What does possessive mean

Love from a social psychological point of view

1 Introduction

Love is one of the things in life that are of the greatest importance to us: Love and work characterize the two most important life tasks of a person. On the one hand it is about living with a partner and on the other hand it is about being professionally successful.

The following examples illustrate that love can come in different forms:

  • A soldier falls madly in love with a nurse.
  • A woman cares for her sick husband because she feels a loving bond with him.
  • A rejected lover pursues the woman of his interest, always trying to be around her to find an opportunity to reconnect with her.
  • A woman counts the number of partners she has had sexual contact with in one month.

These different ways of experiencing love argue against unifying love. The romantic love, which is the subject of countless films and novels, is only one variant of how one can be loved. Hence the question of what the meaning of the term “love” is.

2. Love as a phenomenon

What does the term “love” mean and what are its characteristics? Both laypeople in their thinking about love and social scientists in their interpretation of love have given answers to these questions. Interestingly, the answers of laypeople and experts largely agree: there is little difference between the ideas of laypeople and the theories of love formulated by social scientists. The concept of love can be placed on three levels of consideration:

  • Passion includes euphoria ("butterflies in the stomach"), increased heartbeat, sexual desire, physical attraction, and strong positive feelings.
  • Intimacy includes openness, feeling free, being able to speak about anything, understanding, patience, forgiveness, reciprocity and responsibility. There is also honesty, trust, respect and support.
  • Bonding is characterized by the fact that the other is put ahead of one's own interests, that he is needed and protected, that the relationship is perceived as long-lasting and there is a loyalty that is accompanied by willingness to make sacrifices.

This division includes different experiences in partnerships, each of which justifies its own treatise. Passion links the subject of love with sexuality. Intimacy is a connection to trust and self-opening. Attachment is about how much time and energy one invests in the partnership.

In the following, the topic of love is presented in more detail from a social-psychological point of view. We will see that the aforementioned areas of experience will reappear.

3. Colors of love

The experience of love is not standardized, but allows several variants of feeling and acting. “There are many ways to love,” as said Canadian sociologist John Alan Lee, who has been instrumental in broadening our thinking about love. On the basis of philosophical and literary texts and surveys, he has derived six styles of love, which are understood in analogy to colors that can be mixed with one another. The individual love styles will usually not appear in isolation but in combination. For example, it may be that a person's feelings of love place the emphasis on friendship and willingness to make sacrifices. Another person can be romantic and possessive in the partnership. Or a third person falls in love pragmatically and playfully. Although these combinations represent the reality of love, it makes sense and profitable to look at each of the six love styles individually:

Romantic love is characterized by passion and an emphasis on sexual affection. The partner is perceived as physically attractive. You can recognize romantic love by agreeing to the following statements:

  • I have a strong longing for my partner when I don't see him for a while.
  • With my partner I have the most beautiful erotic experiences of my life so far.

Playful love is characterized by the fact that sexual freedom and independence are lived out. Conquering a new partner triggers the feeling of being sexually attractive. It's primarily about a love affair and less about a long-term relationship. The expression of playful love can also be determined by agreeing to certain statements:

  • It has happened before that I had two love affairs at the same time.
  • I prefer to keep quiet about infidelities so as not to hurt my partner.

Friendly love is the result of similarities in interests and habits. The good cooperation between the partners means that they have little quarrel and that trust and security are emphasized in the relationship. You can recognize amicable love by agreeing to the following statements:

  • I can only love someone for whom I am also friendly.
  • For me, love is inconceivable without real partnership.

Possessive love is mainly characterized by jealousy. Emotional ups and downs alternate, depending on whether you are currently safe with your partner or feel insecure. The thoughts of a possible infidelity of the partner are experienced as tormenting and pressing. Agreeing with the following statements includes an indication of the predominance of this love style:

  • If I have trouble in my love relationship, it rubs off on all other areas of life.
  • At the thought of breaking up with my partner, I can no longer imagine my life any further.

Pragmatic love emphasizes the sensible choice of partner. The partnership is sought because it brings advantages. This love style can also be derived from certain statements:

  • Love can best develop when the future is assured.
  • For me it is important that my partner has a certain social prestige.

Altruistic love is based on sacrifice and selflessness. The well-being of the partner is put before one's own well-being. Two statements can illustrate this love style:

  • I would do anything for my partner if it was important to him.
  • Real partnership is inconceivable without mutual care.

In order to find out something about the assessment of love styles among lovers, there is the possibility of using questionnaires. There are now dozens of studies in which this approach was chosen. Participants in these studies were asked about a variety of other relationship characteristics. Seven key research findings on love styles taken from these studies are presented below. They can help to convey a comprehensive understanding of love relationships from a socio-psychological point of view.

  1. Where do people set their priorities when it comes to the form of love? Are they more romantic or more playful, more possessive or more altruistic? These questions can be clearly answered on the basis of the research results: The romantic predominates, while the pragmatic and the playful are of secondary importance. The accents on altruism, friendship and possessive jealousy are in the middle range in terms of their subjective meaning for the lovers.

  2. What happens in partnerships? Are love styles determined by reciprocity? Altruistic love has a strong tendency towards reciprocity, so that the sacrifice of one partner is reciprocated by that of the other. However, pronounced reciprocity is also characteristic of all other love styles except for one: The exception is possessive love, as it does not follow the principle of reciprocity. It often happens that one partner is shaped by it while the other does not share corresponding feelings. Often it is the woman who is particularly possessive in love. When both partners are possessive, significant conflicts often arise. Possessive love is related to the fearful-ambivalent attachment style.

  3. Do men and women love differently? Much has been speculated about this question. The answer is simple. Gender differences in love styles are low overall. In essence, the love styles of men and women are similar. One exception is - as already mentioned - possessive love, in which women surpass men. It is also true that men outperform women in altruistic love.

  4. Which love style makes you happy? In fact, the love styles are directly related to the satisfaction in a partnership. That goes for romantic love in the first place, which is the best path to happiness in a relationship. Playful love, on the other hand, indicates dissatisfaction in partnership. But the equation romance = happiness is too simple. Sacrifice can also have a positive effect on the happiness of the partner. Friendship and pragmatism can be used constructively to stabilize the relationship and increase intimacy. Finally, possessive love, especially during the first phase of relationship development, when the partners have just got to know each other, can help the partners form and stay a romantic couple.

  5. Do the colors of love change from week to week or month to month, or do they remain stable over the long term? The answer to this is clear if the loved one stays the same: love styles are pretty consistent over time. For example, if you describe yourself as playful today, you will usually do it in a month. The most stable of all love styles is the altruistic. In addition, the following applies: How you rate your love does not depend on mood swings or how you feel on the day.

If the loved one changes, there is more likely to be a shift in the accents that are placed on the individual love styles. If Fritz was romantic towards Klara, he can be more friendly towards Paula. So there can be a change from the more sexually determined to the more comradely determined love when a new partner takes the place of the old one. The Heidelberg psychologist Manfred Amelang has examined these relationships. His results indicate that romantic, playful, and amicable love are more likely to be partner-dependent, while pragmatic, possessive, and altruistic love are more likely to be partner-independent (Fritz will be equally pragmatic, possessive, and altruistic with both Klara and Paula).

  1. Are love styles linked? If it is known that Fritz leans towards the amicable love style, it cannot be deduced from this how his attitude towards the other love styles is. Whether he is prone to sexual adventures or not, as is represented in the playful love style, you simply cannot tell from his altruism. There are three exceptions to this rule, however: Altruistic and romantic or altruistic and possessive tend in the same direction, while romantic and playful tend in the opposite direction. If Clare is not very altruistic, she will also tend to downplay romance and not be particularly possessive. If Paula loves romantically, there are indications that she is not particularly geared towards sexual adventures. These connections are not so big that one could always rely on them. But they can be taken as a kind of rule of thumb.

  2. Are love styles inherited? A twin study from the USA shows that identical and dizygoti twins do not differ significantly in the similarity of their love styles. If there was an inheritance of love, identical twins would be expected to be more similar. Obviously, this is not the case. That speaks against a significant hereditary component in the love styles. Conversely, this result shows that love is essentially determined by social learning. How a person loves is obviously the result of their childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, as well as what they make of those experiences. Perhaps Fritz observes his own parents and follows their example, or, like many young people, he comes to the conclusion that he wants to do things very differently from his parents and develops his own social construction of love. Love is a reaction and action pattern of the person in their social world.

Love styles appear to the lovers themselves and also to observers who view the partnership from the outside as irrational feelings. This is true of both romantic love and possessive love. But also playful love and altruistic love cannot always be completely understandable for outsiders. The situation is different with pragmatic love, which comes close to the model of the rational human being. However, this has led to the question of whether pragmatic love contains a positive quality of love at all or whether it is rather a form of non-love.

How do the styles of love relate to the three levels of consideration of love that laypeople and experts distinguish, i.e. with passion, intimacy and attachment?

In fact, assignments can be made:

  • Passion is represented by romantic love (as well as possessive love),
  • Intimacy through friendly love and
  • Bonding through altruistic love (as well as the lack of playful love).

It is no coincidence that pragmatic love is not represented here. It represents a distant form of love that is often neglected by both laypeople and experts.

Can you say that romantic love is better than friendly? Certainly not! Every love style can be experienced individually in a meaningful and satisfactory way, as long as no extremes are reached. For example, extremes are a serious problem for possessive love, which is characterized by jealousy, although it occurs in a mild form in many relationships without endangering the relationship. On the contrary, a mild form of possessive love can actually cement the relationship. But research suggests that extreme possessive love is related to intimate partner violence. Such constellations can arise when extreme forms of jealousy have developed on the basis of an anxious-ambivalent attitude or are narcissistically motivated. Because of the potential connection with partner violence, it should be a warning sign of encountering a partner who is very jealous and possessive.

Within the scope of the normal it can be stated that each of the love styles can be experienced positively by both partners and used constructively to develop the relationship. However, this statement should be qualified with regard to playful love, which tends to undermine happiness in the relationship.

4. Application

People express their love for their partner in different ways. Romantic, playful, and possessive love are passionate. Friendly, altruistic and pragmatic love are companionship. Both passion and camaraderie are important for the realization of a satisfied, happy and stable partnership.

The strongest lucky charm is romantic love. A problem arises here: In long-term relationships, romantic love is threatened in its constancy by the normal demands of everyday life (e.g. stress at work, taking care of children, housework, etc.). In addition, many couples do not spend enough time together cultivating the intimacy of togetherness. However, in order to maintain romantic love, it is important to spend time together as a couple. Couples who have lived together for a long time can also enrich their everyday life with pleasant activities together. A visit to the cinema, an appointment for dinner together or a short vacation in the south are ideal for this purpose.

It is important that the couple often undertake such activities alone in order to be able to fully concentrate on the partner. Gestures of intimacy and tenderness such as physical contact enrich romantic love and create a pleasant atmosphere for experiencing sexuality, which is of great importance for romantic feelings.

But friendship and camaraderie also play an important role in happiness as a partner. In order to maintain friendship, it is important to be there for each other in good and bad times, to respect each other (even with different opinions and preferences), to listen carefully to and empathize with the partner and to openly communicate your own wishes and needs .


  • Amelang, M. (1995). Attitudes towards love and partnership. Concepts, scales and correlates. In M.Amelang, H.J. Ahrens & H.W. Bierhoff (Ed.), Attraction and Love (pp. 153-196). Göttingen: Hogrefe.
  • Bierhoff, H.W. (1995). Love. In M. Amelang, H.J. Ahrens & H.W. Bierhoff (Ed.), Attraction and Love (pp. 197-234). Göttingen: Hogrefe.
  • Bierhoff, H.W., Grau, I. & Ludwig, A. (1993). Marburg attitudes inventory for love styles (MEIL). Göttingen: Hogrefe.
  • Bierhoff, H.W. & Rohmann, E. (2005). What makes love strong. Reinbek: Rowohlt.
  • Buss, D.M. (2003). Where have you been? The sense of jealousy. Reinbek: Rowohlt.
  • Rohmann, E. & Bierhoff, H.W. (2006). Love and jealousy. In H.W. Bierhoff & D. Frey (eds.), Handbook of Social Psychology and Communication Psychology (pp. 240-250). Göttingen: Hogrefe.
  • Rohmann, E. (2008). Satisfaction with the partnership and life satisfaction. In E. Rohmann, M.J. Herner & D. Fetchenhauer (Eds.), Social Psychological Contributions to Positive Psychology (pp. 93-117). Lengerich: Pabst.
  • Rohmann, E., Neumann, E., Herner, M. J. & Bierhoff, H.W. (2012). Grandiose and vulnerable narcissism: self-constructive, attachment and love in romantic relationships. European Psychologist, 17, 279-290.


Further contributions by the authors can be found here in our family handbook


Prof. Dr. Hans Werner Bierhoff
Ruhr-University Bochum
Faculty of Psychology
Social psychology
Universitätsstr. 150
44780 Bochum

Tel .: 0234 / 32-23170


PD Dr. Elke Rohmann
Ruhr-University Bochum
Faculty of Psychology
Social psychology
Universitätsstr. 150
44780 Bochum

Tel .: 0234 / 32-23747


Created on July 11th, 2002, last changed on December 16th, 2014