If I could choose who I fall in love with, then I could probably save myself a lot of heartache and emotional trauma. Looking back on some of my relationships the incompatibility is clear, but as they (so annoyingly) say, “hindsight is 20/20.”
I can think of people who I am completely myself around, feel totally accepted by, clearly have a connection to and yet feel zero romantic attraction—why is that? Obviously, experience and maturity play a major role in how we begin to navigate healthy relationships (romantic and platonic), but how we differentiate types of love has always interested me.
Why do we innately know the difference between loving someone romantically, loving someone as a friend, and loving a family member? There are occasionally those crazy stories like “What It’s Like to Date Your Dad” where the lines getting blurred, but for the most part, each type of love has a different feeling.
So, how do we instinctively know the difference between being “in love” and the love we feel toward our friends and family? Is it possible that we have any control over this, and could identifying the types of relationships we are prone to help us make wiser choices in the future when it comes to love? I reached out to some relationship experts for answers.
First of all, what’s the difference between these three types of love: Romantic, familial, and friendship? Certified mental health professional, Adina Mahalli (MSW), says that the most notable difference can be understood through what you can offer and expect from the relationship.
Mahalli says, “A friend is someone who you share goodwill with, meaning that you think they are pleasant to be around and they add some value to your life. This love breeds companionship, trust, and a certain level of dependability. This is inherently different from a romantic feeling of love which is based on sexual feelings, which is why you say that you’re “in love” with someone. It suggests *a state of being* rather than *an innate reality*.
You can offer this person a part of yourself and you expect them to do the same in return. This feeling can grow and become something more permanent when romantic love becomes based on values and shared goals.
Meanwhile, familial love is different from the others, in that it fears no conflict—it’s the relationship that is the least dependent on expectations. This is the most deep-rooted love because it is founded on familiarity and should be unconditional. You have known your family longer than you have known any romantic love or friendship.”
For visual learners, a popular theory on the concept of love comes from American psychologist, Dr. Robert Sternberg. According to Sternberg’s Triangular Theory of Love, love has three main components; intimacy, passion, and commitment.
He defines intimacy as "feelings of closeness, connectedness, and bondedness in loving relationships,” passion as "the drives that lead to romance, physical attraction, sexual consummation, and related phenomena in loving relationships,” and commitment in both the short and long-term sense, short-term being “the decision that one loves a certain other,” and long-term being “one's commitment to maintain that love.”
Sternberg claims that every loving relationship involves some combination of these three components. Each in varying emphasis which can also change over the course of a relationship—the healthiest and most enduring comprising of at least two, and the ideal romantic relationship involving all three. These elements, depending on their combination, produce seven different kinds of love.
The 7 Types Of Love
Liking/Friendship: A strong bond without passion or long-term commitment.
Infatuation: The “love at first sight” feeling that often disappears suddenly.
Empty Love: When stronger love deteriorates but the commitment remains. Commonly seen in the early stages of an arranged marriage.
Romantic Love: A couple that is bonded emotionally and physically through passionate arousal but no commitment. For example a one-night stand or an affair.
Companionate Love: Experienced with those you share your life with—family members and platonic friendships. Also found in marriages without passion but a deep affection remains.
Fatuous: A commitment that is motivated by passion but lacks stability of genuine intimacy, for example a pre-mature engagement or marriage after minimal time dating. AKA Ariane Grande and Pete Davidson.
Consummate Love: The most complete form of love that most strive for but few can achieve. Maintaining this love can be harder than achieving it.
Applying this chart to my own life, I can clearly identify relationships that would fall into a few of these categories—infatuation, romantic love, companionate. However, from a logical standpoint, it seems as though everyone should be striving for the most fulfilling and long-lasting kind of love, consummate love. So why are some of us settling for relationships that seem to be lacking crucial components?
Psychotherapist, Kathleen Hanagan (LCSW) says, “There is actually a change in brain chemistry when we “fall in love” with someone, and a chemical compound called PEA is released, that leads to feelings of euphoria and deep pleasure, causing us to want to mate. In a sense, we are “drugged” by this amazing process of falling in love, and there is a shelf-life to how long these ecstatic feelings can last on their own. This is NOT the same as filial love of family or friends, which is based on knowing and caring deeply. When the knowing and caring deeply is added to the “in love” feelings, a long-lasting romantic relationship is possible.”
So, in many ways we can’t quite help who we fall in love with, it just happens. Sternberg’s chart simplifies a very complicated matter—revealing where a partnership falls short. Experts say that recognizing a missing fundamental component in a relationship is crucial to finding long-lasting happiness with a partner.
Licensed psychiatrist Abigail Brenner M.D. told Psychology Today, “A really good exercise I ask my clients to do is to write down every partner they’ve had a significant relationship with, and then, for each, answer questions such as: What attracted you to this person initially? Did the attraction last? Was your fantasy about this person—what you imagined or assumed to be true—validated in reality? How long did the relationship last? Did revelations during the course of the relationship change your mind? What was the deal breaker? Do any patterns, similarities from relationship to other relationships, emerge?”
Brenner listed these ten indicators as red flags in a relationship that could prove to be an issue in the future:
Lack of communication. These individuals find it difficult to talk about issues or express how they feel. Often, when it would seem most important to be open and honest, they distance themselves emotionally, leaving their partner hanging, or having to deal with a situation on their own.
Irresponsible, immature, and unpredictable. These people may still be working on growing up. In other words, it may be hard to rely on them for almost anything.
Lack of trust. When a person has difficulty being honest with himself or herself, it may be hard for them to be honest with you. Some of this behavior may not be calculated and malicious, but simply a learned way or habit of coping.
Significant family and friends don’t like your partner. If there is something “off" about this person that seems obvious to those who know you so well, you may need to listen to what they’re telling you.
Controlling behavior. Similarly, a controlling partner may attempt to “divide and conquer,” driving a wedge between you and other significant people in your life.
Feeling insecure in the relationship. A dark or secretive past. Behaviors that are suspect, illegal activities, and addictive behaviors that haven’t been resolved and continue into your relationship are obvious red flags.
A dark or secretive past. Behaviors that are suspect, illegal activities, and addictive behaviors that haven’t been resolved and continue into your relationship are obvious red flags.
Non-resolution of past relationships. These include not just intimate relationships but those with family members and friends. If a person is unable to evaluate why past relationships haven’t worked out, or consistently blames the other party for all of the problems, you can bet with a great deal of confidence that the same thing could happen with your relationship.
The relationship is built on the need to feel needed. If this dynamic is the focal point of a relationship, however, there may be little room for real growth, individually or as a couple.
Abusive behavior. Finally, and of course, any form of abuse, from the seemingly mild to the overtly obvious—verbal, emotional, psychological, and certainly physical—is not just a red flag but a huge banner telling you to get out immediately and never look back.
No one theory can truly sum up or define love across the board because the variety of love we can feel—romantic, friendship, and familial—is complex and personal. While we may not have much control over who we fall for and whether or not it’s reciprocated, we can get to know ourselves in every possible way before getting involved in a committed relationship.
Understanding ourselves first and foremost makes us available to other’s needs in both romantic relationships and friendships, and in turn, a more positive, supportive and loving partner.
So, what are your thoughts on these love theories? Do any ring true to you? Let’s discuss below!