Companionate Love in Long-Term Relationships

Romantic and companionate love give relationship satisfaction. However, the satisfaction tends to be greater for companionate love.

The Good Men Project
Nov 4, 2020 · 13 min read
Photo credit: Shutterstock

By Raymond Michael

In most Western culture, there is a lot of emphasis on romantic love and people even make marriage decisions based on it. At the same time, it’s absence has become largely responsible for the termination of many marriages. While there’s so much talk about romantic love, there’s little talk about companionate love.

In fact, a lot of people have come to view romantic love as a source of achieving self-fulfillment and expression. Part of the lyrics of an old song says, “Love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage — you can’t have one without the other.” It seems that contemporary men and women have strongly bought into the idea coming from the words of this old song.

These ideological developments about love are despite the fact that most people believe that romantic love usually fades over time. And that in its place evolves a “warm afterglow” of a friendship-type love — companionate love.

Thus, it’s mindboggling why people consider romantic love to be so important and even going to the extent of basing their decision to marry on it despite believing that it will inevitably die out.

Friendship is Love without his wings!

Lord Byron “Hours of Idleness”

The intention of this post is to point out some important facts about the less talked about love termed companionate love. Yes, it doesn’t sound as fanciful as romantic love. Yet, a good understanding of it may well be all you need to have that loving relationship you’ve always dreamed of.

You’ll also come to understand that despite the fact that it might not have the fiery intensity of the sexuality experienced in the early stages of romantic love, it can yet be intimately satisfying, even sexually.

Love is an intense emotion. Its intensity is particularly observable during the early stages of romantic relationships. However, there are many theories about what love is and what roles it plays in the course of a relationship.

As a result, many social scientists have offered different definitions of love. Others have decided to concentrate on classifying love. This has also led to the development of various kinds of love models.

Ellen Berscheid and Elaine Hatfield‘s have done a lot of pioneering work on the concept of love. Particularly, they’ve made a significant distinction between romantic and companionate love. This distinction has received the largest share of attention from experts interested in dating and marital relationships.[1] Their work has also inspired others to develop and test more theories and models of love.

Berscheid and Hatfield are of the view that love is not a single entity and that it’s better to look at it in terms of two basic kinds. Their dichotomization of the concept of love focuses on defining the two types of love separately:

Passionate love is a wildly emotional state, a confusion of feelings: tenderness and sexuality, elation and pain, anxiety and relief, altruism and jealousy. Companionate love… is a lower-key emotion. It’s friendly affection and deep attachment to someone.

As a result, most social scientists today simply distinguish between two kinds of love — “romantic love” and “companionate love.” In our last post we looked at the concept of romantic love in long-term relationships. We strongly suggest you review that post as it will help you in better understanding the overall concept of love from both angles.

Thus, most theories of love are basically conceptualizations arising from the distinctions between romantic and companionate love. However, there are still no specific definitions for love.

What is love? A lot of extensive research has shown that people understand love by its resemblance to a prototype, a standard model, or an idea. This is similar to the way one is able to recognize a bird by its resemblance to a robin.

Love is such a tissue of paradoxes, and exists in such a variety of forms and shades, that you may say almost anything about it that you please, and it is likely to be correct.

Sir Henry Finck

From most of these researches, the prototypical features of love encompass, in order of centrality, intimacy, commitment, and passion.

Researchers in one study asked university students to list features or attributes about the concept of love.[2] Most students listed features such as honesty, trust, and caring. Few of the students listed features such as sexual passion, physical attraction, and dependency.

Overall, at least more than one student listed each of the sixty-eight features that were the most common view of the participants. According to the researchers,

…laypeople regarded features portraying companionate love as the essence of love; features depicting passionate love were considered non-prototypical of the concept.

The researchers also noted that their findings were in sharp contrast to hitherto held belief that university students define love in terms of passion and romance.

Also, the researchers observed that both romantic and companionate love give relationship satisfaction. However, the satisfaction tends to be greater for companionate love. Several other studies of this nature have produced similar results.

In another particular study,[3] the

…participants mentioned trust, mutual respect, communication and sharing, honesty, and affection along with a number of other positive emotions and experiences.

This type of love derives from the combination of the intimacy and commitment components of love. As discussed in our post about Robert Sternberg’s Triangular Theory of Love, love has three basic components — intimacy, commitment, and passion.

Berscheid and Hatfield defined companionate love as:

…the affection we feel for those with whom our lives are deeply entwined.

Some people also term companionate love as a magnified form of liking in that it is quiet and of a steady-state. Also, it’s more like a glowing ember as opposed to a fiery flame.

Likewise, companionate love can be seen as a sturdy, durable type of love that is based on feelings of deep affection and caring. Overall, different people have used different terms to refer to companionate love including the following:

  • Strong liking
  • Friendship love
  • Philias
  • Conjugal love
  • Storgic Love
  • Marital Love
  • Affectionate Love
  • True love
  • Attachment

Basically, companionate love lacks the component of passion inherent in romantic love that makes people crave the latter so much. The excitement and arousal associated with romantic love is the product of the passion component of love.

Conversely, companionate love is a warm, less intense love that is devoid of major attraction and sexual desire. It combines attachment, intimacy, and commitment to build a robust, fulfilling, and intimate relationship.

Also, like everything that lasts, companionate takes time to develop. It increases with time because it is based on intimacy processes such as caring, understanding, and attachment that require time to fully develop.

True and lasting love is based in tolerance, care, and communication. It is a friendship that has caught fire.

On an emotional level, companionate love generally has less intense but positive emotions. These include emotions like feelings of sexual intimacy and satisfaction. This is perhaps why most experts describe it as the “healthier” variety of love.

Another relationship stabilizing characteristic of companionate love is its development on a solid foundation of respect, admiration, and interpersonal trust and rewards.

One can have companionate love for a number of significant people in one’s life. This includes one’s close friends, family members, or a romantic partner. Conversely, romantic love typically has only one, rather than multiple, targets.

  1. Companionate love is a love that is based on a deep sense of friendship and companionship as well as the enjoyment of common activities, mutual interests, and shared laughter. This creates a comfortable, affectionate, and trusting love for a likeable partner.
  2. Experts view companionate love as the glue that keeps a love relationship together as it is generally more enduring.
  3. Generally, companionate lovers base their relationship on affection, shared values and goals, and compatibility.[4]
  4. To companionate lovers, physical attraction is not as important as security, companionship, task sharing, and joint activity.
  5. This type of love relationship might not be very exciting and arousing, however companionate love is generally dependable and stable.
  6. Companionate lovers prefer partners with personality characteristics such as intelligence, understanding, a good personality, compassion, and communication skills rather than physical characteristics.[5]
  7. In general, companionate lovers consider love more as a partnership or a lifelong journey.
  8. Companionate lovers are generally able to withstand long separations. This is because they trust each other and they also don’t require high levels of emotional stimulation and arousal.
  9. Unlike with romantic lovers, companionate lovers do not experience many emotional highs and lows.
  10. Companionate love is termed the “staff of life” for many relationships and a better basis for a satisfying marriage than romantic love.

The general idea is that companionate love usually replaces romantic love later in the relationship. The usual feeling is that:

…as time passes, all that people can expect from the fire of romantic love is the “afterglow” of dying embers..

Theodor Reik

However, there is growing evidence suggesting that companionate love may have to precede romantic love in a new love relationship.

The idea is for intending-lovers to first develop close friendship before becoming committed and intimate lovers. Experts think that this might be vital to the development of romantic love itself.

Grote and Frieze are the developers of the friendship-based love (FBL) scale that applies to both young and old adults.[6] To them, a friendship-based love is:

…a comfortable, affectionate, trusting love for a likable partner, based on a deep sense of friendship and involving companionship and the enjoyment of common activities, mutual interests, and shared laughter.

Dr. Gottman of The Gottman Institute also supports this friendship idea. In fact, it is the basis for the development of “The Sound Marital House Theory.”

The Sound Relationship House concept is the offspring of this theory. It has for its first level what Dr. Gottman refers to as “marital friendship.”

From The Marriage Clinic — A Scientifically Based Marital Therapy by Dr. John Gottman:

We have found that friendship and the positive affect that naturally flows from it are major accomplishments achieved by couples in happy, stable marriages.

So, the cliché that you should “marry your best friend” now has good anecdotal and scientific support. Thus, intending-partners should seriously think about first establishing some degree of strong personal friendship with each other.

Spending time to engage in this process will definitely yield immense benefits in any love relationship. Once again, anyone desiring to enter into and have an enduring love relationship should seriously think about this idea.

Deep friendships do often occur in romantic love. However, most of the time there is a combination — and sometimes confusion, with sexual arousal and passion.

It’s in the context of companionate love that the importance of deep friendship in the creation of healthy long-term relationships can be more clearly observed.

We can get a bit clearer understanding of which type of love comes first by taking a look at arranged marriages. In arranged marriages, the marital partners may start with the commitment to love each other, or try to love each other.

In fact, upon closer examination, most arranged marriages actually start out in a state of “empty love” between the partners. Commitment to the marriage develops over time as the couple start their marital journey together.

It is usually with the further passage of time that romantic love starts developing in arranged marriages. Thus, intimate involvement or passionate arousal can follow from the commitment both partners have for their relationship. The degree of the commitment to the marriage generally determines the overall romantic experience in the marriage, and not the other way round.

According to renown anthropologist, Helen Fisher, humans have evolved three brain systems to direct different aspects of reproduction. Each of these defined brain systems has its corresponding neurochemicals.

Lust (testosterone); romance (dopamine, and perhaps with norepinephrine and serotonin); and male-female attachment (oxytocin and vasopressin).[7]

The hormonal cocktail of romance (dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin) usually lasts no more than a few years at best. But oxytocin and vasopressin, the “cuddle chemicals,” outlasts them all.

Passionate love provides a high, like drugs, and you can’t stay high forever.

Dr. Elaine Hatfield University of Hawaii

Under certain conditions, the neurotransmitters of romantic love can stimulate the release of the hormones of attachment[8] and contribute to the growing feelings of attachment.

Fisher’s discovery above also has support from several other studies. In another study,[9] the researchers found that:

…romantic love — associated with engagement, sexual interest and lower attention to alternative partners — may promote pair-bond maintenance through sustained reward.

Likewise, increasing levels of oxytocin can interfere with dopamine and norepinephrine pathways in the brain. However, the oxytocin interference generally causes a decrease in the impact of these excitatory substances.[10, 11]

Thus, the biochemistry which creates the attachment system that sustains a long-term loving relationship QUELLS the biochemistry of early stage euphoric romantic love.

Esther Perel — author of “Mating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic + the Domestic” — amply expressed the interplay between the biochemistry of romantic and companionate love in the following statement:

If attraction and desire were the central actors in your courtship, now they retreat backstage to make way for the main act: building a life together.

She further says that:

…the volatility of passionate eroticism is expected to evolve into a more staid, stable, and manageable alternative: mature love. Even the biochemistry of passion is known to be short-lived.

Companionate love is basically a long-term, stable, and committed friendship with a characteristic high amounts of “emotional intimacy.”

The decision to love one’s partner is what holds it together. Equally, companionate lovers have strong commitment to not only remain in but to also maintain the relationship.

For the most part, this type of love is often happens in “best friendship” relationships that are nonsexual. They are also typical in long-term marriages where there’s often a reduction in sexual attraction.

For [married] sex to be “meaningful,” it must always be an expression of love — preferably of lifelong, abiding love — every time we climb into bed with one another. And what an incredible burden that is! It eliminates sex stimulated by a whole array of other emotions and sensations: playful sex and angry sex, quick, “mindless” sex and “naughty” sex. It eliminates, in fact, just about every occasion for having sex there is. After all, who can feel “lifelong, abiding love” that regularly — especially at eleven o’clock at night?

Dagmar O’Connor Sex Therapist

However, a recent study made two important observations about the sexuality in both romantic love and companionate love.[12] First, their study found that “sexual excitement” is more strongly related to romantic love than to companionate love.

Secondly, they discovered that “sexual intimacy” has closer association with companionate love than with romantic love.

In their remark, the researchers noted that:

each love type is associated with a number of important relational dimensions, including sexual intimacy, sexual excitement, satisfaction, and commitment.

They also noted that:

…companionate love is more highly associated with positive emotions, feelings of sexual intimacy, and satisfaction.

Thus, the companionate lovers did not only feel high levels of emotional intimacy and warmth. They also reported relatively greater feelings of sexual intimacy — having more open communication with their partner about sexuality.

Thus, the feelings of warmth, trust, and intimacy (emotional and, perhaps sexual) are a hallmark of experiencing companionate love.

Against popular belief, it is thus possible to feel desire, become aroused, and to engage in sexual activities in a companionate love relationship. However, these sexual experiences may be less in intensity, frequency, and overall centrality to the experience of companionate love.

Change is the only constant thing in life. Nothing stays the same forever, not even love. Thus, the passage of time usually has different effect on the experience of any love relationship.

Over the course of time, all relationships are inherently vulnerable to different changes in their social and physical environments. These changes can have either a direct or an indirect impact on the relationship.

Most research about friendship conclude that friendships are relatively slow to develop. This is also very true of companionate love which most people believe to be generally stable after its development.

There is no fire in storgic love; it is solid, down-to-earth, and presumably enduring.

Hendrick & Hendrick

Despite the presumed continuity and endurance of companionate love, a rare study in newlyweds claims the contrary. From study measurements, the researchers discovered that after one year of marriage, the companionate love in both husbands and wives had declined in the same degree that their romantic love had declined.[13]

There is not much to contend about the findings of the study given the criteria and duration of the study. However, the use of a single year seems rather limiting for making any reasonable comparisons between romantic and companionate love.

At just after a year, romantic love is normally still the predominant type of love in such new relationships. May be after the “seven-year itch” period, better comparisons can be made between the two.

But there’s an important finding from this research that should be noted. And that is the fact that no type of love relationship is permanently resistant to changes in the partners. Their social and physical environments can greatly influence these changes.

  1. While the trust and security in a companionate love relationship can provide safety for the relationship, too much stability can lead to predictability and boredom. Thus, it is important to regularly engage in activities that are both exciting and emotionally rewarding.
  2. Companionate love is largely based on expressions of similarity, reciprocal self-disclosure, shared activities, and mutual validation. So, it’s important to maintain these activities and prevent them from declining.
  3. One thing about companionate love is the need for high compatibility between the lovers. Thus, it is important for companionate lovers to want the same things such as a home and family, independence, and the ability to travel together to exotic places.
  4. The intimacy in companionate love usually grows through the process of mutual self-disclosures. Thus, the partners need to ensure that they regularly give positive and validating feedback to each other.
  5. Most experts agree that friendships serve mostly socioemotional functions. To foster companionate love, it’s particularly important for the partners to regularly and jointly participate in leisure and recreational activities.

It is important we realize that rarely can one encounter pure categories of the kinds of love as categorized by the Triangular Theory of Love. It’s near impossible to experience only two of its component without having none of third.

Thus, companionate lovers can and do experience passion, and romantic lovers can and do feel commitment. Over the course of time and through various experiences, the distinctions between romantic love (without the obsession) and companionate love may become quite fuzzy.

As a result, people may encounter various types of love in a given relationship as the three components of love change over time. However, experts agree that the passion component is far more variable than the other two as it is the least controllable.

To sustain companionate love in your relationship, you need to develop an array of common interests. Also, intentionally determine to always engage in novel and exciting things together.

Always think: Variety! Variety!! Variety!!! This ensures that you’re both always stimulating the pleasure centers of your brains. This helps to maintain the climate of romance — even within in your companionate love.

The story was previously published on The Good Men Project.

Hello, Love

Love changes us. Love makes us human.

The Good Men Project

Written by

We're having a conversation about the changing roles of men in the 21st century. Main site is Email us

Hello, Love

Love changes us. Love makes us human.

The Good Men Project

Written by

We're having a conversation about the changing roles of men in the 21st century. Main site is Email us

Hello, Love

Love changes us. Love makes us human.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store