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What is Love?

In recent years family therapists have become increasingly knowledgeable about many aspects of relationships. Among others, papers have been published about interparental conflict and adolescent emotional security, loneliness of fathers of autistic children, marital quality and anxiety, relationship education and tailored care for families with multiple problems. By contrast, love, the basis of our most intimate and important relationships and source of terrible pain when absent, is rarely explored from a relational perspective.

Xia et al (2023) are an exception with their study designed to answer the question ‘What makes us feel loved?’. They were curious to understand the core elements of love and whether these weighed differently in family, friend, and romantic relationships. 468 people answered open ended questions about their sense of being loved in these three types of relationships. The results suggest that feeling loved is ‘an accumulative interpersonal process’ where a person experiences positive responsiveness from the other and an authentic connection regardless of conditions or time, resulting in a positive sense of ‘oneness’ with the other. The authors note that these findings integrate with attachment theory, and Rohner’s interpersonal acceptance-rejection theory.

The study also demonstrated the same categories and core categories, positive responsiveness, authentic connection, and a sense of stability in family, friends and romantic relationships. This suggests that love is a ‘general feeling experienced in a variety of interpersonal contexts, and that the core elements of feeling loved may be more similar across interpersonal contexts than distinct between relationship types. While the specific actions that generate a sense of love may be different in different relationship types, the message conveyed is generalizable and the same constructs apply.

This study provides another valuable source of information for those who work with relationships and provides practical and accessible intervention based on sound research. Encouraging those in troubled relationships to express opinions in a way that makes the other feel validated, valued, supported, and appreciated; being empathetic and listening; keeping promises and being available are simple yet effective ways to show love.


Xia M., Chen, Y., & Dunne, S. (2023). What makes people feel loved? An exploratory study on core elements of love across family, romantic, and friend relationships. Family Process, 00, 1–15.

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