Monica Applewhite Ph.D.Confianza, LLC
Many times over the years I have seen otherwise smart, grounded people make extraordinarily poor decisions while in the throes of infatuation. Each time I wonder how it is that as a society we can be so fascinated by all that is sexual and still know so little about human attraction, falling in love and maintaining healthy romantic relationships. If we know more about the study of love, could that make a difference in how we make decisions in our relationships? Let’s find out.
Infatuation has many names in our culture, demonstrating that it has great value in Western Society. Chemistry, a spark, obsession, romantic love, these are all names for the phenomenon described in the psychological world as “Passionate Love.” Passionate Love is defined as “an intense longing for union with another” and is characterized by feelings of excitement, preoccupation, idealization, sexual attraction, intensity, and elation. Passionate love is often described as a “high;” some people say a “spiritual high.” Individuals who are experiencing this type of relationship often feel completely consumed by it. They may find it difficult to concentrate on anything else. The desire to be with the other person, to be in physical contact, to hear the voice of the person is extremely powerful. Overall, physical and sexual attraction during infatuation experiences is highly compelling. In short, passionate love is INTENSE.
Studies of persons experiencing infatuation report that the normal duration of infatuation ranges from six weeks to six months, depending upon the characteristics and circumstances of the relationship. Interestingly enough, these same studies show that we can be infatuated with almost anyone as long as they are new to us.
Devotion is also known by a variety of names, such as commitment, “true” love, and Agape. Psychologists most often use the term, “Companionate Love.” Companionate Love is defined as “the affection we hold for those with whom our lives are deeply entwined,” and it is characterized by a feeling of being profoundly known and understood. Companionate love is comfortable, mutual and relatively consistent. Those who experience companionate love often share history, have similar values, and consider each other “soul mates.” Individuals who are experiencing companionate love enjoy physical closeness, “inside jokes” and special nicknames. Studies of this form of love indicate that while there seems to be no limit to the number of years one can sustain companionate love, it is rarely experienced in less than a year of knowing the person well.
So why do humans become infatuated? And why do some relationships deepen into devotion while others fizzle into indifference? Let’s take the infatuation question first.
The instinct to procreate is embedded deeply into our psyche. This instinct manifests itself in the tendency to feel attraction toward “someone new.” A person is experienced as “new” when we are unable to know their thoughts, understand them, and most importantly — predict their behavior. Two people who do not know each other very well, or who know each other socially, but not intimately, are not able to predict one another’s behavior, and this lack of predictability sustains the infatuation, or passionate love between them. This unpredictability is why passionate love is often sustained and increased by experiences in the relationship that are intense and exciting, regardless of whether they are positive or negative experiences. So it is possible for chaos, fear, secrecy, and anger to increase and sustain infatuation, just as unexpected time together, surprise gifts, and other types of positive spontaneity can.
Being able to predict the behavior of the other person, rather than negatives experiences, is what normally decreases the intense excitement of infatuation. For some, being able to predict unwanted or unpleasant behavior decreases the infatuation rather quickly, but even being able to predict desired behaviors, such as good manners, good grooming, thoughtfulness or interest in the partner’s opinions ultimately decreases the initial intensity of the new relationship.
Companionate love, however, is dependent upon positive, consistent experiences for sustenance. Recall that companionate love (devotion) is characterized by the feeling of being profoundly known, deeply understood and accepted. Studies of companionate love have identified five components of the devoted long-term relationships: Commitment, intimacy, cohesion, interaction and attention. Each of these components serves to maintain the consistency of relationship, allowing those involved to deepen trust and increase appreciation for the other person.
The first component of sustained companionate love relationships is commitment. Commitment can be achieved over time, solidified by a dramatic event or brought to the relationship because of societal expectations. Commitment is the disposition or plan to stay in the relationship during the more difficult times. It is pretending as if there are no other options but to maintain the relationship. In societies that arrange marriages, spouses are selected by parents and other family members based on similarities of the families, similar status, similar levels of attractiveness, having the same religious beliefs and other practical matters for the families to easily blend together. Ironically, these same criteria are strong predictors for long-term marital satisfaction in the United States, but rarely do they enter into the decision-making of those who are making plans while they are experiencing infatuation. In arranged marriages, the commitment is immediate. The long-term decision to remain in the relationship is made prior to the ceremony. When there are difficulties in the relationship, the option of “just leaving” rarely enters into the realm of possibility.
In the United States, commitment is not imposed by the larger society, though it may be expected by a smaller community or by a family. All close relationships experience some ebb and flow of comfort and discomfort. Commitment allows us to weather the variations in intensity of feelings, the attractions to other people and the day-to-day work of sustaining a relationship. Commitment leads to consistency and trust.
Recall that we develop devotion, or companionate love through consistent, positive experiences. A key positive experience in most companionate love relationships is the sharing of intimacy. Intimacy is from the Latin, meaning “inner” or “innermost.” When we feel intimate with another person, we believe that we can reveal our innermost thoughts and feelings and that we will be safe. Intimacy can exist in many kinds of relationships, not just romantic relationships: friends, siblings, relatives and work colleagues may share intimacy. When intimacy is absent, in Western society we experience that as “loneliness,” the feeling that we have no one with whom we can share our innermost thoughts and feelings. Most experts in the field agree that emotionally healthy adults must have at least one to three people with whom they share intimacy in order to sustain happiness and life satisfaction over time.
So how does one achieve intimacy? Intimacy exists on three levels: Cognitive, emotional and behavioral.
Cognitive intimacy means sharing one’s history, thoughts, beliefs, hopes and fear, and listening to the history, thoughts, beliefs, hopes and fears of others. Either not revealing information about oneself or not listening to the information shared by the other person will inhibit the development of intimacy. Risking too much information too soon, however, can frighten someone who feels unprepared to share at a comparable level.
Emotional intimacy is deep caring for another person and knowing that person can hurt us. Because we care so earnestly, when the other person is sad or ill or in harm’s way, we care, we worry. What happens to the other person is of the utmost importance to us. We also know that a negative word or expression from our intimate can send us into a tail-spin. This is the enormous risk of intimacy and the terrible pain of dissolving an intimate relationship. Seemingly nothing means more to us than praise from our intimates and nothing grips us more immediately and stays with us longer than harsh words or criticism from those we have trusted with intimacy.
Behavioral intimacy is spending time together. In order to achieve intimacy, one must spend time with the other person. Once intimacy is established, less time is needed to sustain it, but on-going interaction is always needed to sustain the feeling of being understood and accepted.
Cohesion. The third component of sustained relationships is cohesion. It is the product of intimacy. Cohesion is a feeling of closeness and compassion for the other person. Cohesion is what prevents us from hurting the other person, even though we have the power to do so. Cohesion is a desire to care for, protect and nurture another person. It is a connectedness to another person’s experience that is so strong one is willing to make sacrifices and expend energy to protect the interests of the other person.
Interaction. The next component of sustained, companionate love relationships is interaction: sharing activities. Mutual interests, sharing leisure time, enjoying the same hobbies contribute to interaction. Studies of communication patterns show that this component is particularly important to males of all ages. These studies show that both boys and men are more likely to “open up” or share information in the context of a shared activity, such as fishing, golfing, walking, or playing a game than they are in a “sit down” setting that would be comfortable for girls or women to talk. The more activities we share, the more time we have to increase intimacy.
Attention. The last component of sustained companionate love is attention. Attention refers to the positive thoughts and planning that lead to behavior that is considerate and kind to the other person. This is the component that most clearly demonstrates, over time, the respect and high regard one has for the other. Attention is how we demonstrate that we value the person and the relationship. When we take time to prepare a favorite meal, “fix-up” or display a beloved possession, or write a special note we show special attention. When we use a kind voice tone, avoid criticizing, take time to ask questions and listen, help with tasks and find ways to make the other person’s life easier, we show the type of daily attention that is essential for satisfaction in long-term relationships.
The Coexistence of Infatuation and Intimacy
So far we have described how infatuation or passionate love occurs and is sustained and we have discussed how devotion or companionate love is sustained, but are the two mutually exclusive? Can we be in a consuming, passionate relationship and still have intimacy? Let’s examine that question.
To be and feel deeply and profoundly known, one must share personal information and time and risk being hurt. Naturally we avoid painful experiences; hence, we do not normally reveal information about ourselves until we feel safe – until we have confidence that the information will not be used against us. Most of us do not feel safe until we feel we can predict how the other person will react and what the other person will do with the information: e.g., tell other people and criticize us or maintain confidentiality and respond with compassion. In other words, we reveal our innermost thoughts and feelings when we believe we can predict the other person’s behavior. Just ask yourself this question, “When did I last reveal private information about myself to a person whose behaviors I cannot understand or predict at all?” It has probably been a while since that happened.
But there are relationships in which individuals experience extraordinary intimacy within passionate love relationships…how can that be?
In these cases, the intensity of experience that is needed to sustain the infatuation is fueled by the characteristics of the relationship itself. A typical scenario of this type would be a “forbidden” relationship such as an affair with a married person, an office relationship that is against policy, a relationship between a therapist and a client or any other type of relationship in which secrecy must be maintained, fear of being caught is constant and time together is intermittent.
It is not uncommon for individuals who are part of “forbidden” relationships to be unaware of the effect that the nature of the relationship is having on the perception of intensity of feelings toward the other person, and to believe that they feel so strongly “in spite of” the difficulties surrounding the relationship. It has been quite a shock for some who have left a marriage or a job or celibate life to enter a now “condoned” relationship with someone and to find that the other suddenly did not seem as exciting or as flawless as they did before the relationship changed.
There are also those who search all their lives for the ‘perfect partner” with whom they can share the deepest mutual understanding and also sustain the level of intensity of physical attraction that exists prior to the existence of strong intimacy. Each time that familiarity and consistency lead to greater intimacy and an associated decrease in intensity, they feel disappointed that once again they have “fallen out of love.” Studies of this phenomenon show high levels of desire for excitement, high levels of desire for intimacy and high levels of loneliness that are all remarkably consistent over the lifetime.
Any of us can become infatuated with someone new. It is part of us. Infatuation itself is not a “wrong” or dangerous experience. When we understand this dimension of ourselves, we can be energized by it and enjoy the temporary “high” of the experience, knowing that our perceptions will be colored for a time by the feelings of infatuation and the excitement associated with it. It is also true that most companionate love relationships begin with infatuation and through consistent, positive experiences, deepen into devotion. The danger comes when we believe that the experience of infatuation is synonymous with “falling in love” and associate a decrease in intensity with a decrease in love. A higher level of excitement in the early days and weeks of a relationship is not a good predictor of future satisfaction, commitment or devotion. While most sustained companionate relationships began with intensity and a feeling that the relationship was truly special and “meant to be,” many other relationships begin in the same way and within weeks move into disinterest and apathy.
We began with a question: Would a deeper understanding of attraction and falling in love change behavior? Could insight into infatuation influence fidelity? Would understanding passion affect how we keep our vows? Our promises? I am not convinced that more information would change behavior for everyone, but I do believe this knowledge base is worth pursuing and that it is essential for a basic understanding of human motivation, choices and healthy romantic relationships.
For further reading:
Hatfield, E. & Rapson, R. Love, Sex and Intimacy: Their Psychology, Biology and History. Harper Collins College Publishers: New York.
Rawlins, W., Friendship Matters: Communication, Dialectics, and the Life Course. Aldine de Gruyter: New York.
Sternberg, R.J. & Barnes, M.L., Eds. The Psychology of Love. Yale University Press: New Haven and London.
Vaughan, D., Uncoupling: Turning Points in Intimate Relationships. Vintage Books: New York.