Definition of Love and Different Attachment Theory

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Table of Contents

  • Definition of Millennial Generation, Social Context, and Milieu
  • Attachment Theory
  • Adult Romantic Attachment Theory
  • Definition of Love
  • References

This chapter provides operational definitions for the Millennial Generation, social context, milieu, and love and discusses attachment theory and adult romantic attachment theory as the theoretical bases for this study.

Definition of Millennial Generation, Social Context, and Milieu

The Pew Research Centre (2014), an American think tank organisation, reports, “The Millennial generation is forging a distinctive path into adulthood. Now ranging in age from 18 to 33, they are relatively unattached to organised politics and religion, and are linked by social media, burdened by debt, distrustful of people, in no rush to marry— and optimistic about the future” (Millennials in Adulthood, para. 1). My study uses the age range prescribed by the Pew Research Center; yet, acknowledges that there are conflicting views on who comprises the Millennial Generation. The Pew Research Center describes Millennials as the most racially diverse generation in our society, and the most liberal when it comes to politics, social issues and religious disaffiliation. Their 2014 survey among 617 adults nationwide showed that:

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Fully a third of older Millennials (ages 26 to 33) have a four-year college degree or more—making them the best-educated cohort of young adults in American history. The median age at first marriage is now the highest in modern history—29 for men and 27 for women. Millennials lead all generations in the share of out-of-wedlock births. Some 43% of Millennial adults are non-white, the highest share of any generation. The racial makeup of today’s young adults is one of the key factors in explaining their political liberalism. Millennials are also the first in the modern era to have higher levels of student loan debt, poverty and unemployment, and lower levels of wealth and personal income than their two immediate predecessor generations. Their difficult economic circumstances in part reflect the impact of the Great Recession (2007-2009) and in part the longer-term effects of globalisation and rapid technological change on the American workforce. Millennials have emerged into adulthood with low levels of social trust. Their racial diversity may partly explain Millennials’ low levels of social trust. (Millennials in Adulthood, Pew Research Center Survey, February 14 – 23, 2014.)

These findings indicate that there are a myriad of aspects that contribute to the uniqueness of Millennials’ social identity, from increased higher education to cultural shifts in single parenthood, greater number of self-identified multicultural and multiracial members to advances in the workforce, including advancement in technology. These attitudes and detachment behaviours are in stark contrast to previous generations and offer insight into the wave of the future. It is important to note that this demarcation is neither good nor bad, only different, but does provide a lens to view the future well being and needs of this generation, especially in relation to happiness, love, commitment, and marriage. Wang and Taylor (2011) report that, “Throughout history, marriage and parenthood have been linked milestones on the journey to adulthood. But for the young adults of the Millennial Generation, these social institutions are becoming delinked and differently valued” (p.1). Millennials are not married to the idea of marriage as previous generations once were as young adults. In a study carried out with 536 young adults between the ages of 18-29, Wang and Taylor found that, “67% of Millennials say that happiness is not related to whether you are single or married. From a list of reasons offered in the survey questionnaire regarding reasons to be married or to get married, nearly nine-in-ten (88%) young adults say love is very important, followed by making a lifelong commitment (76%) and companionship (71%)” (p.11-12). Fewer Millennials feel the urge to tie the knot at the same rate as their predecessors, shifting the goal of romantic love relationships, even though they still see love as an integral part of what they are seeking in adult relationships. Wang and Taylor’s study begs the question, does this shift in mentality impact the way in which Millennials experience romantic love and what their hopes are for their future?

Other research shows that there are some people who believe that the youth of today do not look favorably upon love. bell hooks (2001) wrote, 'Youth culture today is cynical about love. And that cynicism has come from their pervasive feeling that love cannot be found' (p. xviii). According to bell hooks, there is a lack of understanding of love, in part because it is difficult to define. bell hooks argues that the youth of today are chasing fantasy love in lieu of building solid, sustainable relationships based on true love. She wrote:

My work as a cultural critic offered me a constant opportunity to pay close attention to everything the mass media, particularly movies and magazines, tell us about love. Mostly they tell us that everyone wants love but that we remain totally confused about the practice of love in everyday life. In popular culture, love is always the stuff of fantasy. (p.xxiii)

Current forms of intimacy appear to be more diverse among Millennials within our society, and may range from casual sex like “friends-with-benefits” to exclusivity. Attitudinal changes towards romantic love and casual sex are dominant among this generation but root causes are not known. Koski (2001) found that parent infidelity may be a factor in perceptions of love, marriage and intimate relationships, and can replicate relationship styles, patterns and attitudes of children. Lack of trust and faith in marriage, outside relationships and gender are potential factors for defining Millennial generation love attitudes. Tessina (2008) reported that Millennial attitudes about marriage may be related to their few models of good marriages for them to follow and admire. She states, “many Millennials have grown up in divorced or single parent households, so they have little experience of what good marriages look like” (p.1). If the youth of today truly have given up on the idea of love, then what has led the Millennial Generation to believe that love cannot be found? What role has social media played in the formation of Millennials’ definition of love and what they expect out of a romantic love relationship? While bell hooks does stand firmly behind this belief, she has not given up hope on the youth of today, as she insists that people can learn to love.

Attachment Theory

Attachment theory provides us with a roadmap to understanding all human relationships. Bowlby (1994) believed that attachment is a critical component of the human experience 'from the cradle to the grave' (p.129). According to Bowlby attachment impacts the way that a person interacts with the world from the moment that a person is born until their death. In order to apply attachment theory, we must first strive to define and understand it. Davies (2011) writes, “Bowlby formulated the idea of attachment as a strong emotional tie to a specific person (or persons) that promotes the young child’s sense of security... Attachment has four main functions: providing a sense of security; regulating affect and arousal; promoting the expression of feelings and communication; and serving as a base for exploration” (p.7-8). These four main functions of attachment can both be found within relationships between child and caregiver, and in romantic attachment between adult partners. The former has a significant impact on the later. Sroufe (1989) noted that,

The dyadic infant-caregiver organisation precedes and gives rise to the organisation that is the self. The self-organisation, in turn, has significance for ongoing adaptation and experience, including later social behaviour... Each personality whether healthy or disordered, is the product of the history of vital relationships. (p.71)

Sroufe (2005) speaks directly to the relationship between early childhood attachment and how this impacts a person’s relational functioning as an adult: secure attachment in infancy and toddlerhood predicts social competence, good problem- solving abilities, and other personality qualities associated with successful adaptation in later childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood. We have found security of attachment to be related to the emotional tone of adult romantic relationships (p.358).

This notion is applicable to the Millennial Generation, as they are currently categorised as young adults. Following Sroufe’s belief, it could be argued that the Millennial Generation are greatly impacted by their childhood attachment style given their young, malleable age.

A person’s early childhood attachment style does not automatically dictate the type of adult romantic attachment they will experience. A person’s natural level of resilience and social environment play a role in the way an individual processes their childhood relationships and how attachments with primary caregivers impact the way that they process their own stories. Davies (2011) contends that, What distinguishes the adults who were judged secure was not their actual experiences but rather how well they had remembered, understood, and integrated their early experience. The quality of their discourse distinguished them from the adults judged insecure. Their accounts of their attachment relationships tended to be fluent, coherent, and organised, and they were easily able to include negative and positive feelings about their experiences. (p. 25)

An adult does not automatically fall into one attachment style or another solely based on the quality of their early childhood attachments. Davies (2011) goes on to say that, “Adults whose working models reflected insecure attachments generally felt less positive about attachment relationships, tended to deny the influences of attachment experiences on their personality, and did not seem objective in their descriptions” (p.26). Taking this viewpoint into consideration, is it impossible to predict an individual’s adult attachment style solely based on their early childhood attachments?

The cycle of attachment relationships, both in formation and loss, is crucial to construct the bond of a secure attachment. Bowlby (1980) spoke to this bond and describes the act of falling in love: many of the most intense emotions arise during the formation, the maintenance, the disruption and the renewal of attachment relationships. The formation of a bond is described as falling in love, maintaining a bond as loving someone, and losing a partner as grieving over someone. Similarly, threat of loss arouses anxiety and actual loss gives rise to sorrow while each of these situations is likely to arouse anger. The unchallenged maintenance of a bond is experienced as a source of security and the renewal of a bond as a source of joy (p. 40).

As young adults begin to form their own romantic attachments, the act of falling in love serves as a mirror for how love has been experienced in previous attachment bonds. The way that a young adult experiences joy and sorrow, anger and security, circles back to how that person learned to experience these emotions as a child.

Adult Romantic Attachment Theory

Gleeson and Fitzgerald (2014) note, “As a result of these early interactions, the child develops mental representations or internal working models of attachment which act as a guide for perceptions and behaviours in subsequent relationships” (p. 644). The relationships that Gleeson and Fitzgerald are referencing are adult romantic relationships. A young adult’s experience in a romantic relationship is already hardwired into them by the time they reach their twenties. With regard to romantic attachment Fraley (2000) contends that,

As people build new relationships, they rely partly on previous expectations about how others are likely to behave and feel toward them, and they use these models to interpret the goals or intentions of their partners. Working models are believed to be highly resistant to change because they are more likely to assimilate new relational information, even at the cost of distorting it, than accommodate to information that is at odds with existing expectations. (p.136)

Not only are young adults hardwired to experience romantic attachments in a certain way but also Fraley argues that people will go as far as to distort reality in order to make it fit their hardwired expectations. If this is true, then an insecurely attached child will be hard pressed to break the cycle of insecure attachment as an adult, regardless of whether or not their partner provides them a chance at a secure romantic attachment.

On the other hand, Gleeson and Fitzgerald (2014) argue that, “Longitudinal studies have provided the strongest evidence for the continuity of attachment styles from childhood to adulthood. Importantly, research has shown that working models of attachment while resistant to change, are subject to revision over time as a result of new experiences or an unstable relationship environment” (p.1644). According to Gleeson and Fitzgerald a rewiring of the brain is possible as an adult if there is an incongruous experience with that of the primary childhood attachment. Thus insecurely attached children can experience secure romantic relationships and securely attached children can experience insecure attached romantic love relationships as adults. Gleeson and Fitzgerald (2014) also write that, “The results suggest that those who are securely attached in their romantic relationships are more satisfied and perceive their parents in a more positive light when reflecting on childhood than insecurely attached participants, especially those in the avoidant-fearful category” (p.1656). According to this viewpoint, adults with a secure romantic relationship are generally happier, both with regards to how they experience the present and while reflecting upon the past. If this theory is correct, then adults who have shifted to a secure romantic attachment have a tendency to change the way that they experience their memories of the past, thus resulting in more healing and less emotional stress.

Definition of Love

The will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth. Love is as love does. Love is an act of will - namely both an intention and an action. Will also implies choice. We do not have to love. We choose to love. (p. 5) According to this definition love is not something that a person “falls into”, but is an active choice, a conscious act. bell hook’s love is a soulful love, a nurturing love, a love that is chosen. Within her book, she quotes two other authors who define love in a way that is congruent with how she experiences love as an adult: John Welwood (1996) remarked,

A soul connection is a resonance between two people who respond to the essential beauty of each other's individual natures, behind their facades, and who connect on a deeper level. This kind of mutual recognition provides the catalyst for a potent alchemy. It is a sacred alliance whose purpose is to help both partners discover and realise their deepest potentials.

bell hooks also references Thomas Merton (1997) who speaks to the comradely necessary for experiencing love, 'Love is our true destiny. We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone - we find it with another.' The common thread in all three of these definitions is the connection that is fostered in conjunction with another person, the joining of souls and intentional nurturance of another being.

Love is a challenging idea to adequately define, which makes it difficult to operationalise for academic purposes. Thomas Oord (2005) spoke to the dearth of definitions of love, “It may be that resources for love research have been scanty and researchers generally have been reluctant to pursue love studies in part because so few of us have given time and energy to provide an adequate definition of love” (p.923). To add to the diversity of definitions of love, Thomas Oord shared his thoughts, “To love is to act intentionally, in sympathetic response to others (including God), to promote well-being” (p.924). Oord’s description of love is congruent with the previous definitions; however, slightly differing in syntax. This demonstrates a general agreement as to what love is on a larger level, yet fails to provide one with a solid definition that can be understood by everyone.

While researching definitions of love, it is also valuable to add the Merriam-Webster Dictionary’s (n.d.) definition of love as a noun, “a feeling of strong or constant affection for a person, attraction that includes sexual desire: the strong affection felt by people who have a romantic relationship, a person you love in a romantic way”, in addition to its definition to love as a verb, “to feel great affection for (someone), to feel love for (someone), to feel sexual or romantic love for (someone), to like or desire (something) very much, to take great pleasure in (something)” (Love).

Confluent love is a theory created by Giddens, which argues that individuals are now looking to create meaningful relationships that are based on love and respect. This theory challenges the traditional assumption about why and how relationships should be maintained. As long as relationship is beneficial for the individuals the relationship will continue. As soon as it is not beneficial then an individual will seek an alternative which possesses meaningful for the foundations of the next relationship.

There is a plethora of literature on attachment and romantic attachment theory; however, there is a gap with regards to how these theories are applied specifically to the Millennial Generation. The term “young adult” is used often in academic literature, which makes an assumption that this term can be applied cross-generationally. However, the Millennial Generation is distinct from any of its predecessors. Love, specifically romantic love, has been a tough concept to define. In fact, there is no single definition for love which academics can agree upon, as the experience of love or being “in love” is subjective and has proven to transform overtime. This study details the Millennial Generation, who they are and how they perceive that their capacity for romantic love developed, examining their romantic attachment styles, and what their hopes and fears are with regard to romantic love.

This study also investigates how Millennials understand, define, and experience romantic love. Attachment theory and romantic attachment theory is used as the theoretical base for this mixed methods investigation.


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  10. Merton, Thomas. (1997). Love and Living. Commonweal Publishing.
  11. Oord, T. (2005). THE LOVE RACKET: DEFINING LOVE AND AGAPE FOR THE LOVE-AND-SCIENCE RESEARCH PROGRAM. Zygon: Journal Of Religion & Science, 40(4), 919-938. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9744.2005.00717.x
  12. Peck, M. Scott. (1978). The Road Less Traveled. Simon & Schuster. Pew Research Center. (March 7, 2014). Millennials in Adulthood: Detached from Institutions, Networked with Friends Retrieved from

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