The ACT Definition of Love: A Valued Action

Editor’s Note: This is the first in an installment about the definition of love from an ACT perpsective, drawn from the recently released ACT and RFT in Relationships: Helping Clients Deepen Intimacy and Maintain Healthy Commitments Using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Relational Frame Theory.

Romantic love is a meaningful experience for countless human beings. It can bring great joy, but it can also bring immense pain and suffering. Given the importance of love for so many people, it behooves us to understand it to the greatest extent possible, in both its positive and its negative aspects. In their recently released guide, ACT and RFT in Relationships: Helping Clients Deepen Intimacy and Maintain Healthy Commitments Using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Relational Frame Theory, ACT heavyweights JoAnne Dahl, PhD, Ian Steward, PhD, Robyn Walser, PhD, Christopher Martell, PhD, and Jonathan Kaplan, PhD, get to the heart of things with their introductory explanation of love in its various incarnations.

The conventional view of romantic love is that it’s an emotional experience. This view has become prevalent throughout the world, and is especially well established in modern Western society. In many cultures, love in this sense has become the predominant reason for people to establish long-term, committed relationships, rather than duty or social standing.

Psychological research to date has also typically focused on the emotional aspects of love, which are sometimes conflated with cognitions and behaviors. Given that the field of psychology has been dominated by a focus on love as an emotion, we propose a different perspective. From the vantage point of modern behavioral analysis, and more specifically relational frame theory (RFT) and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), we suggest that to consider love as valued action offers a novel perspective, one that can lead to vibrant and fulfilling relationships.

Across the ages, the subject of romantic love has been pondered and treated by philosophers, poets, songwriters, novelists, artists, and spiritual figures. In modern times, romantic love is celebrated in literature, music, visual art, and film, and it provides fodder for most daytime dramas and talk shows. However, it has only recently come under scrutiny within contemporary psychology.

In 1975, Elaine Hatfield, an early researcher on love, achieved notoriety when her federally funded study on the role of equity in romantic relationships was awarded the satirical “Golden Fleece Award,” created by US Senator William Proxmire of Wisconsin to denote a waste of taxpayers’ money. Proxmire publicly lambasted Hatfield’s work, arguing that it was not appropriate to study love scientifically, and many people supported his view on romantic, religious, and financial grounds (Hatfield, 2006). Yet, despite its inauspicious reception by some critics, research on love has continued and grown.

Stay tuned for next week’s post as we go further into the history of love and examine Hatfield and Walster’s (1978) two types of romantic love: passionate love, and companionate love.


Hatfield, E., & Rapson, R. L. (2006). Passionate love, sexual desire, and mate selection: Cross-cultural and historical perspectives. In E. Hatfield & R. L. Rapson (Eds.), Close relationships: Functions, formsand processes (pp. 227–243). Hove, England: Psychology Press/Taylor & Francis (UK).

Hatfield, E., & Walster, G. W. (1978). A new look at love: A revealing report on the most elusive of all emotions. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.

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