Love is a particular kind of need and expectation in a relationship. For many people approaching marriage, love will be the foundation of their entire future together. Committed and passionate love is an important predictor of a relationships success and satisfaction (Hecht et al., 1994).

The relationship between passionate and erotic love and satisfaction, along with the relationship between companionate love, friendship and satisfaction, are correlations that remain constant across all age groups in major studies (Hendrick & Hendrick 2001). Cross cultural studies can also find evidence of the importance of passionate love in marital satisfaction (Contreras, Hendrick & Hendrick, 1996).

A counsellor or a keen observer of human life will soon observe that many relationships break down due to a perception by a person that they are not loved. For some people this can be analysed and broken down into issues of various needs not being met. Others resist this kind of analysis and insist that love is a somewhat ethereal force that should simply exist in their relationship and make everything “go right”.

Yet this tendency in our society to romanticise and mythologise love is almost certainly behind a great many divorces, as the practicalities and realities of life can so often catch up with people and bring a relationship crashing down. A counsellor should therefore approach any form of relationship counselling with some serious consideration of the theme of love.

Love as a motivation for marriage is relatively new. It is beyond the scope of this article to consider the full historical and sociological background of motivations for marriage. Let us just say that there has been a shift away from earlier practical considerations of the union of two people largely through the greater economic freedom of individuals and of women in particular, as well as shift in the concept of gender roles and expectations.

A result of these and other factors has seen a blossoming of the role of love in marital selection. The continuation of marriage has also become more reliant on the idea of love that is ongoing and that contributes in an intrinsic way to the rewards of being in a relationship. By its nature, this shift in focus away from the necessities of life towards a life that is ‘right’ in ways other than practical, is as much an invitation for new types of conflict as it is a movement towards more satisfying relationships.

As stated, love is a complex issue and there is a vast amount of research that could be drawn on by any relationships counsellor. For the purposes of a pre marital counsellor, it may be enough to consult individuals about their perceptions and personal definitions of love. Love can be viewed as a construct, an expression of something that is highly subjective, comprised of feelings, thoughts and behaviours (Hecht et al., 1994).

To achieve happiness in terms of their concept of being loved and loving another, it will be helpful to help the couple to align their ideals with their behaviour, their thoughts with their actions. Another way of expressing this is to say that in terms of a triangle of Be Do and Have of a relationship, if wanting to be loved and having someone to love is the Have, then we can ask people about what sort of partner they will Be and what will they Do to create that ideal.

Much work has been done on the basic concept of Sternberg: that love can progress through stages of passion and infatuation to genuine intimacy, commitment and companionate love (Sternberg & Grajek, 1984). The key element of this is ensuring that couples in the passionate stage of their love understand that the passion may wane and could need, for their relationship to continue, to mature into a more companionate form of love.

We can expect, based on studies, that the love felt and expressed by men will often be different to the concept of love experienced by women. For example, men may have a greater tendency towards romantic and passionate love, defined by sexual urgency, physical attraction and romantic ideals. Women may tend towards a more practical type of love based on friendship and mutual support.

Furthermore, they may tend to look for a partner they can admire and respect (Hatkoff & Lasswell, 1979). Within these gender differences we can expect to find individual differences based on personality, life experience, family of origin experiences and so on.

The psychologist John Alan Lee suggested that there are six styles of loving none of which are gender specific; Eros (passionate, intense, committed) Agape (altruistic, giving more than receiving) Ludus (game playing, playful but insular) Storge (friendship and companionship) Mania (fixated, possessive love) Pragma (practical, rational love). A person can exhibit more than one style but will often tend towards one dominant style.

In research to support his hypothesis, the Eros and Storge love styles have been the most important positive predictors of relationships, while the Ludus style is statistically correlated with relationship brevity and dissatisfaction (Hendrick, et al, 1988). A counsellor might consider these styles and see if the expression of love between the couple is different enough to be a source of conflict. Again, it may be enough to help the couple to know that this is so; that there expressions of love may be different and may require some adjustment of perception to be fully appreciated.

Many couples will brush off the need for counselling in this area, saying that all they need to know is that they love each other. And with the vast number of studies of romantic love and the many theories and models proposed, it may be difficult to know how to proceed. It may be important however, to at least raise the issue with them and discuss it, however lightly, to see that they do have some alignment in this area.

This may not be possible in terms of their conceptualisation of love, but it may be possible and desirable to reach a level of agreement in how they express love and how they will be mutually assured that they do love each other.

Other than that, as it is known from some very broad studies that committed love is associated with an intimate sharing of ideas and information, understanding, shared personal growth, reciprocal emotional support and reciprocal help (Sternberg & Grajek, 1984) it would seem that anything a counsellor can do to enhance a couple’s communication with one another will go a long way towards nurturing their relationship.

Here are some suggested questions to ask the couple:

  1. The idea here is to find any underlying expectations on the subject of love, and to have a dialogue towards greater understanding and appreciation of the possible changes over time of the love in their relationship.
  2. What does it mean to you to ‘love’ someone, or to ‘be in love’ with someone?
  3. Will love change over time?
  4. What will cause love to change?
  5. Can you cause yourself to change your feelings of love?
  6. What is it that you do in your relationship now to show that you love your partner?
  7. How will you know that your partner loves you in the future?
  8. Is there something that they do or that they might do, that shows or might show in the future that they don’t love you?
  9. Is there anything you do now, or that you might do, that would make them think that you don’t love them?
  10. What does someone need to be to love you? (Patient, kind, understanding, etc)
  11. What do you need to be to love your partner?