In this article we will explain how simple attraction can develop into something much more. Whether you fell in love at first sight, or built your love on a foundation of friendship, this change in mental state will have occurred at some point. And according to social and behavioural psychology there are four basic ways in which this can occur.
The first method is called Balance Theory. This is the principle that states we seek consistency both within ourselves and others. The easiest way to create this balance is to surround ourselves with people that share our worldview – and that includes our romantic partner. Of course, this also means that disagreement in worldview and perception causes imbalance within ourselves, and this can lead to tension.
Therefore as we get to know someone on a deeper level, we learn how consistent they are with our own perceptions. Ideally, we develop our attraction into love as we discover our partner has major consistencies with our own thinking, but some disagreement (as complete consistency would be dull!)
The second way in which attraction develops into love is known as Reinforcement Theory. This theory is grounded in behavioural psychology and suggests that we learn to like people who are connected with rewarding us in some way. These rewards include: monetary, security, emotional support and more. In essence, the theory suggests that attraction develops into love because of our motivation to seek rewards (known as positive reinforcement).
It is possible that this is a common occurrence in long distance relationships, as we are often not able to be with our partners in person. Therefore as we develop love for them, and it is returned, we reward them with emotional support, emails, phone calls, love notes and the novelty of being together in person.
The third concept we are going to discuss is known as Social Exchange Theory. This is similar to Reinforcement Theory, but builds on it in a couple of ways. While it still maintains that relationships are based on the exchange of rewards, it also proposes that we affiliate with the people who provide us with the maximum amount of reward for the minimum amount of cost. Costs can include: social embarrassment, money, time and effort. Rewards, on the other hand, can include: love, friendship, support, economic status or information.
Therefore, the theory suggests that relationships are based on a cost-reward ratio, and each new relationship is judged against a standard set by previous relationships. However, there are a few glaring oversights in this theory. The most obvious is that it does not explain how relationships without a previous comparative standard are successful. But, more importantly to us, it does not explain long distance relationships. These are relationships that often have high costs (in both time and money) but provide little reward.
Our last theory, Equity Theory, is significantly more successful in explaining how long distance relationships are formed, and how love triumphs over difficult circumstances. This theory suggests that we subconsciously estimate ratio of what we have put into a relationship compared to our partner. If we decide that this ratio is equal (even if it stretches across different aspects of the relationship) then it is fair.
If we reach the conclusion that the ratios are not equal, then we re-evaluate the relationship. This can involve either altering what we put in, or revising our perception of what we are receiving out of the relationship. In a long distance relationship, we are conscious that the costs of the relationship are high, meaning that we expect to put a lot in to the relationship, for little gain. Often just being with our partner in person is reward enough for the difficulties.
These four theories explain how simple attraction develops into true love from a behavioural perspective. They are the building blocks of significant psychological research into relationships, but still often struggle to explain the long distance phenomenon. While some are more successful in this endeavour than others, there is still little conclusive research into long distance love.
So how would you describe your relationship? How did you go from simple attraction, to finding true love? Do you think it can be explained by one of these theories, or could you do a better job yourself?
We love hearing your side of the story, so let us know in the comments below.
And don’t forget to look out for part three of our Geeky Guide to LDRs, looking at why long distance can work from a statistical point of view!