Critical Approaches (2): The Critical Social Psychology of Love and Relationships

The image painted in the previous section, of a socio-cultural pool of meaning and information, of individual or personal selectivity relative to that pool, and of action being established on the basis of the relatedness of person and world, is highly characteristic of all critical studies of love. Such studies do not (and cannot) consider love to be an entity existing within the person, but instead appreciate that different societies, cultures, groups, and so on, have their own, often rather unique, definitions of love and that these definitions (or pools of relevant information) come to serve as a kind of interpretative blueprint for people interacting within a given context (Averill, 1985). As Beall and Sternberg (1995, p. 419) put it, ‘part of the experience of love is its definition and that when cultures have different definitions of love, they [i.e. people within that culture] experience love differently’.

Yet the cultural definition of love is only part of the experience. The individual person, their preferences and selections, still have a major role to play. Lee’s (1977) famous work on love styles demonstrates these principles nicely. Lee approached love as a problem of competing ideologies about the optimum arrangement for intimate adult partnering and identified six central ideologies or love styles extant within western cultures, which variously promoted love as passionate/erotic, as game playing, as friendship, as practical and calculating, as altruistic, and as an obsession. Lee (1988) nonetheless recognised the function and importance of selectivity at the level of the individual person, suggesting that people would simply ‘buy into’ one or more of these styles at different times and relative to different contexts and/or relationships. From the perspective of the experiencing person, therefore, the variability of love is markedly more pronounced, to the extent that it might even be ‘pointless to attempt to say how many love styles there are’ (Lee, 1988, p. 45).

Sternberg’s (1995, 1996) theory of love as a story follows the same path. It proposes that each person’s experience of love is gathered and conceptualised in the form of a story. Although this story is both personal and individual on one level of analysis, it is always derived through the coordination or relatedness of a person with their environment. A person’s socio-cultural context, Sternberg suggests, places them under ‘continual, although usually subtle, pressure to create only those stories which are socio-culturally acceptable’ (Sternberg, 1995, p. 544). This subtle pressure nonetheless allows the individual person considerable room for manoeuvre. So much so, in fact, that Sternberg shares Lee’s conviction that love might ultimately be experienced in an almost infinite number of ways. Focusing on the most common experiences (or types of relatedness), Sternberg (1996) was able to reveal a preliminary taxonomy of 24 love stories, including the ‘love as science’ story (which proposes a rational approach to love), the ‘love as art’ story (which emphasises the physical attractiveness and appearance of a partner), and the ‘love as war’ story (which sees and conducts love relationships as a series of battles).

Watts and Stenner (2005) developed these ideas in a study which employed Q methodology as a means of ascertaining the currently dominant definitions of love extant within British culture. The central definition revealed by this study stressed the need for the continual effort of both partners, the importance of mutual trust and support, and emphasised that the individuality of both partners must be explicitly recognised within the relationship. It also argued that love should serve to maximise the life potential of both individuals and hence that relationships should be dissolved if they failed to deliver the promised benefits. A follow-up study, focused exclusively on British women, produced a similar dominant definition, which played up the importance of attraction, passion, and romance rather more, but was nonetheless equally quick to advocate the termination of any relationship which failed to deliver the expected satisfactions or which otherwise became ‘boring’ (Watts & Stenner, 2014).

Reported in this way, these findings appear to support the efficacy of social exchange theories of relationships and the model of the self-contained individual. Watts and Stenner (2014) even reports a definition of love which conceives of relationships as ‘two separate people leading separate lives’. A more extreme manifestation of individualism is hard to imagine! Yet when these studies (and the 15 definitions of love they reveal) are considered in their entirety and, more importantly, from a critical perspective, it becomes clear that whilst many people really do think about themselves and relationships in terms of individualism and exchange, there are also a very considerable number of people who do not.

Look more closely at these studies, for example, and you will find that love also gets viewed as the ultimate connection between two people, as a worthwhile end in itself, and hence as something that must be experienced if a person’s life is to be fulfilled, as something which should endure whatever happens, as something that should be given without demand or expectation, and so on. Other definitions prioritise the relationship or dyad above the individual person and/or regret the advance of individualism and the climate of relational instability it has created. What these critical studies indicate, in other words, is that the assumption of individualism and the manner of exchange relationships are actually being challenged, not just here, by a criti?cal social psychologist in the pages of a book, but by the experiences and selections of a growing number of people.

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