A Critique of Mainstream Approaches (2): The Cognitive Social Psychology of Love and Relationships

The opening section of this chapter implied that the study of human (personal, intimate, or close) relationships has not, until quite recently, been considered a necessary topic for the discipline of social psychology or its students. Neither has it become an important or central topic in the meantime. The study of relationships is instead diffused across many of psychology’s subdisciplines, including social, but also physiological, clinical, developmental, counselling, evolutionary, and cognitive psychology. Outside psychology, the collective endeavour known as ‘relationship science’ encompasses an equally wide range of disciplines including, but not limited to, sociology, communication studies, gender studies, anthropology, history, and so on (Fletcher, 2002).

This diversity reflects the enormous breadth of topics which can legitimately be studied under the relationships umbrella, which include attraction, communication, self-disclosure, relationship maintenance and dynamics, friendship, love, marriage, jealousy, sexual behaviour, sexuality, relational conflict and violence, relationship dissolution, divorce, and loneliness. All these topics are also subject to further consideration relative to issues of gender and from both cross-cultural and historical perspectives (Berscheid & Regan, 2004; Goodwin, 1999; Miller, 2012).

It would be impossible, therefore, to provide comprehensive coverage of this literature in the current context, although some excellent relationship textbooks (which attempt the task) are listed at the end of the chapter. Attention here will simply fall on two example topics—exchange theories of relationship dynamics and love—which have been selected as a means of demonstrating the impact that individualism, scientism, and a broader disciplinary concern with intrapersonal processes, have had on our cultural understanding and expectations of relationships.

Social exchange theory (Homans, 1961/1974)—our first theory of relationship dynamics—suggests that the relationships people choose to create, and then to commit to and maintain, are the ones which best maximise their rewards for the least amount of effort expended. As a consequence, people continually judge their relationships by applying all kinds of cost-benefit analyses, which compare the ratio of rewards to costs, a relationship’s productivity relative to past relationships, to the relationships of others, to potential alternative relationships, and so on. All relationships must ‘measure up’ favourably if they are to have long-term prospects.

Other complementary theories of relationships dynamics, like interdependence theory (Kelley & Thibaut, 1978) and equity theory (Adams, 1965), add a further caveat to this relational rationale. Since two individuals are necessarily involved in a relationship, they point out, cost-benefit analyses and comparisons will always be conducted by both parties, which means benefits must accrue on either an equal or an equitable basis if their relationship is to succeed. In other words, costs and benefits in a social exchange relationship must be balanced if one of the individuals is not to make an unfavourable comparison which threatens the relationship. As Hinde (1997, p. 337) puts it, for ‘A to maximise her outcomes she must consider not only the rewards and costs to her that are consequent upon her actions, but also the consequences for B: A must try to maximise B’s profits as well as her own, or B may opt out of the relationship’.

This all makes sense given the assumption of individualism. All the As, B’s, rewards, costs, balances, and consequences also add up to a neat scientific description. The problem, however, is that exchange relationships tend to be far less neat or sensible in practice. In fact, relationships are typically quite fragile and unstable where this rationale is applied, because anybody and everybody can easily find a host of completely justifiable reasons to opt out (at any time in the relational life cycle). This instability is further compounded by the insistence of both individualism and cognitive social psychology that relationships are, in any case, unnecessary to the life of the self-contained individual. As McNamee and Gergen (1999, p. 9) put it, where:

.. .the central unit in society is the individual self, then relationships are by definition artificial contrivances, unnatural and alien. By implication, they must be constructed, nurtured, or ‘worked’ at. And if such effort proves arduous or disagreeable, then one is invited to abandon them and return to the native state of private agency.

The relationships literature confirms that the degree of individualism exhibited by a person is negatively correlated with the levels of caring, needing, and trusting they are prepared to offer within a relationship (Dion & Dion, 1993). The more someone considers themselves to be self-contained, the less likely they are to describe their relationships as rewarding, deep, and tender, and the less positive they become about marriage and their own marital prospects. It follows that a sixfold increase in incidences of divorce was observed in Britain between 1961 and 1991, a period in which individualism increasingly took hold, and the popularity of marriage simultaneously dropped to a 50-year low (Wilkinson & Mulgan, 1995).

Be they correct or incorrect, therefore, the twin assumptions of individualism and scientism could never be accused of engendering a relationship- friendly context. One might also be forgiven for thinking that social exchange relationships seem rather lacking in terms of love and romance and this is certainly true where love is understood along traditional and/or biblical lines, as an essentially selfless and unconditional mode of relationship. Viewed in this way, love is effectively an orientation of openness, a relationship ‘going out from one person toward another person or.thing’ (Watts, 2001; Morgan, 1964, p. 113). The expectation that love will be open and unconditional is no doubt why maternal love, which is typically considered to be constant and forever enduring, is still recognised by modern audiences as the prototypical love (Fehr & Russell, 1991). Love also has a biblical association with the concept of charity, which combines both the quality of being kind to people with a concomitant refusal to subject them to harsh judgement.

Compare these qualities with the aforementioned social exchange relationships, which are primarily self-centred, insistent that a range of conditions be satisfied, and tend also to be characterised by the prioritisation of capitalist rather than charitable principles, and the opposition becomes very apparent. Harsh judgements are to be found everywhere in these relationships. The opposition is, in fact, so fundamental that many commentators have found it ‘impossible to specify how selflessness and an orientation to the other person [i.e. love] could become embedded as a dominant motif in a broader and deeper understanding of exchange’ (Luhmann, 1998, p. 162). As Bohm (1999, p. 205) confirms below, exchange relationships and love tend to be incompatible, because the former are typically:

.. .directed primarily at the self, which obtains satisfaction through relationships with the so-called ‘loved one’. But love in its purity does not depend on any satisfactions.If it does, it cannot be love, but is a kind of exchange. Such an exchange can lead to hate and frustration when the expected satisfactions are not forthcoming. Thus, we come to the mystery of the ‘love-hate’ relationship as suggested by Freud. But.. .there is no mystery. It wasn’t love in the first place, so that it was only natural that it could turn into hate.

As love has seemingly disappeared from our relationships, however, cognitive social psychologists have been pleased to rediscover it ‘within the envelope of the individual’, as a hypothesised psychological mechanism of various kinds. Rubin (1973), for example, proposed that love was an attitude which would predispose us to think, feel, and act in certain ways towards a loved one. This attitude involved three components: (1) a need for affiliation and dependence, (2) a concern to help and prioritise the loved one, and (3) a desire for exclusiveness and absorption into a relationship.

Lasswell and Lasswell (1976), using an alternative psychological mechanism to shape their explanation, defined love as an affect or emotion. Emotions had already been understood by cognitive social psychologists as a combination of physiological arousal and associated cognition, or simply as cognitively labelled arousals (Schachter & Singer, 1962). They had also been ‘deemed negative in their implications and effects’, since physiological and affective arousal appeared as potential barriers to the kind of rational cognition preferred by science. As a consequence, the social cognitive tradition has typically approached emotions ‘in such a way as to discourage their expression, and to provide the lay person with techniques for “working on” these “feelings” in order to “deal with” them better’ (Stainton Rogers et al., 1995, p. 178).

Love has not escaped this negative treatment. Tennov (1979), for example, defined love as a distinct and involuntary psychological state involving intrusive and compulsive cognitive activity, feelings and behaviours, as well as acute and fluctuating bodily sensations occurring in response to the loved one (and their perceived emotional reciprocation). This involuntary and perturbed state of mind, which Tennov called limerence, is clearly designed to capture the at once contaminating and debilitating effects which romantic attraction, love, and relationships are assumed to generate within the self-contained individual.

The prototype theory of love treats love as a mental representation or schema. Fehr (1988, p. 558) proposed that love could be grasped in terms of its prototypical structure, that is, the clearest case or best examples of the concept, and that other exemplars of love would then ‘be ordered [in people’s minds] in terms of their degree of resemblance to the prototypical case’. Once established, a person’s coordination with the world is effectively filtered through this schema, with the result that love is only seen and experienced where relationships, feelings, actions, and so on conform to the mental representation and the expectations it creates.

Perhaps the most popular current theory of love, however, at least in terms of the research activity it has stimulated, is the attachment theory of adult love (Shaver & Hazan, 1988). Inspired by Bowlby’s (1969) work in developmental psychology, attachment theory originated as a means of accounting for the relationship between an infant and their primary caregiver. Bowlby nonetheless suggested that the nature of this initial attachment would be characteristic of a person’s relational behaviour throughout their lifetime. The proposal followed, therefore, that love could be understood as ‘a biological process designed by evolution to facilitate attachment between adult sexual partners who, at the time love evolved, were likely to become parents of an infant who would need their reliable care’ (Hazan & Shaver, 1987, p. 523). The theory describes three major attachment styles: secure, anxious/ambivalent, and avoidant (Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, & Walls, 1978; Bartholemew, 1990).

Attachment theory proposes once again, therefore, that love is to be found somewhere within the individual person, this time as a hardwired and permanent physiological state crafted by evolution. Shaver & Hazan (1988: 491) even argue that the theory’s capacity to explain the evolutionary origins or antecedents of love ‘is one of its major virtues’. This claim is nonetheless very difficult to substantiate. The attachment styles were originally identified through the observation and description of infant/primary caregiver relationships. In short, they are relationships. To subsequently infer otherwise, therefore, to suggest they are actually a set of physiological states which underlie and cause the observed relationships, seems both problematic and dependent on an enormous leap of theoretical faith (Watts, 2001).

Of more concern, however, is the realisation that this leap of faith is being repeated, in a variety of alternative ways, by all the theories featured in this section. Taken together, therefore, they provide an excellent demonstration of a widespread tendency—exhibited by cognitive social psychologists and by people of the west in general—to observe so-called interpersonal processes like love and relationships and to see only the residual effects of intrapersonal mechanisms. Where individualism and scientism prevail, love can be seen as an attitude, an emotion, a schema, a physiological state, the cause of particular relationships, and so on, but it can never, not ever, be understood to constitute the relationship itself.

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