5 Ways That Theories of Psychology Explain Love (2024)

Why do people fall in love? And why are some forms of love long-lasting while others are so fleeting? Love is a basic human emotion, but understanding how and why it happens is not necessarily easy. Still, many have tried to learn more about this feel-good emotion.

Psychologists and researchers have proposed several different theories of love to explain how it forms as well as how it endures. Here are five of the major theories proposed to explain the psychology of love and other emotional attachments.

Liking vs. Loving

In 1970, psychologist Zick Rubin proposed an explanation for the difference between liking and loving. Sometimes we experience a great amount of appreciation and admiration for others. We enjoy spending time with a person and want to be around them. This is "liking," according to Rubin, and doesn't necessarily qualify as love.

Love is much deeper, more intense, and includes a strong desire for physical intimacy and contact. People who are "in like" enjoy each other's company, while those who are "in love" care as much about the other person's needs as they do their own.

Rubin believed that romantic love is made up of three elements:

  • A close bond and dependent needs
  • A predisposition to help
  • Feelings of exclusiveness and absorption

Based on these elements, Rubin devised a questionnaire to assess a person's attitudes toward others. He found that scales ranging from liking to loving provided support for his conception of love.

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The Color Wheel Model of Love

In his 1973 book The Colors of Love, psychologist John Lee provided another theory of love, which compared styles of love to the color wheel. Just as there are three primary colors, Lee suggested that there are also three primary styles of love:

  • Eros: The term Eros stems from the Greek word meaning "passionate" or "erotic." Lee suggested that this type of love involves both physical and emotional passion.It represents love for an ideal person.
  • Ludus:Ludus comes from the Greek word meaning "game." This form of love is conceived as playful and fun but not necessarily serious. Those who exhibit this form of love are not ready for commitment and are wary of too much intimacy. So, it represents love as a game.
  • Storge:Storge stems from the Greek term meaning "natural affection." This form of love includes familial love between parents and children, siblings, and extended family members. This love can also develop out of friendship, where people who share interests and commitments gradually develop affection for one another. Therefore, it represents love as friendship.

Lee’s 6 Styles of Loving

Lee later proposed that just as the primary colors can be combined to create other colors, the three primary styles of love could also be combined to create secondary love styles. So, in 1977, Lee expanded the list of love styles.

The three new secondary love styles were:

  • Mania: A combination of Eros and Ludus, representing obsessive love
  • Pragma: A combination of Ludus and Storge, representing realistic and practical love
  • Agape: A combination of Eros and Storge, representing selfless love

Triangular Theory of Love

In 1986, psychologist Robert Sternberg proposed the triangular theory of love. Under this theory, love has three components:

  • Intimacy
  • Passion
  • Commitment

Different combinations of these three components result in different types of love. For example, combining intimacy and commitment results in compassionate love while combining passion and intimacy leads to romanticlove.

According to Sternberg's triangular theory, relationships built on two or more elements are more enduring than those based on a single component. Sternberg uses the term consummate love to describe combining intimacy, passion, and commitment. While this type of love is the strongest and most enduring, Sternberg suggests that it is also rare.

Attachment Theory of Love

In 1987, Cindy Hazan and Phillip Shaver, two researchers from the University of Denver, shared their views on the psychology of love. They theorized that romantic love is a biosocial process similar to how children form attachments with their parents. Their theory is modeled after psychologist John Bowlby's attachment theory.

According to Hazan and Shaver's attachment theory of love, a person's attachment style is partially formed by the relationship they had with their parents in childhood. This same basic style then continues into adulthood, where it becomes part of their romantic relationships.

The three styles of adult attachment are:

  • Anxious/ambivalent: A person with this style often worries that their partner doesn't love them. Sometimes they want to be with their partner so much that it scares the other person away.
  • Avoidant: Someone with this style is uncomfortable getting close to others. They also typically experience difficulty with developing trust.
  • Secure: As its name suggests, the secure attachment style involves being secure in the relationship. Someone who is secure has very few worries of abandonment or fears of someone else getting too close.

Based on Hazan and Shaver's research, secure attachment is the most common style. This is followed by the avoidant attachment style, then anxious/ambivalent attachment.

Hazan and Shaver also proposed that one's experiences in love and attachment affect their beliefs, which affect their relationship outcomes. It is a cyclical process that can be okay for people with a more secure attachment style but could also create issues for someone who is avoidant or anxious/ambivalent in their relationships.

Compassionate vs. Passionate Love

In 1988, psychologist Elaine Hatfield added to our theories of love by proposing that there are two basic types of love: compassionate love and passionate love.

  • Compassionate love is characterized by mutual respect, attachment, affection, and trust. This love usually develops out of feelings of mutual understanding and shared respect for one another.
  • Passionate love is characterized by intense emotions, sexual attraction, anxiety, and affection. When these intense emotions are reciprocated, people feel elated and fulfilled, while unreciprocated love leads to feelings of despondency and despair.

Hatfield suggests that passionate love arises when cultural expectations encourage falling in love, when the person meets one's preconceived ideas of ideal love, and when one experiences heightened physiological arousal in the presence of the other person. This love is transitory, according to Hatfield, usually lasting between 6 and 30 months.

Ideally, passionate love leads to compassionate love, which is far more enduring. While most people desire relationships that combine the security and stability of compassionate love with intense passionate love, Hatfield believes that this is rare.


Many theories of love exist, hoping to provide insight into how love forms and evolves. Each one contributes to what we know about this emotion, providing several possible explanations for how love-based relationships begin, grow, and change.

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Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

  1. Rubin Z. Measurement of romantic love. J Personal Social Psychol. 1970;16(2):265-273. doi:10.1037/h0029841

  2. Cramer K, Marcus J, Pomerleau C, Gillard K. Gender invariance in the Love Attitudes Scale based on Lee's color theory of love. Test Psychomet Methodol App Psychol. 2015;22(3):403-413. doi:10.4473/TPM22.3.6

  3. Sternberg RJ. A triangular theory of love. Psychol Rev. 1986;93(2):119-135. doi:10.1037/0033-295X.93.2.119

  4. Langeslag SJ, van Strien JW. Regulation of romantic love feelings: Preconceptions, strategies, and feasibility.PLoS One. 2016;11(8):e0161087. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0161087

  5. Hazan C, Shaver P. Romantic love conceptualized as an attachment process. J Personal Social Psychol. 1987;52(3):511-524. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.52.3.511

  6. Hatfield E. Passionate and compassionate love. The Psychology of Love.

  7. Earp BD, Wudarczyk OA, Foddy B, Savulescu J. Addicted to love: What is love addiction and when should it be treated?Philos Psychiatr Psychol. 2017;24(1):77–92. doi:10.1353/ppp.2017.0011

Additional Reading

5 Ways That Theories of Psychology Explain Love (1)

By Kendra Cherry, MSEd
Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."

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5 Ways That Theories of Psychology Explain Love (2024)


What are five theories of love? ›

For example, as early as 1886, the German physician and pioneering sexologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing (1886/1945) identified five types of love: true love, sentimental love, platonic love, friendship, and sensual love.

How does psychology explain love? ›

Love is a set of emotions and behaviors characterized by intimacy, passion, and commitment. It involves care, closeness, protectiveness, attraction, affection, and trust.

What are psychology facts about love? ›

Some psychological facts about love include:

People in love tend to have positive illusions about their partners, seeing them as better than they actually are. Love can lead to increased self-esteem and self-worth. Love can be divided into different categories such as passionate love, companionate love, and self-love.

What are the different types of love according to psychology? ›

According to Sternberg (1986), the 3 components (intimacy, passion, commitment) are fundamental to what love is and interact in different ways to create 8 types of love. Psychologist Robert Sternberg's Triangular Theory of Love identifies three components of love: Intimacy, Passion, and Commitment.

What are the 5 basis of love? ›

What are the love languages? We all give and receive love in 5 different ways: words of affirmation, acts of service, receiving gifts, quality time, and physical touch. These are called 'love languages' - a concept created by Dr. Gary Chapman through his long-time work as a marriage counsellor.

What are the 5 acts of showing love? ›

They are:
  • Words of affirmation.
  • Quality time.
  • Physical touch.
  • Acts of service.
  • Receiving gifts.
Feb 5, 2024

What does psychology say true love? ›

True love fosters a connection that goes beyond the superficial. It's a bond that often involves understanding each other's core values, beliefs, and life goals. This connection creates a sense of companionship, where both partners feel they're on the same team, working towards common dreams.

What does love have to do with psychology? ›

When we are falling in love, chemicals associated with the reward circuit flood our brain, producing a variety of physical and emotional responses—racing hearts, sweaty palms, flushed cheeks, feelings of passion and anxiety.

What does psychology say about falling in love? ›

“Falling in love involves a surrender of our feelings to another person,” says Hekster. In that surrender, Hekster explains that we merge with that person in a way and become completely preoccupied with them to the point where they dominate our thoughts.

What is the love of life in psychology? ›

Love of life is defined as a generally positive attitude towards one's own life, a liking for it, and pleasurable attachment to it. The Love of Life Scale (LLS) was constructed by the author. It consists of 16 short statements with high internal consistency (α = . 91) and temporal reliability (.

What does psychology say about a man in love? ›

A man who's falling in love might feel happier, more energetic, and more confident. Part of this may be linked to the activation of the reward system discussed above. When you're craving another person, every interaction with them can promote feelings of intense joy and nostalgia.

What are the 7 types of love psychology quizlet? ›

nonlove, liking, infatuated love, empty love, romantic love, companionate love, fatuas love, summate love.

What is love theory in psychology? ›

The triangular theory of love explains the topic of love in an interpersonal relationship. Psychologist Robert Sternberg's theory describes types of love based on three different scales: intimacy, passion, and commitment.

What are the three love theory psychology? ›

The theory goes that in our lifetime it's believed that we fall in love three times. You could have had five boyfriends or five marriages, but at the end of the day you may only truly love 3 of those people, and each of those loves happens at a certain phase in your life.

How does love change over time in psychology? ›

“Love evolves from the early-honeymoon, passionate stage to more mature, companionate love,” Pileggi Pawelski says. “We can't expect to feel the same heightened positive emotions later on as we do in the early phases of a relationship.”

What are the 5 different love styles determined by childhood? ›

How childhood experiences impact love styles
  • Our childhood experiences and the way our parents related to us have imprinted certain thought patterns and behaviours on us. We put the kids to bed and collapsed on the couch. ...
  • The avoider. ...
  • The pleaser. ...
  • The vacillator. ...
  • The controller and the victim.

How many love theories are there? ›

The four types of love described in philosophy include agape, phileo, storge, and eros.

What are the theories of true love? ›

According to Sternberg's triangular theory, relationships built on two or more elements are more enduring than those based on a single component. Sternberg uses the term consummate love to describe combining intimacy, passion, and commitment.

What is the basic love theory? ›

The triangular theory of love explains the topic of love in an interpersonal relationship. Psychologist Robert Sternberg's theory describes types of love based on three different scales: intimacy, passion, and commitment.


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