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Love is a fundamental aspect of human experience. What is love? What is love in intimate relationships? Efforts to understand love abound over thousands of years of recorded human history, from those of poets to theologians to philosophers, for the experience of love or lack of it affects us all in some way. Adult love is a powerful human aspiration and cultural ideal. We spend a great deal of energy striving to establish harmony and love in relationships. Yet, for many, love remains elusive and a source of distress when it is unattainable or when our experience does not match the ideal love we seek. Matters of the heart are the primary reason for most visits to therapists’ offices, including my couples counseling practices in Washington DC, Bethesda, and Reston. Love may be a complex of emotions arousing out feelings of interest, excitement, enjoyment and joy.

More than a feeling, love may be a force of nature. Gandhi referred to it as an ontological force which brings people together (Walsh, 1991). It is an innate capacity for relatedness, a readiness that ensures development of the person, for the person individuates and attains his or her potential in relation to others. The early caregiving/child connection and interaction shapes the psychoneurological development of the child and lays the foundation for future psychosocial development.

Love is an important factor in enhancing psychological, emotional and physical health since it promotes maturation and stability, positive self-regard and longevity, and it enhances the function of the immune system. It is a source of inspiration and in its deepest form can serve along with reason as a source of guidance.

In describing love, one can consider the types, styles or preferences of love. Each of the following types allude to a different experience of love:

a) Non-love, the absence of love.
b) Liking or friendship, closeness in the absence of passion.
c) Infatuation, love at first sight or in the absence of commitment and intimacy. In this type of love, commitment can be based on passion, as with whirlwind courtships and marriages.
d) Romantic love, in its highest form, includes liking and friendship along with passion and intimacy while commitment is at its incipient stage; romantic love, however, may be based primarily on physical attraction.
e) Companionate love, long-term intimate and committed friendship in the absence of passion.
f) Agape, altruistic love based on our connectedness as human beings, ”brotherhood of humankind,” what Ichazo (1973) has termed the recognition of the same consciousness in others.
g) Love of God.
h) Love of principles, ideas, art or nature.
i) Love between parent and child.
j) Consummate love. Sternberg (1986) defines this form of love as a combination of intimacy, passion and commitment—the kind of love that is often held as an ideal.

Love may be viewed, as Sternberg (1986) has suggested, in terms of three components: (a) intimacy, the feelings of support, valuing, closeness and connection as well as the experience of knowing and being known by the other; (b) passion, the drive that leads to romance and longing for the other as well as sexual and physical attraction, the result of intensification of emotions and investment of self in the other; and (c) decision/commitment, the decision to love someone for the long term.

The importance of each of these three components varies depending on the length of the relationship and the type of relationship. For example, a short-term romantic involvement is usually high in passion, moderate in intimacy and weak in commitment. In contract, in long-term relationships, intimacy and commitment play a much larger role than passion. Thus, in evaluating a relationship, we can take into account the role played by each of these factors as well as the weight or value given to each by individuals in the relationship.

Each of these components must be sustained to maintain healthy and growing close relationships. Predictability can create stagnation and undermine intimacy and passion; change and growth keep a relationship healthy and vibrant. Commitment is enhanced through action and by working on the intimacy and passion components of the relationship.

The role of imagination

Creative imagination plays an important role in the development and maintenance of adult intimate love. Imagination creates images of a desirable life with the other; it is an organizing force which helps shape thoughts, feelings and actual behaviors. For love to survive, imagination also creates idealized internal images of the partner, not just in the sense of an overestimation of traits but also as an aid to keep the other in the best light possible, as differences develop, so as to stay on the path to love.

This means not only accepting the other as is, but also seeing them in their realized potential. It is the latter which tends to occur in the first phase of romantic love, infatuation, with only glimpses of the essence of the other. Infatuation must give way to a more mature form of love where we see and accept the failings and shortcomings of the other, yet can still hold on to the deeper vision and experience of the essential other which must be cherished and cared for. Even if they are not the ideal, the partner’s capacities and attributes must be emphasized (She is a good mother, a thoughtful and loving companion, and so on).

By bestowing love, mutual enjoyment and affection, partners encourage the growth of connection and commitment. Continuing negative appraisals, on the other hand, destroy the foundation of a relationship. Distress in the relationship can fluctuate suddenly and periodically. The coping mechanisms described above are part of the work of a relationship, along with forgiveness, compassion, and other virtues. This work is done internally; and even with the help of couples counseling, other forms of family and therapy support, and God, it aims at the transforming our inner reality and how we interpret events and situation, for it is our interpretation of reality which is at the core of our happiness.

Love models: Expectations in love relationships

Social psychologists have suggested that people have cognitive models (schema) of expectations from themselves and those they love, expectations that guide their action and their interpretation of information about love.

As described in a previous section on attachment, infantile patterns of attachment have a powerful impact on adult intimate attachment—secure, anxious/ambivalent and avoidant. Building of these ideas, Hatfield and Rapson (1995) have suggested that those interested in intimate adult relationship, fall into four categories: (1) the secure, who are comfortable with closeness and independence, are most comfortable with love requiring intimacy and commitment; (2) the clingy, although comfortable with closeness and commitment, are fearful of abandonment and too much independence and find the love experience to be associated with anxiety and anger; (3) the skittish are fearful of too much closeness but comfortable with independence; and (4) the fickle are uneasy with too much closeness or independence and experience little pleasure and varying degrees of pain in love. A more extreme form of the fickle would be the uninterested who are not at all interested in love relationships.

Relationship and Couples counseling is offered by Carlos Durana Ph.D., M.Ac. in Bethesda, Maryland, Reston, Virginia and Washington, DC.