Love has many dimensions, all of them intense and powerful. A parent’s love for a child. That bond between soldiers in the trenches. Siblings. Close friends. But there is a particular punch that happens with romantic love. What biological and psychological factors play into romance, and how can writers create believable characters in a romantic situation? In psychology, there are typically three concepts that come to play in romantic love: Attachment, Sex, and Caregiving. An individual can still have very strong feelings of love without all three of these, but in what is typically defined as romantic love, all must be present. How do these factors relate to each other, and what truly makes up what we call romantic love?
- SEX – Everyone realizes that the primary function of sex is procreation – the continuance of a species. Where things get interesting is the sneaky way attachment links up with sex to create a pair bond to ensure survival of offspring with a very long maturation period. But the experts differ on how this link between attachment and sex is established. Several studies (and I’m sure everyone’s personal experience!) show that sexual desire can be completely separate from attachment. These studies theorize that attachment was originally only to bond an infant to a caregiver, and that any attachment between sexual partners is a bleed over from this parenting urge. Other studies reveal that the link between sex and attachment is bi-directional, meaning a person with only attachment feelings for another can see these feelings grow to encompass sexual attraction, or a sexual attraction can later include an attachment bond. This reciprocal relationship between sex and attachment allows a writer great latitude in establishing romantic love between characters. Asexual friends can become lovers. Enemies, who have a strong sexual attraction, can fall in love. Anything is possible.
There is also an evolving attachment/sexual desire ratio in romantic partners, with the first stage of bonding characterized by intense sexual attraction and desire. In the second stage, sexual desire gives way to companionship (attachment). As time progresses, sexual desire takes a back seat, while attachment and caregiving become the primary factors in the relationship. That doesn’t mean sexual desire dwindles to nothing. Research shows that sexual attraction is a glue that holds strong relationships together, even in the later years of life, and that the quality of the sexual experience with a partner contributes significantly to relationship satisfaction. Keep this in mind when writing about long married couples!
- BIOLOGY – Oxytocin. It’s a rocking-your-world neuropeptide released during orgasm and in response to physical touch of a sexually desirable partner. Oxytocin is produced during breast feeding, labor, and it is directly linked to attachment. It contributes to the feeling of happy contentment after sex. And just like any drug, people want to experience it again, and again, leading them to associate the euphoric feelings with that one particular partner that brought them about. Yep, orgasm facilitates attachment. But there is a gender component of oxytocin. It’s estrogen dependent, and as women have higher levels of estrogen (especially during ovulation), women tend to experience sexual gratification as relationship-centered. Men, less so. That doesn’t mean that men have less of an attachment response, just that theirs is different compared to a woman’s.
So the stereotypes have a foundation in science. Women feel a bonding to a particular sexual partner due to high levels of oxytocin, meaning sex for women is more tied to attachment. Men are better able to separate sex from attachment then women are. BUT there are other factors at work here that could create a female “player” character, or a character with a decreased ability to form an attachment bond.
In my next blog post, I will discuss how childhood experiences in attachment affect romantic love.
Thoughts? Let me know your comments!