by Angela Cathey, MA

As February has come to a close this year, I’ve found myself eyeing the construct of ‘love’ behaviorally. As we release the long-awaited “Last Lecture” of Kelly Wilson, PhD, we turn our attention to the same functional analytic analysis of important human behaviors by hermeneutic means. That is, as February has closed – I’ve taken a look at my own and other’s responses to ‘love’ and connection at a cultural and interpersonal level. As we vote, love, and move towards purpose in this world it becomes important to examine our own connectedness, response-ability, and behavioral repertoires with regard to each other.

That is, we stop to ask – “WTF is Love” behaviorally and phenomenologically. And, what does it mean to ‘love’ in our ever-evolving cultural and inter-intra-personal contexts?

Love is a cultural concept, largely influenced by our verbal and relational history with it over time. Love used to be thought of as mental illness and long term relationships (marriages) where thought to be endangered by it. 

Love is something we learn through other people’s tacting of it, which is often a dramatized into an impossibly unrealistic version – past the the point of unworkability.

As humans, we evolved in a context where we only saw a few members of our species most of our lives – for most of our history. ‘Love’ is now changed by technology and the transportability of humans. Love for most people likely functions as a hierarchical relation, somewhat related to ‘we’, ‘belonging’, etc. It is likely highly rule-governed for most people and thus sensitive to the same tendencies of rigidity, rule-governed lack of awareness, and – on the other side – emotional volatility. 

Love as a relational concept is tied to our sense of ‘self’, ‘other’ and the way relationships and our worlds should work (family, work, etc.)

Modern contingencies (Tinder, Facebook, and high human transportability) make ‘love’ a more fragile rule. Love often begins (and may be better maintained) through a relationship that is likely mutually reinforcing between two individuals. This is somewhat described behaviorally by Gottman & Levenson’s (1992 and earlier) descriptions of the importance of ratio of positive to negative interactions in couple dyads. Despite the influence of this work many behavior analysts (and apparently a few statisticians; Allison & Liker, 1982) have noted issues regarding lack of account for overall contextual factors and reliance of statistical non-dependence in analysis of this data. Additionally, the overall cultural milieu affecting relationship stability has no doubt been altered significantly by the ease at which reinforcer sampling through technology (ahem’ Tinder) – makes it easy to idealize others, to have others idealize you, and to leave the hard realities inherent in making relationships (love) work behind.

We no longer have to work through our differences as we had to in small interdependent communities. We can simply replace the individuals whom we make mistakes with – and this gives us a society further struggling to understand itself and its connection to others.

Love as most of our cultural conceptualizations represent it seems to entail:

  • Unconditional acceptance/support – noncontingent reinforcement. A condition of dominant appetitive  vs aversive control.
  • “Love does not anger easily, is patient, kind” – seems to describe a high level of perspective taking and mutual identification and valuing of the ‘we’. This would fit descriptions of Vilardaga, Hayes, & Levin’s (2014) Flexible Connectedness model – accurate perspective taking, ability to respond in a psychologically flexible manner to one’s own emotions and others. 
  • To love ‘workably’ one must be able to tact one’s ‘self’, the other’s impact, and the needs/relationship/connections between the two individuals.
  • This inevitably brings in ‘trust’ and ‘respect’ as doing the above makes one vulnerable in a close relationship. You have to trust that in love – you are expressing yourself safely, that your needs will be responded to, and that the other individual is influenced by ‘love’, ‘we’, etc. somewhat equally as a motivative augmental and hierarchical.
  • ‘Love’ as an act, as we describe it culturally, is likely to involve a high level of coordination relations and increase the likely of mimetic or reciprocal behaviors between individuals.

Though we popularly talk of love as a ‘feeling’ there are no reliable physiological conditions or behaviors associated with ‘tacting’ or maintaining the conditions of on-going ‘love’ or healthy loving relationships. 

Again, though “love” as a mid-level construct may be heavily influenced by our collective and verbal learning histories – it is also heavily derived from and influenced by our personal histories. 

I “love” the examples of “Tom, Dick and Jane” from Kanter, Holman, and Wilson’s “Where is the Love? Contextual Behavioral Science and Behavior Analysis” (2014), see page 4.

These examples describe three different individuals with different learning histories related to how their primary relationships tacted, reinforced, and punished – that in turn influenced their experiences of ‘love’. 

One of these individuals barely ‘feels’ love, another experiences it aversively, and the last one is overwhelmed and dysregulated by sometimes benign expressions related to it.

This is essentially somewhat explanatory of most of our romantic histories with love and the common adage of “two ships passing in the night” or a lovely metaphor Owen recently shared with me about porcupines trying to make love always struggling not to impale each other with their spines.

Our histories related to ‘love’ are ever-evolving, fluctuating in their association with aversive and appetitive qualities and related to complex and idealistic verbal histories related to ourselves, others, “love” and how the world should work. Truly, the miracle of “love” may be that it ever “works.”

Tips for the behavior analyst/or person engaging in the dangerous art of ‘love-ing’ one’s ‘self or another’:

  • Understand the individual’s perception of their past loving relationships. Did they experience a lack of love and understanding? Was love associated with pain to a high degree?
  • Pay attention to how you and the object of your love responds to gestures of “love”. Do they perceive love from you? Do they tact it back responsively in a verbal or behavioral manner? Do they appear to have respondent conditioning related to “love” that might make love aversive for them (e.g., do they shudder, pull back, look confused when love/caring are expressed towards them).
  • What are their verbal and behavioral responses in relation to love? Do these expressions equate to experiences of love as more related to appetitive or aversive conditions? Is “love” equated with “control”, “loss”, or “betrayal”?

All of us have both the overall cultural and behavioral context of “love” that we react to intermingled with long and ever-evolving relational contexts between our self and other “loved” ones. As you choose to take on the dangerous art of loving yourself or another – let us know your thoughts on these behaviors ‘in flight.’


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