Professor Emery on the Psychology of Love

Robert Emery has been a psychology professor at UVA since 1981, and is also the Director of the Center for Children, Families and the Law. Here, he takes the time to teach us about the psychology of love and relationships.

What’s the area of focus in your research?

My research focuses on the unromantic topic of relationship dissolution, particularly divorce. But working with divorce has made me appreciate and investigate the power of emotion. The anger in a break up often is more intense the more intense the love had been, and may still be.


So, psychologically speaking, does "romantic love" even exist?

In my view, yes. I’m a romantic. Psychologists often talk about “limerence,” which is a lot like “puppy love.” You’re star struck, and will soon either break up or get down to the grim work of having a relationship built on practicality, not romance. Of course, long-term relationships, especially marriages, have many practical dimensions. And you can’t expect to be star-eyed 24/7 after six months, six years, or 60 years. Still, you can capture and recapture that excitement if you make it a priority. My wife is wearing a red dress for Valentine’s (yes!), and we’ve been married almost 25 years!


What are the important factors when you're making or maintaining a meaningful love connection with another person?

I wouldn’t want to deny exploration and experimentation when you’re in college. And I’m not going to give any lectures about the hook ups. But if you’re looking for a longer term relationship, you want passion - but not just passion. Friendship is huge, as are shared interests and, often, a shared world view.


Are there any obstacles in making these connections that are specific to college students?

Don’t rush. Learn about yourself as you explore relationships. Be careful not to slide into a relationship too quickly. Young people can find themselves practically living together when they really don’t know each other. If someone else is giving you advice, even your parents (!), listen. That third party may have a perspective you lack. Love really can be blind. But if you’re thinking long-term, sooner or later the blinders will come off.


What advice would you give to young adults in the dating world?

Date! There’s a lot of wisdom to old-fashioned rituals. It’s exciting to treat each other in a special way. It’s wise to maintain a degree of distance early in a relationship. And you’re less likely to get into a relationship that is wrong for you, or to get hurt, if you date versus jumping into new relationships too soon.


A huge thanks to Professor Emery for the words of wisdom. Happy Valentine’s Day from Her Campus!