What's love got to do with it?

What's love got to do with it?

There is no recipe for a lasting relationship
February 9, 2011
A pair of undergraduate psychology students pose

A pair of undergraduate psychology students pose in an observational laboratory where couples are queried on their partnerships.
Lorne Campbell

Toni Tennille promised “Love Will Keep Us Together,” and while it may be true that she and Daryl “the Captain” Dragon have stayed together for 40 years, it’s unlikely love was the only glue.

Lasting relationships require commitment, satisfaction and trust, says Lorne Campbell, a social psychologist at the University of Western Ontario. A little well-placed humour and physical attraction don’t hurt either. But relationships change over time, thanks to money, jobs, children and illness, he says. That old cliché about love being work holds true.

“How do you keep the spark alive?” asks Campbell. “It’s a continual process. It’s a bad analogy, but you build a house, and it needs maintenance, even when it’s brand new. You have to keep working on it, or else it will fall down.”

Good advice, with the Feast of St. Valentine right around the corner.

From ancient Greek philosophers to modern scientists, men and women have struggled to untangle that thing called love. Contemporary icons such as Sigmund Freud and Alfred Kinsey studied sex and libido, but love was considered the stuff of poetry, not science.

That changed in the 1960s and 1970s, especially with the work of American psychologists Elaine Hatfield and Ellen Berscheid, says Campbell. Hatfield and Berscheid endured public criticism for studying romantic relationships, but they pioneered what is now a burgeoning field in social psychology.

Today, anthropologists, sociologists, medical doctors and psychologists analyze everything from saliva to brain activity and facial expressions to figure out why we fall in and out of love.

Although we might like to think attraction is mysterious, decades’ worth of cross-cultural evidence from thousands of subjects seems to suggest that heterosexual men tend to seek youth and beauty in a partner and heterosexual women seek status and resources. He wants buxom. She wants bling.

Many scientists speculate that men seek out women who are in their sexual prime because of an inherent reproductive drive, while women, who must invest years in pregnancy and child rearing, are attracted to stable providers. There are plenty of exceptions, cautions Campbell, and in cultures where women have more power and resources, that correlation is less pronounced.

Campbell’s interests run the gamut from how preferences for beauty and status impact people’s self-concept to a couple’s use of humour to solve problems. Video-equipped laboratories that feed split-screen images to remote locations help to facilitate observational experiments with couples.

In a recent experiment involving 180 couples, Campbell’s team interviewed individuals about their relationships, then had them record in daily diaries their responses to study questions for a period of two to three weeks. Afterward, some couples were videotaped in the lab attempting to resolve a recent conflict, while others underwent a quick-response experiment compartmentalizing positive and negative qualities of their partner.

Campbell discovered that those who trusted their partners were less concerned with daily ups and downs and thus better able to resolve conflicts. Those less trusting experienced deeper swings of joy and disappointment and struggled with conflict resolution.

Statistics Canada and other sources report that people in stable, satisfying relationships have fewer serious health problems and experience less anxiety, depression and other mental health issues. Since most people will be involved in at least one romantic relationship during their lifetime, says Campbell, it’s important to study how people enter, maintain and exit relationships.

Campbell married his high school sweetheart 14 years ago. They have two young children. And he still observes Valentine’s Day.

“Isn’t it nice that we take time out, at least in our culture, to recognize the importance of our close relationships?” says Campbell. “Of course, one night isn’t going to make or break a relationship. It’s more about taking the time to reflect on it.”