Baron-Cohen, & Raggatt, 2002a, 2002b). 
Within our species we have an array of individual differences that reflect difference in intelligence, impulse control, affect regulation, aggressiveness and personality structure.  For example, individuals with a borderline personality structure will have disturbed love relations despite good enough parenting and a loving, tolerant partner (O.F. Kernberg, 1974; Otto F. Kernberg, 1995).

We now move to the physical and psychological birth of the child at the Relational Internalizations level. This is made up of the child’s perceptions of the primary care givers, the quality of the attachment in infancy, and later family dynamics and psychological traumas. The infant’s innate need to bond with and incorporate a mothering figure, the reactions of the mothering figure and the infant’s temperament all interact in forming neural networks in the brain of the infant (Ainsworth, 1978; Bowlby, 1982; Fonagy, 2002; Schore, 1994; Walters, 2000; Williams, 1994). Walters, Treboux, Crowell,and Albersheim (2000) looked at relationship patterns in 50 young adults who were studied 20 years earlier as infants.  They found that 72% of the adults had the same pattern of attachment style that they had when they were infants..

A secure attachment to a good enough mothering figure provides the child with the ability for a concept of the self and other, affect regulation, self-soothing, tenderness, normal idealization and ambivalence.  The family (Oedipal) relationships promote the development of remorse, and sublimation of aggression and sexuality.  The internalization of the primary love object has a powerful affect on erotic attraction. Psychoanalytic theory not only helps us to understand the development of personality and its conflicts, but to also to improve matters of love disturbances. It seems that the psychoanalytic situation lends itself to the possibility of working through love disturbances within the deep and committed therapeutic relationship that provides the interpersonal ingredients for personal growth (Akhtar, 1999).

The next level, Beliefs, is the symbolic psychological level of internalization from family, schooling, peer groups, religion, cultural norms and personal experiences.  Ayala Malach Pines (Ayala M. Pines, 1999; Ayala Malach Pines, 2001; Ayala Malach Pines & Zaidman, 2003) found that culture can modify evolutionary factors in what people find as attractive in a lover. Evolutionary theory states that the gender differences in romantic attraction, i.e., men’s attraction to appearance and women's attraction to status are largely biologically based. Social construction theory states that gender differences in attraction are caused primarily by social forces such as norms and stereotypes. Pines found that a combination of evolutionary theory (species traits) and social construction theory (beliefs) best explained her data on romantic attraction.

Each society has its definition of desirable, attractive and the concept of intimacy based on the traditions and needs of that society. Individuals form their own naive and superstitious beliefs about dating and love relations.

The top level of the pyramid is the Current Psychological Context. The present time in a person’s life or current stressful circumstances can produce conditions for an over idealization of another (Dutton, 1974; Gold, 1984; C. a. F. Meston, P.F., 2003).  The Stockholm Syndrome for example, occurs when hostages experience positive feelings or even romantic attraction toward their captors (Kuleshnyk, 1984). Stressful situations can lead to attributional errors or transferences that encourage attraction. Meston and  Frohlich (C. M. Meston & Frohlich, 2003)  asked 165 males and 135 females before and after a roller coaster ride to rate the attractiveness and dating desirability of a person in a photograph. The ratings were higher for those individuals exiting than entering the roller coaster ride.  Working together under stressful circumstances, feeling under another’s power, feeling vulnerable, are all examples of current contexts that affect attraction.


Each level puts a dynamic influence on the others. Jablonka and Lamb (Jablonka & Lamb, 2005) suggest that there are four inheritance systems that play a role in evolution: genetic, epigenetic (or non-DNA cellular transmission of traits) behavioral, and symbolic (transmission through language and other forms of symbolic communication). 

The biological forces that dominate our species-specific behaviors and individual differences are powerful, but even they are modified by the social context.  Earlier I made reference to the Stockholm Syndrome. Is this due to the evolutionary advantage to be attracted to a powerful male? Is this due to the personality of the Borderline to over idealize an impossible love object? Is this due to an attachment pattern from infancy or transference? Is this due to a cultural idealization of the brave freedom fighter? Is this due to the misattribution of anxiety in the social context in which the drive state is labeled as desire and attraction? In this example of the Stockholm Syndrome we can see how each level might be involved, and for any given individual each level will have a different degree of contribution.

So then what is love? It seems to be a combination of species traits (sex drive, attraction, and attachment), individual traits such as temperament, relational internalizations from infancy and childhood, beliefs from socialization and culture and the effects of the current psychological environment. This heuristic pyramid is helpful in organizing different theories of love relations into a unified model. It might also be helpful in developing and interpreting research as well as in the understanding of individual cases. Love is about who we are. We are the result of natural selection and we have individual differences. We are profoundly affected by our early attachments and family experiences, our culture and our current situation. The more we understand how all these interact, the more we might understand love and hopefully become more loving.                                                                


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