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Psychology of Social Connection

The Life Cycle of Love

March 27th, 2023 · 11 Comments

Love is in the air! But how did it get there? And how do you stop it from going away? Romantic love is a foundational component of the human experience that leads to feelings of overwhelming joy, devastating heartbreak, and everything in between. It pretty much goes without saying, then, that it’s pretty complicated. Love can be confusing, all-consuming, and seemingly unexplainable. Before we can even begin to define those feelings, we have to ask……what is love? We are going to break it down into 3 key stages: falling in love, staying in love, and lastly, the ending of love. 

Falling in Love: Attraction, Familiarity, and Flirtation (Jessica)

So, you want to fall in love? The romance blogs and dating apps may make it seem easy, but love isn’t something you can pull out of thin air. Relationships take time, energy, and a whole lot of self-reflection and communication with your partner. But before we can even get there, how do you actually find the one? Studies show that part may not take as much effort as you think. 

Think back to your elementary or high school crush. Why did you like them? Maybe they brought it in the best snacks? Did they compliment your outfits? While physical and emotional attraction can come from meaningful interactions with others, sometimes it’s as simple as being in the right place, at the right time…all of the time. That’s right, exposure can spark attraction! How many times have you noticed that one classmate who always sits in your row or that coworker who’s on your shift every week when you pass them on the street? How many times have you noticed the classmate you only sat next to once? In a long-term study on affinity in a classroom setting, students rated the women they saw the most in class as more attractive than others (Moreland & Beach, 1990). These findings suggest exposure impacts attraction and similarity (Moreland & Beach, 1990). Who knows? Maybe following the same route across campus to that 9 AM will be worth it one day.

If you’re not someone who follows a regular schedule, don’t worry. Familiarity isn’t the only way to fall in love. Attraction has also been linked to misattributed physiological arousal. Now, I know, that sounds pretty daunting, but it’s actually simpler than you think. When our bodies are aroused – scared, working out, daydreaming – we tend to want to attribute it to something (White & Kight, 1984). That attempt to link a feeling to an experience is a force of habit, really. If we feel good, we want to know how to keep feeling good and if we feel bad, we want to know how to stop feeling bad. But sometimes, we make the wrong link. That’s misattributed physiological arousal. Oftentimes, this misattribution can lead us to feelings of love or attraction that aren’t actually there. Researchers supported this hypothesis with the Shaky Bridge Study, where participants were found to be more attracted to a female researcher on a shaky, anxiety-inducing bridge, than a sturdy one (Dutton & Aron, 1974). It seems that physiological arousal can trick us into thinking we’re attracted to someone, even when we’re not.

Falling in love isn’t a one-person show. On top of feeling attracted to somebody, we have an inherent desire to be desired – a need to belong. Planting the seed for a new relationship requires some confirmation that your potential partner is interested in you too (Aron & Tomlinson, 2018). Our perceptions of how other people feel about us are crucial to navigating love, attraction, and relationships. This motivation to be liked by others may be partially explained by the self-expansion model, which argues people are motivated to broaden the self through close relationships (Aron & Tomlinson, 2018). According to this model, our self-concept is influenced by the way we perceive others and the way they perceive us (Aron & Tomlinson, 2018). These two self-concepts combine to create a “relational self”, which you send off into the world of love and romance.

Now if you’ve gotten this far, or if you’ve fallen in love, you might be wondering…how do I stay in love? Let’s talk some more about maintaining romantic relationships.

Staying in Love: Foundations of Sustaining Romantic Relationships (Evan)

Hookups and hangouts evolve into the “talking stage” and then, maybe, becoming “official.” After all the flirtation, excitement, and buildup of a new prospective relationship, it is time to take things to the next level, but, what does this even mean?! Maybe you’ve experienced a craving for commitment from the person you’ve been seeing or perhaps an overwhelming fear of it. Either way, entering a committed relationship might mean things are about to get real, but the fun and flirtation don’t need to go away. What is the perfect balance between seriousness and commitment, and playfulness and individuality? Frankly, there is not a perfect formula for romantic relationship success and it varies heavily by couple, but research has uncovered a few common threads on which to focus. 

In 1997, psychologist Robert Sternberg proposed the Triangular Theory of Love which pinpoints intimacy, passion, and commitment as the building blocks of deep romantic connection (Sternberg, 1997). Firstly, intimacy is the feeling or emotion encompassing closeness, connectedness, and bonding between a couple (Sternberg, 1997). Secondly, Sternberg describes passion as the driving force behind intimacy, primarily in the context of sex (Sternberg, 1997). The last point of the triangle, commitment, means “in the short-term, to the decision that one loves a certain other, and in the long-term, to one’s commitment to maintain that love” (Sternberg, 1997). I’d argue a more symmetrical-shaped theory for love to thrive long-term. His primary three elements are convincing and important contributing factors in romantic relationships, but there are two crucial pieces that appear absent from the Triangular Theory of Love. Maybe the triangle should be restructured into a square keeping intimacy and commitment at the top, but adding trust and communication on the bottom, as necessary to achieve intimacy and commitment, with passion bouncing around in the middle. Sometimes passion fills up the whole square, sometimes it’s in a ball in the corner – over time, passion comes and goes, sometimes it changes, sometimes it’s barely hanging on, and sometimes it comes roaring back. Passion evolves as love evolves in a long-term romantic relationship, but the foundations of lasting love are trust, communication, intimacy, and commitment.

Research shows that intimacy goals and readiness are key predictors of relationship initiation and partner selection, so this is something to keep in mind when looking to take that next step in your relationship (Sanderson et al., 2007). Intimacy can look and feel different for everybody; it can mean emotional vulnerability, sexual intimacy, mutual affection, general closeness, or a combination of the above (Mosier, 2006). But, however you view intimacy, it is imperative that it is mutually felt to ensure closeness and connectedness between partners. Commitment, as defined by Sternberg, ultimately comes down to a continued effort by both parties to make the relationship work. A study shows that when one partner evidently makes investments (time, energy, etc.) in the relationship, it inspires the other partner to commit further to the relationship and can spur a sort of cycle (Joel et al., 2013). Next, intimacy and commitment are unachievable without trust – “trust may be the single most important ingredient for the development and maintenance of happy, well-functioning relationships” (Simpson, 2007). A lack of trust diminishes support, commitment, effort, communication, and intimacy between romantic partners (Arikewuyo et al., 2021). So, if you ever find yourself tempted to go snooping through your partner’s phone, this could be a major red flag that there is a lack of trust in your relationship, and should be addressed. Last, but certainly not least, is communication. Communication lies at the base of relationship success as it allows you to express feelings, insecurities, and needs and, ultimately, is the primary tool in conflict resolution. There are many nuances to these four key elements, but if you have all the points in the square, you are setting yourself up for a stable and strong relationship. But, if one point in the square is missing, things might get wobbly.

The End: Finding the Rainbow After the Rain (Ava)

Does her laugh no longer sound like a chorus of angels, but rather like a starving hyena? Have you recently caught yourself singing a bit too emphatically to Fiona Apple and Lana Del Rey man-hating anthems? Is his “adorable” habit of coding during your alone time together no longer giving “silicon valley daddy”, but rather making you feel dismissed and invaluable? If you answered yes to any of these, it, unfortunately, might mean that your current romantic partner that you met in your 10:30 Gened section might actually not be your soulmate *gasp*. Though this realization may seem scary, fear not– breakups are a common, and important, part of emerging adulthood development and can ultimately lead to positive change in your life. 

Breakups can happen for a plethora of reasons, and even though some breakups are inevitable, there are steps that you can take to salvage a relationship. You may feel as in love as ever with your partner but feel that your relationship still feels rocky. This can be caused by either lack of expressed gratitude or conversely, an abundance of sacrifice that may be overwhelming your partner. It has been found that individuals often underestimate the positive effect of expressing gratitude to others and overestimated how uncomfortable the receiver of the gratitude would be (Kumar & Epley 2018). It may be possible that even though you feel like you are complementing and doting upon your partner enough, it would be beneficial to do so even more frequently. We often underestimate how powerful our words can be to others, so let this serve as a reminder to show your love frequently and authentically– it will be better received than you expect it to be. Conversely, you may be thinking “this doesn’t apply to me– I shower my partner with affection and make it known how much I sacrifice for them”. Unfortunately, this can be problematic as well.  Acts of service and sacrifice for a partner may seem beneficial on the surface, but if not done in a reciprocal way, can cause tension and miscommunication within the relationship. Sacrificing for your partner can improve their mood and make them feel appreciated, but if done in excess, can also create feelings of guilt and indebtedness on their ends, and feelings of resentment from the giver (Righetti, Visserman & Impett 2022). The feeling of being in love is not enough to foster a healthy relationship on its own– you need to be able to express it in the way that your partner needs. 

Sometimes, relationships just need to come to an end– they’ve served their purpose, taught valuable lessons, and it’s time to say goodbye. Though it can be sad to end a relationship, it doesn’t need to be all thunderstorms– if you look hard enough, you can find your rainbow. This step is critical, as merely being equipped with the knowledge that heartache can have silver linings is correlated with a reduced rate of depression in recently-single adults (Slotter & Ward 2015). And though it may feel isolating and difficult to do so, 1 in 3 individuals in early adulthood have experienced a serious breakup in the past 2 years, and it’s important that they do (Asselman & Specht 2022). It’s been found that experiencing a breakup can lead to higher feelings of self-confidence, independence, and more emotional stability in future relationships (Tashiro & Frazier 2003). So despite this relationship not having a fairy tale ending– the experience of having loved and lost might prepare you better for the next person you are crushing on. Further, going through a breakup is also linked to causing higher levels of internal control belief (Asselman & Specht 2022). This may end up being the greatest gift your ex-partner has ever given you, as people with higher levels of internal control are more confident in being able to control the outcomes in their life. This trait is correlated with greater success in the workplace, achieving personal goals, and conquering various other aspects of their life (Asselman & Specht 2022). In short, love openly and often without fear of heartbreak– sometimes the most valuable lessons from a relationship come after they end. 


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11 responses so far ↓

  • Elle // Mar 28th 2023 at 10:22 am

    Thank you so much Jessica, Evan and Ava for this blog post! I loved the tone and overall flow of the post, with tips and advice backed up with psychological evidence throughout the timeline of a relationship. I learned a lot about misconceptions and possible signs in relationships that have deeper underlying psychological implications/explanations.
    Jessica’s point about mere exposure and familiarity with a person can lead to attraction. This is something I hadn’t really thought of before but realized that it’s true in practice. I wonder, though, if there is something about the first impression of that person that then causes you to notice the individual more, or if it is familiarity and exposure that then leads to attraction. In other words, what came first? Initial attraction and then noticing them more often, or being around them a lot turns into attraction?
    I thought Evan did a beautiful job of elevating existing research/hypotheses on the foundation for love. Her addition of communication and trust to form a square was a really cool analogy. Picturing passion bouncing around that square was a unique way to think about the fluctuating dynamics in a relationship. I wonder if she could expand on that visual. Is it more advantageous that the square stays perfectly symmetrical, or can it evolve into a trapezoid? If one side, like commitment, is a bit shorter than intimacy, what does that have to say about the strength of the relationship?
    Ava’s section on breakups was certainly a light at the end of the tunnel. Super fun to read (the silicon valley daddy comment got me) and positive perspective on the benefits of a breakup on other dimensions of life. The part about more emotional stability in future relationships after a breakup stuck out to me. Is that because you understand more of what you are looking for in a person based on what didn’t work in the past relationship, or is it because you have “thicker skin” and are able to handle that kind of heartbreak? I feel like that might not always be the case. What is different about the people who become super closed off at the end of a relationship and become less emotionally vulnerable? Would be cool to research from a psychology perspective why those differences arise.

  • Georgena Williams // Mar 28th 2023 at 3:54 pm

    Thanks for this blog post, Jessica, Evan, and Ava!

    I absolutely loved how you structured the blog post to touch on three critical stages of love.

    Jessica, I loved the real-world references because they effectively connect research with relevant examples. While reading, I was curious about the misattribution study and its findings. I wonder if there are any best practices in determining when attraction is just a misattribution of arousal or a significant indicator of more.

    Evan, I agree with your adaptation of turning the triangular theory of love into a square that includes trust and communication, as trust and communication are foundational building blocks to maintaining commitment. I also appreciate the framing of passion as something that fluctuates because it reduces the pressure that relationship dynamics must always exist in the same manner. Relationship dynamics shift over time as couples move from passionate new love to committed and comfortable connections.

    Ava, you looped me in with those intro statements! Such good examples to draw the reader’s attention! Your point that “The feeling of being in love is not enough to foster a healthy relationship on its own– you need to be able to express it in the way that your partner needs” really spoke to me. Reading that section caused me to reflect on the role of love languages in learning and responding to your partner’s specific needs.

  • Cassie Sousa // Mar 29th 2023 at 12:12 am

    Jessica, I found it interesting to read your section about how familiarity and exposure breeds attraction because I have often heard that “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” Perhaps this pithy quote, like “opposites attract,” is not backed by research or perhaps it has to do with love rather than initial attraction.

    Evan, I was very interested by your section about what is needed to maintain a strong relationship. While I totally agree that intimacy, commitment, trust, communication, and passion are all important for maintaining a relationship, I also think that the importance of maintaining and respecting individuality should be accounted for. As discussed in the lecturette for this week, too much of a self-other overlap can be harmful to some degree. I think that, in order to make a relationship work in the long-term, each partner must remain true to who they are outside of their relationship. For example, space to allow for alone time or time with friends seems really important to relationship maintenance. So, perhaps another potential model for relationship maintenance would be a pentagon?

    Ava, I am intrigued by the fact that breakups can have positive effects on qualities such as self-confidence or emotional stability in future relationships. I would be interested to hear more about the mechanisms which underly the relationships between breakups and self-confidence and between breakups and emotional stability. As for the mechanism which explains how breakups lead to enhanced self-confidence, I wonder if it has to do with some self-fulfilling prophecy of an individual, and their friends, telling themselves that “they deserve so much better” and repeating it until they believe it.

  • Sophia Gilroy // Mar 29th 2023 at 10:28 am

    Jessica, Evan, and Ava – I really enjoyed reading your blog post! I felt each of your own voices coming through in your respective sections while also maintaining that sense of flow to your overall post. Jessica’s section on falling in love was very comprehensive in that she covered two distinct factors that could spark a romantic relationship, from physical exposure to physiological arousal. Her discussion also echoed some of the lecturette content from this week, which helped both emphasize and understand the material. Evan’s section was another beautifully written piece about maintaining romantic relationships, and I appreciated his personal argument for changing the love triangle to a square, and I totally agree with him! It was interesting to read how he decided to approach this topic as I also wrote about maintaining relationships in our blog post and I thought his approach was very insightful. Ava’s section wrapped the post up nicely and what I appreciated about her section was how she turned a seemingly upsetting topic into an optimistic one. I was especially interested in her discussion on balance and boundaries in relationships and showing just how fragile those factors can be when trying to foster a healthy dynamic.

  • Ella // Mar 29th 2023 at 3:19 pm

    I really enjoyed this week’s blog post! In Jessica`s section, I found it so interesting that the very experience of being exposed to someone more frequently can lead us to be more attracted to them. I also thought the mention of attaining some degree of confirmation that a potential partner reciprocates interest as super important, not only for the comfortability of the person being pursued, but for the mental well-being self-compassion of the pursuer. In Evan`s section, I really appreciated the stipulation of passion not as a foundation of a long-lasting relationship, but as something that evolves — ebbing and flowing over time. This was an important mention for me namely because I believe that passion will never be able to sustain a healthy relationship without trust, communication, intimacy, and commitment. In Ava`s section, I really enjoyed the sense of humor employed through the writing style. Particularly the notion of expressing gratitude as crucial for sustaining a dwindling relationship stuck out to me, as I believe appreciation to be one of the most important facets of sustaining meaningful connections — accordingly, lack of expressed appreciation is so often the cornerstone of emotional tension in relationships. In terms of how frequently this needs to be expressed, it is often just a question of partners` ability to communicate with one another and ask how they can better meet their partner`s needs. Overall, I found this week’s blog post very thought-provoking, engaging, and well-written! Super fun to read.

  • Karley Merkley // Mar 29th 2023 at 4:10 pm

    This was a really fun and neat post & I really enjoyed reading this since I am in a committed relationship rn (Shoutout to Adam my bf)… anywho I really resonated with Jessica & Evans part because it is so relatable (and Ava I’ll relate to yours if I ever get there lol). Although I knew in another class that familiarity increases attraction, it made me wonder if the attraction grows because you get to know them more and because they just happen to be more similar you like them?? (bringing in my post). And then also when talking about the famous arousal study made me think about what the difference would be in attraction if someone went on a first date to a scary movie vs an kid movie or something else? Would they have been more attracted to each other after the movie because they were more aroused?
    Furthermore, I really enjoyed Evans piece and will keep the Triangular Love Theory in my back pocket because I feel like intimacy, love and passion all work together but are different and this was cool to learn about.
    As for Ava, this was really relatable as a witnessed some of the things you talked about in my friends previous relationships. Overall, this was a really relatable discussion post that made me think and reflect a lot.

  • Pomai // Mar 29th 2023 at 5:24 pm

    Jessica, I definitely agree that exposure is key to noticing people, especially people who are more the wallflower types. There’s a certain beauty in the way our minds become attuned to the people around us and how we start to value people more when we are exposed to them more. This makes me think of my experiences in the dhall… there’s definitely people who routinely eat breakfast at the same time as me who I’ve started to notice haha. But I think that’s mainly because there’s not that many people at breakfast, so it’s more likely for me to be aware of them whereas when I’m in the dhall at lunch, I honestly don’t pay enough attention to consciously notice anyone by mere exposure (and I’ve met a number of people who’ve said they’ve seen me around the dhall who I didn’t recognize at all… oops). So, I don’t think exposure on its own increases attraction because some people are less attentive than others. Maybe subconsciously people will think that those who they’ve “seen” before are more attractive, but that doesn’t always translate to tangible effects in real life.

    Evan, I like your point about understanding each other’s different views of intimacy but wonder if mutual communication and understanding of those views is enough or if there needs to be an overlap in views for a relationship to last. For instance, if one person’s intimacy is rooted in connecting on an emotional level whereas another person’s is rooted in more physical intimacy, there may be a disconnect between how both people relate to each other and how both feel supported/appreciated. I don’t think such deeply rooted views can change nor should we expect a partner to change their views, so I wonder if this would become a source of division for both partners over time or if it can be reconciled in some other way. Also, the trust part of your section made me think of those YouTube videos people make of trying to catch their partners cheating… I feel like those videos end badly because there was no trust. But it is interesting to think about what options people have because it seems like a lose-lose situation: either you try to find out if your partner is cheating and risk losing their trust, or you trust your partner and risk losing their loyalty.

    Ava, it was really interesting to read about the tension between not enough and too much sacrifice. This made me think about how in either case you could end up falling into a state of boredom/consistency that doesn’t feel as inspiring or invigorating as in the beginning. Beyond that tension, I’d be interested in seeing a comparison between tension within couples of people who married the first person they dated vs. those who married the 5th/10th/20th/etc. person they dated. I’d hypothesize couples who never dated anyone else experience less tension because they never experienced anything different so would be less likely to have feelings of “what if” and would be less likely to compare their current relationship to past ones. But at the same time, perhaps someone who dated twelve people had a better sense of what they wanted and what worked for them, so may have found a more fulfilling relationship that has less tension because the partners’ views align.

  • Callie // Mar 29th 2023 at 7:23 pm

    It is really interesting to learn about how exposure to people can increase the likelihood of being romantically interested in them. This is something I have read a bit about before, and I still think it is a really interesting psychological finding. I also really like how this blog post talks about the importance of trust in a relationship and how not having trust can cause the downfall of a relationship. I also like how this post talks about reciprocity in a relationship and the importance of balance between two people in a relationship.

  • Wendy Carballo // Mar 29th 2023 at 11:53 pm

    I devoured this blog post even though I’ve never been in a relationship! It was so beautifully written and executed; It inspired in me so many ideas that aren’t enough to cover in a brief comment. Overall, one of my biggest takeaways from reading this is that romantic relationships can be just like regular friendships + sexual intimacy. While reading Jessica’s section, for example, I was reminded of one of the studies we read last week about the role of proximity in friendship development, which is seemingly the case for romantic relationships as well. Moreover, the point of misattributed physiological arousal really made me question what it truly means to feel genuine attraction for someone. This is interesting because it can even apply to regular friendships, seeing as there’s been research suggesting that high-arousal situations can spark a sense of unity or emotional contagion, leading to the illusion of unity which makes people feel closer to one another. Looking back on my own experiences, I was also reminded of a time in which a simple affirmation such as “I like [insert name]” completely overturned my brain chemistry in the span of mere seconds and made me feel, think, and act uncharacteristically love-sick the next day. As though I had acquired some sort of virus or disease overnight. My main point is that perhaps non-familial relationships aren’t as well-selected as we’d like to think they are, given the various geographical, physiological, and psychological factors or states that are implicated. Perhaps even seemingly soulmate-bonds are more artificial than people may realize given this. Other helpful components for maintaining friendship such as perspective-taking, commitment, communication, reciprocity, trust, etc., also seem to be necessary for romantic relationships as well. Moreover, going back to the topic of high-arousal situations, I’m wondering if routinely incorporating novelty can also help maintain excitement in the relationship and keep the romance alive. The last section was such a very nice way to end the blog. I think the break-up part of relationships really highlights reciprocity and empathy as two of the most important things to practice, seeing as the moment one person fails in all other components, the other partner begins to carry more of the emotional weight/burden, which can serve as a clear sign that the relationship wasn’t a soulmate-bond. Given that one can learn from these experiences, I was wondering what the benefits are of having these romantic trials and errors at a young age as opposed to waiting around for the “right” person as an adult—that is, when one has likely developed higher cognitive abilities and emotional maturity.

  • Andrea // Mar 29th 2023 at 11:53 pm

    Thank you for this post, all! I thought it was really entertaining and engaging to read. I think this was a really comprehensive way of analyzing the various parts of a relationship cycle. The first few seemingly unrelated thoughts that most immediately came to mind were 1) if we see that trust and communication are the “pillars” of a healthy relationship, do we see that an inability to engage in these behaviors is recognized as dealbreakers in a relationship? and 2) how do relationships vary as people age?

    I would imagine that people have a variety of “red flags” when considering a romantic partner, which may depend on things such as upbringing, experience, culture, etc. However, if one has more relationship experience, would one become more adept at recognizing healthy and unhealthy behaviors in a relationship? Although the question of how relationships vary as one ages may seem unrelated to looking at what are breaking points in relationships, I would hypothesize that as one ages they may become more selective when choosing a partner, because they are losing time to choose a partner, and thus have less luxury in making a risky choice in a partner. Thus, one’s deal breakers may become stricter as you age.

  • Eliot // Mar 30th 2023 at 10:56 am

    Thank you for this blog post!

    In Evan’s section, It’s notable that a lot of the qualities of a successful, long-lasting relationship — for example, trust and commitment — wholly depend on reciprocity. And according to the blog post, this doesn’t strictly mean that we should return what we receive in a relationship; per Ava’s piece, it’s also important to keep in mind that we should think about whether sacrifices are reciprocable, or we might create an imbalances in our relationships in terms of feeling guilty/in debt. In sum, it seems like relationships hinge on reciprocity… or at least the understanding that certain imbalances are okay, if they’ve been discussed and accepted as sensible.

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