What is Romantic Love?
Relaunched: 5 November 2018
Being able to define ‘romantic love’ and understand how it comes about, how it works, how it lasts, how it changes and how it all too often fades is a set of challenges that has beguiled philosophers throughout the millennia and over the past couple of centuries psychologists and, to some extent, sociologists too. The theme of romantic love – and the sex that usually goes with it – is one of the most pervasive memes of our times. It dominates Western culture: approximately 90% of all pop music is concerned with it and it is at the core of many dramas – whether on TV, in films or in books. In so doing, it gives a great many of us a mission in life: to find that ‘special person’ to love and be loved by. The love to be obtained is as seen as somehow mystical; and terms with a hint of mysticism are often used for the special person such as ‘soulmate’ and ‘life partner’.
Of course, while men and women in all civilisations seem to experience romantic love, not all cultures regard it as a suitable basis for marriage. Phil Shaver, Shelley Wu & Judith Schwartz (1991) compared American and Chinese attitudes to romantic love and found many Chinese associated it with sorrow, pain & unfulfilled affection. Marriage based on romantic love was regarded as hopelessly unrealistic. For many Chinese, the notion of romantic love could appear socially threatening or even illicit, rather than being seen as a sound basis for marriage. Francis Hsu (1981) explains that, for the American, the concern is: “How does my heart feel?” – whereas the Chinese concern is: “What will other people say?” He defines American culture as ‘individual-centred’, with great emphasis placed on the emotional content of a relationship. On the other hand, he sees Chinese culture as being ‘situation-centred’, with (less intense) emotions being regarded as less important. Hsu attributes these differences to intimate family relationships continuing to play a much large role in the lives of Chinese adults whereas Americans must look outside the family to form close and intimate bonds with their peers.
Fathali Moghaddam (1998) states that passion is most important in the initial stages of a relationship in the individualistic West whereas commitment is most important in arranged marriages in non-Western collectivistic cultures – that commitment involving the entire family. (Moghaddam used Robert J Sternberg’s 1986 Triangle of Love to evaluate differences between Western and Non-Western marriages.) Moghaddam’s individualistic West/collectivistic East distinction is supported by Robert Levine et al’s (1995) research into attitudes among young people in 11 countries – India, Pakistan, Thailand, Mexico, Brazil, Hong Kong, Philippines, Australia, Japan, England and the United States. As part of their research, they asked the question: “If a man/woman had all the other qualities you desired, would you marry this person if you were not in love with him/her?” In England 7.3% answered ‘Yes’. In India it was 49%. In all the researchers found a +0.56 correlation between society’s Individualism and young people’s perceived need for love in marriage.
However, research by Paul Yelsma & Kuriakose Athappily (1988) indicates such a rigid demarcation between individualistic West and collectivistic non-Western cultures may be overly simplistic. Yelsma & Athappily compared 53 Indian arranged marriages with 31 Indian and American’love marriages. The Indian arranged rated marital satisfaction higher than did the either the Indian or American love marriages. Those in love marriages considered that all forms of communication – including sexual – greatly influenced how satisfied they were with the relationship. Those in arranged marriages thought this less important. Yelsma & Athappily found a submissive partner, careful selection of marital partners and a good amount of external support to the wife to be the prime ingredients in a successful arranged marriage.
Of course, as the meme of self-oriented individualism spreads beyond the Western world, its influence may well be changing views about love and marriage in countries like China and India. See: Is Collectivism being overtaken by Individualism?
Attraction and love
Attraction clearly plays a key – and arguably critical – part in romantic love…and so too does the sex that usually goes with it. But are there universal norms of what men and women find attractive in each other, how much divergence from such norms is there amongst different cultures and how much does what people find attractive reflect their reproductive needs?
There do indeed appear to be some universals in physical attractiveness. Michael Cunningham et al (1995) had recently-arrived native Asian and Hispanic students and white Americans rate the attractiveness of Asian, Hispanic, black and white women in photographs. The mean correlation between the groups in attractiveness ratings was a very strong +0.93. According to Cunningham (1986), men are attracted to childlike faces with wide cheekbones and small chins. Cunningham also notes that women are more likely to judge men on their stature, muscles and buttocks than their face – though a square jaw, small eyes and thin lips are taken to indicate maturity.
According to Ian Penton-Voak et al (1999), what appeals to a woman about a man’s face can vary according to where she is in her menstrual cycle. Square-jawed ‘hunks’ are more likely to be fancied at a woman’s most fertile time of her cycle while slightly-feminised faces more at other times. According to Ian Penton-Voak & David Perrett (2000), men with feminised faces are perceived to be more honest, more sensitive and likely to make better parents. Men with more masculinised faces are more likely to be perceived as dishonest, dominant and cold. The reason for this, taken from Evolutionary Psychology, is thought to be that the characteristics associated with slightly feminised faces are better for long-term relationships but women will get better genes for healthy, attractive offspring from the more masculine man.
The Matching Hypothesis (Elaine Walster et al, 1966) proposes that we are attracted to people of a similar level of attractiveness. There are 2 related explanations for this:-
- Roger Brown’s (1986) Expectancy-Value Theory holds that we try to to get the most attractive partner who might realistically want us – what is ‘fitting’
- What can be seen as the other side of the same coin comes from Ted Huston (1973) who argued that the evidence for the Matching Hypothesis didn’t come from matching but instead on the tendency of people to avoid rejection. Hence, they choose someone similarly attractive to themselves, to avoid being rejected by someone more attractive than themselves.
Huston attempted to demonstrate this by showing participants photos of people who had already indicated that they would accept the participant as a partner. The participant usually chose the person rated as most attractive. However, the study has very flawed ecological validity as the relationship was certain; and, in real life, people wouldn’t be certain. Hence, they are still more likely to choose someone of equal attractiveness to avoid possible rejection.
A number of studies support the Matching Hypothesis – such as that of Bernard Murstein (1972). Independent judges rated photos of each partner of 99 couples – engaged or steady dating – for physical attractiveness on a 5-point scale, without knowing who was paired with who. The couples then had to rate their own and their partner’s physical attractiveness. The judges’ ratings strongly supported the Matching Hypothesis – partners received very similar ratings and they were significantly more alike than the same ratings given to ‘random couples’ – ie: the actual couples randomly sorted into ‘pseudo-couples’ to form a control group. How partners rated themselves for attractiveness was significantly more similar than self-ratings for random couples. However, partners’ ratings of each other did not prove statistically significant. Murstein concluded: “Individuals with equal market value for physical attractiveness are more likely to associate in an intimate relationship such as premarital engagement than individuals with disparate values.”
Interestingly, in another study Murstein (Bernard Murstein & Patricia Christy, 1976) found married couples more similar in their level of attractiveness than dating couples.
Irwin Silverman’s findings (1971) also support the Matching Hypothesis. Couples were observed in naturalistic dating settings – bars, social events, theatre lobbies, etc. 2 males and 2 females formed the observer team. The observed couples were mostly in the 18-22 range and unmarried. Each observer rated the dating partner of the opposite sex on a 5-point scale. They found an extremely high level of similarity between the attractiveness of the dating couples. Also, the more similar their level of attractiveness, the happier they seemed to be (as reflected in degrees of physical intimacy – eg: holding hands). 60% of similarly attractive couples were rated as happy, 46% of moderately similar and only 32% of least similar couples.
Yet further support for the Matching Hypothesis comes from Alan Feingold’s 1988 meta-analysis of 18 studies, providing a total of 1,644 couples. He found a significant correlation of +0.39 in ratings of attractiveness between romantic partners. Like Silverman’s study, Feingold’s has high ecological validity because real-life couples were used.
Interestingly J C Towhey (1979) found a positive correlation between how ‘macho’ men perceived themselves to be and how much they were influenced by physical attractiveness. He asked males and females how much they thought they would like a person, based on a photograph and biographical information. Those who scored high on the Macho Scale (dealing with sexist attitudes, stereotypes and behaviour) were much more impressed by physical attractiveness than those who were low on the Macho Scale who virtually ignored it as a factor. Those who scored high on the Macho Scale would almost certainly be high on the Psychoticism Dimension of Temperament.
Sex and love
For most people, sex is a fundamental element of romantic relationships – and children are still, far more often than not, seen as an inevitable outcome of most longer-term male-female pairings.
As Abraham Maslow notes in his Hierarchy of Needs (1943), survival needs (driven by the BEIGE vMEME) are the most basic of human needs. Among these most basic survival needs is sex. Not for pleasure or developing feelings of affiliation or comfort. At the bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy, it is purely for survival. Without men and women having sex and raising the resultant children, there is no survival of the species. Therefore, having sex and raising the resultant children comprise a series of adaptive behaviours.
Such behaviours are naturally and sexually selected. Natural Selection (Charles Darwin, 1859) is concerned with those characteristics and behaviours that assist survival. Sexual Selection (Darwin, 1871) is concerned with those characteristics and behaviours that assist reproduction. Those who survive and reproduce are likely to pass on those characteristics that enabled them to do just that through both genetics and social learning. Those who don’t survive to reproduce or survive but don’t reproduce obviously fail to pass on their (less adaptive) characteristics and behaviours to offspring.
Due to anisogamy – the difference in quantity and size of gametes (sex cells) – the Evolutionary approach posits that males and females need to develop completely different strategies for mating and passing on their genes. For men, producing millions of sperm per day, the most adaptive strategy would be to impregnate as many women as possible. This is thought to explain the high number of men who will cheat on their wives/regular partner; an argument that it can be seen as ‘natural’ for men to have sex with multiple women. In support of this, David Buss (2000) states that men are more turned on by novelty than women – which a man would need to be if he had an imperative to have sex repeatedly with multiple women.
Women, according to Evolutionary theory, have different concerns, arising from the fact most women will produce substantially less than a thousand eggs during their lifetime of fertility. Added to which, a woman undergoes 9 months of pregnancy plus several years afterwards of the child being completely dependent on her. In comparison a man need invest as little as 5 minutes on intercourse with one woman and, half an hour or so later, have sex with another woman. Therefore, with quite limited opportunities for passing on their genes, women need to:-
- mate with a man with ‘good genes’
- have a partner with sufficient resources (including time, money and willingness) to support her in raising the child
These considerations may help explain why females tend to be more choosy about who they have sex with – many want to get to know their potential sexual partner before committing to intercourse. Firstly – though this will most likely be largely subconscious – they need to get a ‘feel’ for whether the male is robust genetically. Secondly, the woman will want to know the man has the resources to support her and her children. Again, this may be largely subconscious. However, many women will admit to being attracted to wealthy men while physical robustness is often cited as an attraction factor.
Taking height as a measure of physicality, a number of studies – eg: Catherine Cameron, Stuart Oskamp & William Sparks (1977); David Buss & David Schmitt (1993) – have found that height is an important factor for many women – ie: they do not want their ideal partner to be short – especially shorter than them. Cameron, Oskamp & Sparks found that 8 out of 10 women wanted their ideal man to be at least 6 feet tall. A study by Bogusław Pawłowski, Robin Dunbar & Anna Lipowicz (2000) analysed the records of 3201 Polish men aged between 20 and 60. They found that fathers in the group were, on average, 3 cms taller than childless men. Unmarried men were considerably shorter than married men. The only exception to this was men who were born in the 1930s and, therefore, in the ‘marriage market’ in the 1950s when the losses of Polish men in World War II severely reduced the availability of young men. (Dunbar conceived the idea for the investigation during his famous 1995 content analysis of ‘lonely hearts’ ads – see below – when he noticed that male advertisers only mentioned their height if they were at least average height.) Glenn Wilson & David Nias (1976) attribute the female fascination with height as being due to the perception that taller men are more dominant and more successful commercially – and, therefore, will have more resources.
In what is regarded as one of the true classic psychological studies Russell Clark & Elaine Hatfield (1989) supported the Evolutionary-founded stereotype of the promiscuous male and the choosy female. They paid attractive male and female students to go out on campus and approach students of the opposite sex, offering to spend the afternoon in bed with them. 0% of the females accepted; some of the them were offended, some felt insulted and some were simply puzzled. 75% of the males accepted; of the males who refused the attractive female confederate, many felt obliged to explain – saying that they had a regular partner or had to attend a meeting. Interestingly, in 2015 Business Insider UK’s Megan Tillett reported a Whatever.com prank in which a man had asked 100 female passers-by on the street to have sex with him; none of the women agreed – replicating Clark & Hatfield’s findings. However, a second prank in which a woman asked 100 male passers-by to have sex with her produced only 30 positive responses – a substantial decrease from Clark & Hatfield.
Of course, the Whatever.com pranks hardly comprised a serious psychological study; nonetheless, they may suggest American males are becoming less promiscuous – or at least more cautious.
The idea that men are concerned with sex while women are focused on resources also extends to jealousy. While they were wired up to measure stress responses, David Buss et al (1992) asked male and female participants to imagine:-
- their partner having passionate sex with someone else
- their partner telling them they had fallen in love with someone else
The researchers found that 60% of male participants were more jealous at the thought of their partner having sex with another man while 85% of women would be more jealous if their partner formed a deep emotional attachment to another woman. These subjective reports were supported by hard biological measures such as heartbeat and galvanic skin resistance measurements. From the Evolutionary perspective, the women would be concerned at losing the man’s resources. For the men, the concern (subconsciously) is that their ‘baby-making machine’ may be ‘occupied’ with another man’s genes and that he might be cuckolded into putting his resources into raising another man’s child.
However, in reality things are often much more complicated than Buss’ imagination exercise suggests. Christine Harris (2002) found no significant difference between men and women regarding sexual or emotional infidelity when the participants had experienced actual infidelity. Earlier work by Harris (Christine Harris & Nicholas Christenfield, 1996) posits an explanation for the gender differences Buss et al found, identifying different meta-stating patterns. Harris & Christenfeld hypothesise that men may believe women only have sex when in love and so interpret sexual infidelity as the woman being in love with someone else. On the other hand women may believe that men can have sex without love and so should be less bothered by sexual infidelity as it does not necessarily imply that the man has fallen in love. (This may help explain why, in some instances, men are able to get away with cheating by telling their wives/partners something like: “It was only sex, darling. It’s you I really love.”) Harris & Christenfeld based their conclusions on a questionnaire survey of 137 undergraduates.
What men want and what women want
Research into dating personal columns has tended to support the Evolutionary-derived stereotypes. Men generally emphasise wealth and resources (‘success object’) and look for attractive younger women (‘sex object’). Women generally emphasise their own physical beauty (‘sex object’) and look for high status, wealthy men (‘success object’).
Harold Baize & Jonathan Schroeder (1995) looked at 195 ads placed in 2 different American newspapers. They contacted the advertisers and asked them to complete a questionnaire about the numbers and types of people responding to their ads. They found that more men replied to ads than women – the men receiving around 2/3 of the responses the women got. They found that men were more likely to get a response from younger women if they mentioned (or even hinted!) that they received a good salary and were well-educated. Mentioning that they were ‘physically attractive’ did show enhanced response levels but on nothing like the same level as it did for the women. Men who stated that they were ‘sexually attractive’ actually got fewer responses. Women who referred to themselves as ‘physically attractive’ tended to get a bigger response. Women who stated that they were ‘sexually attractive’ also got a good response. Younger women got more responses than older women.
David Waynforth & Robin Dunbar (1995) carried out a content analysis of nearly 900 ads from 4 American newspapers. They were sorted into age bands – 20-29, 30-39, 40-49 and 50-59 – and scored for the frequency with which they referenced:-
- physical attractiveness
- family commitment
- sexual fidelity
- tolerance of children
- age requirements
Waynforth & Dunbar found the following:-
- More men than women sought a youthful mate
- More men sought a physically-attractive mate
- More women used ‘physically attractive’-type terminology to describe themselves
- More men reported their economic status/earning power when describing themselves.
In 1999 Dunbar, from another study into personal ads (Bogusław Pawłowski & Robin Dunbar), almost completely replicated the findings of the earlier study. However, an additional finding was that older women tended not to state their age – especially women aged 35-50. This was assumed to be because the advertisers wanted to find high-quality partners before reproductive opportunities were ended by the menopause. This time around gay personals were also investigated, with the researchers finding that heterosexual women were 3 times more likely to seek resources and status than lesbians. As for homosexual men, they emphasised resources only about half as many times as heterosexual men. This indicates resources are far more important in heterosexual relationships, in which children are much more likely to be born.
David Buss’ 1989 massive cross-cultural study – 10,047 participants from 37 different cultures across 33 different countries – found many universals in what men and women found desirable in a long-term opposite sex partner. In by far the majority of the countries he obtained data from, female youthfulness was equated with good reproductive potential. Full, rounded hips were valued as an indication a woman is likely to carry her child more easily and have a less difficult birth than a woman with narrow hips. Large breasts were considered symbolic of a woman’s ability to feed her children. Though neither necessarily holds true, this is held to be the Evolutionary explanation for male fascination with female body shape.
Support for the importance of a woman having full, rounded hips to male attraction comes from the work of Devendra Singh (1993). Line drawings of female figures with 4 sizes of waist to-hip ratios (WHRs) – 0.7, 0.8, 0.9, and 1.0 – were developed and were depicted within 3 levels of body weight (underweight, normal and overweight). Since all figures were drawn to show identical height, these 3 levels of body weight represented three levels of body mass index. Results showed that the female figure with 0.7 waist:hip ratio (WHR) in the normal weight range was judged to be more attractive than other figures. A 0.7 WHR is thought to be particularly attractive because it indicates the female is past puberty but not pregnant.
However, research by Ludwig Wildt & Teresa Sir-Peterman (1999) indicates that male attraction to youth in women is not as simple as mere appearance itself. At the University of Erlangen in Germany they conducted an experiment in which they guessed the ages of 100 women aged 35 to 55 when they walked into a room at their outpatient clinic for the first time. The researchers then measured the level of oestrogen in the women’s blood. Women with low oestrogen levels looked older than they really were and vice versa. The researchers’ guesses were out by as much as 8 years in some cases. Among its many other functions, oestrogen reduces wrinkles and increases skin thickness and quality, the researchers noted. Since levels of oestrogen are highest in a woman’s cycle around the time she ovulates, it makes sense that men would be most attracted to women who are highly fertile.
Support for Wildt & Sir-Peterman comes from Craig Roberts et al (2004) who found that men rate women as more attractive when they are ovulating.
Buss’ 1989 study also found that women generally wanted their men to be older than themselves. The theoretical explanation for this is that it is often assumed that an older man will have accumulated more wealth and/or be in a better paid job than a younger man. From a 15-year-old schoolgirl being seduced via a 25-year-old man’s flashy sports car, to a woman in her twenties having children by a man in his fifties, to male Hollywood tycoons in their sixties sporting 20-year-old starlets on their arms, the female’s unconscious – sometimes conscious! – desire to have resources for her children is thought to be a key factor in younger women/older men relationships.
Interestingly Michael Seto, Martin Lalumière & Vernon Quinsey (1995) found that men who regarded themselves as ‘high value’ started having sex at an earlier age. They also had sex more often with a greater variety of women throughout their lives.