Various conceptualizations have been offered for the idea of "romantic love." Different definitions of romantic love and its components affect the kinds of communication and other behaviors which researchers expect to find and study. This paper argues for a more positive view of this phenomenon. It examines some of the underlying characteristics necessary for mature romantic love and how these characteristics should be reflected in dyadic communication. A non-situationally based view of self-esteem is offered which differs from that usually presented in the social sciences. The role of positive and negative predictability and uncertainty are also considered in terms of their impact on the nature of romantic relationships.
Ninety percent of all adults in America marry at some point in their lives (Snyder & Simpson, 1987). Fifty percent of these marriages end in divorce. During the first decade of marriage, most couples report a decline in marital satisfaction. This trend is reflected in decreased companionship, common interests, and attitudinal agreement, and in fewer expressions of love and affection along with a concomitant loss of emotional intensity and fascination (Aron & Aron, 1986).
Does mature realism demand an acknowledgment of the validity of this cheerless vision? Do the passing years of togetherness inevitably lead to a dying of the flames of youthful passion and excitement? Is the loss of romance to be welcomed or cursed? Is romantic love the cause of disenchantment or its victim; a result of a self-fulfilling prophecy? The findings noted earlier in this paper have been replicated time and again. The questions to be asked are, "Why? Why do so many intimate relationships end in such sadness? How is this process reflected in or caused by the kinds of communication used by romantic partners?"
Extensive research has detailed the factors leading to attraction, attachment, and bonding, that is, to the process of falling in love. Papers and books illuminating the processes of dissolution, termination, and divorce are equally pervasive. What are lacking are studies examining what is supposedly the most important goal: how to maintain an established relationship along with the love with which it began (Byrne & Murnen, 1988; Liebowitz, 1983). The kind of academic blindness in evidence here may well be a function of an underlying belief present in society regarding the requirements of the marriage relationship and of the nature of romantic love. This point will be addressed in a later section.
The present discussion is primarily directed to an exploration of the positive communication and other behaviors and to the personality factors which correlate with or act as causal agents of a happy and stable relationship. Yet such an orientation must still give a nod to the gloomy facts of unsatisfactory relationships.
Despite the occurrence of such relational problems as contentious behavioral patterns, infidelity, and jealousy, the prime culprit cited again and again as the underlying cause of relationship breakdown is boredom (Aron & Aron, 1986; Branden, 1980, 1988; Byrne & Murnen, 1988; Mellen, 1981; Miller & Siegel, 1972). Many writers view an increase in boredom in a relationship as inescapable and a fact which simply must be adjusted to and accepted. A relationship is viewed as inherently composed of repetitious stimuli to which the partners become habituated. From a learning theory perspective, lack of novelty creates a loss of reward value in what were previously reinforcing relational behaviors. Cognitive theory states that since love comes from a partner's role as a reducer of uncertainty, a long-term relationship must necessarily end in too much predictability (Aron & Aron, 1986). According to such theorists, romantic love cannot hope to survive the day-to-day drudgeries of life.
What is this phenomenon called romantic love? Consideration of all the various definitions of romantic or passionate love would entail a paper in itself. Understanding at least some of its characteristics is, however, required before the maintenance and communication of passion can be understood.
Romantic love is a unique emotional state of intense excitement, great calm, or enhanced well-being in the presence of the other (Liebowitz, 1983). There is a strong desire for sexual intimacy, exclusivity, and a deep concern for the other's welfare along with an element of idealization and great emotional involvement (Berscheid & Walster, 1974; Branden, 1988; Liebowitz, 1983; Maslow, 1970; Winstead & Derlega, 1986). It is a passionate, spiritual-emotional-sexual attachment between two people which reflects a high regard for the value of each other's person (Branden, 1988). According to Rand (1969), romantic love is an integrated conscious and unconscious response of mind and body to one's highest values as seen in another person.
Some people see romantic love as a powerful but irrational attraction (Kelley, 1983) or addiction (Peele, 1988); a temporary phenomenon composed mostly of sexual fantasies about the partner which will diminish after lengthy interaction (Berscheid, 1988; Berscheid & Walster, 1974). It has been considered as a feeling which results merely from the labeling of a general physiological arousal which arises from fear, anxiety, guilt, or a number of other sources (Berscheid & Walster, 1974; Walster, 1971).
This latter view, however, implies that the cognitive component is involved only in a definitional fashion and that all emotions are the same on the physiological level. There is no evidence for this view of emotion (Liebowitz, 1983). Indeed, Berscheid (1983) has altered her view of the two-component model of emotions into one with causal loops cycling between the cognitive and physiological factors. It is most likely, however, that environmental cues only fine-tune one's feelings or emotional responses. Even as hunger would exist without a cognitive label, so, too, would an emotion such as love. (A two-component view of emotion would lead one to conclude that an infant could not experience love until the label "love" had been acquired and understood.) An evolutionary perspective which recognizes the survival value of love reinforces this conclusion (Buss, 1988; Liebowitz, 1983).
(Part of this misconstrual of the nature of romantic love comes from looking at different types of love as mutually exclusive entities [cf Berscheid, 1988] rather than viewing romantic love as occurring in a conceptual hierarchy, i.e., dimensionally [cf Branden, 1988].)
In romantic attraction, one's sense of self changes. The person in love feels more attractive, confident, capable, optimistic about the future, more energetic, and in need of less food and sleep (Liebowitz, 1983). Love can be considered not only as an emotion but as an attitude, a process, state, or disposition (Kelley, 1983; Murstein, 1988) with a tendency to take some action in regard to the other (Branden, 1988; Maslow, 1970).
Romantic love is a normal and healthy emotional state. It is a basic human potential and capacity developed during the process of evolution (Buss, 1988; Liebowitz, 1983; Mellen, 1981). In both a literal and a psychological sense, healthy romantic love is for grown-ups, not children (Branden, 1980; Maslow, 1970).
What are some of the personal characteristics of the men and women who are most successful at love? Who are these people who achieve both happiness and stability in their long-term relationships? What are their relationships and their communication like?
The basic characteristic of these individuals which explicitly or implicitly underlies all other positive causes and correlates is high self-esteem (Aron & Aron, 1986; Branden, 1969, 1980, 1983, 1988; Campbell, 1981; Cunningham & Antill, 1981; Dion & Dion, 1988; Liebowitz, 1983; Maslow, 1970; Miller & Siegel, 1982; Rand, 1972; Rosenman, 1979). A high level of self-acceptance, self-knowledge, self-identity, and individualism or autonomy are all required before one can function successfully in romantic love (Liebowitz, 1983; Maslow, 1970).
Branden (1969) defines self-esteem as consisting of two interrelated aspects. The first component, self-confidence, comes from one's sense of efficacy/competence in dealing with oneself and the world. This self-confidence arises from one's commitment to rationality in guiding one's actions in such a way that is appropriate to the demands of reality. Such a person is committed to an awareness and understanding of what is true.
The second aspect of self-esteem is self-respect or a sense of worthiness. This comes from one's adherence to rational values and value-judgments. People with self-respect see themselves as deserving to be the beneficiaries of their actions and to be worthy of happiness.
Branden's (1969) concept of self-esteem differs from many in the field in that the level of one's self-esteem is determined by one's basic orientation to life. It can be influenced by but is not determined by variable situational successes or failures which are not under an individual's control. It is thus a relatively stable and guiding personality characteristic.
Those high in self-esteem experience romantic love more often than those with low self-esteem (Cunningham & Antill, 1981) and have better romantic relationships. They are less emotionally dependent on the partner and see love as a fulfilling personal experience rather than an intense interdependence (Dion & Dion, 1988). One must value oneself before one can accept and value someone else's love (Miller & Siegel, 1972). To say "I love you," one must first be able to say the "I" (Rand, 1943).
Those with internal locus of control and a satisfaction with self learn that the basis for happiness comes from within and not from external sources or from life circumstances such as wealth, health, or education (Campbell, 1981). Along with greater cognitive complexity (Aron & Aron, 1986) and a low self-monitoring orientation (in which a person relies on self rather than others for behavioral guidance) (Snyder & Simpson, 1987) comes greater marital satisfaction, stronger attachment to the partner, a smaller frequency of extramarital sexual relations, and less vulnerability to marital dissolution. The negative side of being a low self-monitor lover is greater emotional disruption and distress at the death or loss of a partner. Losing a lover is qualitatively different than losing a friend (Winstead & Derlega, 1986).
With a high level of self-esteem comes a greater tolerance of vulnerability (Kelvin, 1977). This is the ability to stay open to the feelings of one's partner and not to shut down and withdraw emotionally even when it is difficult to remain open (Branden, 1988). Disclosing areas of privacy can open one up to exploitation, hurt, or rejection, but it can also extend and enrich a relationship (Chelune, Robison, & Kommor, 1984). The limit of this tolerance of vulnerability determines the limit to which one can disclose to a partner and perhaps even the limit to which one can love or be loved. The individual who possesses a good sense of self will have not only the courage to risk vulnerability but will know enough about her- or himself to have something to reveal. Without this kind of self-awareness, there can be no true intimacy (Branden, 1980; Maslow, 1970).
Exclusivity is another important element of a successful romantic relationship. Love for one's current partner is negatively correlated with promiscuity and thoughts of ending the relationship (Cunningham & Antill, 1981). Romantic couples prefer each other's company to anyone else's and desire to be together as much as possible. Their deep, romantic emotional ties are reserved only for their partner (Cuber & Haroff, 1965; Maslow, 1970). Yet exclusivity is not equivalent to possessiveness. For successful and happy couples, the relationship is exclusive by choice and preference with no sense of one partner being the property of the other (Mellen, 1981). Even given this devotion to each other, however, these people are aware of their own autonomy, self-direction, and self-regulation, and recognize that each partner has needs for freedom, space, and, sometimes, aloneness (Branden, 1980).
The commitment these kinds of couples bring to the relationship allows them to reduce the uncertainty they face concerning the partnership's stability and frees them to devote their efforts to other matters (Kelley, 1983). Such commitment enhances feelings of love, strengthens the mutual bonds, and, in turn, gives the lovers even more reason for maintaining their commitment (Cunningham & Antill, 1981; Rosenman, 1979).
Hinde (1979) identifies endogenous commitment in which the couple accepts by voluntary choice the costs of the relationship while striving to optimize mutual rewards. The relationship itself becomes a goal and other outcomes are viewed as subgoals to that end, that is, to the maintenance of the relationship. Continuity comes from within as the partners actively strive to make the relationship work. This is distinguished from exogenous commitment which is due to external factors and is imposed from outside by social or legal costs and constraints, or because of poor alternatives. In this latter type of marriage, little effort is expended to maintain the relationship. The partnership is generally taken for granted.
Kelley (1983) compares his symmetrical commitment to exogenous commitment with its greater sense of we-ness, private language, mutually accommodating behaviors, and mutual understanding. For Cuber and Haroff (1965), there are intrinsic marriages which exhibit such commitment and are total, vital, deeply satisfying, and have an ever increasing level of satisfaction. These kinds of relationships stand in contrast to utilitarian marriages which correspond to Hinde's (1979) type of exogenous commitment.
For successful romantic couples, love is not selfless, altruistic, or self-sacrificing (Branden, 1969, 1980; Rand, 1964). Results of mutual eye contact manipulations indicate that the correct conception of love is one of an attitude toward a particular person and not an orientation to people in general (that is, selfless love) (Rubin, 1974). Indeed, a concern with altruistic, unconditional love may hide a desire to maintain an inequitable status quo (Hatfield & Traupmann, 1981).
In an equitable relationship, there is a perceived sense of fairness rather than simple equality (Duck, 1983). Since an objective measure of equity is often difficult to obtain, the subjective evaluation of fairness on the part of the individuals is the key issue. In a healthy, mature relationship the people do not feel compelled to reciprocate immediately any reward or disclosure (Roloff, 1987). A perceived inequity is, however, the cause of many arguments.
Some researchers argue that equity theories such as Thibaut and Kelley's (1959) Exchange Theory are unrealistic since people do not objectively and mathematically compute costs, rewards, and profits in determining commitment to a relationship. However, expectancy-value theorists (e.g., Triandis, 1980) would answer by stating that costs, rewards, and outcomes are subjectively evaluated and may or may not correspond with objective reality. Further, the kind of model for actions offered by exchange type theories should not be confused with the action itself.
An analogous situation might be a person's ability to cross a busy street. The relative and constantly changing velocities of the cars and person can be quite accurately judged by the pedestrian (though, again, objective reality would unpleasantly alert the person to any mistake). An individual would be unlikely to be able to compute mathematically in real time the necessary equations to direct a robot across the street (that is, compute a model of the action for the robot to follow). Yet people still direct themselves and their cars quite successfully with no equations, at all.
An equitable relationship is one in which the partners focus on their own and the other's outcomes, that is, the relationship as a whole (Duck, 1983). Such relationships are satisfying overall, and are more sexually fulfilling, stable, and permanent than are those of couples in an inequitable situation (Cunningham & Antill, 1981; Hatfield & Traupmann, 1981).
Couples who stay together tend to be matched on age, physical attractiveness, education plans, and intelligence (Huston, Surra, Fitzgerald, & Cate, 1981). Murstein's Stimulus-Value-Response (SVR) Theory (1971) points out the importance of similarity in stimulus (perception of the other and the situation) and in values (basic beliefs) and of role compatibility (rather than role complementarity or similarity) in establishing a healthy, happy relationship. For Williams and Barnes (1988), a critical factor is symmetry (matching) in regard to conceptions of what constitutes a successful relationship, in basic values and beliefs, and in general expectations. Such matching will more likely result in mutual growth and future changes in the individuals, especially if the partners begin the relationship as adults (since by then fundamental values are unlikely to change).
Branden (1980) accepts the need for basic affinities as mentioned earlier but also recognizes the role of complementary differences when those different traits are positive and valuable ones. The differences in the partners need to be mutually stimulating and not antagonistic, that is, complementary strengths as opposed to weaknesses which arise from a failure of healthy individual development.
Given the reality orientation of mature, romantic love, people like those described know realistically what they want and then make a choice based on that (Williams & Barnes, 1988). If a person enters a relationship after extensive evaluation of all known positive and negative aspects of the situation and with an accurate anticipation of relational highs and lows in both the short- and the long-term, the decision to commit is unlikely to be reversed (Branden, 1980; Kelley, 1983).
Realistic romanticism (Branden, 1980) requires the ability and the willingness to see the partner as she or he is, shortcomings and all. It is important to be aware of possible disappointments, to prepare for them, and not to demand perfection (Miller & Siegel, 1972). Rewards are expected based on realistic parameters rather than on illusions (Berscheid & Walster, 1974). Attempting to conduct a romance with a fantasy figure will inevitably lead to disillusionment and resentment because of the negatively violated expectations. A good marriage requires a good fit between expectations and beliefs about respective marital roles (Duck, 1983). It is when partners become careless in maintaining and nourishing a relationship, when they fail to discuss and negotiate acceptable patterns of behavior and activities, and when rules are left to chance rather than hard work, time, effort, and attention that many relationships end (Duck, 1983; Masters, Johnson, & Kolodny, 1988).
Romantics are generally happy with their partners and their love lives (Cunningham & Antill, 1981). They are competent individuals who care for and trust their partners. They feel free to be open and honest and do not speak for the other person (Noller, 1984). People in romantic marriages exhibit high levels of initiative and are aware of complex motivations coupled with a willingness to entertain and process alternative explanations for relationship events. General positivity, large amounts of interaction, and a relational definition in congruence with reality are combined with spontaneity, humor, and mutual involvement (Aron & Aron, 1986). Pleasant events as well as problems are discussed in an atmosphere of mutual sensitivity and understanding (Navran, 1976).
Branden (1988) offers a number of communication and other behaviors which he believes characterize most mature, romantic relationships. Such partners:
The relational message of love conveyed by these kinds of uniquely tailored communication is most often more important than the intrinsic value of the acts themselves (Byrne & Murnen, 1988).
Relational maintenance behaviors are not merely extrapolations of initiation behaviors. For example, while attraction may be equally important during both stages, the behaviors associated with that concept are likely to change (Byrne & Murnen, 1988).
To prevent the death of passion is not an easy task. Engaging in positive, unpredictable romantic behavior; mutual self-development in personal and professional spheres; more shared, outside activities (Aron & Aron, 1986; Mellen, 1981); and simply doing more things together can stave off dreaded boredom. While the last suggestion may provide more opportunities for friction, it is also the only good way couples have to discover novel aspects about the partner (Aron & Aron, 1986).
According to Branden (1980), resignation to boredom is a sign of mental passivity. Living automatically from habit is destructive to passion and enthusiasm. To sustain passion, one must cultivate the child-like quality of perceiving and responding to life with spontaneity and freshness. One must be able to discern the unexpected in one's self as well as in one's partner and be open to novelty wherever it is discovered (Maslow, 1970). Without such skills, not only romance but all enthusiasms will fade away.
As is evident, romantic love requires considerable work in performing the kinds of effective communication identified by researchers (Masters, Johnson, & Kolodny, 1988). Cultural ideas that love is obtainable by "wishing on a star" or calling on one's fairy godmother, is a result of "destiny," or other wish-fulfillment myths can blind people to the reality that values must be earned by self-generated and self-sustaining actions (Rand, 1964). If romantic love is viewed as one's most important value, it will require the greatest effort.
Romantic love is far more difficult to achieve than is often believed. Popular misidentifications of infatuation, lust, or other irrational, immature emotional responses with romantic love do not invalidate the concept (Branden, 1988; Maslow, 1970). Disenchantment with romantic love does not make it a youthful fantasy any more than does disenchantment with work or with one's children. Such a reaction reveals only the misapprehensions of the individual as to the true requirements necessary to achieve these goals. Romantic love is powerful but not omnipotent. Doubts, fears, insecurities, weak self-esteem, and silence can prevent its achievement. The problem lies not in the concept of romantic love but in the impossible demands made in its name (Branden, 1988).
The boredom which comes from habituation or predictability has been cited in this paper as a major problem in maintaining relational happiness. Yet a certain level of predictability is necessary for relational stability during interactions (Berger & Roloff, 1982). Honesty of communication leads to predictability in the positive and negative behaviors of the other (Miller & Siegel, 1972). The acceptable amount of predictability varies from relationship to relationship. Romantic relationships stay active under conditions of an optimal level of unpredictability or uncertainty. To the extent that partners jointly develop as individuals and through these changes lead to repeated novel inputs, to that extent they can escape a static adaptation level (Kelvin, 1977). Differences in secondary values and interests can contribute to fulfilling the essential need for novelty in relational maintenance (Williams & Barnes, 1988). Interest and excitement can be generated by shared, rewarding experiences which vary in frequency and kind (Miller & Siegel, 1972).
The tension between predictability and uncertainty is usually viewed as occurring on a simple linear dimension, that is, as a continuum from maximum predictability to maximum uncertainty. A better conceptualization would be to broaden the relationship between these conditions into a three-dimensional space. The problem people face in a relationship is not merely the proper percentage mix of predictability and uncertainty but the kind of predictable or uncertain events which are present and the subjectively ranked importance attached to those events. (For ease in visualization and understanding, the valence and importance dimensions are combined in the graph and in the following discussion to yield a weighted valence and a two-dimensional graph.)
[Figure 1 not available online.]
The ordinate axis of a graph of such a relationship would be defined as running from 0% predictability as to the perceived likelihood of an event's occurrence (maximum randomness or uncertainty) to 100% predictability. The abscissa would cross at the 50% predictability point (for neutral, unimportant events) and would run from a negative valence weighted at 100% importance to a positive valence weighted at 100% as to the evaluation of the event by the individual. A positive event, situation, or relational dimension would be one that facilitates the relationship and/or increases the potential for happiness. A negative event would be one which is destructive to the relationship and/or hinders the potential for happiness. Thus two events could have the same percentage predictability, yet one of them could be viewed as desirable and the other not depending upon its valence. (This overall approach to predictability reflects the concepts utilized by expectancy-value theorists.)
Two events which might have the same level of predictability and importance in a partner's mind might be being kissed by one's spouse in the morning and having that spouse react sarcastically to any minor complaint. If the first were positively evaluated, it would be a facilitating predictive event. If the second event were negatively valenced, it would inhibit or diminish the potential happiness of the dyad. An evaluation of the weighted mix of positive and negative events and their predictability would determine if boredom or uncertainty were threatening the satisfaction obtained from the relationship.
Also, since each partner establishes subjective levels concerning the predictability of events and their valences and importance, discrepancies between the partners' perceptions would provide another measure to predict relational satisfaction. Different estimates of the degree of predictability and/or the strength of the valenced events could lead to greater conflict and judgments that the relationship was in trouble.
It is necessary to realize that the weighted valences and predictability of specific events can change over the duration of a relationship. What may at an early stage in a relationship be seen as highly positive, important, and unpredictable (e.g., a sexual encounter) can, after an extended time, be viewed as negative, highly predictable, and/or unimportant. This fact emphasizes the dynamic nature of relationship processes and the necessity for a proactive approach to maintenance and enhancement behaviors. Also, unpredictability should be conceptualized as including not only totally unexpected events but also behaviors which are expected to occur sometime over the course of the relationship but the specific occurrence of which cannot be predicted with greater than 50% certainty.
The positive events in quadrant I can be viewed as primarily maintenance behaviors, i.e., predictable actions necessary for the stability of the relationship (Berger & Roloff, 1982), while the positive events in quadrant II can be considered as primarily behaviors which enhance the development of the relationship (Branden, 1980; Maslow, 1970). However, both kinds of actions are required for successful, long-term relational maintenance. i.e., events in both quadrants are necessary but neither is sufficient for relational success. An imbalance in either quadrant would lead to relational difficulties.
(It should also be noted that the kinds of events in quadrant II might be relatively infrequent but greater in importance than events in quadrant I. In looking at the ratio between these quadrants then, it would be necessary to consider a sufficiently long portion of the relationship so one did not underestimate the occurrence of quadrant II behaviors. A similar argument might be made for the events in quadrants III and IV. However, there is at least one fundamental difference between the positive and negative sides of the graph: a single event in quadrant III of sufficient importance might lead to termination of the relationship, e.g., having an extramarital affair.)
Events occurring in quadrant III would be the most destructive to the relationship, i.e, such behaviors would be those which are negative violations of expected relational behaviors. An example might be withholding sexual contact after years of a satisfying sexual relation and refusing to discuss the situation.
Quadrant IV behaviors would tend to erode the relationship over the years. The relatively constant, predictable nature of such events might well lead to those events looming larger and larger in importance if left uncorrected. Nagging actions such as leaving one's clothes on the floor might lead to ever increasing irritation which suddenly percipitates a confrontation.
These arguments lead to the following hypotheses:
These hypotheses suggest a course of research to investigate these relationships.
Participants will be recruited from university classes and from the general community. Approximately 30 to 50 romantic couples, married or unmarried, who have been together for at least 1 year will be included. There will be no restriction as to age other than being over 18. A wide mixture of relationship lengths will be sought.
Design and Procedure
Subjects will be asked to complete separately an open-ended questionnaire concerning their relationships. These questions will access the actions of the individual, those of the partner, and the individual's evaluations of those behaviors. The participants will also be asked if they believe the love they feel for their partner is romantic love; if the answer is no, they will be asked to characterize the love they feel for their partner. All paired questionnaires will be anonymous and the answers treated as confidential to ensure honesty. The couples will be asked to consider behaviors which have occurred during the previous 6 months.
The questions to be asked will be:
Each participant will next be given a copy of Figure 1 and asked to evaluate the behaviors they have listed in terms of predictability and the weighted valence of those actions. If necessary, examples of behaviors as they might fit into the graph will be provided.
The participants will also be asked to complete a marital satisfaction scale and questions asking them to rate the level of boredom/excitement and instability/commitment of their relationship.
Pearson product moment correlations will be conducted to assess the relationships among the global behaviors which are mentioned in each quadrant as well as any specific behaviors which occur in the questionnaires of both partners. Correlations will also be determined between these results and the measures of satisfaction, boredom, and commitment.
Other measures which would be illuminating but perhaps too time-consuming for subjects to complete in one session would be self-esteem and/or self-actualization scales.
Despite the difficulty of avoiding a positivity bias in the measures proposed, the promise of accurately assessing the kinds of actions which couples enact to maintain and/or enhance their relationships will be valuable not only for theoretical but for practical reasons. If these studies should bear fruit, it should be possible to assess the current state of relationships and identify those which might be facing future difficulties. The next step would be to suggest possible courses of action and communication which would lead not to the deterioration of the relationship but to its enhancement and the maintenance of passion.
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