This Is AuburnElectronic Theses and Dissertations

Love in a Family Context




Sabey, Allen

Type of Degree



Human Development and Family Studies


The desire to love and be loved is an innate need that motivates many of our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors across the entire lifespan. Despite the importance of love, it has only been a topic of serious psychological study over the last few decades, with much of this early work focusing on defining and conceptualizing love. To extend this inquiry to capture both the expression and course of love, this dissertation examined both parental love and compassionate love using qualitative and quantitative methodologies within two distinct samples of families. To capture the expression of parental love, we gathered examples from 58 happily-married, opposite-sex parents and their young children about how parental love was demonstrated and perceived within their parent-child relationship. Five themes of parental love were identified from examples provided through interviews with mothers, fathers, and children. The resultant themes primarily underscore the importance of spending time together and demonstrating affection. Children’s examples of parental love were similar to their parents’ and there were several gender differences in how parental love was demonstrated by parents and perceived by children. To explore how love developed later in life in the marital relationship, we assessed both self- and spouse-reported compassionate love and its predictors among 64 older married opposite-sex couples. Results revealed a modest decline in self-reported compassionate love for both husbands and wives over a year, and wives’ attachment avoidance emerged as the strongest predictor of compassionate love concurrently and over time. These studies assessed different forms of love within generally satisfied families to provide an important perspective on love as it is commonly experienced at different stages of life within these specific family contexts. As love and other positive family processes and experiences are often understudied, continuing research on love in a variety of family contexts is necessary to help families go beyond surviving to ultimately thriving.