Q&A | Eli professor analyzes science of love

In his recent articles on love, New York Times reporter John Tierney explored the scientific nature of this complex emotion. In honor of Valentine’s Day and Yale’s Sex Weekend, Katie Falloon interviewed Margaret Clark, a professor of psychology who researches close relationships and emotion, to get a Yale perspective on Tierney’s conclusions.

QYour study the factors contribute to (or detract from) a close relationship. What have you found thus far?

AMy research (and that of many others) has uncovered a host of factors that contribute to close relationships being successful. Most obvious is that paying attention to a partners’ needs, desires and goals and being responsive in the sense of meeting those needs and supporting goal strivings is good for relationships. Some are less obvious. Being willing to be dependent upon a partner is just as important to relationship success as being responsive to your partner. In addition, being responsive with “no strings attached,” not keeping track of who has contributed what to the relationship, having positive illusions about partners (seeing them in more positive ways than they see themselves), being able to see a positive aspect of seeming partner weakness (e.g. he’s not terribly available but that’s because he’s such a devoted student), and being biased to attribute negative behavior to situational influences (e.g. she forgot my birthday because she had three tests for which to study) and good behavior to the person (e.g. she took me out to dinner for my birthday because she is nice) are some of the many things that contribute to relationships being successful.

QRecently, an article was published in the New York Times detailing the role of the hormones oxytocin and vasopressin in pair bonding in animals and, to some extent, humans. Can something as complicated as love really be enhanced, as the research suggests, through these hormones?

AYes, I believe it can. I would also suggest that you contact Laurie Santos as well on this topic.

QThe article also mentioned eventually using oxytocin squirted into the nose as a sort of “love vaccine” in addition to marital therapy. From your research and experience, do you think that a hormone could be a viable treatment option in the future?

AI’m far more skeptical about this. First, it’s not entirely clear that oxytocin being squirted up a person’s nose has the same impact on people as does naturally secreted oxytocin. Even if it did, in my opinion concluding that artificially giving members of a troubled relationship a dose of oxytocin would serve as a “love potion” (I think “vaccine” is the wrong word here) represents too simplistic thinking. People who seek marital therapy are generally doing so because their relationship is troubled. Before they seek therapy they have often adapted to their partner’s poor behaviors by becoming fiercely independent and by habitually resisting temptations to depend upon their partner. Given such well practiced defensive habits, I believe it is not at all clear that they would react to exposure to oxytocin by drawing closer to a partner. Instead they may defensively distance from a partner when cued (by oxytocin or anything else) to draw closer.

QThe research found that males were more likely to bond to females when vasopressin was injected into their bloodstream. Similarly, human males with a certain varient of the AVPR1A gene were found to be twice as likely to remain unmarried married. In your opinion, to what extent are hormones involved in the complex emotion of love?

AI think there is a role for hormones in understanding feelings of attraction between people but that many, many other factors play a role. Importantly, what that role is depends upon how you conceptually define love. If, what you mean by love is sexual attraction, then hormones may play one sort of role. If, what you mean by love is bonding for purposes of providing mutual protection and care, then hormones may play another role. To what extent to they play a role? I’m not at all sure but I am sure that the answer will depend upon how you conceptually define love.

QIn your opinion, what psychological factors, besides hormones, contribute most to the development and expression of love?

AAgain, that depends upon how love is defined. One conceptualization of love that applies to family relationships, friendships as well as to romantic relationships is that it involves mutual responsiveness to each other’s welfare across time. When love is defined in this manner, I personally think the most important factor may be each person having high levels of trust in the other’s care. Trust can arise from their history of interactions with each other and it can also be influenced by the prior history of relationship experience each person carries forward with him or herself to the current relationship.

QYou study many different kinds of emotions. Is there one you have found to be the most powerful, or is the combination of the expression of different emotions that matters most?

AI would not focus on one particular emotion. Expression of a wide variety of emotions in relationships is important to relationships, I believe. One reason for believing this is that expression of emotion conveys our needs and desires to partners and makes it easier for them to be responsive to our needs. For instance, fear suggests a need for assurance or help is coping with whatever caused the fear. Sadness suggests a need for comfort and, perhaps, replacement of what has been lost. Even happiness suggests ways a partner can provide support as things that make a partner happy can be repeated, prolonged or celebrated.

Expressing emotion is a type of self-disclosure. It reveals vulnerabilities but when expressed in the context of a secure relationship those vulnerabilities are met with support and also convey a willingness to trust one’s partner and to depend upon him or her.

Certain other emotions which we tend to call “social emotions” are also important to promoting care within relationships because they suggest something about the state of the relationship itself. For instance, hurt suggests that a partner has neglected one’s needs and guilt that one has neglected a partner’s needs. Ideally, hurt when expressed and guilt when felt can prompt efforts at repair. Guilt, when expressed, can also be reassuring to a partner. Gratitude suggests that one appreciates a partner’s efforts. When felt it suggests to the self that the relationship has grown; when expressed it suggests the same to the partner.

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