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Online Dating Magazine > Columns > Office Hours with Dr. Jim > A Good Match: Theories of Love

Office Hours With Dr. Jim
by James Houran, Ph.D

In this column, "Dr. Jim" honestly and candidly answers your questions about dating, love and sexuality. He doesn’t tell you what you want to hear – he tells you what you need to hear. Dr. Jim is committed to offering you guidance based on responsible clinical practice and hard data from the latest scientific studies. Send Dr. Jim your questions today for consideration in an upcoming issue.


Dating and Relationships - A Good Match
Four Major Theories of Love

How do you define "a good match"?

Although the word “compatible” means “well-matched,” social scientists have long struggled with precisely defining the construct of romantic compatibility. Last installment we talked about what men and women really look for (knowingly or not) in a long-term partner -- men want physical affection and respect and women want emotional and economic stability.  It’s tempting to think therefore that it should be enough for a successful match if two people find these qualities in each other. Well, a good match is more complicated than that.

The four major theories of love [i.e., Rubin’s (9) “Love” and “Liking;” Hatfield and Walster’s (2) “Passionate Love” and “Companionate Love;” Lee’s (5) “Eros” and “Storge” love attitudes; and Sternberg’s (11) Triangular Theory with “Intimacy,” “Passion,” and “Decision/Commitment components] all conceptualize compatibility in terms of the interplay of at least two types of love: Erotic Love — love closely associated with sexual desire for a partner; and Companionate Love — which represents friendship-type platonic love towards a partner. Masuda’s recent research (7) on these four theories supported the existence of Erotic Love versus Companionate Love, although Companionate Love appeared to be a more ambiguous construct than Erotic Love.

My own team has also studied these theories of love, and we have come to a more detailed model of what constitutes a happy couple. The answer is not physical or brain chemistry, as espoused by some psychologists. Rather, we propose a cognitive view of romantic compatibility, which stresses partners’ dynamic reinterpretation of their social, emotion and sexual realities. In particular, we view romantic compatibility as “a holistic pattern of shared beliefs and values, mutually beneficial similarities and differences across personality traits, demographic preferences, and a cognitive set that motivates and sustains both erotic and companionate love in each partner.” In other words, and in more simplistic terms, we sort of talk ourselves into a good relationship. This view sides with previous work6,8 suggesting that global relationship satisfaction derives from the tendency to view positive perceptions as more important than negative perceptions, as well as the tendency to alter the importance of specific perceptions as needed. For example, the tendency to describe the marital relationship in unrealistically positive terms is called marital conventionalization. Such positive distortions in marriage– what Edmonds (1) viewed as social desirability bias in marital quality measurements —are strikingly similar to psychological constructs such as positive illusions (12) and unrealistic optimism (10).

The assessment or cognitive appraisal of one’s partner and the quality of marriage thus parallels a self-fulfilling prophecy (3) whose contents form a cognitive set that is determined mostly by the psychological costs associated with changing or leaving the relation (4). To avoid such costs we suspect that the partners use Erotic Love to reinforce Companionate Love or vice versa. Of course, individuals can also use negative distortions to effectively negate Erotic or Companionate Love. Such cognitive sets help explain why satisfied couples can be “objectively” incompatible and unsatisfied couples can be “objectively” compatible. Although we did not assess this variable, we speculate that this cognitive set is related to Sternberg’s (11) notion of the conscious decision to commit to a relationship. Accordingly, “conventionalization” may not simply be a confounding variable in relationship satisfaction and adjustment; it might well be the very process by which couples remain satisfied and bonded over time.

Yes, men want physical affection and respect and women want emotional and economic stability, but the variables, traits, attitudes and preferences of couples have provide the raw material for a story that each partner tells himself or herself. We use real-life variables like money management, communication, energy level, personality traits, religion and sex to create a story that justifies why we should stay or leave a specific relationship. Happy couples simply are better than unhappy couples at creating effective stories. It’s a mental and emotional process; not a phenomenon grounded in physical chemistry alone. Libido and passionate love, like good looks, fade over time for everyone -- that’s normal although it may come as a shock to some people. Couples aren’t really taught what to expect when it comes to the decline in physical chemistry, so many couples interpret this gradual and normal decline as something unhealthy and a sign that love has died. But the best matches are when two people find what they’re searching for in another person and can remind themselves everyday of the reasons why staying with this person is good for them.  Finding the positive in relationships -- if two people can do that, it’s well on its way to being a great match.



1Edmonds, V. H. (1967). Marital conventionalization: definition and measurement. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 29, 681-688.

2Hatfield, E., & Walster, G. W. (1978). A new look at love. Lantham, MA: University Press of America.

3Houran, J., & Lange, R. (2004). Redefining delusion based on studies of subjective paranormal ideation. Psychological Reports, 94, 501-513.

4Lange, R., & Houran, J. (2000). Modeling Maher’s attribution theory of delusions as a cusp catastrophe. Nonlinear Dynamics, Psychology, and Life Sciences, 4, 235-254.

5Lee, J. A. (1973). Colors of love. Toronto: New Press.

6Levinger, G. (1986). Compatibility in relationships. Social Science, 71, 173-177.

7Masuda, M. (2003). Meta-analyses of love scales: do various love scales measure the same psychological constructs? Japanese Psychological Research, 45, 25-37.

8Neff, L. A., & Karney, B. R. (2003). The dynamic structure of relationship perceptions: differential importance as a strategy of relationship maintenance. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29, 1433-1446.

9Rubin, Z. (1970). Measurement of romantic love. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 16, 265-273.

10Scheier, M. F., & Carver, C. S. (1992). Effects of optimism on psychological and physical well being: theoretical overview and empirical update. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 16, 201-228.

11Sternberg, R. J. (1986). A triangular theory of love. Psychological Review, 93, 119-135.

12Taylor, S. E., & Brown, J. D. (1988). Illusion and well-being: a social psychological perspective on mental health. Psychological Bulletin, 103, 193-210.

Dr. James Houran's "Office Hours with Dr. Jim" column is published every Monday.

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