Love in Four Acts:
What is Romantic Love?

by Nick Yee

In a strange way, romantic love is the least understood part of the human psyche because we are content in believing that “it just happens”, that it is something so sacred that it clearly resists rational understanding, or that it is an entirely different experience for everyone such that it is impossible to articulate. Indeed, social psychology textbooks talk a great deal about the factors that impact relationship formation (proximity, familiarity, shared attitudes etc), but they typically do not have a lot to say about romantic love as something separate from platonic friendships. But perhaps underneath the mystical, maybe even mythical, glow of love’s façade, there is something that we can articulate and talk about meaningfully. And perhaps understanding romantic love empowers us rather than corrupting love through deliberate exploration. This is a story about romantic love from four different intertwined perspectives: fairy tales, Jungian psychology, collected interviews, and biology. This is a story about what four different perspectives can tell us about romantic love.

It makes the most sense to begin with a clarification of terminology – what do we mean by “romantic love”? Almost 3 decades ago, in 1978, Elaine Hatfield wrote a seminal book on the topic of love - teasing apart passionate and companionate love. She defined passionate love as "a state of intense longing for union with another" and companionate love as "the affection we feel for those with whom our lives are deeply entwined". Around the same time, Dorothy Tennov was trying to answer the same question in her book "Love and Limerence" and, similar to Hatfield, quickly differentiated between the “love” that is sincere concern and caring as opposed to the “love” that is fiery, euphoric and ephemeral. But Tennov realized that there is something more irrational and complex about this latter kind of love than what Hatfield described. Tennov coined the term “limerence” for the latter so as to be able to discuss it as a concept separate from “love”. She noted that “love” is an emotion that is acted on, while “limerence” is more of a transformed state that people go into (the difference in the proverbial “I love you, but I’m not in love with you”). After interviews with hundreds of individuals who were "in love", Tennov put together a list of the symptoms of limerence:

1) Intrusive thoughts about the object of passionate desire (the “limerent object” or LO)
2) Acute longing for reciprocation
3) Mood becomes dependent on the LO’s actions
4) Inability to react limerently towards more than one person at the same time (except when limerence is at low ebb)
5) Unsettling shyness and fear of rejection when in the presence of the LO
6) Intensification through adversity (up to a certain point)
7) Acute sensitivity to any act or condition that could be interpreted as favorable
8) An aching of the “heart” (a palpable heavy sensation in the front of the chest)
9) Buoyancy (a feeling of “walking on air”)
10) An intensity of feeling that leaves other concerns in the background
11) A remarkable ability to emphasize the positive traits of the LO, while rendering the LO’s negative traits as “endearing” to the point where it is perceived to be another positive trait. --- (pg. 23)

The central paradox of limerence is that someone who is actively limerent feels like they are experiencing the most unique, rapturous experience in the world even though limerence seems to have fairly universal characteristics (at least in Western cultures, although it could be argued that traditional Asian cultures do understand limerence but don't use it as a basis for marriage). In fact, as Tennov noted, there is a very well-rehearsed cultural script for falling in and out of limerence: the initial buoyancy, the ensuing anxiety and self-consciousness, intense distraction and euphoria, usually followed by a devastating disillusionment. Everyone knows this script.

And one reason why we know this script so well is because we’ve been hearing about it since we were children. We have all gone to bed as a child with the freshly-told fairy tale story still bubbling in our mind. Marcia Lieberman has criticized fairy tales as conditioning girls into becoming submissive women who believe that beauty and docility are the only traits that are rewarded in life, but in her essay “Some Day My Prince Will Come”, she also points out something very interesting about romantic love itself. Most fairy tales end with the “happily ever after” clause, but these same fairy tales almost always have the protagonist come from a broken family. Either one of the parents is dead, missing, or there is an evil step-parent. These fairy tales imply that romantic love leads to happy marriages and yet all the families that they portray are broken. The paradox of love in fairy tales is that everyone ends up happily ever after, but no one seems to be happy. The “happily ever after” of love is always emphasized, but never shown.

What does it mean to grow up with stories with such a strange juxtaposition of what romantic love is? But in fact, these symbols and themes still surround us as adults. The prince and princess merely change forms and show up on TV sitcoms, movies and fill the roles in novels, plays and even songs. The same story is being re-enacted over and over again for all ages.

In his book “We: Understanding the Psychology of Romantic Love”, Robert Johnson shows how we grow up to believe in the irrational assumptions of the fairy tale script of romantic love. As a Jungian analyst, Robert Johnson is interested in exploring the cultural archetype of romantic love to uncover its psychological essence and meaning. Like Tennov, he differentiates romantic love from sincere love – “Romantic love is not love but a complex of attitudes about love – involuntary feelings, ideals, and reactions” (pg. 45, original emphasis). Johnson points out a central ideal of love that Tennov doesn’t emphasize and it is this:

When we are “in love” we feel completed, as though a missing part of ourselves had been returned to us; we feel uplifted, as though we were suddenly raised above the level of the ordinary world. Life has an intensity, a glory, an ecstasy and transcendence (pg. 52)

For Johnson, romantic love is a kind of primal religious experience – both revelation and rapture - that is a fundamental part of our collective unconsciousness. The tragedy of our cultural understanding of romantic love is that it makes us place unreasonable demands on our romantic partners because we believe that they have “the responsibility for making our lives whole … making our lives meaningful, intense, and ecstatic” (pg. 61).

The cause of the problem is that when we are in love, we become “entranced, mesmerized … with a mystical vision – but of something separate and distinct from [our] human selves” (pg. 51). We see our romantic partners as idealized, god-like versions of who they are. And we are euphoric with this vision instead of the other person. For Johnson, the paradox of romantic love is that “it never produces human relationships as long as it stays romantic” (pg. 133) because we are in love with our own fantastical creations instead of the other person for who they really are.

More tragically, “we assume that the single ingredient that we need for ‘relationship’ … is romance” (pg. 103) and that a relationship without this heady, fiery kind of love has very little worth to the point where “if a direct, uncomplicated, simple relationship offers us happiness, we won’t accept it” (pg. 134). The tragedy derives from the simple fact that romantic love always fades, and most people do not know how to derive a sincere, human relationship from one that is fantastical and rapturous. And if they learned anything from fairy tales, they learned that a relationship without romantic love is worthless. All their lives, they have had a vision of what love would be, and they now believe that their “true love” must then still be out there waiting for them. Many people are stuck forever in this wash-and-rinse cycle of romantic love because they believe that fiery romantic love can be everlasting.

The romantic couples who have been together for half their lives have something quite different from romantic love. Johnson calls it “stirring-the-oatmeal” love – “it represents a willingness to share ordinary human life, to find meaning in the simple, unromantic tasks … to find the relatedness, the value, the beauty, in the simple and ordinary things, not to eternally demand a cosmic drama … or an extraordinary intensity in everything” (pg. 195). In a strange way, this is true love because it can be everlasting, but this is not the love script that we are bombarded with from every literary or entertainment form in our lives.

Yet if romantic love or limerence is so destructive and irrational, why does it happen at all? Tennov briefly ponders the possible biological underpinnings of limerence in her book. As an evolutionary adaptation, limerence might be a reaction to a set of physical attractiveness or genetic fitness cues. Prima facie, it makes a lot of sense that we become intensely attracted to highly desirable sexual partners, but that is lust – an intense erotic reaction, which is different from limerence – the set of responses and attitudes that can be independent from sexual desire. When we are in limerence with someone, we want to be with them and we want them to like us. When we are in lust with someone, we just want to have sex with them. There is an important difference between the two. It makes sense for us to lust a highly desirable sexual partner, but why would we become limerent over them?

The answer may lie with the size of our brains. Our pelvises have decreased in size over the past few million years while the size of our brains have increased. The problem is that babies cannot fully develop in the mother’s womb otherwise they would be too large to be given birth to. The compromise is that human infants are born “pre-mature” so they can finish developing outside the womb. But this leaves both the mother and infant highly vulnerable in the small tribal hunter-gatherer environment. This is particularly because human infants cannot cling onto their mothers the way all primate infants can (a consequence of hairlessness and shorter arms). In fact, the only way a human infant can survive in the ancestral environment is if both parents are present. Limerence is perhaps an evolutionary adaptation that creates an irrational emotional attachment to another individual for the likely duration of conception, birth and child care. This duration is around 2-3 years, which is also how long marriages usually last – long enough to bear one child and for that child to be old enough to walk.

Of course, Tennov is probably right that limerence is triggered by some set of traits that imply genetic fitness (such as physical attractiveness) which differ from person to person. For example, it has been shown that we are attracted to or repelled by the natural body odor of other individuals to differing degrees. Research has shown that we are typically not attracted to the body odors of close family members (another incest safeguard) or people whose genetic makeup is very different from ours. We typically find individuals who are in the optimal middle area most erotic-smelling. The underlying theory is that the pheromones in our body odor are a signature of our immune system blueprint, and one reason why sex exists to begin with is to increase genetic variation against the constantly evolving viruses and bacteria. It’s essentially an arms race between us and viruses that forces us to increase the genetic variation of our offspring or perish. In short, limerence as an evolutionary adaptation is plausible.

Many of us have at one point or another been imprisoned by the painful, irrational clutches of limerence gone bad. But in a culture where romantic “love” is often presented in entirely paradoxical ways, it is inevitable that many people are unable to untangle limerence from love. Romantic love and all its implications are deeply rooted in our culture, and perhaps these irrational reactions have evolutionary underpinnings, but that does not mean we have to be imprisoned by them. For as long as we project god-like idealizations onto our romantic partners and demand that they make us happy as the fairy tales describe, we will never truly love them as human beings. Limerence may be a wonderful way to begin a relationship, but that relationship will never get anywhere unless both individuals are willing and able to see each other for who they are. In the end, the basis of a stable relationship is founded on a love that emerges not in spite of but because of the other person’s flaws and weaknesses, because ultimately it is our imperfections that make us human. We can seek out limerence with angels, but we can only find true love among mortals.



1) One of the things that started Tennov on her study of limerence was her discovery of natural non-limerents - people who do not experience limerence and not because they are actively denying their own emotions. Tennov documents several individuals she meets who have never been limerent and are confused by the media portrayal of this set of emotions and attitudes. A biological underpinning actually does allow for a spectrum of "limerent reactions" with individuals on both ends of that spectrum.

2) Robert Sternberg has a triarchic theory of love, composed of 3 factors: Intimacy, Passion and Commitment, and in his paradigm, you need all 3 to have "consummate" love. While this may seem to contradict what Tennov and Johnson say, this may be caused by Sternberg's more mild conceptualization of Passion which does not include the more irrational, emotionally-charged, drama-ridden elements that Tennov and Johnson describe. Sternberg's Passion is better described as warm romance.


Hatfield, E., & Walster, G. W. (1978). A new look at love. Addison-Wesley.
Johnson, Robert A. We: Understanding the Psychology of Romantic Love. Harper San Francisco. 1983.
Lieberman, Marcia K. "'Some Day My Prince Will Come': Female Acculturation through the Fairy Tale." In Don't Bet on the Prince: Contemporary Feminist Fairy Tales in North America and England. Ed. Jack Zipes. New York: Methuen, 1986, pp. 185-200.
Tennov, Dorothy. Love and Limerence. Scarborough House. 1979.
Thornhill, Randy, Gangestad, Steven W. The scent of symmetry: A human sex pheromone that signals fitness? Evolution & Human Behavior Vol 20(3) (May 1999): 175-201

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Nick Yee's new book on the psychology of online games is now available!

The Proteus Paradox: How Online Games and Virtual Worlds Change Us--And How They Don't

Online games like World of Warcraft evoke the notions of fantasy, freedom, and fun. But these promises are largely illusory. Many gamers describe their gameplay as a second job; superstitions such as ritual dances are common across these games; and a gamer's offline ethnicity can be a matter of virtual life and death. Moreover, these virtual worlds contain an arsenal of unique and powerful psychological tools for changing how we think and behave.

As we play online games, are we also being played?