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A General Theory of Love, Part 1

A General Theory of Love, Part 1Love is all you need
— The Beatles

Love is a serious mental disease
— Plato

In honor of the month of Valentines Day, I wanted to introduce a collection of articles about what love is, the theory behind it, and the research that supports it.  Poets, painters, musicians, sculptures, photographers and writers need not worry that science is muscling in on their territory.  We just want to add our voice to the chorus.

In the book, A General Theory of Love, authors, Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini & Richard Lannon, review what we know about attraction and neuroscience.  They generate an interesting framework from which to launch this series.  They begin with something that provides a foundation upon which the theory and practice of love can be built:  “Because it is part of the physical universe, love has to be lawful.”

They added the italics, not me.  The laws of love (yes, it was a competing title for this series) might sound a bit dry and academic.  In fact there is a general distancing between the rigors of science and something as ubiquitous as the search for love.  Science tends to leave us cold, and love, as you know, warms us up.

Shouldn’t we scientists leave love to lovers and artists and leave a little bit of mystery?

No worries.  Even with the theory and the practice understood there will be plenty of room for correction, experimentation, and hope.  In the words of Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov, the author of Lolita:There can be no science without fancy, and no art without facts.”

Proof Positive

The brain, where all emotions including love are housed, is part of the physical world, contend the authors, so it’s chemistry and the resulting generation of feelings of love are allowable for analysis and description by scientists.  The problem, of course, is that love tends to be a personal, subjective thing.  This is where science & theory intersect with experience & feeling.  It isn’t really a collision; more like a traffic jam.

We Love What’s Familiar

In brief, a theory of love might be best expressed by saying:  We are drawn to what is familiar rather than unfamiliar.

Consider the origin of the word Familiar. It originally meant ‘of the family‘ from Old French French familier, and from Latin familiāris.

In other words we learn how to love, and who to love, from our family.  Good bad or indifferent the family relationships, with parents and siblings, teach us what love is, and what to look for when we go out into the world.  In fact, our unconscious acts like a GPS unit to seek a “familiar” love that we’ve had in our family.


Let me say this another way:  Who we love is likely to be more similar emotionally to what we’ve been used to — the people in our family.  We may look for someone different, and may in fact be devoted to finding anyone who appears different that what we’ve known in our family.  But time and time again research shows, and people confirm, that there is a pattern to who and how we love.  If you came form a loving, caring, generous, supportive and loving family, this is incredibly good news.  But, if you are like most of us, your family of origin may have had some degree of…lets say… dysfunction, and, as I’ve mentioned, we are drawn to the familiar.

Was Freud Right?

But all this stuff of the unconscious looking for love, women marrying men that are like their father, men finding women like their mother, sounds like tired, old psychoanalytic theory, yes?  But wait.  We know Freud was right about a lot of things, but wrong (meaning there has never been research to support his theory) in saying that a child’s sexual attraction to parents is repressed, and that is what causes our attraction to the love partners. An elegant theory, but without a shred of evidence.  Don’t get me wrong.  I am not slamming Freud, his brilliance and impact on the world’s thinking has often been proven right.   Even when he was wrong it forced people to find out what was closer to the truth. We now simply have much better theories and better research that Freud did in his time to explain love’s attraction.

We’ve all heard the story:  The woman who marries an abusive, alcoholic man who, strangely enough, is similar to her father.  Yes, he was taller or shorter or made more money, or wore better clothes or worse, but his emotional tone was similar to her father.  She divorces him, and finds a new lover who doesn’t drink at all.  But over time she finds out he’s addicted to porn and treats her poorly as well.  Her third husband seems to be a stand-up guy:  A man with his own business who doesn’t drink, not into porn, and comes home every night.

But he works 85 hours a week and when he comes home is too tire to pay attention to her. She gets angry, and they begin fighting because she feels, not surprisingly, unfulfilled. She isn’t getting the love she wanted.  The familiar feeling of wanting and not having has been recreated.  The emotional ache of needing love from someone who is emotionally unavailable has been found.  And there is anger in the relationship, all the things that emanated from her relationship with her father.

How does this happen?  More importantly, how can it change?

Some Learning Isn’t Explicit

To understand we can begin by acknowledging some learning takes place that isn’t explicit.  We come to know things that we’d be hard pressed to say how we learned it.

Your signature is an example.

Suppose I asked you to write your signature on a piece of paper, and then asked you to write in on a blackboard, and then sign your name in the snow using a stick.  Your signature would be identifiable and uniquely yours.  But when and where would you have learned to do this?  I could ask you sky-write it, or make it with your elbow, or your nose, or your foot, and pretty much we’d get your unique signature.

In much the same way we have patterns inside of us that guide our actions.  We may not recall how we learned, and may never have experienced before, but we are drawn to recreate them in a familiar pattern.  To understand more about the science behind this we need to check in with the people who study the brain.  In part two I will present what the neuroscientists are bringing to the party; namely the idea of implicit memory and limbic resonance.   Not sexy terms at all, but if you give them a chance, you just might find them very, very attractive.

A General Theory of Love, Part 1

Daniel Tomasulo, Ph.D.

Honored by Sharecare as one of the top ten online influencers on the issue of depression Dr. Dan Tomasulo, Ph.D., TEP, MFA, MAPP is a core faculty member at the Spirituality Mind Body Institute (SMBI), Teachers College, Columbia University, and holds a Ph.D. in psychology, MFA in writing, and Master of Applied Positive Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania.

He authors the daily column, Ask the Therapist, for, and developed the Dare to be Happy experiential workshops for Kripalu.   His award-winning memoir, American Snake Pit was released in 2018, and his next book, Learned Hopefulness, The Power of Positivity To Overcome Depressionis hailed as: “…the perfect recipe for fulfillment, joy, peace, and expansion of awareness.”  by Deepak Chopra, MD: Author of Metahuman: Unleashing Your Infinite Potential.

Learn more about Dr. Dan at his website.

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APA Reference
Tomasulo, D. (2018). A General Theory of Love, Part 1. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 23, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 9 Feb 2011)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.