Wild horses: Harnessing your love intensity

iloveyou

For a few months after it was published in January 2015, Mandy Len Catron’s article “To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This” about the 36 questions to increase intimacy seemed to be everywhere. People shared it all over Twitter and Facebook, sometimes cynically, other times hopefully. This article and these questions, originally from a 1997 article in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin claimed to have (at least) a partial solution to the time-old question: Can you choose who you love? Catron shared her experience testing these questions with a stranger, who she ultimately fell in love with and was dating by the time the article was published.

More broadly, this article raises a fair question and an intriguing proposition: maybe we can control the choice of who we love. Or, perhaps, more specifically, we can cultivate the strength of our love for a person. A recent study by Langeslag and van Strien (2016)[1] found that, in fact, love may be less like a light switch and more like a volume setting. volumeIn other words, people likely have the capacity to change the intensity of their love for someone. And there’s an upside to that, of course. As a relationship evolves, it takes on a new depth leading to greater feelings of intimacy and more intense love. But sometimes—often—it doesn’t. People break up. They fall out of love. Sometimes, you love what you can’t have. What then? Who hasn’t been in a situation where they were on the receiving end of inadequate love or where they couldn’t reciprocate the love someone else had for them? Regardless of the position, it’s often devastating.

What do I mean by love? To those who are currently in love, especially in the beginning stages, it defies explanation. It just IS. But love has been defined and measured in many ways. For this study, Langeslag and van Strien focus on two components of romantic love: infatuation (i.e., passion, attraction) and attachment (emotional bonding or intimacy). They recruited 40 participants, half of whom were currently in a romantic relationship and the other half of whom had recently experienced a break-up. People viewed 30 pictures of their partner (or ex-partner) for four rounds while an EEG recorded their brain activity. In the last two rounds, they were asked to use reappraisal (i.e., reinterpreting a situation to change its emotional meaning) when viewing each picture. Most importantly, people who had recently been through a break-up were instructed to use reappraisal to decrease their feelings of love by focusing on negative aspects of the ex-partner or the relationship (e.g., “We fight a lot” or “She’s lazy”). In contrast, participants currently in a relationship used reappraisal to increase their love feelings (e.g., “She’s so funny” or “We’ll get married someday”). People also recorded their levels of infatuation and attachment to their (ex-)partners before and after the EEG. It should also be noted that these participants reported feeling that love was uncontrollable.

Perhaps not surprisingly, people who viewed pictures of their exes who used negative reappraisal reported feeling less infatuated and less attached after the images than before. People who used positive reappraisal of their current partners reported higher feelings of infatuation and attachment. And, most convincingly, EEG reports corresponded with these self-reports. In other words, people weren’t just telling the researchers what they wanted to hear or were tricking themselves into thinking they were less heartbroken or more in love than was true. The pattern of brain activity suggested these shifts in thinking were genuine. Now was this a permanent fix? That’s less likely, but there’s no reason to suggest that cognitive reappraisal is a tool that can’t be used in a person’s life just like it was used in a lab setting.

The implications, of course, are encouraging. Using cognitive reappraisal to decrease love intensity after a break-up can speed folks along in the recovery process. For people in long-term relationships, where it’s natural for infatuation or even attachment to fade over time[2], cognitive reappraisal may be a useful tool in maintaining feelings of love. And sure, there are some relationship that aren’t meant to last for a variety of reasons. However, this study suggests that regardless of whether you’re newly single or attached, you possess the capacity to train your brain to feel better. How’s that for a happy ending?

otters

Otters mate for life. No love regulation needed.


[1] Langeslag & van Strien. (2016). Regulation of romantic love feelings: Preconceptions, strategies, and feasibility. PLoS One, 11, 1-29.

[2] Langeslag, Muris, & Franken. (2013). Measuring romantic love: Psychometric properties of the Infatuation and Attachment Scales. The Journal of Sex Research, 50, 739-747.

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