The Anatomy of Love

On the darker side, Caryl Rusbult and John Martz (1995) interviewed battered women at a shelter, and found that feelings of commitment predicted who would return to their partner immediately on leaving the shelter. Where did this misplaced commitment come from you ask? It was higher in women who had few financial alternatives to their partner, were more heavily invested in their relationship (i.e., they were married), and who reported less severe abuse. Forgiveness is a good thing, but when we are financially or emotionally trapped into giving them, good things often do not stay so.


“Seems like you're the only one who knows what it's like to be me. 

Someone I'll always laugh with, even at my worst, I'm best with you.” 
-The Rembrandts

Intimacy, more so than the other parts of love, is hard to put your finger on. One can have an intimate relationship with one’s spouse, one’s friend, one’s sibling, or one’s hair dresser (you’d be amazed). It doesn’t involve the violent pyrotechnics of passionate love, but is rather a more stable and warm sense of emotional closeness. The key active ingredient, as it turns out, seems to be self revelation. As you get to know somebody you tend to start by revealing fairly trivial things about yourself (“I’m Canadian”), and then as the relationship develops you reveal yourself more broadly (“I also like skiing”), and also more deeply, unveiling things you normally hide about yourself (“I’m afraid of my boss”). Eventually, at the higher peaks of intimacy, one shares one’s deepest hopes and fears (“I’m also afraid of maple syrup”).

Indeed, you can run an experiment like so: Take two strangers, place in lab, and start them interviewing each other. Start with mundane topics (“where are you from?”) before gradually blending in more intimate questions. Keep stirring for half an hour or so, and a loose friendship should start to form (Collins & Milller, 1994). Real relationships tend to follow just such a pattern early on, with tit for tat exchanges of information that “broaden and deepen” over time (Altman & Taylor, 1973). Most people don’t feel comfortable spilling their guts to a person who hasn’t even given their name yet. If you reveal something to a stranger (“I wish I wasn’t reading this stupid article”) and they give nothing back, then perhaps you will infer that they don’t want to be any closer than they already are. From then on you’ll either shut down and stick to the weather, or possibly just feel shameless about pressing on. On the other hand, they might realize that you will interpret their silence as indifference, and try to avoid this by coming up with some tidbit in return (“you should have seen his last one. It was worse”). This may all seem a bit convoluted, but it can be unnerving when people get it wrong. The comedian Chris Rock, asked what it was like to be famous, once replied that it can give the impression of being on a second date the first time you met people. You don’t know them, but they feel like they know you, and so are immediately comfortable making deeper revelations than you normally expect from strangers.

Fortunately as intimacy builds, so does confidence, and one can start relaxing about trying to decode all these signals. When your friend of five years tells you that they’ve just stolen the CEO’s toupee, you probably don’t have to worry about revealing anything right back (though you might have other problems at this point). And this seems to be what researchers actually find; people in intimate relationships that are more established seem to make their revelations randomly as they come up, rather than exchanging them tit for tat (Altman, 1973). All this sharing may seem like a lot of work, but partners who disclose more tend to wind up more satisfied with their marriages (Hansen & Schuldt, 1984).

Intimacy can develop some strange dynamics as it deepens. For example, long-standing couples tend to start creating a collective memory bank between them. Without ever actually saying so, it becomes each of their ‘jobs’ to remember certain things. One partner may be in charge of remembering where they went on holiday each year, while the other specializes in remembering what day the trash goes out. The resulting “transactive” memory is often more sophisticated and effective than either partner could have managed alone (Wegner, Giuliano, & Hertel, 1985). When a spouse dies, people can find that they have lost more than a partner, but that they have literally lost a big chunk of their memory too.

article author(s)

article keywords