Love Styles Are Not Arbitrary: Why Do You Have Yours?

Love might be virtually universal, but it is experienced and expressed in many different ways. Some people are obsessive, passionate, and intense in their relationships; others are calm and warm; and still others enact love playfully rather than with intimacy. How do you love? What about your current partner? Your ex? What about your parents? If love comes in myriad forms, how does any one person come to exhibit his or her style?

Are love styles biologically-based? New research suggests hormonal variations may contribute to individuals’ orientations towards specific love styles (Babkova et al., 2017), a startling finding given the predominant social-learning take on where love styles come from (Shaver & Waller, 1994). The love styles of interest are those originally proposed by John Lee in the 1970s.

Here they are (Lee, 1973)… which best describes you?

  • Eros: Are you a romantic, drawn to beauty and a fairy-tale type love? People who adopt an eros, or erotic, style tend to prioritize physical chemistry and intense, passionate attraction.
     
  • Ludos: Do you view love as a game? Ludos describes a playful, detached style of game-playing love. Ludic lovers are comfortable with short-term hook-ups and a number of different partners, and are not so comfortable with commitment or intimacy.
     
  • Storage – Do your relationships tend to be stable and steady? People who take a friendship-based approach to love often fall into this category. They care about intimacy, trust, and commitment and exude these qualities in their relationships.
  • Agape – Do you see love as an act of unconditional giving? The agape style emphasizes selflessness and commitment; individuals who take this approach to love are ready to sacrifice for their partners.
     
  • Mania – Is love a preoccupation for you? People who fit the manic love style tend to be possessive and emotional, and highly dependent on their partners. They might obsessively seek out reassurance that a partner loves them and ride a roller coaster of emotion in any given relationship.
     
  • Pragma – Are you logical in love, focused on how well a partner shares your goals or meets your needs? This realistic or “pragmatic” approach to love is sometimes called “shopping-list love” but is not without emotion; a pragmatic love attitude is careful and cares about compatibility.

Back in the 90s, researchers out of the University of California Davis offered the first behavior genetic study of love styles (Waller & Shaver, 1994). Their finding? Love style is not a biological story. They applied biometric analysis to the love styles reported by a sample of fraternal (dizygotic) twins, identical (monozygotic) twins, and spouses, and were surprised when the analysis revealed no genetic link. This was so unexpected because personality traits and other attitudes tend to have at least some genetic component. Not love styles, so it seemed.

In other words, they concluded that love styles are primarily a function of environmental influence. Forget heritable factors or biological pre-dispositions, the love style that you exhibit is one that you learn, through observation and experience.

But, maybe love styles are not purely an outcome of social learning. New research adds a curious dimension to existing views on love styles. Having recruited a sample of healthy, right-handed college-aged men, Babkova and colleagues (2017) examined the relation between blood plasma testosterone and self-reported love styles.

Are love styles link to hormones? The first study to ask this question seems to show an empirical link between testosterone and certain love styles. Men with higher plasma testosterone reported significantly less orientation towards an eros style, and less orientation towards agape love (Babkova et al., 2017). Maybe there’s a biological underpinning to love styles after-all.

Further, measuring the lengths of the 2nd and 4th fingers of participants’ right hands and looking at their ratio is considered a proxy for prenatal testosterone exposure. Consistent with the pattern observed for plasma testosterone, lower prenatal testosterone was associated with more of an eros style as well.

So where does this leave us? Generally in current literature, higher testosterone is considered a driver for mating behavior, and lower testosterone is linked to long-term commitment, an idea consistent with the findings here. The exact direction of this relation is unclear: it could be that lower testosterone prompts interest in commitment, but the reverse could be true as well (i.e., that experiencing commitment lowers testosterone). Babkova’s study is similarly correlational, and we cannot identify the direction of their observed relation without additional (experimental) research. It could be that testosterone drives these effects, or it could be that engaging in specific love styles affects plasma testosterone levels. We also don’t yet know how other hormones could be a part of this story, or how they might play out in women. By any evaluation, we have a lot left to learn.

And yet, a link has been observed. The finding that high testosterone men are less inclined towards romantic and self-less love styles leaves open the possibility for a biological basis for romantic behavior. At minimum, it shows that what we do in love is tied, in some way to our hormonal experiences. This is a new twist to our understanding of how love works.

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