Thursday, August 29, 2013

LOVE is...


Love is one of those feel good words that gets tossed around so much. Use the word love and people perk up. Love brings a smile. Add it to a song and it sounds romantic. Love is a replacement for like and sex. A love is a person. Red valentine-style hearts pop into western minds. Love is people holding hands and soft furry creatures like puppies and kittens in children’s’ arms. Love is a many splendored thing.

To psychologists, love is more than a feeling. Sometimes I think we should invent a new word so we can be more precise about love but that won’t do. We can’t communicate about love if we ignore the word everyone uses.
We just have to be clear. Whatever love is, it has many dimensions. And love is more than a feeling.

I have worked on a university campus for years. On a sunny day you can see loving couples sprawled across green spaces. They are the ones where you don’t see two distinct forms. They merge—all over each other. I am not talking about sex—just a closeness—pair bonding is one of those strange sounding psychological terms for love-like relationships.

In a few previous posts, I wrote about marriage. A loving relationship characterizes the best of contemporary views of marriage. Loving couples demonstrate love by caring, listening, helping, and hugging. They experience warm feelings. They think of the other when separated. And of course sex is there too.

Parents love their children too. There is a powerful bond between loving parents and loving children. It’s different from romantic love but seems to set the foundation for happy and secure loving relationships between loving adults. If you had a psychology class, you know I’m  talking about attachment research. Children naturally seek out the parents or caregivers they love. They approach a loved parent when scared or in a strange situation. They “touch base” by going back to the loved parent when they see something new. “Look granddad,” I hear when my granddaughter sees a bug. She raises her arms to be picked up if she has fallen. Parents are go-to persons, when they are loved by children.

In a previous post, I wrote about six dimensions of functioning. I think looking at six dimensions of love can help understand this complex idea.

Because of my familiarity with Christianity, I am writing about Christian love. Christian scriptures portray God as a loving father. So, it is not surprising that psychological scientists found the attachment between parents and children to be similar to the way Christian adults relate to God. There are measurable variations on the dimensions of anxiety and avoidance. Some feel quite secure in the “arms of God” whilst others feel anxious and worry about their relationship with God. Similarly, some feel close to God and in fact devote themselves to maintaining a close relationship. And others feel at some distance from God – some care and recognize the barriers in their relationship. Others seem to fall away or outright reject God.

In Jesus' summation of the law (Matthew 22: 36-40), he reminds people to love God and love one’s neighbor. This two-part commandment has also stimulated research as psychological scientists have looked at the connection between loving God and loving others. The question from a psychological perspective is how to measure this idea of love. Some answers may be found in measures of constructs referred to in the Christian scriptures such as altruism, forgiveness, reconciliation, compassion and restoration-- including measures of attachment to God. These concepts are not limited to the Christian religion. But these ideas are identified in Christian scriptures and thus should be present if love includes a spiritual dimension within people who identify as Christian.

So here's the point. If you are a Christian, the anxious-secure and avoidant-closeness you experience between you and God might affect your relationship with others. And we might be able to measure that by looking at how you show compassion and how willing you are to forgive others.

You can measure the cognitive dimension of love in many ways. The obvious way is to ask people how much they love people in their lives. So you can get qualitative information. But you can also ask people to rate that love on a scale from 1 – 10 or you can look at how people reveal their thoughts in journals, visual arts, song, and the many ways thoughts are expressed in a given culture. People in love report thoughts and images of their loved one when separated. Lovers text and call at high rates. Before the digital era, flowery cards and letters revealed the quantity and quality of loving thoughts.

When disasters strike, public displays of love can be seen in news reports. People stepped up to help the
victims of hurricane Sandy on 29 October, 2012. Gifts and money poured in to Boston following the 15 April 2013 bombing. Teachers who comfort children during tornadoes and threats at school demonstrate the importance of verbal acts, guidance, and presence – ways of showing love. Acts of compassion and caring are measurable ways to assess love.

Researchers found oxytocin present in attachment, caring, and sexual forms of loving relationships. Wallum and colleagues reported that men with higher levels of vasopressin receptors are closer to their wives and think less about divorce than do the men with lower levels. Even facial changes in response to romantic thoughts were associated with higher levels of oxytocin than those with lower facial changes. Have you ever felt the pain of a broken relationship? Social rejection has been linked to increased activity in the brain's pain center (e.g., cingulate cortex). What about sexual attraction? In general, people are attracted to those who are happy, kind, intelligent, and have a sense of humor. But facial symmetry and scents influence sexual responses as well.

This is easy. Love feels good. There is a general warm, positive feeling. Although love is more than a feeling, love obviously involves emotion.

Love changes over time. The smiling and noises of a 4-month old are different from the hugs and kisses of a 3-year old. As the years rapidly increase, we see people loving family and friends in different ways at ages 14, 34, and 54. The same person expresses love to the same others in different ways over time. We have cultural expectations of what love looks like.

Places matter. And of course most people express love differently depending on the social context. When people push the boundaries of certain kinds of love like sexual expression in a public venue, others feel embarrassed. But even the average range of loving responses changes from work, to school, to places of religious worship, and home. It’s not just the physical space either but the people that are present in those spaces. Coworkers, friends, relatives, and others influence the way love is felt and expressed.

How do you know if you’re in love? Let me count the ways.

If you want to understand how much one person loves another, look at several dimensions—not just what they say or how they answer a magazine poll.

  1. Spiritual
  2. Cognitive
  3. Observable behavior  
  4. Physiological
  5. Emotional
  6. Social (Space & Time)

A few sources
Ainsworth, M. D. S. (1969). Object relations, dependency, and attachment: A theoretical review of the infant-mother relationship. Child Development, 40, 969–1025.
Beck, R., & McDonald, A. (2004). Attachment to God: The attachment to God inventory, tests of working model correspondence, and an exploration of faith group differences. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 32, 92–103.
Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and loss: Vol. 1. Attachment. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Gonzaga, G. C., Turner, R.A., Keltner, D., Campos, B., & Altemus, M. (2006). Romantic love and sexual desire in close relationships. Emotion, 6, 163–179.
Hall, T. W., Fujikawa, A., Halcrow, S. R., Hill, P.C., & Delaney, H. (2009). Attachment to God and implicit spirituality: Clarifying correspondence and compensation models. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 37, 227–242.
Hood, R. W., Jr., Hill, P. C., & Spilka, B. (2009). The psychology of religion: An empirical approach (4th ed.). New York, NY: Guilford.
Hwang, J., Plante, T., & Lackey, K. (2008). The development of the Santa Clara brief compassion scale: An abbreviated of Sprecher and Fehr's compassionate love scale. Pastoral Psychology, 56, 421–428. doi: 10.1007/s11089-008-0117-2
Kirkpatrick, L. A., & Shaver, P.R. (1990). Attachment theory and religion: Childhood attachments, religious beliefs, and conversion. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 29, 315–334.
Mittelstadt, M. S. & Sutton, G.W. (2010).  Forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration: Multidisciplinary studies from a Pentecostal perspective. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications.
Poloma, M., & Green, J. (2010). The Assemblies of God: Godly love and the revitalization of American Pentecostalism. New York, NY: New York University Press.
Shiota, M. N., & Kalat, J.W. (2011). Emotion (2nd ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
Sutton, G. W. (2010). The psychology of forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration: Integrating traditional and Pentecostal theological perspectives with psychology. In M. W. Mittelstadt & G. W. Sutton (Eds.), Forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration: Multidisciplinary studies from a Pentecostal perspective (pp. 125–144). Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications.
Sutton, G. W. & Mittelstadt, M. W. (2012). Loving God and loving others: Learning about love from psychological science and Pentecostal perspectives. Journal of Christianity and Psychology, 31, 157-166.
Sutton, G. W., McLeland, K. C., Weaks, K. L., Cogswell, P. E., & Miphouvieng, R. N. (2007). Does gender matter? Relationship of gender, spousal support, spirituality, and dispositional forgiveness to pastoral restoration. Pastoral Psychology, 55, 643–663.
Tjeltveit, A. C. (2006a). Psychology returns to love…of God and neighbor-as-self: Introduction to the special issue. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 34, 3–7.
Tjeltveit, A. C. (2006b). Psychology’s love-hate relationship with love: Critiques, affirmations, and Christian responses. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 34, 8–22.
Walum, H., Westberg, L., Henningsson, S., Neiderhiser, J. M., Reiss, D., Igl, W., & Lichtenstein, P. (2008). Genetic variation in the vasopressin receptor 1a gene (AVPR1A) associates with pair-bonding behavior in humans. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 11, 14153–14156. Retrieved from doi/10.1073/pnas. 0803081105.
Worthington, E. L. (2006). Forgiveness and reconciliation: Theory and application. New York,
NY: Routledge.

1 comment:

  1. Today, ABC news reported on love among wolves. Love or not, the relationship story offers insight into the biological basis of connections.