What is Love? To answer this question is very difficult if not impossible. Love is indeed too large, too deep, and unimaginable ever to be truly understood or measured or limited within the framework of existing knowledge. Psychologists, philosophers, artists, writers, poets, musicians and also ordinary people have been trying to understand the nature of love since the ageless time. Love is a mystery. One result of the mysterious nature of love is that no one has been able to arrive at a truly satisfactory definition of love (Peck, 1978). Paulo Coelho, the best-selling writer says, “To live is to love. Everything else are just details.”
We are born with an innate need to be loved and love others, the motive that leads to fulfillment and growth (Maslow, 1970). This can also be healing and inspiring (Chopra, 1997). Love is a positive emotion that leads to psychological well-being and happiness. At the same time, it can also manifest itself as a negative emotion when it goes unrequited or unfulfilled. In such cases, people can go as far as killing others or themselves for sake of love. Love is indeed a very powerful emotion and its power should never be undermined. A very popular proverb reminds us ‘everything is fair in love and war’. In a survey of 166 varied cultures, anthropologists found evidence of romantic love in 147 cultures (Jankowiak and Fischer, 1992). Romantic love is an intimate form of love that involves powerful attraction, emotional attachment and sexual feelings towards one’s partner (Fisher et al., 2006).
Psychologists have tried to distinguish love into three kinds: parental love, companionate love (loving friendship) and romantic love (Ekman, 2004). Romantic love is considered most intense and often the shortest of the three. Romantic love cannot survive long with the development of loving friendship. Romantic love has two additional ingredients. One of them is the sexual intimacy, not present in the loving friendship and the other is attachment, the creation and rearing of children in a long-term relationship (Ekman, 2004; Fisher, 2004). It is considered normal for nearly everyone living in the Western culture to report that they have been in love at some point in their lives (Baron, 2005). However, in the Eastern culture, people are hesitant to admit their feelings of love and attraction due to fear of social criticism and negative outcomes. It is seen as a phase which comes at youth and passes away. Romantic love is regarded as very important in marriage decisions in Western culture compared to Eastern culture where more arranged marriages are more acceptable valuing the family and communal harmony rather the personal feelings of love (Levine, Sato, Hashimoto, & Verma, 1995).
Characteristics of Romantic love*
- Sexual Intimacy
- Emotional Attachment
- Heightened energy
- Mood swings
- Focused attention
- Obsessive thinking
- Separation anxiety
- Craving for emotional union with a beloved
- Goal-oriented behaviors
- Intensive motivation to win a preferred mating partner
*Adapted from Fisher (2004).
Romantic love begins when an individual falls in love with a person and comes to regard him or her as essentially good and special, even unique. The lover then intensely focuses his or her attention on this preferred individual, exaggerating the beloved’s better traits or good qualities while overlooking or minimizing the flaws. Lovers experience extreme energy, arousal, sleeplessness, impulsivity, euphoria, and mood swings. They are goal-oriented and strongly motivated to win the beloved (Fisher, 2004). Lovers become emotionally dependent on the relationship, frequently experiencing distress and separation anxiety when apart. A striking characteristic of romantic love is “intrusive thinking.” The lover thinks obsessively about the beloved one and he or she craves emotional union with his or her sweetheart bringing an enormous sense of security and relief when united.
Cross-cultural researchers and psychologists point out that culture can have a profound impact on people’s perceptions, experiences, and feelings about love, and about what is permissible and appropriate in their expression of romantic and passionate feelings (Hatfield & Rapson, 2002). The association between love and ‘irrational’ behavior in many cultures also raises questions about how love is associated to wellbeing and mental health. While loving and being loved is a sign of emotional wellbeing in many cultures, extreme and uncontrolled passion associated with love is seen as a sign of impaired cognition and social irrationality as well leading to the crimes of passion.
Dion and Dion (1996) have described differences in the interpretation and meaning of romantic love and intimacy across cultures. It is, therefore, not surprising to find that culture also influences the characteristics that make up our representation of romantic love (Buss et al., 1990; Hatfield & Rapson, 1999).
Laura M. Ahearn’s study is one of the very few studies that have tried to understand romantic love in Nepal. Love is described by the young villagers from Junigau, Nepal in Ahearn’s ethnography (2001) as happening naturally to them. It catches them in a web, makes them feel like they are going crazy. To be in love, to date someone, to have a boyfriend or a girlfriend, to experience romantic love is something that happens outside of the eyes of the public to avoid backbiting which may violate one’s and the family’s social reputation. Romantic love is not something that necessarily evolves into marriage, but it becomes more and more something young people desire in marriage because of its association with being modern, developed and successful in life (Ahearn, 2001).
- Ahearn, L. M. (2001). Invitations to Love: literacy, love letters and social change in Nepal. Ann Arbor Michigan: The University of Michigan Press.
- Baron, R. (2001). Psychology (5th ed.). New Delhi: Prentice Hall of India.
- Fisher, H. (2004). Why we love: the nature and chemistry of romantic love. New York: Henry Holt.
- Jankowiak, W. R. & Fischer, E. F. (1992). A cross-cultural perspective on romantic love. Ethnology, 31, 149.
- Hatfield, E., & Rapson, R. L. (2002). Passionate love and sexual desire: Cross-cultural and historical perspectives. In A. Vangelisti, H. T. Reis, & M. A. Fitzpatrick (Eds.), Stability and change in relationships. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 306-324.
- Levine, R., Sato, S., Hashimoto, T., & Verma, J. (1995). Love and marriage in eleven cultures. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 26, 554-571.
- Maslow, A. H. (1970). Motivation and personality (2nd ed.). New York: Harper & Row.
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- Ekman, P. (2004). The Universality of emotion. In Goleman, D. (Eds.), Destructive Emotions and how to overcome them. London: Bloomsbury.
- Dion, K. K., & Dion, K. L. (1996). Cultural perspectives on romantic love. Personal Relationships, 3, 5-17.
- Buss, D.M., Abbott, M., Angleitner, A., Asherian, A., Biaggio, A., Blanco-Villasenor, A., et al. (1990). International preferences in selecting mates: A study of 37 cultures. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 21, 5-47.
- Hatfield, E., & Rapson, R. L. (1996). Love and sex: Cross-cultural perspectives. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
- Chopra, D. (1997).The Path to Love. Spiritual strategies for healing. New York: Three Rivers Press.
- Coelho, P. (2010). http://www.paulocoelhoblog.com Accessed on 11 February 2010.
About the author: Sujen Man Maharjan (Central Department of Psychology, Tribhuvan University)
is doing a research on ‘Perceptions of Romantic love among married Newars in Kathmandu’.
He blogs @ sujenman.wordpress.com