There are some things that are just fun to study because of their vast importance. Love is one of them. There are as many theories about love as there are grains of sand on a shore, but if you’re a scientist, especially a behavioral scientist; you want to focus on the aspects that can be studied; things that we can at least see, hear, or touch, so that we can come to some kind of agreement on their existence. So it might not be so much an invisible force called “Love” we’re using terminology on, but rather “loving”. The romantic relationship, the affiliation between people; what they do, how they do it, how it maintains. What makes loving, and being loved, a unique experience and one that people tend to pursue for years (while others, sometimes, much shorter).
As humans in general, we cannot see any invisible qualia of romantic “love”, but we can see how people respond to one another, how they draw selective attention, how that attention strengthens and becomes a bond, and how they share in that exchange of the affiliation, that relationship. If we think about “love” as magical, and inexplicable, then that makes it very hard to study, doesn’t it? But if we look at what it “looks like”, what people “do” or “exhibit”, then we get somewhere. Love. It happens so much that there surely have to be some common features, and since we are all human, after all, we must share aspects and patterns that over-arch large groups of us. Even entire populations must share some feature, some pattern, that we can call “loving”. How else would there be so much advice out there?
There has been psychological research on this. An abundance of it. Dorothy Tennov’s work on “Love and Limerence”, Keith Davis’ “Relationship Rating”, Beverly Fehr’s “Love and Commitment”, and even Marshall Dermer’s behavioral account of “Romantic Loving”. There are just a few (there are thousands) of many, that will be used to explore some theoretical frameworks for what makes a working relationship work, what the features are, and the appeal of specific patterns of behavior that make up a “loving” affiliation.
We have to assume a little with this. Everyone is different, so specifics are where we would lose this account’s effectiveness of loving. If we assume everyone likes brightly colored eyes, when in fact many find darker color eyes reinforcing (rewarding/appealing), then we’ve assumed too much. If we, on the other hand, assume that every human on earth is subjectively polyamorous, and can come to no conclusions, then we assume too little. We have to find a middle ground that might not explain everything but explains enough. We want an account of “loving” that is stable, desired, and explains a fully functioning relationship.
What is Love & Loving? (and what’s not?)
Let’s let out some ground rules for our interpretation of this framework. To best interpret this research, and create something that we can actually put into real testable practice, we need to make sure we keep it in the realm of reality. So when we talk about “Love” going forward, we are going to talk about events/behaviors from ourselves and others. Some may be private (inside our head), some may be public (an action we engage in with another person), but all of these things can be more or less concretely defined. Let’s call the process of experiencing and doing these things “loving”. You can engage in love with another person, and they can engage in loving events/behaviors with you. Sounds fun. Now that we have an operational definition to work with; what might that exclude? Let’s talk about Limerence.
Dorothy Tennov developed this concept in 1979 to explain the experience of being “head over heels” with someone. It’s intense. It’s all consuming. Even a little obsessive. As she, and another researcher Lynn Willmott, describe it; “an involuntary potentially inspiring state of adoration and attachment to a limerent object (the target of infatuation) involving intrusive and obsessive thoughts, feelings and behaviors from euphoria to despair, contingent on perceived emotional reciprocation”. Let’s break this down and make it a little more “behavioral”. So limerence, is like love, except people exhibit:
- Intrusive and obsessive thoughts about the person (Private Events).
- Attachment to a Limerent Object (the person they are obsessed with). Thoughts and interactions with this individual become highly reinforcing, and behaviors seeking them are thus highly reinforced.
- Reciprocity determines “euphoria” or “despair”. If that Limerent Object ( the person who is being obsessed over) gives a specific type of perceived behavior; it can either be incredibly reinforcing (rewarding), or incredibly aversive. These are two very extreme states.
According to Tennov, this is the type of “loving” we would hope to turn into a relationship or affiliation of “loving” behaviors between two people, but it could not maintain itself as it is. It’s not stable. It’s intense, a flash, but is based on perceptions and obsession (highly repeated private events or “thoughts” about that person). These behaviors do not operate in a healthy way to create or build a relationship. They seem to seek out the other person intensely, but you might notice, they do not seem to hold that person in a regard where a relationship could flourish. This type of limerence is what Tennov found to be dangerous.
It’s not a feeling so much as it is a pattern, and she found 3 ways that it subsides.
Consummation, where the feelings are reciprocated, and ideally, the limerence becomes a more healthy form of attachment. This is the best case scenario.
Starvation, or as behaviorists call it “Extinction”, where the behaviors of obsession/seeking are not reinforced; the other person doesn’t respond. The seeker gets nothing of what they were seeking, so the seeking undergoes behavioral extinction because it no longer serves its function. This is a painful process, the “despair” Tennov spoke of.
Then there’s Transference where the limerence stays, but the limerent object changes. The person they are focusing on gets replaced with another person, and the cycle of intense emotion, intrusive thoughts, etc continues in another direction. In behavioral terms, the response class remains, but the target of those behaviors changes. This type of seeking also seems incredibly unhealthy and hard to sustain a balanced life around.
According to our original operational definition of “loving”, this limerence is not going to work, conventionally. We cannot apply these patterns to a broad population and hope for good outcomes. This is where we need to turn to Keith Davis’ research and Marshall Dermer’s behavioral account of loving to help us out. These researchers took features of “loving” relationships and broke them down into components that most people tend to exhibit. On top of that, they also came up with strategies that might maintain them. Having a loving relationship is good, but maintaining it is also something worth looking into. You might have seen the word reinforcer or reinforcing used a few times. Humans rely on patterns. It’s a big part of how we operate. Think of reinforcers as “things” that keep a pattern going, and reinforcement as the process of strengthening that pattern. Let’s talk “loving” reinforcement and these components of caring.
Features of “Loving” and Reinforcing (Maintaining) Them
They (Davis, Todd, as well as Dermer) break down “loving” into three classes of features; Caring, Passion, and Friendship. These are behaviors and traits exhibited in regular patterns and are consistent. They are a common part of the functioning relationship or affiliation with one another. I’ll present a few words from the researchers, and follow up with some actual behaviors that represent examples that a person might engage in.
Features of Caring:
- The person “gives their utmost” to the other. Behaviorally speaking, we mean that the effort put in to engage with the other person, and acting for their benefit, is high. Some might say foregoing one’s own reinforcers (rewards) so that the other are reinforced (rewarded). Here are some examples.
- Engaging regularly.
- Being present and focused during engaging.
- Potentially putting maximum effort for that individual.
- Potentially sacrificing their own rewarding opportunities, for the sake of the opportunities of the other.
- The person “championing and advocating” for the other. This is not a quid pro quo situation based on measuring out little bits of effort and support, this is committing to the betterment of that person. It involves social reinforcement.
- Socially praising that person for actions.
- Socially praising and supporting efforts of that person.
- Putting forward resources and social effort for the successes, or approximate successes of that other person.
Features of Passion:
- “Fascinating” about the other. By fascinating, they mean engaging in thinking or imagining about the other person even when that person is absent. (Think of this as a tempered version of the limerence we spoke about above). These events are what behavioral psychologists call “private events”. They are not observable to anyone else but the respondent.
- Thinking about the other person regularly.
- Imagining the other person regularly.
- Mutual “desiring and experiencing sexual intimacy”. This one is the more obvious “passion” feature. These are both overt and covert (private) behaviors, but most importantly, this behavior is shared between both simultaneously. The reinforcement (rewarding) from one to another is mutual or shared.
- Engaging and reinforcing “desiring” behaviors between one another.
- Engaging and reinforcing “sexual intimacy” behaviors between one another.
- “Desiring mutual exclusivity” with the other person. This is where behaviors are used specifically with one another. One person presents specific, and unique, behavior towards the other and do not engage in these specific behaviors broadly with others outside of the relationship.
- Unique thoughts or feelings about the other.
- Unique ways of speaking or responding to one another.
- Unique patterns of daily behavior with one another.
Features of Friendship:
- “Enjoying one’s company”. At a very basic level, being around someone should be enjoyable if a relationship is to maintain. This enjoyment could come from;
- Enjoyment gained from a shared history and specific important events.
- Enjoyment gained from a conditioning, shared desirable features that have become attributed to one another.
- Enjoying the repertoire of social behaviors, or activities that person engages in regularly.
- “Being able to confide” in the individual. Sharing information that has the risk of being exploited, or showing vulnerability. Being able to express specific thoughts or intents with the other person and not expecting a reprisal or betrayal on the part of the other.
- Sharing secrets, hopes, dreams, aspirations that represent vulnerability.
- Being able to speak frankly and honestly on topics.
- “Behaving spontaneously”. With strangers, predictability is the best bet at cooperation and interaction so that no one is put off. This feature represents a tolerance for spontaneity and surprise where there is the potential for the unexpected, and in a sense, a chance of the unknown or risk.
- Engaging in behaviors that are novel towards the other, with the other in mind.
- Engaging in novel activities with the other.
- “Understanding” the other. The verbal behavior (spoken words) make sense to the other and are not misinterpreted.
- Shared meanings of certain histories or features.
- A shared understanding of tone of voice.
- A shared understanding of facial expressions or other predictors others might not pick up on.
- “Respecting the other”. This is where the judgment, intents, and meaning of the other person are held in a regard that is not distrustful, or disingenuous.
- Allowing one person to engage in an activity and having faith in that other person’s ability.
- Engaging socially in terms that promote dignity and value the other.
Reinforcing the Relationship
These are a lot to juggle at one time. If all of these features are important for both people to engage in while in that state of loving, and the relationship is to maintain for long periods, there must be some way for people to have the time and ability to do so, right? This is where we discuss how and when we can use those features above as practical behaviors, and making those practical behaviors reinforcers (rewards). Reinforcers aren’t just prizes or tangible objects; they can be ANY behavior or change in a stimulus that strengthens another behavior. It’s not just one direction either. One person can reinforce another’s behavior, and have that person reinforce theirs right back. It becomes a cycle, it becomes an interaction where both sides are engaging in these loving features, those romantic behaviors, and being strengthened by one another’s. Here are some suggestions from the research.
Reinforcing a Relationship with Generic and Abundant Reinforcers-
Don’t let the words generic scare you off. This does not mean boring or unoriginal. This means using the common stuff and using it often to strengthen the romantic/loving behaviors in the other person. These are things you have a lot of, or behaviors that are low cost to you, that you can use repeatedly and consistently. This sort of behavioral framework is good for maintaining a relationship.
Given the opportunity, how many Friendship, Caring, and Passion behaviors could you exhibit abundantly an hour? How about per day? Or month? Try looking at these.
- Engaging in a positive tone.
- Taking the time to understand a point of view.
- Physical closeness.
- “Checking in”- frequent social interaction.
Just to name a few. These are easy, quick, require little effort, and can maintain a relationship, or series of interactions through those quick and abundant psychological reinforcement effects. Remember; A big surprise is great, but if you get absolutely nothing from the individual, not a smile, not a word, in between, big surprises aren’t strong enough. The relationship gets frayed, thin. That’s why you use “generic and abundant” social reinforcers from your assumedly impressive romantic repertoire of skills.
Reinforcing a Relationship with Scarce and Idiosyncratic Reinforcers
Now the big surprises come in. These can’t maintain a long and complex relationship by themselves. They, by definition, are scarce, therefore very interesting. These are things you can not provide to another person very often, and they are varied enough that the other person probably would not be able to expect them. These are the high shock-value interactions or rewards, the things that provide a revitalization. Remember the spontaneity feature? This is where it comes in. These come in when the generic and abundant reinforcers lose efficacy. Sometimes when a thing is too common, people adapt, so you need to throw a little “strange” out there to mix up the predictable delivery of these romantic reinforcers. You can’t expect the scarce big reinforcers to maintain a relationship, but without them, the generic and abundant undergo habituation. Sometimes when something is too predictable and common it loses its reinforcing features. You need to change it up. The mixture of both is where the long-term maintaining of romantic behaviors on both sides meets a good equilibrium.
What about these? Are there any scarce or idiosyncratic reinforcers you could think up from the Caring, Friendship and Passion categories? Can you think of a few specific reinforcers you enjoy? Can you think of a few specific ones that another person might? Try them out and see if they work, or engage in some confiding features to request them. You might just learn something!
Comments? Questions? Leave them below!
- Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (1987). Applied behavior analysis. Columbus: Merrill Pub. Co.
- Willmott, L., & Bentley, E. (2014). Love and limerence: harness the limbic brain. United States: Lathbury House Limited.
- Tennov, D. (1999). Love and limerence the experience of being in love. Lanham, MD: Scarborough House.
- Davis, K. E. (1999). What Attachment Styles and Love Styles Add to the Understanding of Relationship Commitment and Stability. Handbook of Interpersonal Commitment and Relationship Stability, 221-237. doi:10.1007/978-1-4615-4773-0_13
- Davis, K. E., & Todd, M. J. (1982). Friendship and love relationships. In K. E. Davis, and T. O. Mitchell (Eds.), Advances in descriptive psychology (Vol. 2, p. 79-112)
- Dermer, M. L. (2006). Towards understanding the meaning of affectionate verbal behavior; towards creating romantic loving. The Behavior Analyst Today, 7(4), 452-480.
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