Arthur Aron, Helen Fisher, Greg Strong. Encyclopedia of Human Relationships. Editor: Harry T Reis & Susan Sprecher. 2009. Sage Publication.
Falling in love is the onset of a strong desire for a close, romantic relationship with a particular person—the transition from not being in love to being in love. Falling in love appears to be a universal phenomenon, appearing in every culture for which data are available, in every historical era, and in every age group, from 4- to 100-year-olds and beyond. Analogues to falling in love are found in a wide variety of higher animal species and may well have played a critical role in human evolution. Falling in love is often an intense experience, a source of some of the greatest joys, including connectedness, ecstasy, and fulfillment, and some of the greatest problems, including depression, rage, stalking, suicide, and homicide. It is also a common phenomenon: It happens at least once to most U.S. residents at some point in their lives, with only somewhat varying rates across cultures. This entry reviews the literature on the falling in love process, including distinguishing it from onset of sexual desire, discussing predictors of falling in love, and identifying the consequences of the experience of falling in love.
History of the Study of Falling in Love
Falling in love has been the subject of both artistic and scholarly attention from the earliest times. Some classical contributions in Western culture are Plato’s Symposium, Stendhal’s book-length 18th century essay de L’Amour, and Sigmund Freud’s extensive discussions of the topic. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, cultural anthropologists and clinical writers outside the Freudian tradition became interested in the topic; researchers in the 1960s and 1970s mainly focused on initial romantic attraction between strangers. The 1980s set the stage for much current thinking on romantic love, most prominently including the extension of Attachment Theory to adult love, descriptive work on intense passionate love, the identification of lay understandings of love, and the development and application of relevant theoretical models. Researchers in the early 1990s added work on unreciprocated love and love ideals. The major developments in the late 1990s and early 21st century include an upsurge of interest in romantic love in adolescence and old age, ethnic and cultural differences, love as an emotion, and—most prominently—biological approaches, including work on oxytocin and vasopressin in monogamous prairie voles, the related work it has inspired in humans, and brain imaging and other neuroscience methods.
What is Falling in Love?
As noted, falling in love is the transition from not being in love to being in love. The metaphor of “falling” suggests a rapid transition, but many individuals report a gradual transition, sometimes over years, as from an acquaintanceship to an intense passion. Nevertheless, regardless of how long it takes, falling in love for most people clearly refers to a transition from something not at all intense to something quite intense, involving a major redirection of one’s attention and energy, and more than just a passing or ephemeral attraction or valuing of an individual.
The key definitional issue has been about what is being fallen into: “What is love?” Extensive research by Beverly Fehr and others has shown that people understand love by its resemblance to a prototype, a standard model, or idea (as one would recognize a bird by its resemblance to a robin). The prototypical features of love encompass, in order of cen-trality, intimacy, commitment, and passion. Scientists such as Art Aron, by contrast, have defined love in a more formal way, for example, as “the constellation of behaviors, cognitions, and emotions associated with a desire to enter or maintain a close relationship with a specific other person.” Researchers have found romantic love to be associated with dependence, caring, and exclusiveness, as distinguished from mere liking, which emphasizes similarity, respect, and positive evaluation. Elaine Hatfield and Ellen Berscheid also distinguished passionate romantic love (“intense longing for union with another”) from companionate love (“affection … for those with whom our lives are deeply entwined”). Some items on the standard research measure of passionate love are “I would rather be with ___ than with anyone else” and “I melt when looking deeply into ____’s eyes.” A similar distinction is between those whom one “loves” and the subset of these with whom one is “in love.”
Other research approaches have focused on typologies. One, based on the work of John Alan Lee and Clyde and Susan Hendrick, identifies six “love styles:” eros (romantic, passionate love), ludus (game-playing love), storge(friendship love), pragma (logical, “shopping-list” love), mania (possessive, dependent love), and agape (selfless love). Another influential approach is the Triangular Theory, developed by Robert Sternberg, which conceptualizes love in terms of intimacy, commitment/decision, and passion, the various combinations of which define diverse types of romantic love.
Falling in Love versus the Onset of Sexual Desire
Sexual desire is clearly linked with passionate love. For example, the features that identify the lay understanding of love include “sexual passion” and “sex appeal.” Similarly, the standard measure of passionate love described earlier includes items emphasizing physical response to the partner. Nevertheless, romantic love and sexual desire have been shown to be associated with different nonverbal cues and behavioral responses. For example, head nodding and smiling are significant predictors of love but not necessarily of sexual desire. Another relevant finding is that 5-year-old children, who presumably do not have the same kind of sexual response as do adolescents, report levels of passionate love as high as 14 to 18 year olds. Finally, brain imaging studies of romantic love have consistently found patterns of brain activity that only minimally overlap with activation patterns found in studies of sexual arousal.
Variations in Falling in Love
Those who fall in love most often and most intensely are people high on a dimension of “anxious-attachment,” those who, presumably as a result of inconsistent love from their primary caregiver as infants, as adults are hungry for love, tending to seek it more avidly and to be more engaged in the concern about the partner’s response. Other research has reported a similar pattern for those with low self-esteem.
On average, and across the cultures studied, men appear to be more variable (either having been many times in love or none at all) and are more romantic and passionate than women are, but women are more likely to be in love at any given time. However, nearly all observed gender differences are only slight average trends, with substantial overlaps between the genders. Many studies find no gender differences.
Cross-cultural comparisons suggest that people fall in love everywhere, that there is a universal, core element of passionate love. However, how it is enacted may depend heavily on the cultural context. In particular, the greatest variation seems to be in just what precursors lead to falling in love and different styles of expressing and experiencing love and in its incidence across the life cycle. Much of the cultural variation may be due to people in “collectivistic” cultures (e.g., many Asian societies), compared with those in more “individualist” cultures (e.g., North American societies), being less motivated to separate from the family and community context to become intimate with each other.
Whether or Not the Love is Reciprocated
Autobiographical accounts of being rejected and of being the undesired object of someone’s attraction have reported that rejection can lead to strong organization as well as strong disorganization of thoughts, behaviors, and emotions. Both the rejectors and rejectees largely express passive behaviors, both are unhappy with the situation, and both usually end up disappointed. The intensity of a person’s feelings of unrequited love can be predicted by how much the individual wants the relationship, how much he or she likes the state of being in love (whether reciprocated or not), and whether the rejectee initially believed his or her love would be reciprocated.
Predictors of Falling in Love
Numerous experiments have identified factors that lead to liking in general and to initial romantic attraction. These factors include discovering that the other person likes one’s self; attraction to the other’s characteristics, including kindness, intelligence, humor, good looks, and social status; similarities with one’s self, especially in attitudes and background characteristics; proximity and exposure to the other; confirmation and encouragement from one’s peers and family that this is a suitable partner; and meeting under conditions of shared humor. With romantic attraction, versus mere general liking, there is a greater importance of physical appearance and that the being liked by the other is specific to oneself (as opposed to the other person liking everyone). In addition, a predictor specific to romantic attraction is being physiologically stirred up at the time of meeting a potential partner. For example, one study found that men who met an attractive woman when on a scary suspension bridge were more romantically attracted to her than were men who met the same woman on a safe bridge; another study found that individuals felt greater romantic attraction to an individual whom they met just after running in place for a few minutes! Finally, systematic analyses of people’s retrospective accounts of falling in love find that the most common scenario is discovering that a reasonably appropriate and desirable person is attracted to you.
Effects of Falling in Love
Those experiencing intense passionate love report a focused attention on the beloved, heightened energy, sleeplessness, loss of appetite, euphoria and mood swings, bodily reactions such as a pounding heart, emotional dependence on and obsessive thinking about the beloved, emotional and physical possessiveness, craving for emotional union with the beloved, and intense motivation to win this particular partner.
Is this a good or a bad thing? On the one hand, in the week after falling in love, people experience an increase in self-esteem and an expanded, more diverse sense of one’s self. Further, falling in love quickly and intensely, including idealizing the partner, is associated even years later with less divorce and more positive relationships. On the other hand, falling in love may be much less positive, as when it is not reciprocated or when one is already in a relationship with someone else. Also, falling in love can be highly disruptive of one’s friendship network. Whether falling in love is seen as a good or bad thing also seems to differ by cultures. For example, Chinese, more than U.S. residents, associate it with negative features such as sadness, heartbreak, and darkness.
The Biology of Falling in Love
In her 1998 review of the animal literature, anthropologist Helen Fisher concluded that birds and mammals evolved several distinct brain systems for courtship, mating, and parenting, including (a) the sex drive, characterized by a craving for sexual gratification; (b) attraction, characterized by focused attention on a preferred mating partner; and (c) attachment, characterized by the maintenance of proximity, affiliative gestures and expressions of calm when in social contact with a mating partner, and separation anxiety when apart. Each neural system is associated with a different constellation of brain circuits, different behavior patterns, and different emotional and motivational states. With regard to human love, one can equate “attraction” with falling in love. Indeed, recent human studies using brain imaging and biological markers confirm this view.
How Does Falling in Love Work? Major Theoretical Approaches
Love as Attachment
Attachment Theory, originally developed by John Bowlby in relation to infants and extended to adults most prominently by Philip Shaver, has been among the influential approaches to understanding romantic love. The theory emphasizes that early experience with caregivers strongly shapes individual differences in adult love experiences. Thus, for example, those who have had inconsistent caregiving (e.g., those high on the anxious attachment dimension) are much more likely as adults to experience intense passionate love. They are also more likely to experience intense unrequited love given their propensity to easily fall in love but not to trust that the other returns the love, even if the other does return the love. In contrast, those who experienced a consistent lack of security as an infant are said to be high on the avoidant dimension of attachment. As adults, they are especially unlikely to fall in love, given their tendency to reject passionate love as real and to avoid closeness of any kind.
Love as a Story
Sternberg suggested that loving relationships can be described accurately by the people involved through narrative autobiographies, often suggesting culturally prototypical “stories.” For example, the story of a couple locked in constant struggle is common, as is the story of couples growing to love each other over time. Each type of story has a characteristic mode of thought and behavior that often corresponds to other views of love (e.g., someone with a game-based love story will behave in ways consistent with the ludus love style). Having a particular love story can also affect one’s expectations of what a romantic relationship should be like. People tend to seek romantic partners with similar love stories and complementary roles within these stories. Finally, these stories are inextricably linked with the rest of one’s life: Particular stories can influence behavior in a relationship, and stories can be shaped and modified by one’s experiences.
Because courtship and mate choice are central aspects of reproduction in avian and mammalian species, it seems plausible that the experiences, behaviors, and neural underpinnings of falling in love might be strongly shaped by evolution. Thus, as noted earlier, Fisher proposed that the brain system for romantic attraction evolved to motivate individuals to select among potential mating partners, prefer particular conspecifics, and focus their courtship attention on these favored individuals, thereby conserving precious courtship and mating time and energy. Other evolutionary-oriented theorists have proposed that many human traits, including language and even some artistic talents, evolved as display devises to trigger attraction. Another important line of evolutionary thinking emphasizes gender differences in what features are desirable in a mate. For example, across cultures, men more than women consistently say they care more about a potential partner’s physical appearance and women more than men care about a potential partner’s social status. Finally, some approaches to the evolutionary basis of romantic love have argued that the mating system exploits an evolved bonding module between infants and parents.
Another approach to understanding falling in love is Arthur and Elaine Aron’s Self-Expansion Model. This model posits (a) that a primary human motivation to expand one’s self in terms of potential to attain desired goals and (b) that a main way people seek to expand the self is in terms of “including others in the self” through close relationships so that the other’s resources, perspectives, and identities are treated to some extent as one’s own. Both principles have received considerable research support. In terms of romantic love, the researchers argue that the exhilaration and intense, focused attention of passionate love arises from the rapid rate of including the other in the self often associated with forming a new romantic relationship. Falling in love, according to this model, arises when one perceives the opportunity for substantial self-expansion by including a particular other person in the self.
Falling in love is much less a mystery than it once was. Scientists are no longer just watching the storms and heat waves with at best only a poetic sense of what is going on. We know what people mean fairly precisely by “falling in love.” We know that it is not just sexual desire. We know many of the systematic similarities and differences across personality, gender, culture, and whether the love is reciprocated. We know a fair amount about falling in love’s effects on the individual experiencing it and on how its intensity affects relationships that develop from it. We know a great deal about the variables that predict falling in love. We have a growing basis for understanding its biological correlates and cross-species similarities. And several theoretical approaches offer substantial insights into underlying mechanisms.
Yet, mystery remains. Most of what we know, as noted throughout this entry, is extrapolation from work on initial attraction or on romantic love, the states on either side of falling in love, each of which has been much more thoroughly studied. Nevertheless, one can look forward to continued important work using existing approaches, as well as to exciting findings from entirely new approaches or new adaptations of successful paradigms from other research domains. Given the sophistication and innovation that have characterized research in this area to date, it seems likely that it will not be long before falling in love is as well understood as other relationship phenomena. Indeed, one can look forward in the not too distant future to both being and falling in love becoming as well understood and predictable as the next storm or heat wave.