Articles

Loving Unconditionally: Demographic Correlates of the Agapic Love Style

Pamela C. Regan*a

Abstract

Although passionate or erotic love continues to receive the most attention from relationship scholars, there is a growing interest in a variety of love variously referred to as altruistic, compassionate, self-giving, or agapic love. Because this type of unconditional, other-oriented love appears to have important implications for the interpersonal dynamics and overall quality of close romantic relationships, there has been increased interest in delineating its correlates and possible causal antecedents. The goal of the present empirical investigation was to explore three potential demographic correlates of unconditional or agapic love – age, gender, and ethnicity. A large, multi-ethnic community sample of adult men and women (N = 697) individually completed the 7-item Agapic subscale of the Love Attitudes Scale (Hendrick & Hendrick, 1990). Although age was not associated with agapic love scores, a significant overall gender difference was obtained such that men scored higher than women. Ethnic differences also were found. Specifically, African American participants reported lower levels of agapic love than did Latino/a, Asian/Pacific Islander, and non-Hispanic White participants.

Keywords: Agapic love, love styles, compassionate love, gender differences, ethnic differences

Interpersona, 2016, Vol. 10(1), doi:10.5964/ijpr.v10i1.199

Received: 2015-09-25. Accepted: 2016-05-12. Published (VoR): 2016-06-30.

*Corresponding author at: Department of Psychology, Cal State LA, Los Angeles, CA 90032. E-mail: pregan@exchange.calstatela.edu

This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

Throughout history, scholars across an array of disciplines have speculated on the nature of love (for reviews, see Berscheid & Regan, 2005; Regan, 2017; Sternberg & Barnes, 1988; Sternberg & Weis, 2006). Although a number of classification schemes have been proposed, most early and contemporary theorists have included two types of adult romantic love (i.e., passionate and companionate love) in their taxonomies. Many also have included a third variety of love, distinguished from other types by its unconditional, altruistic, self-giving nature. For example, German physician and pioneering sexologist von Krafft-Ebing (1886/1945) included “true love” in his typology, which he suggested consists of a hardy mix of altruism, closeness, and sexuality. His contemporary (and founder of American psychology), James (1890/1950), identified a similar type of love he labeled “maternal love” whose essential elements are intense devotion and selflessness. A half-century later, existentialist Fromm (1956) proposed numerous love types, each containing four basic features (care, responsibility, respect, and knowledge) as well as particular unique attributes. In Fromm’s classification system, “motherly love” is distinguished from other varieties by its unconditional and altruistic nature. Theologist Lewis (1960/1988) included four types of love in his taxonomy; one of these, a self-giving love called “Charity,” is based on tolerance, forbearance, and forgiveness, involves no expectation of reward, and desires only what is “simply best for the beloved” (p. 128). More recently, sociologist Lee (e.g., 1973, 1977, 1988) identified a love variety he called “agape,” which is similar to Lewis’s concept of Charity in that it represents an all-giving love that implies an obligation to love and care for others without any expectation of reciprocity or reward, as well as an unselfish devotion to the partner and to meeting the partner’s needs. And more recently still, a number of scholars have nominated “compassionate love” as a distinct type of love marked by openness, tenderness, and caring, concern for the partner’s welfare, understanding of the partner and the partner’s needs, and willingness to attend to and provide support for the partner (e.g., Berscheid, 2006, 2010; Fehr & Sprecher, 2013; Sprecher & Fehr, 2005; Underwood, 2002, 2008).

A growing body of research suggests that this type of self-giving, other-oriented love has important implications for the interpersonal dynamics and quality of close romantic relationships (for a review, see Fehr & Sprecher, 2013). For example, people who score high on measures of unconditional love (e.g., Hendrick & Hendrick, 1990; Sprecher & Fehr, 2005) provide more social support to their partners, report feeling closer to their partners, and experience higher levels of self-disclosure and satisfaction in their dating and marital relationships than do those who score lower (e.g., Grote & Frieze, 1998; Hammock & Richardson, 2011; Lin & Huddleston-Casas, 2005; Sharma & Ahuja, 2014; Sprecher & Fehr, 2005; also see Collins et al., 2014 and Reis, Maniaci, & Rogge, 2014). Given the significant role played by this variety of love in maintaining the overall health of romantic unions, it is not surprising that researchers have become increasingly interested in delineating its correlates and possible causal antecedents.

To date, most investigators have utilized the agapic subscale of the Love Attitudes Scale to measure unconditional love (Hendrick & Hendrick, 1990; Hendrick, Hendrick, & Dicke, 1998). Research conducted with this particular instrument has revealed several group differences. For example, cross-cultural comparisons reveal that French adults exhibit higher levels of agape than do American adults (e.g., Murstein, Merighi, & Vyse, 1991), and that men and women in India report experiencing more agapic love for their partners than do their counterparts in Britain and Portugal (Neto, 2007). Individual differences also exist. Self-esteem and various facets of personality (e.g., psychoticism, narcissism) are significantly associated with agapic love scores (e.g., Davies, 1996; Mallandain & Davies, 1994; Rohmann, Neumann, Herner, & Bierhoff, 2012). However, results with respect to demographic variables, including age and gender, are inconsistent. For example, some researchers find that agapic love scores increase with participant age (e.g., Lin & Huddleston-Casas, 2005), whereas others find that scores decrease (e.g., Butler, Walker, Skowronski, & Shannon, 1995). Similarly, several investigations have observed higher scores among men than women on agapic love (e.g., Heaven, Da Silva, Carey, & Holen, 2004; Lacey, Reifman, Scott, Harris, & Fitzpatrick, 2004; Lin & Huddleston-Casas, 2005; Neto & Pinto, 2003; Sprecher & Toro-Morn, 2002). Others, however, have found no such gender difference (e.g., Hendrick & Hendrick, 1986; Hendrick, Hendrick, Foote, & Slapion-Foote, 1984). Moreover, cross-cultural investigations do not yield consistent results with respect to gender differences (or similarities) in agape (Neto, 2007). Very few researchers have conducted multi-cultural investigations that would allow them to explore whether other demographic variables, such as race or ethnicity, are related to agapic love.

Thus, the purpose of the present empirical investigation was to replicate and extend previous research on agapic love by exploring three specific demographic variables – age, gender, and ethnicity – in a large, multi-ethnic community sample of adult men and women. Because previous research provides no clear set of findings with regard to the associations between these demographic factors and agapic love, no a priori hypotheses were made.

Method [TOP]

Participants [TOP]

Participants included 697 adults (348 women, 349 men) from a large urban city in the United States. They comprised four ethnic groups: 60.4% Latino/a, 14.2% non-Hispanic White, 11.8% Asian/Pacific Islander, and 10.6% African American. An additional 3.0% of participants self-identified as Mixed Race or Other. Most participants were heterosexual (90.1%), with an additional 4.4% identifying as homosexual, 4.4% identifying as bisexual, and 1.0% identifying as “other.” Participants ranged in age from 18 to 65 (M age = 23.3 years, SD = 5.9 years).

Procedure [TOP]

Participants were recruited in public buildings and parks used by various community organizations located in the area surrounding an urban western university (e.g., community parks and recreational centers). Specifically, potential participants were approached by the investigator and asked if they would be interested in participating in a brief relationship attitudes survey. Those who agreed were given a questionnaire containing demographic questions as well as the 7-item Agapic subscale of the Love Attitudes Scale (Hendrick & Hendrick, 1990). Participants completed the measures individually and the investigator remained present to answer any questions that arose (none did). Participants were reminded that participation was voluntary and anonymous and that they were free to leave any question blank and also free to cease their participation at any time. No identifying information was collected from participants, and no participant refused to complete the study measures. Upon completing the questionnaire, participants were thanked and given an educational debriefing statement that also included the investigator’s contact information.

Measure [TOP]

The agapic subscale of the Love Attitudes Scale (Hendrick & Hendrick, 1990) consists of seven items designed to assess the extent to which individuals adopt an unconditional, self-giving orientation to loving their romantic partner. Specific items include: (1) “I try to always help my partner through difficult times,” (2) “I would rather suffer myself than let my partner suffer,” (3) “I cannot be happy unless I place my partner’s happiness before my own,” (4) “I am usually willing to sacrifice my own wishes to let my partner achieve his/hers,” (5) “Whatever I own is my partner’s to use as he/she chooses,” (6) “When my partner gets angry with me, I still love him/her fully and unconditionally,” and (7) “I would endure all things for the sake of my partner.” Participants were instructed to respond with respect to their current romantic partner (or, if they were not currently in a relationship, to respond with respect to their most recent romantic partner), and to rate each item using a 7-point scale (with 1 = strongly disagree and 7 = strongly agree). Higher scores indicate greater endorsement of an agapic love orientation. In the present investigation, all analyses were conducted on the mean subscale score (average of the seven items). For additional information on scale development and validation, see Hendrick and Hendrick (1990) and Hendrick et al. (1998).

Results [TOP]

Data Screening and Cleaning [TOP]

Prior to analysis, mean agapic love scores were examined through various SPSS programs for accuracy of data entry, missing values, and fit between their distribution and the assumptions of univariate analysis (see Tabachnick & Fidell, 2001). No missing values or univariate outliers were evident and the assumption of normality was met.

Age and Agapic Love [TOP]

To examine whether agapic love scores were associated with participant age, a linear correlational analysis was conducted. The results revealed that age was not significantly associated with agapic love scores (r = -0.01, p ns).

Gender, Ethnicity, and Agapic Love [TOP]

To determine whether agapic love scores differed as a function of gender and ethnicity, a 2 (Gender: Men, women) x 4 (Ethnicity: Latino/a, Asian/Pacific Islander, African American, non-Hispanic White) analysis of variance (ANOVA) was conducted on participants’ mean scale scores. Participants who self-identified as Mixed Race or Other (21 in total) were excluded from this analysis. The ANOVA revealed a significant main effect for Gender, with men scoring higher than women (5.27 vs. 4.76, F[1,668] = 15.54, p < .001, ηp2 = 0.02). A main effect for Ethnicity also was found (F[3,668] = 3.29, p < .05, ηp2 = 0.02), indicating that Asian/Pacific Islander (5.23), Latino/a (5.03), non-Hispanic White (5.03), and African American (4.65) participants scored differently on the agapic love scale. To explore this main effect, a series of independent-samples t-tests was conducted. These analyses revealed that African American participants scored significantly lower on agapic love than did Asian/Pacific Islander (t[154] = -3.32, p < .005, Cohen’s d = 0.53), Latino/a (t[493] = -2.42, p < .05, Cohen’s d = 0.22), and non-Hispanic White (t[171] = -2.02, p < .05, Cohen’s d = 0.31) participants. No other ethnic differences were revealed (all ps ns). Finally, the ANOVA revealed no significant Gender x Ethnicity interaction (F[3,668] = 1.70, p ns, ηp2 = 0.01). See Table 1 for means and standard deviations.

Table 1

Agapic Love Scores as a Function of Participant Gender and Ethnicity

Ethnicity Men
Women
Total
M SD M SD M SD
Latino/a 5.33 1.23 4.74 1.18 5.03a 1.24
Asian/Pacific Islander 5.31 0.83 5.13 1.01 5.23b 0.91
Non-Hispanic White 5.13 1.16 4.92 1.21 5.03c 1.19
African American 5.07 1.22 4.23 1.20 4.65abc 1.27

Note. Mean scores could range from 1 to 7, with higher scores indicating greater endorsement of this type of unconditional, self-giving love. Means that share a subscript in the same column are significantly different (t and p values are given in the text).

Discussion [TOP]

The ability and willingness to adopt an unconditional, other-oriented approach to loving a dating partner or spouse appears to have significant consequences for the interpersonal dynamics and outcomes of close romantic relationships (Fehr & Sprecher, 2013). The goal of the present investigation was to build on existing research by exploring potential demographic correlates of this type of love orientation in a large, multi-ethnic community sample. A number of interesting findings emerged.

First, the results revealed that agapic love was widely endorsed, with men and women in all ethnic groups scoring at or above average on the scale. This finding substantiates prior theoretical speculation about the existence and presumed importance of an unconditional, other-oriented variety of love (e.g., Berscheid, 2010; Lee, 1988; Sprecher & Fehr, 2005). The participants in this study clearly placed value on loving their partners in a selfless, fully accepting manner and emphasized attaining this ideal in their own romantic relationships.

Second, no age differences were found. Recall that earlier research failed to demonstrate a clear pattern with respect to the association between age and endorsement of an agapic love style (e.g., Butler et al., 1995; Lin & Huddleston-Casas, 2005). The results of this study suggest that loving agapically or unconditionally is not correlated with age. Of course, as young adults transition across developmental phases of their life history, their orientation toward love may change. This supposition would require longitudinal data that this correlational study does not provide. Moreover, although the use of a community sample ensured a wider age range (18 to 65 years) and older average age (23 years) than are typically found in most (usually college) participant samples, the majority of participants in this study were still relatively young, with approximately 60% falling in the 20-29 age range. Future longitudinal research is needed before we will have a clear understanding of the association between agapic love and chronological age.

Third, a gender difference was found. Gender differences generally were not found in research conducted during the 1980s (e.g., Hendrick & Hendrick, 1986; Hendrick et al., 1984), but have appeared in more recent years (e.g., Heaven et al., 2004; Neto & Pinto, 2003; Sprecher & Toro-Morn, 2002). The results of this investigation confirm that men, to a greater degree than women, adopt an unconditional, selfless orientation toward their romantic partners. What might explain this gender difference? Some researchers have found that men possess a more idealized vision of the nature of love and the characteristic features of romantic relationships than do women. For example, men are more likely than women to subscribe to the beliefs that true love endures forever and can conquer any and all obstacles; that their chosen partner not only will be a soul mate but also will be completely accepting, loving, and understanding; and that their romantic relationships will be meaningful, lasting, and “nearly perfect” (see Sprecher & Metts, 1989, 1999; Weaver & Ganong, 2004). Agape (as measured by the Love Attitudes Scale) also represents an idealistic vision of love, with items focused on self-sacrifice, unconditional acceptance of the partner, and ensuring the partner’s happiness at all costs. It thus makes sense that men, who are more likely than women to hold a romanticized vision of love relationships, would also more strongly endorse a style of love that incorporates self-sacrifice and unconditional acceptance as key elements of coupling. Of course, it must be acknowledged that the gender difference observed in this study was small, with men and women separated by only half a point on the scale and with both genders scoring above average (the scale midpoint).

Interestingly, agapic love scores also differed as a function of participant ethnicity, with African American participants reporting lower levels of agapic love than Latino/a, Asian/Pacific Islander, and non-Hispanic White participants. Although the paucity of previous research exploring ethnic differences in this type of love made it difficult to construct clear a priori hypotheses about the association between agape and ethnicity at the outset of the investigation, existing research conducted with multicultural samples does suggest a potential explanation for this particular finding. For example, Regan and Anguiano (2010) found that African American adults from a community sample reported lower levels of romanticism than did Asian/Pacific Islander adults; that is, they were less likely to subscribe to idealized beliefs about romantic love and romantic partnerships (such as the notion of love at first sight, the idea that true love lasts forever, and so forth). These differing beliefs about love and romance may explain why the African American men and women in this study (compared to those in the three other ethnic groups) were less likely to adopt an agapic orientation to love. It may be more difficult for an individual to adopt an unconditional and self-sacrificing orientation toward a romantic partner (and relationship) when one possesses a less idealized, more realistic understanding of how love and romance “work.” Naturally, this explanation is speculative at best, as information about participants’ romantic ideologies or belief systems was not collected and we cannot know with any certainty the underlying mechanisms producing the ethnic differences found among the participants in this study.

In sum, men and women from all ethnic groups generally reported adopting an unconditional and other-oriented approach toward their romantic partners and in their romantic relationships. As this style of loving appears to be linked with the health and well-being of intimate relationships, future research exploring additional demographic correlates as well as causal antecedents and outcomes is strongly encouraged.

Funding [TOP]

The author has no funding to report.

Competing Interests [TOP]

The author has declared that no competing interests exist.

Acknowledgments [TOP]

The author has no support to report.

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