How to Love When You Experience Insecure Attachment?

Developing and maintaining a relationship with a significant other is difficult since many of us are dealing with high personal stress, anxiety, and psychological insecurity. We all want to feel satisfied with our relationship with our partner. But what if your partner feels insecure in the relationship with you despite your attempts to understand him or her and be supportive? How can you deal with insecure attachment, improve communication, and resolve conflicts with your partner?

The attachment theory has become increasingly popular in the study of love. Love is primarily an emotional bond that originates from our early years. Researchers classified individual types of attachment into four attachment styles: secure, anxious, avoidant, and disorganized.

Here, you can have the opportunity to discover your individual attachment style.

Our attachment styles can pose significant challenges for our close relationships, especially because, according to some research, human love attachment can be imprinted in the early years of life.

How Can We Overcome the Feeling of Insecurity in Our Relationship?

It is possible that emotionally focused therapy and human attachment theory can provide a better understanding of how to repair and heal our complicated relationship. We experience insecure attachment when we feel blocked from doing something for our relationship. According to the theory of attachment, it is essential for our intimate relationships to experience the feelings of being seen, valued, respected, and emotionally validated.

Avoidant attachment and anxious attachment are the two types of attachment in an intimate relationship that cause challenges in our lives. People with avoidant attachment tend to pull away or shut down from their partner to keep the relationship from getting tense. Anxious attachment is the opposite. People with this type of attachment tend to move toward their partner to close the emotional gap. That deep-seated worry is still there, but it shows up in a different way.

Julie Menanno, a marriage and family therapist, comments:

 “Both strategies ultimately fail leaving us with a relationship with varying degrees of fighting and emotional disconnection.”

Julie Menanno says

Practice of Secure Love

A marriage and family therapist, Julie Menanno, in her book Secure Love: Create a Relationship That Lasts a Lifetime helps us understand our different attachment styles as well as how they affect our romantic relationships. She talks about the fears underneath insecure attachments. She explains why women tend to be anxiously attached and how couples with different attachment styles can understand each other better. To help couples who are having trouble move toward secure attachment, she gives them a practical guide and scripts for hard conversations to overcome challenges in their relationships.

What does “insecure attachment” implicate for a relationship?

This is what Julie Menanno says about insecure attachment and its implications for a relationship

“If the [anxiously attached] partner is overwhelmed with unmet needs and anxieties—experiencing intense urges to reach out and get their needs met to relieve some of this relationship fear and anxiety—the other person won’t be comfortable, because it’s not healthy communication. If they can’t navigate their partner’s behavior in a healthy way—either showing up to help them with those feelings, responding authentically, or setting boundaries, which we would consider secure attachment—the next best thing is pulling away. Because they’re uncomfortable with too much coming at them.

In contrast, if the avoidant partner handles relationship anxiety and fears of enmeshment, or fears of weakness, by avoiding—they’re sending the message to their anxious partner: I’m not here for you. I’m not here to meet your needs. I’m not here to keep you feeling safe.

If the anxious partner can’t manage that in a healthy way—from leaving the relationship because their emotional needs aren’t met, or communicating in a healthy way to create safety in the relationship, to draw the person closer—they handle it the way they know. More anxiety, more pulling for closeness, more going toward, more desperation, more protest, more blame. That’s how they’re going to show up with problems of anything from how to load the dishwasher to how to find emotional closeness with each other.

Often, avoidant partners are invested in the relationship early on, pursuing the anxious partner. Avoidant partners thrive on the feeling of being seen as a success, being seen in a good light, being appreciated.

Early on, they’re not hiding as much. So the anxious partner feels seen, heard, they’re getting enough of those needs met that some of their relationship fears aren’t showing up. Things are great—but when they start to have conflict, it sends messages to the anxious partner: “Your needs don’t matter. I don’t really want to resolve anything. You’re too much.” Now the anxious partner gets more anxious. They behave in an anxious way that sends the avoidant partner messages: “No matter what you say, you’re failing, you’re getting it wrong.” And then the avoidant partner starts to hide more.

The more the anxious partner behaves anxiously, the more they’re reinforcing the avoidant partner’s avoidance. The more the avoidant partner behaves avoidantly, the more they’re reinforcing the anxious partner’s anxiousness.”

as Julie Menanno explains.

How Our Brain Can Love for Years

People have a very basic need for love, which affects both their bodies and minds. We need to love someone and be loved by someone. People from different cultures and situations may experience and show love in different ways. However, their basic human need for love is still the same everywhere (Karandashev, 2019).

Love is a feeling and an expression of emotion that arises from the activation of specific neurological and physiological processes in the human body and brain. Throughout biological evolution, our mammalian ancestors have developed these biological mechanisms for the capacity and necessity of love (Karandashev, 2022).

In other articles, I talked about how our brain evolves its ability to love and how the human brain works when we fall in love.

Brain in Love

In the last two decades, researchers have conducted numerous studies on the neurophysiological processes that underpin our feelings of love. Brain imaging techniques have proven to be a valuable tool for studying human cerebral functions related to love and romance.

Neuroimaging studies have revealed what occurs in their brains and bodies in the early stages of romantic love when we are falling in love. As a couple progresses from the initial euphoria of affection to a state of deeper commitment, the activation regions of the brain undergo expansion.

How the Brain Works After Partners Marry

Researchers discovered that when newly married couples viewed images of their long-term partner, certain regions of the brain’s basal ganglia were activated.

As Lucy Brown, a neuroscientist from Einstein College of Medicine in New York, commented,

“This is an area of the brain heavily involved in promoting attachment, giving humans and other mammals the ability to stick it out even when things aren’t going quite so well.”

People may show the patterns of brain activation corresponding to romantic love for many years after marriage. For example, long-term married partners who have been together for 20 years or more exhibited neural activity in regions of the brain that are rich in dopamine and associated with reward and motivation. This finding aligns with previous studies on the early stages of romantic love.

In the study of neural correlates of long-term intense romantic love, participants exhibited greater neural activity in the ventral tegmental area (VTA) when they perceived the pictures of their long-term spouse compared to the images of a close friend or a highly familiar acquaintance. The study also revealed common neural activity in several regions that are frequently activated during maternal attachment, such as the frontal, limbic, and basal ganglia.

As Stephanie Cacioppo, a professor from the University of Chicago, and her colleagues found, long-term love also increases activation in more cognitive areas of the brain. Among those are the angular gyrus, which is associated with complex language functions, and the mirror neuron system, which helps us anticipate the actions of a loved one.

According to Cacioppo, this is the rationale behind the evidence that partners seamlessly navigate a tiny kitchen while cooking together or can finish each other’s sentences.

“People in love have this symbiotic, synergistic connection thanks to the mirror neuron system, and that’s why we often say some couples are better together than the sum of their parts. Love makes us sharper and more creative thinkers,”

Stephanie Cacioppo commented

Attachment Styles Can Influence Relationships

The attachment theory has grown in popularity in the study of love. In many respects, love is an attachment that stems from our childhood. The four attachment styles are anxious, avoidant, disorganized, and secure. The attachment theory is based on extensive research conducted over the past several decades in the study of love. You may have a chance to learn your personal attachment style here.

The Basics of Attachment Style Theory

Attachment needs stem from the human need to belong. This is why an infant has a strong motivation to experience security-seeking with his or her caregiver, such as a mother. An infant has a strong motivation to experience security-seeking with his or her mother. This experience of early childhood has a profound impact on them for the rest of their lives, particularly in terms of romantic relationships. A secure relationship with a mother in infancy promotes secure attachment styles, whereas an insecure infancy may result in more insecure relationships.

The four major attachment styles currently identified by researchers in love are

  • Avoidant Attachment (or dismissive attachment): Often associated with a lone-wolf or self-sufficient persona. Those who move this way might come across as emotionally guarded, steering away from emotional conversations and vulnerability. They are less likely to seek comfort and support or offer that care to partners.
  • Anxious Attachment (or preoccupied attachment): This type can appear needy, untrusting or clingy in their actions toward a partner. Fear of abandonment often motivates their behavior. They might seek consistent reassurance that they are safe and secure in their relationship.
  • Disorganized Attachment (or fearful-avoidant attachment): The most extreme and least common of the styles. It often involves irrational, unpredictable and intense behavior in partnerships. In many instances, it accompanies mental health or personality disorders.
  • Secure Attachment: This ideal type is the most likely to trust their partner and form long-lasting, healthy relationships. It typically corresponds with emotional availability and reliability in partnership.
See for reference, Tree MeinchApr 11, 2023, What Your Attachment Style Says About Your Relationship

The degree to which this framework has influenced the field of relationships and development is perhaps the most notable aspect of this framework. Attachment theory has likely generated more empirical research in the past 30 years than many other theories of love.

Since 2012, this research has continued, producing a mixture of revisions, challenges, and some support for its core tenets. Love attachment can be imprinted in early childhood, but not necessarily.

The Challenges of Research on Love as Attachment Style

Some researchers have questioned the rigidity with which they should define attachment styles and the extent to which these types impact an individual’s life and relationships. The research evidence is inconsistent.

The British researcher Elizabeth Meins has recently claimed that the theory of attachment has been routinely misunderstood in terms of its effect on a relationship.

Some researchers underscore that each attachment style is a spectrum rather than a fixed and categorical quality of relationships. An attachment style is hardly fixed for individuals. And it is only one of many variables in love relationships. She claims that researchers tend to overestimate the effect of attachment experiences as a predictor of behavior, development, and relationships.

As Elizabeth Meins wrote,

“Somewhere along the line, the idea that early attachment is the best predictor of all aspects of later development has gained credence. I stand by my claim that laying so much emphasis on attachment isn’t helpful. Being made to worry about whether you have a secure attachment with your baby won’t make you a better parent.”

The accumulated evidence of love studies points to something considerably more intricate and nuanced than a superficial examination of relationships.

Happy People, Happy Relationships

Long-standing cultural ideologies of love have encouraged men and women to fall in love, get married, and spend their lives happily with their spouses.

In recent decades, the modern culture of relationships has evolved and transformed into new forms. Traditional marriage evolved into the varieties of singlehood, not necessarily making men and women unhappy. And the old-fashioned stereotypes of singlehood may no longer be variable.

It turns out, however, that many single men and women can also be happy. And being single is not always a negative circumstance. Single women and men can be just as happy as those who are married.

So, do love and marriage bring us happiness? Or do we ourselves bring happiness to a relationship?

What Makes a Single Person Happy?

People who have never been in a romantic relationship or have never been married are more likely to be happier as singles compared to those who have ever been in a romantic relationship or have ever been married.

Researchers don’t really know so far why that’s the case because they don’t have direct evidence from their studies. An expert in relationship research, Professor Geoff MacDonald, proposes the following explanation. He thinks that most people intuitively know what is good for themselves and follow their own path.

Are You Happy to Be Single? Really?

The traditional beliefs of cultural love ideology are that romantic relationships and marriages are good for people. These centuries-old myths can create cultural and personal biases against being single. The cognitive dissonance between holding this cultural belief and the reality of being single can cause personal unhappiness.

Other people, however, can feel themselves free from the cultural pressure of such a love ideology. They just intuitively know and recognize that romantic relationships are not for them and that marital relationships will not make them happy. So, they decide to stay single.

When Divorce Is Bad and When It Isn’t So Bad

One of the challenges that can make people unhappy is a divorce. People who have been through a divorce tend to feel worse about being single and struggle with lovelessness. Some evidence suggests that divorce can be psychologically fairly damaging to at least some individuals, even though we as a society may not have thought this way.

Happy People Bring Happiness into Their Relationships

People who do well in life in general usually feel well in their lives as singles. Those who feel securely attached in their relationship don’t worry much about getting rejected by others. They do well in romantic relationships and feel comfortable in their close relationships with others. But they do well in singlehood too.

As Professor Geoff MacDonald said about this,

“Maybe one of the reasons for that is that people who are happier in singlehood are also people who have good relationships with their friends and good relationships with their families. And that skill set that comes with attachment security, the ability to be comfortably close to people, to take emotional risks that allow you to get close to people, that’s not just limited to romantic relationships. Those people are going to bring those kinds of skills to their friendships and their family relationships.”

Some people believe in the old-fashioned wisdom that if they get into a romantic relationship, they will become a happier person. People who are happy as singles are also happy in relationships. As Geoff MacDonald noted in this regard,

“it suggests that maybe the best idea is to get right with yourself first and go towards a romantic relationship when you’ve done whatever that work is.”

In conclusion, people of this kind bring their attachment security, comfort, and happiness into relationships if they decide to be involved. In other words, not romantic or marital relationships bring them happiness in life. But rather they themselves bring their well-being in those relationships (Karandashev, 2019; 2022).

Recent studies have shown that modern single men and women can be happy or unhappy in a variety of ways that are not necessarily related to their marriages.

The Need to Belong: Individual and Cultural Perspectives

The “need to belong” is, at its core, a desire to feel loved and accepted. And all men and women have such needs and strive to fulfill them in their relationships with caregivers. Infants, from the early days of their lives, experience this kind of need as attachment.

Everyone has “the love need,” which is the need to belong to a group of significant others (Baumeister & Leary, 1995; Maslow, 1943). In the same way, we can define love as the physical and emotional connection that a person feels for other people (Pinkus, 2020). Affiliative love and the need to belong can be fulfilled in various kinds of in-group relationships.

When the Basic Need to Belong Meets the Feelings of Attachment

Humans as a species are “social animals.” They are dependent on each other. Their need for interpersonal bonding implies the basic need to belong and be attached to others, which is significant for their physical, social, and psychological survival.

Infants and small children are dependent on adults as caregivers for care, support, and protection. In the early years, a child feels the need to belong to and be cared for by caregivers. This can be a group of caregivers, as in the case of tribal or kin community bonding. This can be one or two caregivers, as in a case of pair-bonding.

In various aspects of their lives, children experience attachments to their caregivers. They need to be close to significant others to feel physically and emotionally secure. These feelings fulfill their need to belong to the caregiver or a group of caregivers who protect them and deliver them an experience of psychological safety and comfort, like being in a “safe haven.” (Ainsworth, 1989; Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, & Wall, 1978; Bowlby, 1969, 1973, 1980, 1988/2008; Harlow & Zimmerman, 1959; see for review Karandashev, 2022).

Culturally different ways of socialization and childrearing practices in different societies can use ethnically specific strategies and methods to fulfill children’s needs to belong. These approaches vary in tribal communities, extended families, and nuclear families and may include multiple caregiving practices. These varieties of relationship systems incorporate culturally different models of attachment (Karandashev, 2022; Keller, 2013; Keller, 2018).

In any case, children feel secure when their need to belong is met and insecure when it is not. In later years, the need to belong to the “safe haven” of one or several caregivers transforms into the need to belong to a peer or a group of peers.

How Individuals Feel the Need to Belong

The need for bonding and the need to belong are among the most basic human motivations. However, individuals vary in the degree of these needs. Some individuals have a stronger desire to belong to a group, while others have a weaker desire to belong.

On the one hand, would you agree that…?

  • You need to feel that there are people you can turn to in times of need.
  • You want other people to accept you.
  • You do not like being alone.
  • You have a strong “need to belong.”
  • Your feelings are easily hurt when you feel that others do not accept you. 
  • You try hard not to do things that will make other people avoid or reject you.
  • It bothers you a great deal when you are not included in other people’s plans.

If you agree with most of these statements, you probably have a strong “need to belong” to the circle of another person or others.

If you strongly disagree with these statements, you probably have a low “need to belong” to the circle of another person or others.

On the other hand, would you agree that…?

  • You seldom worry about whether other people care about you.
  • Being apart from your friends for long periods of time does not bother you.
  • If other people don’t seem to accept you‚ you don’t let it bother you.

If you mostly disagree with these statements, you most likely have a strong “need to belong” to the circle of another person or others.

If you agree with the majority of these statements, you probably have a low “need to belong” to the circle of another or others.

Answering these questions gives an idea of how strong or weak your need is to belong to a group of others, even one.

You can find the full scale to assess the need to belong at http://www.midss.org/sites/default/files/ntb.pdf

See also the references in Baumeister and Leary (1995).

A Cultural Need to Belong

Regardless of our individual differences and interests, the cultural norms of our society encourage us to feel that the need to belong is important or less important in our daily lives. The cultural value of the need to belong is high in interdependent collectivistic cultures, like in Eastern societies, while it is lower in independent individualistic cultures, like in Western societies (Karandashev, 2021; 2022).

In other words, when compared to people living in modern Western individualistic societies (like north-western European countries, the USA, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand), people living in traditional collectivistic societies (like Japan, China, and other eastern-Asian countries) have a tendency to feel a greater need to belong in their communities. The values held by Eastern-Asian collectivistic societies encourage a sense of belonging, connections, and kinship among members of the community (Karandashev, 2021, 2022).

Therefore, societies teach individuals to belong or not belong according to their cultural values, despite people’s individual differences. Societies don’t like diversity, while individuals do.

The Cultural Evolution of Human Bonding

Animal species’ need for positive social connections and bonding has deep evolutionary roots. According to scientific evidence, many animals, including birds, dogs, cats, and primates, exhibit social emotions, behaviors, and a need for bonding and love. They are capable of loving and need the love of others.

Humans have evolved into one of nature’s most social species, though sociability varies between individuals. People’s feelings of love for one another have evolved into more complex forms of bonding.

Numerous studies have demonstrated that the origins of the need for love and attachment are the needs for bonding and belonging. We may therefore assume that love and the need for love are widespread among animals and humans, with species and individual differences (Karandashev, 2022).

Human bonding and love have evolved over time, both biologically and culturally. Researchers have traced their evolutionary roots all the way back to the beginnings of biological evolution and human domestication, as well as the history of cultural evolution (Karandashev, 2022, chapter 3).

The Evolution of the Need to Belong to an In-Group

Humans developed motivation for positive social connection with others early in their cultural evolution. Their need for human bonding and love evolved. Due to biological and cultural evolution, humans are the most “social animals” among various animal species. People have survived by working together, assisting, and supporting one another, their families, and their tribe.

Early tribal societies required cooperation and coordination, which inspired the development of bonding, attachment, and love. The main driver of emotional attraction and attachment between people that consolidated their relationships was “love,” understood broadly as “bonding.”

The distinction between “ingroup” and “outgroup” provided the evolutionary basis for the need for community bonding and kinship love. People were able to differentiate between those they identified as members of their “ingroup” and those they identified as members of their “outgroup.”

Since then, their need to belong to the “ingroup” and to love the members of the “ingroup”—kin, family, and significant others—became their intrinsic human motivation. The feeling that they belonged to an “ingroup” provided them with security, sustenance, and psychological ties with significant others.

Early Community Bonding and Dutiful Love

Cultural evolution began with tribal and community love. This kind of love fitted the ecological, economic, and social conditions of those ancient times. Tribal community-based societies had united, collaborative, supportive, and responsible social relationships. The “need to belong” and “community love” bonded individuals within a group—the tribal community, kin, and extended family.

This dutiful love suited people’s interdependent lifestyles in those ecological and social conditions perfectly. Men and women experienced this “collective love” as community responsibility. People in a tribe worked cooperatively, supported and protected each other, and raised their offspring. An extended family and tribal community rather than parents raised their children together. The saying “it takes a village to raise a child” was a community-bonding reality.

Cultural Evolution and Varieties of Relationship Systems

Human societies, like social animal groups, have a wide range of mating and social bonding relationship systems. There are varieties of multi-male and multi-female social groups. In these types of societal organizations, groups comprise several adult males and/or several adult females, as well as their offspring.

These types of sociality, for example, are common in many nonhuman primates. The relationship systems of primates vary greatly in their community and family organization. In such multi-male, multi-female societies, many male and female individuals form large social groups. They practice polygamous relationships, in which both females and males can mate with multiple members of the opposite sex.

Many of our human ancestors also had multi-male and multi-female social organizations of this kind. However, different from their ape ancestors and other species, human relationship organization and mating systems have evolved further (Chapais, 2011; de Waal & Gavrilets, 2013; Flinn, Geary, & Ward, 2005).

Human evolution developed a different relationship system that emphasized long-term pair-bonding mating and extended and nuclear families. Since then, people in many traditional collectivistic societies live in extended or nuclear families and reproduce offspring with substantial parental investment. Evolutionary forces have made it advantageous for humans. The “need to belong” to a tribal community transformed into the need to belong to an extended or nuclear family. Long-term pair bonding has evolved and become a widespread cultural form of relationship systems in many societies around the world. (Geary & Flinn, 2001; Hill et al., 2011; Rooker & Gavrilets, 2016).

Evolution of Pair-Bonding

Later in human social evolution, in addition to social bonding, the relationship system of pair bonding and attachment evolved as the evolutionary mechanism of bonding. Human societies’ extended family structures began to give way to nuclear family structures.

In the process of natural selection, the human “attachment behavioral system” evolved over time as a motivational system “designed” to regulate proximity to an attachment figure. The attachment behavioral system gradually became more favorable to pair-bonding attachment (Bowlby, 1969, 1973, 1980). 

The Biological Evolution of Human Bonding and Love

The basic human need for positive social connections that have evolutionary and social roots is the foundation of love relationships. These origins can be traced all the way back to the beginning of recorded history. (Karandashev, 2022, chapter 3).

The evolutionary need for bonding and love derived from the early evolutionary distinction between “ingroup” and “outgroup.” The “ingroup” is us, and the “outgroup” is them.

The need to belong to an “ingroup” became the core of human motivation. Belonging to an “ingroup” provided security, subsistence, and psychological attachment to others whom they needed for survival.

The Evolutionary Need to Belong

People clearly benefit from living in cooperative and supportive groups that work together and help each other. People who live with others are safer and have a greater sense of physical, social, and psychological survival security. They had more consistent access to food and a greater capacity to defend themselves from raiders due to cooperation. Therefore, those ancestors of humans who lived in tribal communities had a greater chance of surviving.

People are “social animals” that have survived because they worked together, helped, and supported each other, their family, and their tribe. While hunting, they discovered that more hands are always better than two. As food gatherers, they gained protection from threats by traveling in groups. Those with a stronger sense of community were more likely to live longer. They had more and better offspring, which made them the dominant genetic group.

“Love as a means of community bonding” is the main thing that brings people together and makes their relationships stronger. As social beings, they have a better chance of staying alive when they live together because they can help each other. This is why the need to belong is intrinsic to human nature. Subsequently, men and women have an innate need to belong.

Social Bonding That Enables Human Physical Survival

When people belong to a social group, they have a greater chance of surviving because the group can provide better access to resources for maintaining sustenance and security. Those who live in tribal communities have a greater sense of security in their social connections than those who live alone. When members of a community work together to share resources, it makes it easier for them all to obtain food, water, and shelter. In addition to this, they are better able to defend themselves against predators as well as aggressive outsiders attacking them.

Social Bonding That Empowers Psychological Survival

In a later stage of evolution, human motivation also included the need for psychological security in addition to physical security. In tribal subsistence-based and traditional collectivistic societies, extended family, kin, and the tribal community provided sufficient conditions for secure social bonding. The ties of tribal community and kinship were the social relations that kept people together in many small-scale, low-technology societies of the past.

Over the course of evolution, the need to belong to a group and feel safe psychologically and emotionally became the driving force behind all human behavior. Strengthening one’s physical and psychological strength, as well as developing supportive relationships, became vital to surviving in life.

Thus, bonding, the need to belong, and the need for love all have their roots in our evolutionary past, which I discussed at length elsewhere (Karandashev, 2022, chapter 3).

How People Were Domesticated

Natural selection almost certainly played a role in the development of social abilities, social bonding, and prosocial behavior during the course of human evolutionary history. “Domestication syndrome” was at work with humans in the same way as with animals.

Brian Hare, a Professor of Evolutionary Anthropology at Duke University, proposed the theory that explains the “Survival of the Friendliest” (Hare, 2017). According to this theory, humans domesticated themselves in the latter stages of evolution. In the course of evolution, human social skills emerged and evolved when natural selection began to favor in-group pro-sociality over aggression.

Social characteristics in humans evolved as a result of a “domestication syndrome” similar to that seen in other domesticated animals. The meta-analysis of many studies from the fields of paleoanthropology, neurobiology, and developmental biology was in accord with this evolutionary theory of domestication (Hare, 2017).

Evolution of Animal Bonding and Love

Many people love birds, cats, dogs, and other animals. They enjoy being around them and feel a pull to help them when they can. Do animals love us back?

Indeed, animals do feel emotions such as joy, love, fear, despair, grief, and others. It is also true that many animals are capable of loving the people who care for them. And they love us, not just because we feed them; they love us as companions.

The needs for positive connections and bonding with others are evolutionary motivations that have evolved over time in social animals and humans. These origins can be traced all the way back to the natural evolution of other social species, such as dogs, cats, and primates (Karandashev, 2022, chapter 3).

Love as Social Bonding Among Animals

Researchers documented substantial evidence that certain animals and humans, during the course of their evolution, have developed the psychological mechanisms of cooperation, prosocial behavior, and social bonding. These evolved mechanisms aided their survival in both nature and society (e.g., Germonpré, Lázniková-Galetová, Sablin, & Bocherens, 2018; Marshall-Pescini, Virányi, & Range, 2015; Hare, 2017; 2006; Fisher, 2004; Rosenblum & Plimpton, 1981; see Karandashev, 2022, Ch. 3 for a review). 

According to the findings of neuroscience, a wide variety of animals have the physiological mechanisms that enable them to experience love as feelings of strong affection for another animal or person.

Evolution of Oxytocin

Oxytocin is the hormone of love and social bonding. Along with the evolution of animal and human social behavior and the capacity for social connections, oxytocin has accordingly evolved. This chemical messenger’s roles in the brain are associated with a positive social relationship, attachment, caring, and interpersonal trust (Carter, 1998, 2014; Carter, Williams, Witt, & Insel, 1992; De Boer, Van Buel, & Ter Horst, 2012, see for review Karandashev, 2022, Ch. 3).

Varieties of Relationship Systems in Animals

Various interindividual relationships may exist among social species that live in groups. Many of these relationship systems engage multiple females and multiple males. And the relationships are promiscuous. Others are usually pair-bonded species that live in groups with only one female and one male (Lukas & Clutton-Brock 2013; Reichard & Boesch 2003; see for review Karandashev, 2022, Ch. 3).

Love as Social Bonding Among Dogs

Dogs have a well-earned reputation for being social and friendly with people. Dogs may have descended from wolves. Yet their social behavior has diverged from that of their wild ancestors. Some archeological findings and scholarly speculation point to the possibility that in prehistoric times certain wolf subspecies began to settle in close proximity to human settlements. (e.g., Germonpré et al., 2018; Marshall-Pescini et al., 2015; Morell, 1997; see for review Karandashev, 2022, Ch. 3).

Instead of competing for prey, they started to prefer helping the people who fed them in exchange for their service. Those friendly wolves had a better chance of survival and reproduction. Natural evolutionary selection was favorable to those wolf-dog hybrids for their cooperative tendencies toward humans. The domestication process took place, and those variants of wolves eventually evolved into domestic dogs. Nature chooses those who are best suited to the conditions under which they must survive.

Love as Social Bonding Among Primates

Like other social species, the chimpanzee groups have a variety of different behavioral traits and interindividual relationships. Nevertheless, they all share the characteristics that define them as a distinct “chimpanzee society.” They might also pursue distinct mating strategies and have different mating systems (Chapais, 2011).

Bonding as a basic form of love seems to be present among some primates. Infant primates are hardwired to cling to their mothers, and even a brief separation causes anxiety. They start looking for their mothers. They are overjoyed and excited to be back. It appears that infant primates certainly experience love as attachment (Rosenblum & Plimpton, 1981).

It appears clear that a desire for union and a desire to avoid separation are the fundamental motivations that give them a better chance of survival. Unlike those of other primates, human societies are the only ones where multiple reproductive pairs remain together (de Waal & Gavrilets 2013).

Sexual Imprinting of Attraction and Love

The mechanism of imprinting plays an important role in shaping our sexual attraction and love preferences. I explain what “imprinting” is elsewhere.

Early works by Konrad Lorenz (Lorenz, 1935) demonstrated that the early experiences of birds and animals could affect their mating preferences. Sexual imprinting can play an important role in adult life.

Positive Sexual Imprinting in Childhood

Our early childhood attachments to an opposite-sex parent or peer have a significant impact on the type of person we will perceive as attractive to us in adult life. Due to imprinting, early experience with kin boosts sexual attraction when a person is unaware of the incest taboo. However, such an experience reduces sexual attraction when the person is aware of the culturally imposed taboo (Fraley & Marks, 2010).

Imprinting of Love in Adolescence

Researchers and practitioners believe that adolescence is a particularly sensitive period when “imprinting” shapes our romantic preferences. In this regard, first love plays a strikingly memorable role. Across many cultures, this period—between the ages of 13 and 14—provides adolescents with the first and most substantial time that determines the qualities and types of subsequent romantic attachments.

According to the imprinting theory, adolescence is a sensitive period for romantic relationships, and experiences during this period can be imprinted for life (Brain, 2010; Braams, 2013).

Negative Sexual Imprinting

In other cases, negative imprinting may have the opposite effect. A child may develop a sexual aversion to the phenotype of a person with whom the child spent a significant amount of time in infancy and childhood. This way, imprinting leads to sexual aversion rather than sexual attraction. Those with whom animals or human individuals spent their early years in childhood can be sexually unattractive to them. They are negatively imprinted (see for review, Lampert 1997, p.15).

Here are two case studies from Israel and Taiwan from earlier times that present examples of such negative imprinting.

Two Case Studies of Negative Sexual Imprinting

In the old Taiwanese culture, the parents of a boy often adopted a baby girl from another family for matchmaking in the future. This way, the parents of the girl saved on her upbringing costs, whereas the parents of the boy saved on the high bride price.

Thus, the girl and boy grew up together as siblings. It turned out that when parents expected their children’s marriage in early adulthood, the boy and girl were not sexually attracted to each other and preferred to avoid this kind of relationship. When they chose to be obedient and agreed to marry, they did not enjoy their marital life. And their sexual life was unpleasant (Wolf, 1995).

Traditionally, children in Israeli kibbutz communities spent a significant amount of time in communal houses for children. Due to this, they spent far more time with their peers than with their families.

These boys and girls, who grew up together in early childhood, were often not attracted to their peers when it came to mating. And they usually did not marry each other (Shepher, 1971, 1983).

The Effect of Positive and Negative Imprinting Is Not Simple and Not Always Consistent

These two practices from the past illustrate how negative imprinting can affect sexual attraction. Besides such case studies, however, the systematic review of publications has shown that the effects of positive and negative imprinting on human mate preferences and sexual attraction can vary.

In humans, researchers found little evidence in support of positive imprinting, whereas natural observations provided support for the effect of negative sexual imprinting. Men and women are not sexually attracted and prefer to avoid mating with those with whom they were close in infancy and early childhood. However, such experiences do not cause strong aversions. Such experience also does not completely suppress or exclude sexual desire.

In the studies of humans, relatively weak evidence was generally found for both positive and negative imprinting. Men and women are less likely to fall in love with those with whom they were close in infancy and early childhood. Nevertheless, they do not experience strong aversiveness toward them and can feel sexual desire (Rantala & Marcinkowska, 2011).

Thus, imprinting can have a significant impact on our attractions or aversions in love. Nevertheless, the effects of imprinting do not shape our “destiny” in love. We still have some relative leeway in terms of who we love.

Among the Other Topics of Interest in this Regard Are:

References

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Bereczkei, T., Gyuris, P., Koves, P., & Bernath, L. (2002). Homogamy, genetic similarity, and imprinting; parental influence on mate choice preferences. Personality and Individual Differences, 33, 677-690.

Bereczkei, T., Gyuris, P., & Weisfeld, G. E. (2004). Sexual imprinting in human mate choice. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B, 271, 1129-1134.

Brain, A. (2010). Attraction: First Love – The Imprint. Blog of Ageless Brain.

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Immelmann, K. (1972). Sexual and other long-term aspects of imprinting in birds and other species. Advances in the Study of Behavior, 4, 147-174

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Rantala, M. J., & Marcinkowska, U. M. (2011). The role of sexual imprinting and the Westermarck effect in mate choice in humans. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology65(5), 859-873.

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Shepher, J. (1971). Mate selection among second generation kibbutz adolescents and adults: Incest avoidance and negative imprinting. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 1, 293-307.

Shepher, J. (1983) Incest: A biosocial view. New York, NY: Academic Press

Ten Cate, C., & Vos, D. R. (1999). Sexual imprinting and evolutionary processes. Advances in the Study of Behavior28, 1-31.

Vicedo, M. (2013). The nature and nurture of love. University of Chicago Press.

Wolf, A. P. (1995). Sexual attraction and childhood association: A Chinese brief for Edward Westermarck. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.