Genuine Romantic Love: Attraction, Attachment, and Attunement

by Thomas J. Scheff (December 2010)

An excerpt from What’s Love Got to Do with It?: The Emotional World of Popular Songs

Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2010

Everyone already knows that romantic love requires sexual attraction, that’s a given. The second component is almost as well known. It’s called attachment, and its part of the show in both romantic and all other kinds of love, including love within families. Attachment is found in other mammal besides us humans: our cats Mischa and Wolfie have become attached to me and my wife, and we are attached to them.

Attachment gives a physical sense of a connection to the beloved. The most obvious cues to attachment are missing the beloved when they are away, and contentment when they return. Loss of that person invokes deep sadness and grief. Another less reliable cue is the sense of having always known a person whom we have just met. This feeling can be intense when it occurs, but it also may be completely absent.
Attachment accounts for an otherwise puzzling aspect of “love”: one can “love” someone that one doesn’t even like. A popular song from the 40’s, I Don’t Know Why I Love You like I Do, evokes this kind of “love”:

You never seem to want my romancing.
The only time you hold me is when we’re dancing.

These lyrics from 1963 have the same idea: “I don’t like you but I love you. Seems that I’m always thinking of you.” One is attached, despite one’s self, and regardless of the other’s behavior, no matter how rejecting. Attachment, like hunger, thirst and sexual desire, is at root a physical reaction.

Attachment gives the lover a sense of urgency, even desperation. Furthermore, attachment is like imprinting in non-human creatures; in its pristine form, it occurs very early in infancy, and may last a lifetime. It is attachment that makes loss of a loved one profoundly painful. After such a loss, one may grieve for many months or years. Grief is the price that we pay for lost attachment.

Finally, there is a third component that is much more complex and subtle than attraction or attachment. It has to do with the lover sharing the thoughts and feelings of the beloved. The lover identifies with the loved person at times, to the point of actually sharing their thoughts their feelings. He or she feels their pain at these times, or joy, or any other feeling, as if it were her or his own. Two people can be attuned, at least at times, to each others’ thoughts and feeling.

It is important to note however, that to qualify as genuine love, the sharing need be balanced between self and other. One shares the others thoughts and feelings as much as one’s own, no more and no less.

The sharing of consciousness with the lover, unlike attachment, varies from moment to moment. Closeness and distance alternate, reaffirming not only the union, but also the individual autonomy of each member of the pair. The idea of the love bond as involving continuous attachment, on the one hand, but also varying amounts of closeness and separation solves a critical problem in the meaning of love. The bestseller Women Who Love Too Much (1985) describes continuing relationships with husbands who are abusive of wife or children, or both.

The women profess that they can’t leave these men because they love them too much. Since the word love is used so broadly in English, this usage is perfectly proper. Yet these kinds of relationships fail the test in terms of the way love is being defined here, because they lack balance between self and other. The wife identifies with the husband much, much more that he identifies with her. The wives are engulfed with their husbands. In these cases, the word love serves as denial of pathological dependency and/or passivity.

In terms of the idea presented here, these wives are at least attached to their husbands, and may also be sexually attracted to them. But it is clear that the third component, identification, is not balanced in the sense of equally representing self and husband in their thinking and feeling. The husband counts too much, the wife too little. What the wife feels is not genuine romantic love, because it lacks equality of mutual identification. 

Lust, infatuation, and dependency represent orientations that are often confused with love. This confusion may help to hide the separation and isolation that is characteristic of our society. Our society focuses on, and rewards, self-reliant, separate, individuals to the point that all social bonds, not just love, are at risk.


The definition of romantic love proposed here involves three components, the three A’s: Attraction, Attachment, and Attunement. To the extent that this concept is an advance over other definitions, what practical application might it have? One implication concerns the possibility of change in each of the three underlying dimensions. The first two, attachment and attraction, are largely involuntary and constant. They are more or less given and fixed. But the third parameter, degree of shared identity and awareness, may be open to change through communication.

Communication creates a bridge between persons. In a love relationship it can increase shared awareness and balance shared identity so that it is roughly equal on both sides, over the long run. That is, although one partner might be valuing the other’s experience more (or less) than her own in a particular situation, momentary isolation or engulfment could be managed over the long term so that the experience of each partner, on the average, is equally valued in the relationships. This issue comes up continually, especially in marriage: the dialectic between being two independent persons, on the one hand, and being a we, on the other: “I-ness” and “We-ness.”

Partners seldom complain about too much “we-ness,” although it is just as much of a problem as too little. It is customary to interpret engulfment with another person as closeness, or with a group as loyalty or patriotism. An eminent person I met at a party told me “I am a patriot; I do whatever my country tells me.” But engulfment leads to problems down the road. Unless both parties can contribute their own unique of view, a kind of blindness ensues that inhibits cooperation and effectiveness, and in the long run, morality.

On the other hand, too little “we-ness” is usually seen as a problem. A now divorced friend told me that the last straw was when her husband forgot he was supposed to meet her when her ocean liner docked. She said “I was never in his head.” Isolation between partners is highly visible, at least to the one whose point of view is not being valued.

A second issue that is dependent on effective communication is shared awareness. Skillful communication and observation can lead to revealing the self to the other, and understanding the other. This issue is particularly crucial in the area of needs, desires, and emotions. By the time we are adults, most of us have learned to hide our needs, desires, and feelings from others, and to some extent, perhaps, even from ourselves. We develop automatic routines that obscure who we are. Long-term love relationships require that these practices be unlearned, so that we become transparent to our partner and to ourselves. Unlike attachment and attraction, frequent and skillful communication can improve the balance in shared identity, and increase shared and individual awareness.

Especially in arguments and quarrels, it is crucial to use “I” messages, revealing one’s own motives, thoughts and feelings, rather than attributing them to the other person. This practice usually helps find resolution of conflict. On the other hand, the opposite practice, attributing negative motives, thoughts and feelings to the other, shame and blame, usually increases it. You did this and you did that, you, you, you…is a path toward alienation.

The practice of ”leveling,” being direct but respectful (Satir 1972), is a step toward effective communication. It is easy enough to be respectful without being direct, or direct without being respectful. But respectful assertiveness is a stretch for most of us. By using these and other communication practices, love, which is usually thought of as given, may be increased.

One final issue, the degree of attunement, needs further discussion. The definition of love offered to this point hasn’t specified one issue that might be important for practical reasons. How near to exact equality must the empathy and identification of each partner with the other must be to qualify as love? All that has been said so far is that the amount should average out, over the long term, to near equality. But how near?

Exact equality of empathy between partners might exist in a few moments, but even there it would be rare. Usually one partner is more empathic and values the other’s point of view than the partner is toward him or her. In terms of my definition, does this mean that the more empathic partner loves more? Not necessarily, it may only mean that the more empathic person is engulfed with the other.

Even if the relationship is unbalanced, compensatory actions are possible. One such move could involve what might be called secondary attunement. If the less empathic partner becomes aware that he is understood better by his partner than he understands her, and the he identifies less with her than she does with him, he can compensate in other ways. For example, by listening longer to her than she does to him. Direct attunement is important in a relationship, but it is by no means the whole story, just as attachment and attraction are not the whole story either. Adult relationships are so complex that the three A’s provide only a preliminary and tentative definition of love, to stimulate discussion.

Six Kinds of “Love.”

Table 1 is a graphic representation to help visualize the kinds of non-erotic “love” not included in the new definition. It helps clarify two of the three basic dimensions and how they give rise to a definition of LOVE and its look-alikes.


Table 1: LOVE and its Look-alikes
Non-erotic “Love”
                              Attunement (shared identity and awareness)
                         Self-focus                Balance               Other-focus

Attach. 1. Isolated obsesson  2. LOVE 3.Obsess.
Not-att. 4. Isolated interest 5. Affection 6.Idealization

Of the kinds of non-erotic “love” represented in this table, only one represents LOVE as it is defined here: #2. The other five cells represent affects that are often confused with love. This confusion, as already mentioned, may help to hide the painful separation that is characteristic of our society. Discussion of the five types of pseudo-love can help to flesh out the idea embedded in the proposed definition.
Parental feeling toward an infant usually involves non-erotic, one-way LOVE (#2). The parents will be strongly attached to the infant at the moment of birth, or even beforehand, and the infant to the parents and other caretakers, but LOVE means not only attachment, but also attunement. Very early in the infant’s life, however, the caretaker can learn to understand aspects of the infant’s experience, by accurately interpreting body language and cries (Stern 1977). Perhaps during the first week, the caretaker is able to experience one-way non-erotic love toward the infant.

Granting that strong attachment between infant and parent begins at birth, the infant cannot return the LOVE of the parent because it is unable to become cognitively and emotionally attuned to the parent. The parent and other caretakers must teach the infant how.

Some of this process has been described by Bruner (1983). The mother holds the doll in front of the baby’s face, saying “See the pretty dolly.” Her intention is only to teach the name of the object. But inadvertently, she is also teaching the child joint attention (attunement). After many repetitions, since the child sees that the mother is looking at the dolly and referring to it, the child senses that the doll is not only in its own mind, its also in the mother’s mind. Completing this process takes many years. Children vary considerably, but at some point between the first and eighth year, the child becomes able to take the role of the parent to the point that it becomes interdependent, rather than dependent.
However, the beginnings of mutual attunement seem to occur long before the development of language. Tronic et al (1982) have documented the exchange of smiles between infant and caretaker after only several months. Quite properly, according to the definition of love offered here, they refer to this process as “falling in love.” From the moment of birth, the infant and the mother are intensely attached. Exchanging of mutual glances and smiles begins the other component of non-erotic mutual love, attunement. The infant and caretaker must learn to look, then look away, rather than stare. When both learn to smile in response to the look, they are taking the first step toward LOVE, because each senses the feeling of the other.

Table 1 can also represent romantic love if the component of sexual attraction is added. With this change, then #2 would represent one-way romantic LOVE. Perhaps the emotion of the Helen Hunt character toward the Nicholson character in As Good as it Gets is of this type. She is evidently attracted and attached to him, and is able to share his point of view. But since he is unable to share hers, her LOVE for him is not returned. The affection he holds for her might represented by #1. With sexual desire added, this cell could be named isolated desire or infatuation. He is apparently attached and attracted to her, but is trapped within himself, to the point that he is not sufficiently aware of her thoughts and feelings.

Another variation on this kind of relationship is represented in Remains of the Day. The butler (played by Anthony Hopkins) is very competent in his job, but his emotions are completely suppressed. He is attracted to the house manager (played by Emma Thompson) and she to him. But they cannot connect because his emotional blankness rules out attunement. She cannot understand his feelings, because he hides them.
Non-erotic affection (#2) is characteristic of most stages of effective psychotherapy. In the film Good Will Hunting, Will, the patient, doesn’t understand or identify with Sean, the therapist (played by Robin Williams) until a session near the end of their meetings.
But Sean rapidly learns to understand Will. He shows his understanding in the crucial session. Sean knows from Will’s dossier, and from his disclosures, that Will suffered brutal physical abuse as a child. Sean tells Will, “It’s not your fault.” This phrase, when repeated many times, breaks down Will’s resistance to experiencing his emotions. Will has said nothing about feeling that the abuse was his own fault. Because of his experience as a therapist, Sean is able “to read Will’s mind.” That is, to be attuned with Will in the sense of identifying with him and understanding even those feelings which are hidden.
In most successful therapies, the patient becomes highly attached to the therapist, but without understanding the therapist (#4, isolated interest) or # 6 (Idealization) depending on the patient’s style of relating.
An instance of #5, non-erotic affection, but towards a group of persons, is represented in climactic scene of the extraordinary French/Danish film Babette’s Feast. The film takes place in 1869, after a wave of repression in France. Babette, a world-class French chef, is in political exile. Her husband and children have been killed, and she herself was in danger. A mutual friend has arranged for her to be taken in as a cook by two elderly sisters in a small village in Denmark. Her thoughts and feelings are completely unknown to the sisters and the villagers. Ordinarily, she prepares the simple food for the sisters that is customary in their village. But when she wins a lottery, she uses all of the money to prepare a feast, a last chance to be an artist, to bring to the village the wonder of art.
The villagers hugely enjoy the feast, but except for one outsider, they have no idea what they are being exposed to, nor for that matter, who Babette is and the great art she represents. Babette’s understanding of the villagers, and their lack of awareness and understanding of her, gives the episode of the feast a poignancy that is both humorous and tragic.
It has been claimed (Goddard 1951; Evans 1960; Scheff 1979) that shared awareness (and its absence) among the characters within the play, and between audience and the characters, is the key feature of all drama: it is what provides drama in the theatre. Evans (1960) calls misunderstandings “discrepant awareness.” I (1979) have proposed that discrepant and shared awareness are the fundamental components of “distance” in drama: aesthetic distance, like the attunement in genuine love, involves a balance in the audience’s perspective, being equally involved and detached from the drama.
Cell 1 characterizes most cases of intense jealousy, a pseudo-love. Jealousy, like infatuation (to be discussed below) often is mostly fantasy. In Shakespeare’s play The Winter’s Tale, King Leontes needed no Iago to spur his jealousy, or even any indication that his queen (Hermione) desired another. It was entirely a fantasy. The king was not attuned with Hermione, although she was with him, a failure of mutual attunement
The core emotions in jealousy derive from the response to real or imagined rejection (shame) by the loved one, and anger toward the rival. If there is attachment (in cell 1), jealous desire is obsessive. If there is little attachment (#1 or 3), there is still sexual desire but little or no obsession. The key to overcoming jealousy may lie in the way the shame component is managed. If it is acknowledged freely, both shame and anger will be diminished. But if the shame is not acknowledged, as is especially the case with most jealous men, the shame and anger may spiral out of control, as represented by Leontes in The Winter’s Tale, and in “crimes of passion.”
One-way desire without attachment or attunement is represented in #4 and 6. A man who desires a particular prostitute, but is not attached or attuned, would be an example. If she were not available, he might desire another equally. #1 and 3 represent the situation in which he becomes attached to her, adding obsession to his desire for her. In the film Pretty Woman, as in many others, at first the character played by Richard Gere is only attracted to the prostitute played by Julia Roberts, as in #4. As he gets to know her, he also realizes that he misses her when they are apart, as in #1. Finally he marries her, although the degree of his attunement with her is not clear. As in most commercial films and novels, little evidence is offered about the degree of attunement.


Most laypeople and many scholars think of infatuation as a rehearsal for love, or at least marriage, as suggested in most romantic films. However, there are other possibilities. It may be more likely that an infatuation will continue at that level, with the same or different persons. Infatuation, with or without attachment, seems to be much more common than genuine love.
Obsessive non-erotic idealization is represented in #3 and 1. In families, a child may idealize one or both parents or a sibling, and be so attached that this person or persons occupies their attention. Idealization of kin is only part of an important pattern in many families. The other half is vilification. Often there is a triangle in which two persons idealize or vilify another family member. A common pattern is a coalition between the child with one parent against the other. Both vilification and idealization can create havoc in the family.
This pattern is represented in Shakespeare’s King Lear, but it takes the form that the king mistakenly idealizes his two older daughters but vilifies his youngest. Since the two older daughters flatter him for their own ends, and the youngest refuses to because she is direct and honest, the play shows how he is made to suffer because of his obliviousness.
#3 represents non-attached idealization. In a group of friends, one may idealize one or more of the friends. With sexual attraction #3 represents light infatuation. Mutual infatuation seems to occur often among high school and college students, judging by their comments. Since both parties fear rejection, it may not lead to an actual contact.
It is important to emphasize the difference between romantic infatuation and LOVE, since the two are often confused, even by scholars of romance. Woody Allen’s film The Purple Rose of Cairo has a scene that is emblematic of this kind of desire. The heroine, played by Mia Farrow, is a constant filmgoer. To escape from her husband’s brutality, she has been spending her spare time in the movie house, viewing a single long-playing romantic film over and over. She “falls in love” with one of the characters, played by Jeff Daniels. She is only mildly surprised when he jumps out of the screen to talk to her. She is telling the friend how wonderful he is: kind, gentle, attentive, etc. The friend says “But Mary, he isn’t real.” The Mia Farrow character answers “You can’t have everything.”
Infatuation can involve both attachment and attraction, but there is insufficient attunement. As the case with Mia Farrow’s character, the desire is less for a real person than for an imagined one. Attunement requires contact with the real person, so that one can understand his thoughts and feelings. Infatuation requires very little contact, or even none. Indeed, contact with the real person may reveal that he or she has thoughts and feelings that are unwelcome, and bring an abrupt end to desire.
#1 can represent mutual obsession where there is attachment. This arrangement usually leads to conflict if the two parties frequently interact and/or depend on each other. To the extent that each focuses on self rather than other, little learning takes place in the relationship; they bounce off each other like billiard balls. #4 represents a similar situation, but without obsessive attachment, the conflict may be at a lower level of frequency and intensity. How these relations are played out depends to a large extent on the style of response by the other party.
#5 represents a relationship that might be unusual; non-erotic mutual attunement without attachment. Perhaps there are friendships like this. One is fond of another whom one also understands, but without urgency. Perhaps there are marriages or affairs in which the two parties understand and are attracted to each other, but with little attachment, as in #5. Again, how this relationship proceeds will be dependent on the response style of the other party.
#3 comes closest to representing the relationship between Kathy and Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. Judging from the portrayal of them in the novel, they are obsessively and erotically engulfed with each other. This idea of requited “love” can also be found in many other novels and in the lyrics of popular songs. Similarly, one-way obsessive, erotic infatuation is often called love in novels and popular songs.
Another similar combination is unrequited romantic love. Perhaps the love of the Helen Hunt character toward the Nicholson character in As Good as it Gets, already mentioned above, is of this type. She is evidently attracted and attached to him, and is able to share his point of view. But since he is unable to do the latter, her love for him is not returned. Like an infant, he cannot partake of and value her point of view as much as his own. The affect he holds for her might be called obsessive desire. He is apparently attached and attracted to her, but tends toward self-focus, rather than balance between self and other. This cell also characterizes most cases of intense jealousy, which is also a pseudo-love.

The Effect of Hidden Emotions on Relationships

Most of the affects referred to as pseudo-love may be generated by the denial of specific emotions, such as grief, anger, and especially shame. Chapter 2, on concepts of emotion, provided an explanation of why a certain kind of shame is an especially crucial impediment to genuine love.
What I call the pride/shame conjecture has three parts: 1. All interaction with others, even imagined interaction, requires us to see ourselves from the point of view of the other. 2. Yet seeing ourselves from the point of view of the other generates either pride or shame/embarrassment. 3. For that reason, the issue of managing these emotions is present in most human contact. Even without contact, this dynamic may be played out over and over with imagined others.
If emotions are managed by shunting them aside, as they usually are in Western societies, they disrupt the experience of other emotions. Unacknowledged shame/embarrassment often leads to either hostility or withdrawal (Lewis 1971; Scheff 1990; 1994; 1997; Retzinger 1991; Tangney and Dearing 2002) which in turn impedes or deflects the experience of love.
A scene in the film Big provides a humorous example of the way shame/embarrassment may be masked with hostility. In the film Tom Hanks plays the part of a 10-year-old boy who is magically living in the body of a grown man. In one scene, a grown woman is coming on to the man, but initially Hanks’ character doesn’t understand. When it finally dawns on him that it means that she likes him, Hanks gives the woman a playground shove.
The way that young boys are socialized to hide their embarrassment or shame behind hostility and aggression is captured in this harmless moment. It is less funny in the actions of street gangs and leaders of nations. In modern societies, both men and women tend to routinely loose track of their emotions, creating a crisis of alienation.
Any kind of relationship that involves attachment, attunement, or attraction to any degree, no matter how much hostility or withdrawal are involved, is seen in an alienated society as preferable to no relationship at all. This tendency obfuscates and confuses. As one step toward decreasing our confusion, a narrow definition of love like the 3 A’s offered here may help.


To the extent that the definition of love proposed here proves useful, what practical application might it have? One implication concerns the possibility of change in each of the three underlying dimensions. The first two dimensions, attachment and attraction, are largely physical and constant. It is not clear how these two dimensions might be intentional changed. The third parameter, however, degree of shared identity and awareness, is open to change through skillful communication practices.
One goal of communication between persons in love relationship would be to balance the level of shared identity so that it is roughly equal on both sides, over the long run. That is, although one partner might be valuing the other’s experience more than his own in a particular situation, momentary isolation or engulfment could be managed over the long term so that the experience of each partner, on the average, is equally valued in the relationships. This issue comes up continually, especially in marriage: the dialectic between being two independent persons and being a we: “I-ness” and “We-ness.”
This poem seems to be grappling with problem of a balanced relationship:


To Have Without Holding
Marge Piercy

Learning to love differently is hard,
It hurts to thwart the reflexes
of grab, of clutch; to love and let
go again and again. as we make and unmake in passionate
diastole and systole the rhythm
of our unbound bonding, to have
and not to hold, to love
with minimized malice, hunger
and anger moment by moment balanced.

A second issue that is dependent on effective communication is shared awareness. Frequent and effective communication can lead to revealing the self to the other, and understanding the other. This issue is particularly crucial in the area of needs, desires, and emotions. By the time we are adults, most of us have learned to hide our needs, desires, and feelings from others, and to a large extent, even from ourselves. Long-term love relationships seem to require that these practices be unlearned, so that we become transparent to our partner and to ourselves. Unlike the extent of attachment and attraction, effective and frequent communication can improve the balance in shared identity, and increase shared awareness.

Can the three dimensions of love be observed, so as to be identified in discourse? The two physical variables, attachment and attraction would not pose a problem. But identifying the degree of shared awareness and identity would. There is a large literature on what is called Interpersonal Perception that might be one place to start. The difficulty with these studies is that they are mostly static, and cannot be used to give dynamics assessments of the state of the bond. There are also by now some studies of “I-ness and We-ness”[1] in relationships which might be more immediately helpful, especially those based on recorded dialogue.


This chapter has suggested that the mindlessly broad definition of love in modern societies is a defense against feeling the painful emotions that are generated in the social-emotional world. The notion that love is sacred and/or indescribable can also function to defend ourselves against the pain of loss, separation, or alienation.

The explicit definition of genuine love proposed here might help discover the emotions disguised by vernacular usage, and the kinds of dysfunctional relationships that are hidden under the many meanings of love. The next chapter takes up issue that turns out to be parallel to the problem of defining genuine love. Earlier chapters discussed the emotions that are clearly implied in popular love songs, expecially grief and anger. What emotions show up in the lyrics that are not clearly implied, but hidden?


[1] Carrere, S., Buehlman, K.T., Coan, J.A. Gottman, J.M., Coan, J.A., Ruckstuhl, L., (January 2000), Predicting Marital Stability and Divorce in Newlywed Couples, Journal of Family Psychology, 14, No. l, pgs. 1-17; Fergus, K.D., & Reid, D.W. (2001) The couple’s mutual identity. Journal of Psychotherapy Integration 11(3), 385-410. The former article offers an empirical approach to mutual identity, the latter article a theoretical approach.

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