Being Human: Is companionate love best understood as socially or biologically driven?

As part of our first year Being Human module, students write an essay where they consider social and biological anthropological perspectives on a key topic in anthropology.  This week we are featuring an essay by Eve Burnett.
Eve Burnett
Eve’s bio: I am a first-year student from Bath. My interests in human culture and societies, along with our biological and physiological characteristics, has led me to study anthropology. I hope to graduate university and pursue a career in research.

The modern American model of love considers it to be a dynamic bond between two individuals, emphasising that both romantic passion and companionate love are fundamental components of relationships, and are seen as a necessary quality for both men and women (Jankowiak and Gerth, 2012). Jankowiak and Gerth (2012) have identified two different types of love: passionate or romantic love, and companionate (or comfort/attachment) love. Passionate love (involving intense feelings and sexual attraction) can often be associated with the following psychological characteristics: a belief that the loved one is unique, attention to positive qualities, conflict of thought, intrusive thinking, and a strong sense of altruism (Jankowiak and Gerth, 2012). Moreover, passionate lovers can generally be seen as being bubbly, lively, aloof, and mysterious (Edgell, 1972). Overall, passionate love is generally temporary – and in order for the relationship to last, the type of love must move towards oxytocin-induced compassionate love (Jankowiak and Gerth, 2012). Over time, we prioritise cognition over passion (Jhangiani and Tarry, 2014).

Companionate love (involving feelings of mutual respect, trust, and affection) can be categorised by: a deep affection felt towards the individual, an intense friendship, an empathetic understanding of one another, a concern for the individual’s welfare, and having an association with spirituality and the idea of soulmates (Jankowiak and Gerth, 2012). Some associated personality traits include being kind, giving, and being committed to family (Edgell, 1972).There are two types of companionship identified by Edgell (1972): normative companionship occurs when both of the individuals share the same expectations and ideas about conjugal roles, and behavioural companionship is found when activities are shared. When both of these are found, the individuals are said to have total companionship as there is consistency between the two forms – on the other hand, when there is conjugal role divergence, they will have zero companionship. To summarize, companionship can be defined as the process of sharing past, present, and future experiences primarily through cohabitation and conversation across a long period of time in order to achieve a viable connection, and is a predominant factor in long term relationships (Edgell, 1972). Whilst the drive for sex and intimacy is strongly associated with biological factors (such as hormonal and chromosomal status, age, and general health) it is not clear whether the development of companionship love from passionate love is socially or biologically driven.

Homo sapiens have evolved three main brain systems when it comes to reproduction; these consist of lust (our sex drive or libido), attraction (early-stage intense romantic love), and attachment (deep feelings of union) (Fisher, 2004). Each of these can be categorised by its own unique set of hormones: lust is driven by testosterone and oestrogen (from the testes and ovaries), attraction is created by norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin (in the hypothalamus), and lastly attachment is mediated by vasopressin and oxytocin (also in the hypothalamus) (Fisher, 2004). Given the nickname the ‘love hormone’, oxytocin plays a vital role in the development of companionship as it is released in events that are precursors to bonding (Eldred, 2017). Therefore, it is clear that there are biological benefits to companionate love; however, it is hard to understand why, as humans, we can be seen to move away from passionate love (and having a large number of sexual partners would increase our chance of having offspring) to companionship love, which would decrease this due to only being with one individual.

Among all species of animals (especially social ones) companionship is seen to be an essential part of everyday life (Balcombe, 2011). There are many benefits of companionship within the animal kingdom, for example: congregating with others allows for the sharing of useful information, and larger groups may be able to secure food that a single individual may not be able to obtain (lions, for instance, hunting in packs). Additionally, companionship provides the opportunity to help individuals in moments of danger and distress, increasing the overall vigilance of the group (Balcombe, 2011). This social living seen in most species has resulted in the development of the feeling of empathy, as we consider kindness to others to be rewarding (Balcombe, 2011), therefore offering further explanation as to why most species of animals (including humans) choose to have companions. These examples of companionship within non-human animals demonstrate that it is a somewhat universal phenomenon, and has benefits that passionate love cannot provide.

Despite our main form of companionship (companionate love) forming from passionate love in relationships, we first appear to form companions during toddlerhood in the form of a desire for participation in play, with the need for intimacy emerging later in preadolescence (Buhrmester and Furman, 1987). In Buhrmester and Furman’s study of the development of companionship and intimacy, subjects in 2nd, 5th, and 8th grade were used (with respective mean ages of 7.5, 10.4, and 13.4). They were instructed to rate the importance of intimate disclosure and companionship in their social lives, and the extent to which they experience them. The results indicated that companionship was a desired provision for everyone, and that in 2nd and 5th grade, family members were key providers of this companionship (Buhrmester and Furman, 1987). This companionship influences the child’s ability to love in the future as the love a child gains from their mother makes them capable of loving, and the love from their father makes them worthy of love (Walsh, 2017); consequently, the child models the type of love they receive. Additionally, same sex peers were always considered important, but this increased as the individuals got older, and peers of the opposite sex only became important companions once they had reached 8th grade (Buhrmester and Furman, 1987). Overall, these results demonstrate that our first priority is forming successful companionships with our peers, and, counter to expectations, there is no age difference in a desire for intimacy but at a young age this is sourced from our parents.

In western societies, we are seen to have a culture of compassionate love; this is demonstrated by marriage characteristically involving the sharing of a home, and most importantly a commitment to a life-long relationship (Edgell, 1972). Moreover, these high levels of compassionate love are positively associated with employee satisfaction and teamwork, rather than being related to employee absenteeism and overall exhaustion (Barsade and Neil, 2014). Therefore, the development of companionship (rather than passionate love) can be considered a vital part of how our society functions as a whole, with its presence affecting both home and work life.

A choice of companionship over passion is also presented in other cultures. In Herodotus’s story about the Sarmatians, only the sexual relations between equal men and women developed into long-term relationships, as it was honourable to find gender equality within relationships (Mayor, 2014). Furthermore, in many nomadic and semi-nomadic cultures, compassionate relationships where the individuals are presented as equals are considered traditional and practical ways of life (Mayor, 2014). Additionally, there is archaeological evidence from Scythian graves in which the remains of both males and females were found together with the same honours.  This supports the idea that we, as humans, prioritise being equal and affectionate with an individual over having intense feelings of sexual attraction towards them.

To conclude, it is clear that the development of companionate love is both socially and biologically driven. From the hormone oxytocin being released in attachment, to teamwork in social animals providing benefits in increased survival and vigilance, companionship is clearly in our nature. Therefore, it could be said that we have a biological pre-disposition towards being companionate, and when living in a society in which this love is most common, we will develop the tendency to prioritise it.



Balcombe, J (2011). The Exultant Ark: A Pictorial Tour of Animal Pleasure, Berkeley: The University of California press, pp. 142-163.

Barsade, S and Neil, O (2014). What’s love got to do with it? A Longitudinal study of Compassionate Love and Employee and Client outcomes in the Long-term Care setting, Administrative science quarterly.

Buhrmester, D and Furman, W (1987). The Development of Companionship and Intimacy, Child Development, Volume 58(4), pp. 1101-1113.

Edgell, S (1972). Marriage and the Concept of companionship, The British Journal of Sociology, Volume 23(4), pp. 452-461.

Eldred, M (2017). Love Hormones and Mental Health, Science, Volume 355(6330), pp. 1170-1171.

Fisher, H (2004). Why we love: The nature and chemistry of romantic love, New York: Henry Holt and Co.

Jankowiak, W and Gerth, H (2012). Can you love more than one person at the same time? A research report, Anthropologica, Volume 54(1), pp. 95-105.

Jhangiani, R and Tarry, H (2014). Close relationships: Liking and Loving over the Long Term, Principles of social psychology, pp. 298-331

Mayor, A (2014). The Amazons; Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World, Princeton: Princeton University Press, pp. 129-141.

Walsh, A (2017). Love: The Biology behind the Heart, New York: Routledge, pp. 1-300.

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