Note: this was originally published on Medium, since I'm putting a bunch of other related posts here I thought it best to migrate the original as well.

For over a decade now I’ve had a concept milling around my head that has been subtly influencing my behaviours. Perhaps formulating a Theory of Love is not something you’d expect coming from a a university student studying macroeconomics and drawing too many AD-AS curves, but its staying power and adaptability has continued to surprise me over the years and in the spirit of Tyler Cowen’s advice on writing a book I felt like I had to get this out of my system.

In essence the concept dwells on identifying causal components of the feeling of love, assessing how their relationship to love maps on a two-dimensional plane, and then assessing their movement over time in a way to allow myself to make more optimised decisions in relation to love experienced. Like all good data-nerds I love a good XY plot, and applying their power to the concept of love itself has been a fun, enlightening and rewarding exercise.

Initially I developed this framework based on my own strong internal preferences toward the remembering self, expressing “love experienced” as the Area-Under-Curve for a chart expressing love felt over time. A notable effect of this is the overwhelming impact over time of shared experiences as the primary actionable component of love.


Love in a given relationship over time

Note: all charts included in this piece were fabricated in Microsoft Word, badly. I could have scripted up something in Python to draw nicer pictures, but this would not have accurately captured my (much more visual) thought process.

I recall seeing a curve like this (sans AuC) on a webcomic like XKCD or SMBC around 2004–2005, but when I went looking for it years later I was unable to find it. That one basic diagram gave me a foundation for everything that follows, and helped inform my relationship decisions greatly. So whoever made it, thanks!


Choosing a definition of love

Articulating the concept of love is, to be honest, too difficult a job for me to try to fully explore. The cop out way to express what is love would be to say “you know it when you feel it”, but as evidenced by numerous works of art over the ages, this is really bad advice (the most pertinent example to come to mind is Romeo & Juliet). Instead I will simply say it is a feeling of calming happiness triggered by the emotional presence of an entity.

This helps keep the concept distinct from lust (something more like an ‘energising desire’), allows for love of many different types (love of sexual partner, love of platonic friendship, love of family, love of land or inanimate objects, etc) and allows for the feeling of love to be felt even in the physical absence of the object of affection (e.g. remembering a loved one who has died). This could probably be mapped to PANA or some other emotional framework somehow, but I found these were overly limiting or not meeting my personal interpretation when I tried (note: I didn’t try very hard).

In choosing this definition I am certainly missing something about love. Hopefully by laying this out others can help me improve my methods by improving my target.

With all that said the only time I have personally made use of this framework in decision making has been in the context of a romantic partner, the other uses have generally been personal musings on my appreciation of friends and children.

Components of love

The following is a list of key elements I have found to influence my perception of love at any given point in time:

  • Shared experiences
  • Perception of reciprocal love
  • Physical attractiveness
  • Intellect
  • Non-sexual physical contact
  • Alignment of morals
  • Complementarity (partner’s capability in areas of your own personal deficiency)
  • Frequency of creation of joy
  • Frequency of creation of emotional harm
  • Gross amount of resentment

I acknowledge that this is not a comprehensive list, nor are all the items on this list statistically independent. E.g. for some Physical contact is a key determinant of Perception of reciprocal love, intellect may have bearing on the capacity to create more frequent moments of joy, Frequency of creation of joy/resentment will typically overlap with Shared experiences, etc. But overall, I’m hoping this overlap is not too significant and love felt at a point in time will be the sum of the outputs from the relationship between love and these components as explored in the following subsections.

It is at this point that distinguishing “Love” as a sense of calming happiness from other forms of happiness or desire also becomes apparent: joy is an energised feeling of happiness, and yet the connection made through this energy can also create by products of removing stress and thus introducing calm, especially in the “remembering self”.

I also admit that I have been quite lazy in identifying attributes which erode love and have clear negative correlations by distilling these into the last two items. However, this does not mean that the relationship between love and all the other items on the list are strictly positive. An important note for the plots that will follow is that this is my own personal mapping of these relationships, they are not in any way some kind of universal representation. Love is personal (though I am curious how others would draw them).

Shared Experiences

In my personal definition, a shared experience is something as simple as an event that creates an anecdote which may be recalled later. The length of this anecdote does not matter; it could be something as short as a 1 sentence quote from a TV show, a 5-minute story you like to share at parties or a fact like ‘I have run 10km’. The relationship itself starts out fairly linear but starts to reach saturation as the human memory can only retain so much information. It is possible for some people that the curve may even start to trend down after a certain point where they feel that they are “spending too much time together”, however this may be a by-product of the increased opportunities to create emotional harm. This reflection may mean I should split out another component of “time spent together” but disentangling that from shared experiences is too tricky for the amount of effort I’m already going to here.

What the above chart fails to capture is that the more similar you and your counterparty’s experience is, the more powerful it is. E.g. If I watched Strong Bad as a teenager but my partner just watched it last week the “shared experience” won’t have the same impact as if we had both watched it at the same stage in our development. Experiences directly shared with one another are the most powerful in this way: simply watching a TV show together on the couch means you are both experiencing almost exactly the same thing and creating an almost perfectly aligned shared experience (internal commentary and the distance of a few centimeters notwithstanding). Similarly, more emotionally resonant/memorable experiences will be more powerful.

The beauty of this item is that it will naturally increase over time as the length of a relationship extends. It can get a jump start by tapping into similarities of experience, sure, but the effects of these are substantially smaller compared to experiences shared in physical and temporal proximity with a partner.

Many “economic” takes on love and relationships like to frame these shared experiences as “sunk costs” to be discarded when looking prospectively. This is to the detriment of the remembering self who can enjoy a feeling of love from many more triggers in the world, with a wider variety of recollections than could be had with a new partner. However, the diminishing marginal utility is a key factor here: the longer your prospective time-frame, the less relative time will be spent in the “ramp up” of shared experiences and the lower their overall importance.

I speculate that individuals with a higher focus on the “experiencing” rather than “remembering” self will see this factor have a lower weight in their own feelings of love.

Perception of Reciprocal Love

I may need to work on the above shape a little, but in general it gets at the point that as one feels more loved, the more love they are likely to feel in response, up to a point after which it starts to become creepy and uncomfortable.

Physical Attractiveness

The basic concept here when looking at love between people is to aim a little higher than your own position in the range. If you’re a 6 on a 0–10 attractiveness scale, you’re going to be happy with a 4–8, but if it’s above 8 its going to start seeming a bit fishy.

But why does physical attractiveness matter at all if sex doesn’t, especially if we aren’t limiting ourselves to romantic partners? Consistent with the premise of love being a “calming happiness”, aesthetics (especially familiar ones) can trigger the same emotional response, and when coupled with all the other components of love this effect can be quite profound.

I don’t think the same negative marginal love after a point applies to non-human objects such as love for dogs, artwork, land, etc. Based on the connoisseur market I could see an argument that the line for non-human objects of love would not decrease in marginal utility at all, and maybe actually increases exponentially, but as stated in the introduction to this section, this is my chart.


Similar to physical attractiveness, with Intellect ideally you will find someone who is able to challenge you slightly but primarily you are optimising for an ability to “be on the same wavelength”. Too smart and you will feel alienated and talked down to, not smart enough and you will feel exasperated and unable to connect when you cannot articulate a concept in a way that is understandable to the object of your affection.

Caveat: some people will have a preference where the peak of the intellect curve is below their own believed level of intellect, because they get an additional sense of satisfaction in sharing knowledge/teaching (or potentially just some smug sense of superiority). Affection for children is a special case as well.

Non-sexual physical contact

In general, what I am trying to express in the above curve is an outright rejection of physicality (e.g. refusing to even handshake, or only handshake when it would be typically expected to hug) can be detrimental to love, while being overly affectionate can be negative (a hug from my 4-year old or him laying on top of me on the couch watching TV is an excellent loving experience, but it quickly becomes exasperating if he becomes too needy).

The use of a ratio on the x-axis allows for the curve to be tailored to specific relationships (friends, family, partners). My intuition is that the Y-axis would have different responses based on these categories (love of a partner would respond significantly more to finding the optimal physical contact balance than that of a platonic friend). I would expect the peak of the curve to be at a 1 on the x-axis, but I could also be swayed for it to be slightly to the right of this because the occasional unanticipated hug/pat on the back/kiss can be beneficial.

I specify “non-sexual” here because in my mind sex itself is addressed through Shared experiences, Creation of joy and Perception of reciprocity in the positive, and through Frequency of emotional harm (where being rejected from sexual advances is emotionally painful) and Gross feelings of resentment in the negative.

This disentangles sex from love and allows this exploration of love to be broader in encapsulating platonic and familial love. I can see counter arguments about sexual love being a special case bonus addition to overall love, with friends and family simply getting a zero for this input, but the passion and intensity of sex just don’t fit the mould here, and it also just brings in a whole heap of other icky questions and confounders.

Moral Alignment

Moral alignment and shared values are another way of “being on the same wavelength” as a loved one however the benefits do have a limit. Alignment can also avoid some traps in being drawn into conflicts over items believed to fundamentally be part of your identity and increasing the chance of heightened levels of emotional harm.

When you have no conception of the counterparty’s morals, the effect is zero. As moral beliefs become contrary there can be a negative impact on overall love, but this is not to say the effect would overwhelm positive sentiment from all the other drivers. I have this as linear as I don’t see a strong argument for diminishing utility, but it will definitely be bounded (just how many moral beliefs can you hold?).

Complementarity (there has to be a better word for this)

This one is a bit weird. The further left on the x-axis you are, the more similar you are to your loved one, which is good in the “wavelength” sense mentioned above, as well as the ability to empathise with struggles. Being better at just a couple of things may diminish this while also breeding some level of envy, while being better at many things can be exceedingly beneficial in “making up for each other’s flaws” or simply “being a great team”.

Because the x-axis being expressed as a percentage there is a hard limit on the overall benefits in this space. Every move up the curve is going to be progressively more difficult. This means returns to love start to decrease again at the higher end as you start to resent just how damn good your partner is at everything you suck at, or realise just how flawed you yourself are as they make up for your own flaws again and again. Surely those flaws should be almost impossible for someone to be good at! At the very top end this flattens out as it enters the realm of child-like dependence.

Frequency of creation of joy

This curve only tapers off because I can’t be laughing all the damn time, sometimes there needs to be space in life for Serious Business(TM). However, I don’t see a need for it to have negative marginal returns at the higher end, as the efforts to create joyous experiences would no longer actually be joyous, just futile efforts only successful in generating annoyance.

Frequency of creation of emotional harm

The choice to have a slight positive effect just above zero in this chart is reflective of the tendency for minor, quickly forgiven annoyance which comes as part of challenging each other to grow intellectually/emotionally/etc. But no mistake, the effect quickly becomes negative as emotional harm generates increasing resentment.

I’m not sure how this applies to those who are stuck in an abusive relationship (e.g. Act 2 of this episode of This American Life) as I could be talked into there being some kind of limit to the negative love generated, but I just don’t believe it — something else that is clearly not love is keeping them there.

I’m also aware of the catch phrase “treat ’em mean, keep ’em keen” but I think that’s bullshit.

Gross amount of resentment

Feeling resentment is bad.

Getting to Love Experienced

I’ve been a bit cheeky in not actually putting any scale on the X or y-axes of the above charts, because actually putting hard numbers onto something like love just feels… wrong. Hell, even writing out my internal logic in this whole screed has felt a bit iffy.

So, for the purposes of the exercise I’m going to continue to avoid numbers and instead talk through how I would expect the sum of the above components to change over time. This gets to an AuC and thus “Love Experienced” in a given relationship based on the premise outlined in the introduction.

Factors which naturally change over time

Note the word “natural” — I’m only concerned with things which will change with no intentional additional effort over time, as a) that makes my calculations harder, and b) the effects of such intentional effort will become self-evident as a result of exploring the base case anyway. I’ll touch a bit on making decisions regarding extra effort in the last section. If I wanted to be super objective and stick to this premise, I would model the below assuming your relationship with a literal rock, but I’ll try and be realistic and assume some dynamism from the counter party.

  • Shared experiences — Increases in line with the curve as the length of the relationship extends. Potentially this may have some erosion at the far end of the tail as you start to forget earlier shared experiences, but this should be made up by a continual inflow of new experiences.
  • Perception of reciprocal love — Constant-ish. Movement mirrors your own level of “love” as you are better able to read the other person. This ends up acting as an amplifier on movement in the overall curve from the baseline so it’s not worth calling out.
  • Physical attractiveness — Constant, potentially declines. After an initially high level of importance, the “novelty” of your partner’s physical appearance is eroded as a result of habituation/hedonic adaptation. Once this effect wears out the change over time flattens as you age along with your loved one (you may think you’re going to be a silver fox, but you aren’t fooling anyone).
  • Intellect — Constant. I base this on IQs being relatively stable over time, and any degradation as a result of senility, etc. is expected to be in line with the other party (not that these expectations are reliable!). Special case: love of children would increase over time up to a point.
  • Non-sexual physical contact — Wiggles around a bit at the start of a relationship as you are figuring out what is appropriate, then settles relatively quickly. Assume constant after this point because this is tied to a ratio: while levels in desired physical contact change (you may be less interested as you get older) as long as your loved one is continuing to adjust their own behaviours in response, the net effect stays the same.
  • Alignment of morals — Slight increase over time as you tend to become a reflection of those around you, so parts of your morals will naturally drift into alignment.
  • Complementarity (partner’s capability in areas of your own personal deficiency) — Constant
  • Frequency of creation of joy — Constant. while there would be a slight increase at the beginning of a relationship as the other is better able to determine what makes you happy, this effect is negated by the decreases over time from things losing their novelty.
  • Frequency of creation of emotional harm — Constant. Realistically I’d expect an increase at the beginning as people reveal what’s behind the façade, but this is counter-acted by a certain level of resilience developed over time.
  • Gross amount of resentment — quickly grows over time if above zero. Has a limit of what you can actually remember, but look at the chart again and see how rapidly it accelerates in the negative, the relationship should be terminated well before saturation point.

Love over time

From the above, it becomes clear that:

  • A positive relationship will start at a given point, wobble around a bit as you get a feel for each other and then increase over time akin to a log-curve, driven by the accumulation of shared experiences, assuming it hasn’t been overwhelmed by emotional harm and resentment.
  • Negative relationships will quickly nosedive as a result of the strong impact of resentment and you’ll want to exit fast.
  • Relationships where things start out well, but the frequency of emotional pain is slightly too high. This situation sees love grow in the early stages, then be overwhelmed by resentment as time progresses and the negative memories pile up — what I’ll term as a train wreck. This is where I can really see an argument for people making objectively bad decisions to stay with their partner on the basis of sunk costs (but I’m sceptical on just how prevalent sunk costs are).

This generates the basic outlooks below:

[Note: I know how to fix the shading, part of me just enjoys that the train wreck diagram is itself a train wreck.]

Making Decisions

Choosing between romantic partners

Assume at time 0 you enter a monogamous relationship with Alice, which is looking relatively positive, but you are not yet fully committed and still “keeping an eye out” on the dating market. At time 1, you find Bianca who is a better “fit” according to the criteria outlined in “Components of Love”, i.e. they are more attractive [within bounds], have better aligned morals, share some childhood experiences with you, etc.

You’re in a dilemma: Bianca may seem better for you, but by switching now you are very much losing out on love! By using the framework outlined in this model it becomes apparent that for some length of time you will be experiencing less love than you would otherwise enjoy. The key is that in the long-term the benefits of switching partners must outweigh these short-term sacrifices. Getting tripped up on the sunk cost would be making your decision including all the “love experienced” so far in your relationship with A, the AuC between t=0 and t=1, but even looking prospectively there is certainly an element of loss in the situation.

If you’re looking for a lifelong partner, then the choice to switch to Bianca becomes much more reasonable. This presents a conundrum: if you’re willing to switch now that kind of indicates you would be willing to switch again if Cassie came along who is an even better fit, this would limit your upside and may make the choice net negative. But if based on this you choose to stay with Alice, you will continue along Alice’s curve and by the time Cassie comes around the love lost may outweigh the love gained. The longer you’re with a partner the less likely you are to switch. How willing to commit are you?

On the other hand, if you’re newly entering the dating market and still trying to figure out your preferences, perhaps you don’t think you would be dating Bianca for very long anyway, so switching is not worth it right now. Similar reasoning applies if you have a clear end point that would likely end any relationship you had at the time: you’re moving overseas, are a secret agent going on your next mission, etc.

In the same vein, you might think you would stop dating Alice soon (they might being “keeping their eye out” as well), which gives you an enormous amount of net positive “love experienced” from switching to Bianca, as seen in the rough model above. There are many variations on this theme (what if you thought Bianca would leave you sooner than Alice, etc.) but hopefully the basic principles are becoming apparent.

Assume you are monogamous and have no partner, at time 0 you are weighing up a second date between Annie and Brie. You presently have more love for Brie (more attractive, etc. etc.), but know they have a really busy schedule and would be likely to have less time to spend together were you to commit to a long-term relationship than Annie. Because Brie will move more slowly along the “Shared Experiences” curve than Annie, it is entirely possible that making the choice of partner Annie is the right move in the long-term.

It’s also entirely possible that Brie is still the right choice! It’s important not to get stuck on “what you see is all there is” here: that additional free time could allow you to invest in other non-romantic relationships to make up for the missing love, or maybe you would happily trade it for the utility of time alone reading or making more money or etc.

If you’re really thinking long term, you’re probably going to be losing a good chunk of time to create new shared experiences if you choose to have kids; you’ll be investing that time into making shared experiences with your children instead. Also note that none of this section factors in other costs such as shame, etc. associated with switching/choosing between partners; this will likely have quite a big impact on your decision making!

I was originally going to include personal experiences for each of these subsections, but to be honest just thinking conceptually has been a lot more fun for this one.

Having patience

Having a child was really hard for the first few years, like, really hard. I believe the words I used to describe it to a friend were along the lines of “for the first 3 years I fucking hated it”. Zero intellect, zero perception of reciprocal love, zero moral alignment, zero shared experiences* and high frequency of emotional harm: it’s rough.

But, but! In the time since the transformation in the love I feel has been astonishing. Being able forge shared experiences by enjoying some of my own childhood pleasures (Pokémon) or even more recent hobbies (watching video game speedruns) or teaching math has moved my “love over time” relationship firmly into the positive. Also, you can’t hold on to resentments against children, so the emotional harms don’t stack up nearly as quickly as in adult relationships and are very quickly forgotten and/or reframed.

For the first 18 months I had a friend who would often ask me “are you in the black?” and at the time it was distressing that I felt nowhere near it (I have detailed the key points of the experience in an appendix). It was a sense of duty that was keeping me going, not love. Taking the long-term view on the relationship I now strongly believe the ROI is there, there are just serious costs that need to be paid up front. This view helps a lot with having patience.

Tangential side note: at the time I relied a lot on stoicism as a philosophy to get me through, which emphasises acceptance of the way of the universe and controlling your reactions to the demands of the present. It helped a little, but I’ve found that tweaking the stoic view and instead of just “letting go of the present” I instead imagine myself in 5 years’ time remembering back on the present, that helps a lot more than Epictetus’ guidance of basically just killing off your emotions. Admittedly, when I was in my early 20s “imagining myself in 5 years’ time” seemed like an impossible task given 5 years prior to that I was a teenager and that was a completely alien world, so projecting myself forward was difficult, but as I approached my 30s this became a lot easier to do.

*I maintain that this stays at zero because it is partly dependent on your own mental model of your loved one’s ability to recollect those shared experiences. There’s a lot of talk about how smart babies are etc. but based on my experience I’m pretty dubious on any level of memory of events existing for the first couple of years. Memory of people? Sure. Memory of events? No.

Taking actions to increase love

The above was a pretty fun analysis of making decisions in-situ or assessing relationships by effectively creating a net present value (I’m not going to bother figuring out how discounting could work into this). But what about making decisions to improve the love in an existing relationship?

Below are some quick thoughts on each component, and where you should put your focus.

  • Shared experiences — This is what I see generally as the biggest opportunity. Even small investments in this area can add up over time as the result of an additional shared experience created has an almost permanent increase in your future love experienced. Not bad for just making time to watch a new show on the couch together.
  • Perception of reciprocal love — Not huge gains to be had here unless you’re really getting it wrong. I’ve been recommended to read “The Five Love Languages” with your partner to help in this area but haven’t found myself with a pressing need to do so.
  • Physical attractiveness — Beauty is largely natural, so again not huge gains to be had here. Dress to match your partner so your relative position on the attractiveness curves remains consistent. If you really want to dress up because you want to boost your own self-esteem, encourage your partner to do the same.
  • Intellect — You’re going to struggle to move this one so investment for love’s sake is probably not worth it. Accumulation of knowledge can make up for deficiency in intelligence, so if you are feeling a bit too low on the “Intellect” scale relative to your partner it may be worth your time learning some of the things they’re interested in so the gap is less obvious (side benefit: a great way to learn is to discuss, and discussions with your partner on these topics also creates shared experiences!)
  • Non-sexual physical contact — Recognise when circumstances change and ask yourself a few times a year if you’re getting it right. Easy to drop off in a romantic relationship after children. In a situation like a pandemic this is going to take a hit so you probably should have some broad awareness of it, don’t just take it for granted that you used to hug your friend and assume that’s still okay.
  • Alignment of morals — It seems really hard to deliberately shift someone’s morals, so investment here is probably not worth any thought. It’s entirely possible that by being overly enthusiastic on this front you will actually generate resentment from your partner (dragging them along to church or something) which could backfire quite unpleasantly!
  • Complementarity — Probably not huge gains to be had here once you’re in your 30s, maybe something for your 20s? If your partner is making up for too many of your own flaws, maybe you should spend some time on self-improvement.
  • Frequency of creation of joy — Big opportunity here to be deliberate on this front. Requires more thought and effort than creating shared experiences, but the payoffs could potentially be worth it. Teaching your partner to make you happy more often would be very difficult to achieve, however.
  • Frequency of creation of emotional harm — If things aren’t getting better after you have made it clear to your partner that they are hurting you; this should be a strong indicator to get out early. The wrong move would be to tell yourself to “toughen up” and believe you can just stop feeling hurt. Sure, some level of resilience may be trainable, but this should be done at the very left end of the curve where the impacts of this item are still neutral if not positive.
  • Gross amount of resentment — Assuming you are not willing to leave the relationship or have no reason to believe resentment will keep accumulating, perhaps the best bang for buck on improving love (even better than creating shared experience) is forgiveness. Having been in this situation myself, even figuring out “what is forgiveness” can seem incredibly daunting. Should I just forget the painful memories inflicted? Is forgiveness just some words you say? My own answer to this was being able to remove the pain from those memories when I recalled them, part of this was by rebuilding trust by creating new positive shared experiences after the painful event, part of it was understanding the perspective on the other person’s side of the interaction, part of it was simply time (and here is where the “imagining myself in 5 years’ time” trick helped). By dulling the emotional response to those memories, while still engaging with them, my gross amount of resentment reduced and the love experienced has recovered (not fully, some level of resentment is really hard to let go, but I’m working on it).

Pretty much, the big areas to target in a positive relationship are creating new shared experiences while in relationships which are on the rocks but have some hope of salvation, working on forgiveness is going to be the most important task.

Expanding on the principles

Limits on Love

Looking at most of the charts so far you might get the impression that love can keep on growing forever. Alas, all things must come to an end, including relationships. As touched on earlier in the “Switching without long-term commitment” chart, this could be due to being part of an active dating scene or being early in your career and needing to move around a lot. But even if you aren’t in these situations, the further out you project, the less certainty there is that your partner won’t tip over into creating a significant amount of resentment or some other exogenous factor breaks you apart. And then of course there is the spectre of inevitable doom: Death.

The way to factor this into the Love-Time relationship is as an accelerating drag, pulling the curve to zero over time as the chances of something going wrong accumulate. Even in the most committed of relationships with absolute trust will trend down as you or your partner reach the unfortunate position of having a 100% chance of being dead.

The interesting part of this phenomena is how this drag on your future expectations of love changes over time.

A subtle outcome of the analysis so far is that the longer you are in a loving relationship, the less likely you are to choose to substitute out of that relationship. There are a couple of drivers here:

  • Increasing switching costs — as your “Shared Experiences” build up over time and you move “up” the love-time curve, your potential “love lost” increases for a given new partner, making switching less appealing. This is further compounded by there being less time left in your life to “make up” for this lost love (as explored above in “choosing between partners”), and cognitive biases such as the endowment effect and loss aversion would also play a role; and
  • Reduced uncertainty — as you get to know the other party in the relationship, your mental model of them becomes more accurate. This combines with the point above to essentially say “if you were going to break up, you would have done it already” based on your expected future value. If you didn’t know your partner had a particular dealbreaker quality when you first met (say, they’re anti-vax, not interested in having children, or secretly two kids wearing a trenchcoat), the chances that you haven’t discovered that fact after a year is much lower than if you haven’t figured it out in the first week.

Gradually the curve will shift from having an endpoint where it is reasonable to plan ahead 1–2 years, to one similar to the “best-case long-term view” presented above.

This means that the longer you spend in a relationship, the more your total estimated love from that relationship will be:

But you shouldn’t be looking at the “Total Estimated Love” because then you will be including all the sunk costs! What you should be looking at, especially when comparing potential partners, is the future estimated love experienced. As to how that looks and how that interacts with your own mortality, I’m not entirely sure, though I expect it will end up looking quite similar to the Total Estimated Love Experienced chart while under age 40.

To be honest, while somewhat morbid I actually think I was a bit too romantic in this section writing on the basis of “till death do us part”. I struggle to plan 5 years ahead and I certainly know many who struggle to plan 6 months ahead! This drastically shortens the window for assessing future expected love, and if I set an arbitrary cut-off on the curve for heuristic decision making it could play out that switching is more appealing. I suspect that this dynamic is much stronger for those who have more of a preference for the “experiencing self” over the “remembering self”.

Speculation: Altruism

I am nowhere near confident on this area, but I have a pet theory that altruistic acts are motivated in by love, and that perceiving “shared experiences” in fundamentally different ways (e.g. qualia/consciousness as the definitive shared experience) allows some to love others more equally and prioritise efforts to assist others accordingly.

The above diagram shows example curves for two people for what could be assumed for their “baseline” love for any given stranger they should meet. Person 1 has a relatively low (still positive I will note!) starting point in any given relationship, with time spent in that relationship continuing to increase over time as explored earlier. Person 2 starts with a much higher starting point for love, as a result of being able to see the fact that a given stranger is alive and shares the truly defining experience of being conscious. While over the course of an average relationship they may not rate further bonding time as “meaningful” as person 1 would, they are much more likely to be generous to strangers.

Of course, person 3 could start at the same point as person 2 and see the same gains as person 1, different people have different capacities for love. Some are able to extend this to loving animals (projecting the experience of consciousness) and beyond. Love of nature and supporting altruism for “the planet” doesn’t really seem to fit this neatly: some deep seated belief in animism or potentially preserving nature as a potential for shared experience with others could be explanations, but it still feels like the model falls short on this front (e.g. how does it work for human extinction advocates?).

This of course does not mean that the decision to be altruistic is purely driven by “who I love more”, but is a combination of love plus some other factors (one that is heavily weighted for me is “perceived need”, perhaps linked to probability of reciprocal love?). The above chart shows a comparison of love curves between family and expected average for new, unrelated connections. Family gets a boost to start with (shared genetics = shared experience? Or just put it down to the instinct to procreate) and also has a steeper curve for gains in love over time as you are both more likely to spend time together, and for that time to be potentially more meaningful.

The same could also apply for expected love for those in the same church, of fellow country members, etc. which would boost each group’s respective chance of being the recipients of altruism, independent of need or other factors.

This chart compares love of strangers and love of family between 2 people. Given the much smaller gap between family & strangers for Person 2 the theory holds that they would be more likely to donate to effective altruism causes (even if Person 1 is more loving overall).

I can’t help my brain toying with this idea since my wife is capable of so much more love than me, and yet I find it really easy to see charity as something that gives me utility (I am personally interested in humanitarian effective altruism) whereas her own priorities are much more family driven.

In terms of application to the effective altruism community: Can appreciation of others’ consciousness and qualia be taught? Maybe, but it seems a lot harder to me than investing money behind just flying millionaires to impoverished places, giving them a shared experience as a booster to their love for those who have greater addressable “needs”.


As a guy who often wonders just how far along the autism spectrum I am, I’m no expert on love. But also, as a guy whose first serious romantic relationship at age 17 turned into an ongoing, supportive marriage at age 32 I’d like to think that while I certainly got lucky — I also made good decisions. Looking around at age 20 during university and recognising that the probabilities were sure as hell against my first serious girlfriend becoming a good wife, I used the framework above in the “choosing between partners” to assess the dating market at the time and over and over again I reaffirmed that there was no one better for me. That sounds incredibly unromantic, but in my mind that makes the relationship even more powerful than someone who is just along for the ride (I’ll note that well before the time I proposed I had stopped “assessing the dating market” based on the incredibly low probability of finding a more ideal match).

Working through the overall framework in this manner has allowed me to assess opportunities to prospectively further improve my relationship with my wife, son, parents and friends, and I can really see now that I should be making efforts to reduce my solo reading time at night while my wife watches TV in bed, and encourage her out to the couch to indulge in something together. While I may lose some personal “self-development” utility, I think the gains in my utility from overall “love experienced” are worth the tradeoff.

The “Expanding on the principles” section opens a number of questions and there may even be some data in existence which could potentially validate parts of the hypothesis (e.g. I’m sure there is data out there giving the probability of divorce for a couple who are newly married vs married for X years). The speculation on altruism would be hard to support with hard evidence, but I’d be interested to hear opinions on it out of intellectual curiosity.

See further reflections on parental love on Cartesian Coordinates in this appendix

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6 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 1:39 PM

>Having been in this situation myself, even figuring out “what is forgiveness” can seem incredibly daunting. Should I just forget the painful memories inflicted? Is forgiveness just some words you say? My own answer to this was being able to remove the pain from those memories when I recalled them, part of this was by rebuilding trust by creating new positive shared experiences after the painful event

I think that for some people, past emotional events are much more salient and enduring for others. Personally, I think I might have a very high discount-factor-for-past-emotions, such that I get over things quite quickly. It's not that things aren't upsetting at the time they happen, but the affective charge drains quickly -- usually minutes to hours; anything longer is very very rare for me; where as I've had friends/acquaintances who've mentioned things that happened months or years ago with deep emotional upset. 

I think it's possible that my emotional-discount factor wasn't always this high. It's possible that this may be a result of mediation, or just a side effect of getting older.

What I am confident about is that doing loving-kindess meditation after an upsetting event, particularly if I incorporate the person who upset me, can be extremely effective at drawing out the affective charge from an event. 

Loving-kindess meditation is almost a scarily powerful technique for bumping mood up. 

I'm pretty sure love has nothing to do with altruism. I rarely feel love for anyone or anything, but I'm vegan because I don't want to support the harm of animals, and I want to dedicate my life to effective altruism because it seems like the only sensible thing to do. I don't even like animals, but their welfare is important to me. Similarly, I don't like most humans either, but I similarly care about their welfare.

Thanks for the input, a lot of this writing is figuring out what love is to me. Where I ended up was that to care for someone or something else's welfare is to love them/it and then using love as a basis for allocating resources at my disposal (I ended up going down a rabbit hole on this one). 

I found this to be a more comprehensive model and truer to my experience of love than the way I've seen it commonly referred to in media where it is almost a mind trap of 'obsessive thoughts' about another (much like lust but not necessarily tied to sex).

And as another example, I'm a female who's love gets staggeringly strong sometimes, maybe like the author's wife, yet I still want to support effective altruism rather than giving to relatives impulsively. I have a male friend with some autism traits and probably lower love feelings, who's not at all interested in effective altruism, but gives generous impulsive gifts to people he knows. So I really don't know if there's a correlation between love and altruism, and if there if, in which direction.

Thanks, that's interesting. One point I'm trying to work through is the importance of salience/ability to imagine others - i.e. is your 'autistic-traits friend' simply not able to hold a salient picture of people/animals outside of their social circle. 

So while their gap between 'any given person' and 'person I actually know' is minimal; they simply are not able to imagine 'an abstract person' so their love of people outside their social circle is zero. Similarly, if someone in their social circle moves away or something, that person is no longer salient and is effectively excluded from all considerations of love (until the friend is prompted to think of them). 

Conversely: since you are thinking about effective altruism, the potential recipients are salient to you rather than 'out-of-sight, out-of-mind'.

To fit it into the 'factors' I consider above, 'shared-experiences' are all forgotten and set to zero.

This is good world-modeling.