Dr. C. George Boeree

Human happiness seems to be strongly tied to having close and satisfying relationships with friends, family, and, of course, a partner.  The desire for a partner is so powerful in human beings that one writer suggested the basic unit of human life is not the individual, but the couple.

Love is basically a matter of caring about someone else's well-being as much or more than you care about your own.  If they feel pain or sadness, you suffer with them.  If they find happiness, you feel happy for them.  Strong love even involves sacrificing your own happiness -- and even sometimes your own life -- for the other person.

There have been many suggestions as to various types of love.  For example, some have differentiated between romantic love, which is based on passion, companionate love, which is based on companionship and commitment, and consummate love, which has both.

Another way to classify love is in terms of the people involved.  Parental love, subdivided into maternal and paternal love, is the love a parent feels for his or her children. Filial love is in turn the love a child has for his or her parents. Friendship is, of course, the love good friends feel for each other.  And another form of love is compassion, which isn't tied to any one person but rather is felt towards all people and sometimes even all life. The love we feel for that "special someone" is no doubt the most complex, involving as it does, intimacy, passion, and commitment. We traditionally think of it as heterosexual, but the exact same feelings occur in homosexual relationships.

Love between parent and child very clearly has some biological roots.  There is a similarity between the attachment between parent and child and the instinctual behaviors of animals that makes that obvious.  However, human beings never seem to be totally determined by instincts, and we have countless cases of people who treat their children or their parents very badly.

Love between friends seems to begin with commonalities:  We are attracted to people who are similar to us.  Because we share certain qualities, being with others like us validates us, gives us a sense of worth.  After all, they like us, and we like them, so we must be okay.  Of course, things are rarely simple with people:  Sometimes we are attracted to people precisely because of our differences.  In some cases, it's a matter of wishing you were more like the other person.  In other cases, you feel a strong sense of comradery, not because you are similar, but because both of you are so different from everyone else around you!

When it comes to the love between partners, it usually begins with some degree of sexual attraction, along with the kinds of things that attract one to potential friends.  It is likely that some of this love is instinctual, in the same way that the love between parents and children is partially instinctual.  After all, many animals seem to bond in the same way.  The biological purpose of the bonding may be reproduction, but that bond may extend far beyond.

Over time, the love between partners is likely to become somewhat less sexual and more companionate, but the long-term intimacy has a special warmth of its own.  We all know people who don't even seem to get along, and yet love each other very much!  On the other hand, contrary to what young people often assume, many couples retain a degree of passion in their relationship well into old age!

Love is a tough subject to do research on:  How do you measure it?  How can you do experiments on it?  Many have found that it is more fruitful to take a phenomenological approach, which means carefully describing aspects of the experience of love in all its forms.  The following three essays came out of the work of many students in my Qualitative Methods classes.  They are merely "sketches" and are biased in many ways -- most particularly by the population who produced them (college students in central PA).  But they certainly are a step in the right direction.  They are descriptions of romance, sexual desire, and falling in love.  Which do you think is most closely related to love itself?


Romance is a mood or state of mind akin to several others, including love, friendship, sexual interest, contentment, self-assuredness, and so on.

It is normally experienced in the context of a male-female relationship, although it may be experienced in other ways, such as in fantasy, expectation, or possibility.  It may also be experienced vicariously, such as when watching a romantic movie or real couples in romantic situations.  It is even experienced occasionally with same sex friends or relations.

It is, more specifically, associated with courtship and with the intimations of sexuality that go with it.  It is itself, however, not primarily sexual.  In fact, it often has an innocent feel to it, and is associated with "puppy" love, first love, early flirtations, and the like.

Romance often involves courtship symbols, traditions, and stereotypes, such as flowers, gifts, hand-holding, candle-lit dinners, "romantic" music, ....  These, however, are not essential, but rather seem to derive fom certain natural ways of expressing romantic feelings.  Once upon a time, they were probably original!  These symbols, etc., are now often used to "set the stage" for romance.

The romantic state of mind seems to come on rather suddenly, a matter of rather abruptly becoming aware of being in a romantic moment.  It very often involves surprise.  This is where many of the aforementioned symbols come into play:  Romance often involves being surprised by signs of someone's affection, whether it be in the form of a gift, a helping hand, an appreciative glace, a confidence shared, or what have you.

Associated with surprise is the sense of great motion, lightness, being swept up in the moment, or swept off your feet!  On the other hand, some people instead focus on a feeling of steadiness and solidity, reflecting the firmness of a commitment or the solidity of a relationship, especially in adversity.  The ligtness in oneself and the steadiness of the other are by no means incompatible.

There is often a degree of gender stereotyping involved in romance:  "He made me feel pretty, feminine....  He is my knight in shining armor....  He swept me off my feet....  I found comfort in his broad shoulders...."  These comments are used to good advantage in romance novels, but have their sources in ordinary experience.  In men, we find similar statements, in reverse:  "She made me feel strong, like a real man...."  Please note that this is not to be understood as a "power thing," but rather an awareness of the need to care for a woman, to "nurture."  The connection with courtship seems quite strong, despite the many exceptions.

The mood may come upon both people naturally, but it is often "arranged for" by one or the other.  The structure of the romantic episode seems best left simple and it is greatly enhanced by at least the appearance of spontaneity.

Circumstances can be very important.  A small gesture or sign of support in adverse circumstances can be far more valuable than great generosity in good circumstances.  Romance seems, in fact, to thrive on adversity, as in our common recollections of our "poor days."

This introduces as well the symbolism of the hero and the fair maiden in fairy tales.  Selfless help in adversity, revealing deep affection, is a theme common to most fairy tales, many movies, and many real-life romantic moments as well.

The key feeling would seem to be one of a heightened self-worth seen as coming from the other person.  Examples would include feeling especially attractive, important, strong, interesting, intelligent, and so on.  Even the sense that one has been involved in something important can bring on a sense of romance.  The increase in self-worth, curiously, results in an increase in one's valuing of or affection for the other.

Paradoxically, these feelings can also occur in reverse, so that coming upon the other person in circumstances that lead you to particularly value him or her may lead to feelings of strength, security, confidence, etc., and this too is felt as romantic!  Common to both is the sense of being fortunate or lucky to be you, to be there, to be with this person.

Other aspects of a romantic mental state include (a) lightness, airiness, giddiness, a glow, excitement, enchantment, joking and laughing; (b) coziness, cuddling, contentment, comfort, closeness; and (c) riskiness, danger, and naughtiness.  Set (a) seems most common, with the others being variation, and (c) being the least common, but certainly not rare.

The essence of romance seems to be the sudden discovery or bringing to awareness (whether by accident or by arrrangement) of your importance or value to another, along with an awareness of their value to you.  It is a confirmation that one is "lovable" or worthy of affection, whether in the eyes of a desirable young man or woman or in the context of a long comfortable marriage.  This confirmation comes with many of the qualities associated with other kinds of "ego-transcendence" or "ego-expansion," such as love itself:  By losing yourself in your affection for another, you become stronger as an individual.

Sexual Desire

The external focus is, of course, the other.  To some degree, he or she must be a certain "type"--that is, must fulfill  your anticipations, expectations, ideas about the sexually-desirable other.  A lot of variation shows up here:  body (strength, curves, "buns" or "boobs"), face, health, cleanliness, clothing, "style," maturity, gentleness, "perfect partner."

The internal focus is on feelings:  yearning, lust, attraction, wistfulness--varying as to aggressiveness.  Many people feel "weak," faint, butterflies, daydreamy.  Whether "strong" or "weak," both seem to refer to being carried away by your feelings.  The feelings definitely "look forward" to fulfillment.  Desire is not just felt -- it demands, motivates.

Images include future smells, touches, interaction.  Thoughts are of the future, wish-making, etc.

Some feel anxiety, feelings of not being "good-enough," potential for let-down, fear of rejection, hopelessness.  Fear of STDs, AIDS, and pregnancy were mentioned.  Some guilt is possible as well:  moral questions, desire as unfaithfulness to another (even when not acted on)...

The physical context often involves "romantic" settings -- lowlight, soft music -- or "hot" settings--lots of people, sexy clothing, hard rock, dancing.  Either way, the desire tends to be stronger in intimate situations, closeness.

Note that sometimes desire is accidental -- you just notice someone -- and sometimes there is seeking.   When we seek others, it can be quite different if we are looking for a "one-night stand" or a long-term relationship.  Thoughts about potential for "scoring" are common when short-term relations are being sought.  "Horniness" or recent sexual activity, seasons, time of day, menstrual cycle were all mentioned.  Mood is usually "up," but many find that sexual desire changes moods.

The transitions into "desire" often include eye-contact, certain bodylanguage, the sidelong glance, smiles.  Slight body contact intensifies desire, as do smells.

Regarding the transition of feelings into desire, we first feel a fairly physical attraction--focussed attention, openning your eyes and other senses to the other person.  Many feel a "love high"--with weak knees, butterflies, thoughts of romance and even future marriage!  Eventually we move into involvement when, after increasing interaction, we believe the other is also interested.  It is noted that we often misread these "signals" of mutual interest!

With increasing involvement, we begin to reveal ourselves -- talk about our interests, later very private things.  We become more open emotionally and physically (e.g. body language) -- often touching.  The desire involves trust -- making yourself vulnerable -- especially for women.  Men seem more involved in encouraging trust and offer "protective" body language (i.e. my strength is for you, not against you).  Courtship is a dance!

To maintain the interaction, we need compatability, good conversation, humor, signs of strength of character (with differences in male and female expression of strength).

Desire is "fulfilled" by romantic and/or sexual activity--or ruined by rejection (nasty looks, insults...), disappointment (realization that first impressions were incorrect), distraction, anxiety, and guilt.

Within a relationship, sexual desire is often "ready" to reenter awareness at the slightest provocation--things like mutuality become assumed.  When deprived, desire also "pops" into awareness frequently and persistently.  Sexual desire can be very distracting.  It can turn you into a babbling idiot.

What is essential?  (1)  Another person that fulfills your expectations regarding sexual desirability.  (2)  Feelings of arousal,  ranging from the "weak" feelings of romance to strong sexual preparedness--in both cases, feelings of being "carried away."  (3)  A fulfillment orientation, future directedness, "yearning."  (4)  An increasing openness to the other person.

What is incompatable?  Certain appearances and behaviors, unpleasant environments, fatigue or illness, anxiety, guilt, rejection.

(It should be noted that the participants were mostly college-aged and single.  Experiences of sexual desire as an older person in a long-term relationship were only available to a couple of participants.)

Falling in Love

I am quickly, almost physically, "hit" by the feeling.

My focus is on her face, and especially her eyes.  Her return of my gaze is the crucial turning point.  There's a certain hesitancy -- I glance away and back.

These feelings make me somewhat uncomfortable.  There's a degree of shame -- like being caught in the nude.  There's a sense of vulnerability -- what is happening to me?  I feel a desire to surrender, but I am afraid of losing my self or identity, and more immediately, my self-esteem.

Sexuality is "on the horizon" -- it's not the focus, but I am aware of it.  I think, for example, of sleeping with her -- literally sleeping, laying side-by-side.

I have strong images of her surrendering to me -- collapsing in my arms, proclaiming her eternal devotion.  I am aware of my maleness -- my relative height, strength -- as I am aware of her femaleness.  I want to protect her, care for her.

And yet I feel peculiarly "feminine" -- weak, needing her more than she needs me.

Bodily, I feel soft, "oozy."  I feel butterflies in my stomach, my knees at the verge of collapsing.  Everything is effortful.  I need to maintain a certain tension just to keep standing.  I'm afraid of falling, literally as well as figuratively.

My attention is focussed on her.  The rest of life is merely background.  I am "dazed," "drunk with love," absent minded.

She, on the other hand, fills my mind.  Details of her appearance and behavior stand out.  The details are terribly important to me:  Does she want something?  Is something wrong? Heaven forbid she should be uncomfortable or in need!

I feel a cheerful slavishness, a great desire to please, even at the cost of my own immediate self-interest.

Yet she, too, is for the most part hazy, cloudy, ethereal, "spiritual."  I have a hard time recalling her face.  I can't remember what she wore.  I do know, clearly, that she is too good for this world (and me).

The whole experience (and the days that follow) is dreamy.  I feel detached, "out of myself."

My focus on myself is rather from her point-of-view (as I imagine it, anyway).  Am I doing this right?  What must she think of me?  Does she like me, really?  Or is it just pity?

There's a tension, a restraint, in my behavior, which leaves me clumsier than ever.  There's a conflict between my efforts at liberally -- without restraint -- doing for her, and doing "right," looking good, maintaining composure.  I'm so conscious of her gaze  that I can barely walk!

As time goes on, there are some new occurances:  I'm still dazed, but now I feel light-headed, as if gravity were reversed.  I float.  I have a constant desire to hold and touch her -- though sex is still not terribly urgent.

I am moody.  Intrusions into my walking dream state offend me.  I alternate between a rather dopey cheeriness and anxiety, even occasional depression.  I'm afraid of losing her.  What is she doing now?  Sometimes I feel so inferior, so worthless.  I punish myself.

I have great feelings of pride about her.  I like to "show her off" (my "better half").  Her accomplishments and qualitites are so impressive.  I work harder, so she can be proud of me, but I feel deficient anyway, undeserving.  But if she does show pride in me, I'm in heaven.

These "heavenly" feelings are most intense when we hold each other and gaze into each others' eyes.  There's a loss of self and a sense of "we-ness" that seems to go beyond "ego-boundaries."  I'm not alone anymore.

I didn't realize before this that I was alone!  Loneliness has more meaning after falling in love.  Being an individual is no longer enough.

What happens to it (the experience of falling in love)?  I return eventually to a more commonplace reality.  The "falling" becomes occasional, more or less brief rekindlings.  It is good to know that it is still there.

The essence of falling in love seems to lie in a diminished consciousness of the boundaries between self and other, and a corresponding increase in the breadth and quality of consciousness.

© Copyright C. George Boeree 2001, 2003