Genuine Romantic Love: Attraction, Attachment, and Attunement

Paper Type: 
Pages:  8
Wordcount:  1948 Words
Date:  2021-05-17

By Thomas J. Scheff (December 2010) An excerpt from What's Love Got to Do with It?: The Emotional World of Popular Songs Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2010

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Everyone already knows that romantic love requires sexual attraction, that's a given. The second component is almost as well known. It's called attachment, and it's part of the show in both romantic and all other kinds of love, including love within families. Attachment is found in other mammals besides us humans: our cats Mischa and Wolfie have become attached to me and my wife, and we are attached to them.

Attachment gives a physical sense of a connection to the beloved. The most obvious cues to attachment are missing the beloved when they are away, and contentment when they return. Loss of that person invokes deep sadness and grief. Another less reliable cue is the sense of having always known a person whom we have just met. This feeling can be intense when it occurs, but it also may be completely absent.

Attachment accounts for an otherwise puzzling aspect of "love": one can "love" someone that one doesn't even like. A popular song from the 40's, I Don't Know Why I Love You like I Do, evokes this kind of "love":

You never seem to want my romancing. The only time you hold me is when we're dancing.

These lyrics from 1963 have the same idea: "I don't like you but I love you. Seems that I'm always thinking of you." One is attached, despite one's self, and regardless of the other's behavior, no matter how rejecting. Attachment, like hunger, thirst and sexual desire, is at root a physical reaction.

Attachment gives the lover a sense of urgency, even desperation. Furthermore, attachment is like imprinting in non-human creatures; in its pristine form, it occurs very early in infancy, and may last a lifetime. It is attachment that makes loss of a loved one profoundly painful. After such a loss, one may grieve for many months or years. Grief is the price that we pay for lost attachment.

Finally, there is a third component that is much more complex and subtle than attraction or attachment. It has to do with the lover sharing the thoughts and feelings of the beloved. The lover identifies with the loved person at times, to the point of actually sharing their thoughts their feelings. He or she feels their pain at these times, or joy, or any other feeling, as if it were her or his own. Two people can be attuned, at least at times, to each others' thoughts and feeling.

It is important to note however, that to qualify as genuine love, the sharing needs to be balanced between self and other. One shares the others thoughts and feelings as much as one's own, no more and no less.

The sharing of consciousness with the lover, unlike attachment, varies from moment to moment. Closeness and distance alternate, reaffirming not only the union, but also the individual autonomy of each member of the pair. The idea of the love bond as involving continuous attachment, on the one hand, but also varying amounts of closeness and separation solves a critical problem in the meaning of love. The bestseller Women Who Love Too Much (1985) describes continuing relationships with husbands who are abusive of wife or children, or both.

The women profess that they can't leave these men because they love them too much. Since the word love is used so broadly in English, this usage is perfectly proper. Yet these kinds of relationships fail the test in terms of the way love is being defined here, because they lack balance between self and other. The wife identifies with the husband much, much more that he identifies with her. The wives are engulfed with their husbands. In these cases, the word love serves as denial of pathological dependency and/or passivity.

In terms of the idea presented here, these wives are at least attached to their husbands, and may also be sexually attracted to them. But it is clear that the third component, identification, is not balanced in the sense of equally representing self and husband in their thinking and feeling. The husband counts too much, the wife too little. What the wife feels is not genuine romantic love, because it lacks equality of mutual identification.

Lust, infatuation, and dependency represent orientations that are often confused with love. This confusion may help to hide the separation and isolation that is characteristic of our society. Our society focuses on, and rewards, self-reliant, separate, individuals to the point that all social bonds, not just love, are at risk.


The definition of romantic love proposed here involves three components, the three A's: Attraction, Attachment, and Attunement. To the extent that this concept is an advance over other definitions, what practical application might it have? One implication concerns the possibility of change in each of the three underlying dimensions. The first two, attachment and attraction, are largely involuntary and constant. They are more or less given and fixed. But the third parameter, degree of shared identity and awareness, may be open to change through communication.

Communication creates a bridge between persons. In a love relationship it can increase shared awareness and balance shared identity so that it is roughly equal on both sides, over the long run. That is, although one partner might be valuing the other's experience more (or less) than her own in a particular situation, momentary isolation or engulfment could be managed over the long term so that the experience of each partner, on the average, is equally valued in the relationships. This issue comes up continually, especially in marriage: the dialectic between being two independent persons, on the one hand, and being a we, on the other: "I-ness" and "We-ness."

Partners seldom complain about too much "we-ness," although it is just as much of a problem as too little. It is customary to interpret engulfment with another person as closeness, or with a group as loyalty or patriotism. An eminent person I met at a party told me "I am a patriot; I do whatever my country tells me." But engulfment leads to problems down the road. Unless both parties can contribute their own unique of view, a kind of blindness ensues that inhibits cooperation and effectiveness, and in the long run, morality.

On the other hand, too little "we-ness" is usually seen as a problem. A now divorced friend told me that the last straw was when her husband forgot he was supposed to meet her when her ocean liner docked. She said "I was never in his head." Isolation between partners is highly visible, at least to the one whose point of view is not being valued.

A second issue that is dependent on effective communication is shared awareness. Skillful communication and observation can lead to revealing the self to the other, and understanding the other. This issue is particularly crucial in the area of needs, desires, and emotions. By the time we are adults, most of us have learned to hide our needs, desires, and feelings from others, and to some extent, perhaps, even from ourselves. We develop automatic routines that obscure who we are. Long-term love relationships require that these practices be unlearned, so that we become transparent to our partner and to ourselves. Unlike attachment and attraction, frequent and skillful communication can improve the balance in shared identity, and increase shared and individual awareness.

Especially in arguments and quarrels, it is crucial to use "I" messages, revealing one's own motives, thoughts and feelings, rather than attributing them to the other person. This practice usually helps find resolution of conflict. On the other hand, the opposite practice, attributing negative motives, thoughts and feelings to the other, shame and blame, usually increases it. You did this and you did that, you, you, a path toward alienation.

The practice of "leveling," being direct but respectful (Satir 1972), is a step toward effective communication. It is easy enough to be respectful without being direct, or direct without being respectful. But respectful assertiveness is a stretch for most of us. By using these and other communication practices, love, which is usually thought of as given, may be increased.

One final issue, the degree of attunement, needs further discussion. The definition of love offered to this point hasn't specified one issue that might be important for practical reasons. How near to exact equality must the empathy and identification of each partner with the other must be to qualify as love? All that has been said so far is that the amount should average out, over the long term, to near equality. But how near?

Exact equality of empathy between partners might exist in a few moments, but even there it would be rare. Usually one partner is more empathic and values the other's point of view than the partner is toward him or her. In terms of my definition, does this mean that the more empathic partner loves more? Not necessarily, it may only mean that the more empathic person is engulfed with the other.

Even if the relationship is unbalanced, compensatory actions are possible. One such move could involve what might be called secondary attunement. If the less empathic partner becomes aware that he is understood better by his partner than he understands her, and the he identifies less with her than she does with him, he can compensate in other ways. For example, by listening longer to her than she does to him. Direct attunement is important in a relationship, but it is by no means the whole story, just as attachment and attraction are not the whole story either. Adult relationships are so complex that the three A's provide only a preliminary and tentative definition of love, to stimulate discussion.

Six Kinds of "Love"

Table 1 is a graphic representation to help visualize the kinds of non-erotic "love" not included in the new definition. It helps clarify two of the three basic dimensions and how they give rise to a definition of LOVE and its look-alikes.

Table 1: LOVE and its Look-alikes

Non-erotic "Love"

Attunement (shared identity and awareness)

Self-focus Balance Other-focus

Attach. 1. Isolated obsession 2. LOVE 3.Obsess.


Not-att. 4. Isolated interest 5. Affection 6.Idealization

Of the kinds of non-erotic "love" represented in this table, only one represents LOVE as it is defined here: #2. The other five cells represent affects that are often confused with love. This confusion, as already mentioned, may help to hide the painful separation that is characteristic of our society. Discussion of the five types of pseudo-love can help to flesh out the idea embedded in the proposed definition.

Parental feeling toward an infant usually involves non-erotic, one-way LOVE (#2). The parents will be strongly attached to the infant at the moment of birth, or even beforehand, and the infant to the parents and other caretakers, but LOVE means not only attachment, but also attunement. Very early in the infant's life, however, the caretaker can learn to understand aspects of the infant's experience, by accurately interpreting body language and cries (Stern 1977). Perhaps during the first week, the caretaker is able to experience one-way non-erotic love toward the infant.

Granting that strong attachment between infant and parent begins at birth, the infant cannot return the LOVE of the parent because it is unable to become cognitively and emotionally attuned to the parent. The parent and other caretakers must teach the infant how.

Some of this process has been described by Bruner (1983). The mother holds the doll in front of the baby's face, saying "See the pretty dolly." Her intention is only to teach the name of the object. But inadvertently, she is als...

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Genuine Romantic Love: Attraction, Attachment, and Attunement. (2021, May 17). Retrieved from

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