- In a significant finding, mutual love was found across 37 cultures to be the most desired feature in a mate.
- Across cultures, men and women tend to rate mutual love as essential.
- Understanding the evolutionary psychology of mutual love can shed light on intimate relationships.
In a groundbreaking study on the psychology of features that people desire in long-term mates, David Buss and his collaborators (1990) found something that, when you think about it, is rather profound. Across 37 cultures (from 33 different nations) and across both the male and female sexes, mutual love emerged as a feature desired in a partner sine qua none.
Much research has been done on differences in mating psychology across the sexes. That said, this one simple finding is not about differences at all. Further, it was ranked, overall, in a sample of nearly 10,000 young adults from all corners of the globe, as the single-most-sought-after feature in a long-term mate. Looks, money, power—all take a back seat to mutual love. Think about that.
As is true of most of Buss' work, an evolutionary lens is applied in his article to help make sense of the research findings. Thus, we can ask the question of why mutual love is so critically important in the mating process. How is selecting a mate based on the criterion of mutual love, in some sense, adaptive?
Love Is an Emotion, and It's Real
Pair bonding, as is found in long-term human intimate relationships, is a feature of the social worlds of only a fraction of life forms on earth (see Geher, 2014). A core feature of species where pair-bonding is found pertains to levels of required parental investment (see Trivers, 1972). In short, species with altricial young—in other words, species for which the young need intensive parental care to be able to survive and thrive—will often demonstrate pair bonding when it comes to mating.
Many bird species are relatively altricial (e.g., North American robins)—so it is not surprising that many bird species also show pair-bonding. They choose mates for the long haul. Species in which the young do not require much in the way of parenting for survival, generally speaking, do not demonstrate pair bonding.
Pair bonding—which clearly has all kinds of love-related connotations—seems to relate to the evolutionarily critical issue of parental investment.
In a groundbreaking summary of the scientific literature on love, Helen Fisher (1993) made an extremely strong case that love is, in fact, a critical part of the human evolved experience and that it is, based on various criteria, a real thing (see Acevedo et al., 2012). Love seems to be the emotional glue—connected with all kinds of physiological phenomena, such as the release of the hormone oxytocin—that keeps couples in a species like ours—characterized by high levels of parental investment—together. Often, happily so.
The fact that mutual love was ranked so highly in importance by people from all corners of the globe speaks to the universal, real, and evolved nature of the phenomenon that we call, simply, love.
When Love Is One-Sided, There's a Problem
This all said, what's of particular interest in this issue pertains to the fact that the attribute that was so highly rated in Buss et al.'s (1990) renowned study was not love per se. Rather, it was mutual love that was ranked as so central in the mating process.
Think about the relevance of this fact. In a sense, couples can be divided into one of three categories, as follows:
- They are both clearly head-over-heels in love with one another.
- They are both clearly out of love with one another.
- One of the members of the couple is in love while the other, for any number of reasons, is not.
It's not too difficult to see how the couple in which genuine mutual love exists will have all kinds of benefits over either of the other kinds of couples described here. To start, in truly mutually loving relationships, the members of the couple:
- are on the same page with one another
- truly see and value the thoughts, actions, and emotions of the other
- truly care about the welfare of the other
- are capable of modeling love, trust, and kindness for children and others with whom they are close in a given community
- trust one another
- forgive one another
- want to be with one another
- see spending time with one another as a gift to be cherished
Honestly, as you maybe can tell, I can go on and on here. Once we think about the importance of not just love, but of mutual love in particular, we can start to truly see what healthy love looks like and why it is so highly valued in relationships by people across the globe.
Questions to Ask About Your Own Relationship
If you're currently in a relationship and are thinking about how all of this relates to your situation, here are some questions that you and your partner might benefit from asking—either to yourselves or, perhaps, together as a couple.
- Do we feel emotional excitement to see one another every day?
- Do we truly trust one another to hold our hearts carefully?
- Do we easily forgive the other for any mistakes, slip-ups, etc.?
- Do we genuinely smile a lot when in the presence of one another?
- Do we genuinely laugh a lot when in the presence of one another?
- Do we truly value the ideas and contributions of each other?
- Do we truly and unequivocally want, in an emotional sense, to be with one another into forever?
Mating is a critical part of the broader human experience. This fact makes good sense from an evolutionary perspective (see Geher & Kaufman, 2013). Choosing a mate who is unreliable, nasty, untrustworthy, and generally unpleasant can have all kinds of adverse consequences for your life as well as for any children that you might have with said mate.
Love evolved largely to help facilitate teamwork and kindness within couples (see Fisher, 1993). And it is without question that mutual love, as opposed to any variation of one-sided love, is absolutely critical in facilitating relationship success as well as all of the positives that come along for that ride.
If you're wondering if the person you are with is "the one," given the fact that mutual love seems to be perhaps the most critical feature that people across the globe seek in partners, I'd say that if you're making a checklist, make sure to put mutual love right near the top. A relationship devoid of mutual love is one that is likely going to be one that is riddled with problems.
On the flip side, a relationship that is truly built on a foundation of mutual love is likely to move along a positive trajectory for a long time. The value of mutual love in relationship success, simply, cannot be overstated.
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Bianca P. Acevedo, Arthur Aron, Helen E. Fisher, and Lucy L. Brown (2012). Neural Correlates of Marital Satisfaction and Well-being: Reward, Empathy, and Affect. Clinical Neuropsychiatry, 9, 20-31.
Buss, D. M., Abbott, M., Angleitner, A., Biaggio, A., Blanco-Villasenor, A., BruchonSchweitzer, M [& 45 additional authors]. (1990). International preferences in selecting mates: A study of 37 societies. Journal of Cross Cultural Psychology, 21, 5-47.
Fisher, H. (1993). Anatomy of Love - A Natural History of Mating and Why We Stray. New York: Ballantine Books.
Trivers, R. L. (1971). The evolution of reciprocal altruism. Quarterly Review of Biology, 46, 35–57.