Psychology of Love and Intimacy Research Paper

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When people talk about the things that matter most in their lives, they usually place close relationships at or near the top of the list. And when researchers examine the processes that make close relationships satisfying, love and intimacy are usually among the most influential factors. The apparent importance of love and intimacy to human well-being has fueled longstanding interest by lay persons and scholars alike in these fundamental properties of close relationships, yet empirically minded researchers are relatively new to the pursuit, perhaps because of the challenges inherent in studying such subjective concepts. The sizable literature that has materialized since the 1970s suggests, however, that empirical research into the nature and consequences of love and intimacy can be profitable. Moreover, recent research in this area has been invigorated by methodological advances (e.g., in studying interdependent dyads and in psychophysiological assessment), as well as by increased appreciation of the importance of love and intimacy during human evolution, as noted below. Although research on love and intimacy evolved as largely independent traditions, a basic connection is now clear. Early on, Berscheid and Walster (1969) distinguished between two types of love. Passionate love refers to a state of intense arousal, characterized by strong emotions, deep longing for the other, and mental preoccupation with that person. In contrast, companionate love, ‘the affection we feel for those with whom our lives are deeply intertwined’ (1969, p. 9), involves trust, caring, respect, and mutual responsiveness, processes that also characterize intimacy. Both forms of love may arise in any close relationship, although passionate love generally is studied only in regard to romantic relationships. Passionate and companionate love are considered widely to be independent processes, each with its own antecedents, consequences, time course, and underlying mechanisms, although they may co-occur in a given relationship. To be sure, the many variations with which people experience love—maternal love, love for one’s fellow humans, courtly love, and so on—suggest that love is a complex and multifaceted phenomenon not easily reduced to common elements. Nevertheless, formal approaches to differentiating its many varieties generally have identified these two factors, labeled as passion and intimacy, as a first-order distinction (as well as a third factor, commitment; e.g., Sternberg 1986). One such example is Aron and Westbay’s (1996) analysis of cognitions, feelings, and behaviors associated with the various experiences of love.

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1. Passionate Love

Substantial research has investigated the nature and dynamics of passionate love, especially its behavioral and cognitive manifestations. For example, passionate love tends to be associated with high levels of physiological arousal (attributed to the neurotransmitters dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin); longing for connection, both physical and emotional, with the loved one; strong, often idealized, positive feelings about the other; mental preoccupation with the loved person, often intrusively so; and emotional sensitivity to the other, such that emotional states may swing from euphoria to despair depending on perceptions of the loved person’s response (see Fisher 1998 for a more extensive review). As these and the many other phenomena characteristic of passionate love indicate, but as has not always been recognized, passionate love is properly regarded as one of the emotions.

Scholars also have attempted to understand passionate love by considering its functional consequences. Self-theorists see passion arising when relationships, be they imagined, incipient, or ongoing, are perceived to present new or expanded opportunities for meeting the self ’s most important needs (i.e., for fulfilling personal ideals; for self-enhancement; for mating). In this view, passionate feelings reflect the process of personal growth experienced in the individual’s real and or anticipated involvement with the other. To evolutionarily oriented theorists, in contrast, passionate love serves to redirect the individual’s attention and behavior away from routine ongoing activities and instead toward the existence of a potential mating partner, thereby facilitating the initiation and development of mating relationships. This latter approach can help explain one of the more intriguing findings in the literature: that levels of passionate love tend to be a poor predictor of longterm marital satisfaction and longevity. It is thought that this is because passionate love tends to diminish in the early years of marriage, once the function of attracting reproductive partners to each other has been fulfilled.

Intimacy, on the other hand, tends to be better associated with the long-term success of marital and other types of close relationships. It is believed widely that intimacy is essential to human well-being and that its absence can cause significant emotional distress; for example, many studies have demonstrated that the existence of intimate ties and social interactions is associated with higher levels of social and psychological development, and with better mental and physical health. Indeed, to some theorists, ‘the capacity to make intimate emotional bonds with other individuals … is regarded as a principal feature of effective personality functioning and mental health’ (Bowlby 1983, p. 121). Accounts of laypersons interpersonal experiences, expectations, and goals likewise show a similar appreciation for the qualities that intimate relationships provide, beginning in early adolescence and continuing throughout the lifespan.

2. Intimacy

Diverse phenomena have been investigated under the general heading of intimacy: for example, the concept of intimacy has been used to describe the process of revealing private thoughts and feelings to others; to identify a relatively intense form of nonverbal engagement (e.g., through eye contact, touch, or physical proximity); to refer to the existence of an affectionate, supportive relationship; or to characterize the stage of life in which the primary developmental task is to establish an emotionally close, trusting, and sexual relationship with another person. The variability inherent in these usages, when considered along with yet further everyday-language meanings of the word ‘intimate,’ that is, as a synonym for closeness, sexuality, privacy, or marriage, has sometimes fostered conceptual ambiguity, making it difficult to compare and integrate different theoretical perspectives and different research traditions. However, this diversity has also provided an extensively documented, multifaceted depiction of a complex phenomenon.

Research on self-disclosure has played a particularly influential role in the development of knowledge about intimacy. Spurred by the pioneering studies of Altman and Taylor (1973), who defined intimacy in terms of the depth and breadth of one person’s revelation of nominally private facts and feelings to another person, this work has supported two general conclusions: that self-disclosure moves from superficial to intimate topics as partners become acquainted; and that partners tend to reciprocate levels of selfdisclosure. (In other words, too little or too much disclosure, in comparison to personal standards, situational norms, or a partner’s behavior, tends to hamper relationship development.) More recent and more sophisticated models have sought to broaden this conceptualization, predicated on the recognition that spoken messages represent only one method of communicating intimacy. Nonverbal communication also contributes to intimacy, in either of two ways: by indicating current affective states, including partners’ responses to each other (e.g., facial expressions of sympathy or scorn), and by regulating existing levels of interpersonal engagement (e.g., behaviors that enhance or diminish immediacy; see Non erbal Communication, Social Psychology of). Intimacy may also be established through behavior (e.g., coming to know another through observation and shared experience and supportive acts that express care and concern for the other).

Other theorists have emphasized the interpersonal process components of intimacy. One such theory stresses the partner’s perceived response in the context of self-disclosure (Reis and Shaver 1988, Reis and Patrick 1996). In this approach, intimacy refers to the experience of a partner’s response to core (often emotion-laden) aspects of the self as understanding, validating, and caring. This and similar models are helpful in focusing attention on the fundamentally interactive nature of intimacy. Many relationship theorists, in fact, share the perspective of conceptualizing intimacy as a complex process that cuts across two levels of analysis: the psychology of the individual self, and the psychology of interaction and relationships. Intimacy in this sense possesses in common certain features with other intrinsically interdependent processes such as social support, commitment, trust, conflict, cooperation, and shared experience.

2.1 Indi idual Differences in Love and Intimacy

Although it is apparent that passion and intimacy are at their core relationship-specific—for the most part, people feel love for a particular person, not for people in general—considerable research has examined individual differences in love and intimacy, if for no other reason than the fact that people tend to exhibit modest levels of consistency in their responses to various others. For example, people vary in the extent to which they are motivated to pursue intimate relations with others; these tendencies influence their behavior in appropriate social contexts (although situational factors may moderate the extent to which behavior reflects dispositions in particular circumstances). Individual differences reflect both personality (including genetically determined and learned qualities) and past experiences in close relationships. The study of relationship cognition is concerned with how these experiences are represented in the various mental structures that embody knowledge about significant others and relationships (e.g., expectations, beliefs, selfand other-schemas), and how these beliefs influence subsequent relationship-relevant behavior. These effects can be profound. For example, research on attachment theory indicates that early experiences with caregivers may have substantial impact on an individual’s feelings of security in adult relationships, as well as a wide variety of behaviors in such relationships.

3. Future Directions

Research on love and intimacy seems likely to profit from several recent trends in psychological research. One such trend concerns the recognition that many important constructs are better investigated from an interdependent than from an individual perspective, that is, as noted above, although individual-level variables may contribute meaningfully to love and intimacy, properties such as love and intimacy are most fully illuminated when they are examined within the relationship context in which they emerge and operate (see Reis et al. 2000).

Another important trend concerns the integration of biological and psychological approaches. Thus, recent advances in brain imaging may help researchers better understand the essential nature of love and intimacy, and their broad impact, both behaviorally and physiologically, on the human organism. Also, the rapid growth in evolutionary theorizing holds considerable promise for addressing many as yet unanswered questions about love and intimacy. Although the intrinsic importance of these subjective feelings for human well-being is incontrovertible, recognition of the role played by relationships, and especially close relationships, during human evolution suggests even broader implications. That is, if small groups and nuclear families provided the primary context for human evolution, as is widely believed, then love and intimacy, the processes that attract individuals to mating partners and promote the longterm viability of the relationships that ensue, must be acknowledged as significant contributors to natural selection and sexual selection.

In short, it seems likely that the relevance of these two cardinal processes to a broad understanding of human well-being and functioning will, if anything, expand in future investigation.


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