Motivation and love: What motivates us when it comes to love


Our motives can influence how we feel about our intimate relationship, how trusting we are of our partner and even what we hope to gain from them. This means that understanding what drives our relationships can help us to understand our partner and how we respond to them. Understanding this can therefore help foster long-lasting and mutually satisfying relationships. In this post, Pink Families examines the links between motivation and love.

Types of motivation: Intrinsic, extrinsic and instrumental motivation

Motivation is often thought of in two ways.

Intrinsic motivation involves scenarios where one gains rewards from a task, or in this case, the relationship itself. The relationship might give us feelings of love or satisfaction, for example.

In contrast, extrinsic motivation involves gaining rewards that are not inherent to the relationship – that is, gaining something else because of the relationship. For example, the relationship might give us access to certain services, goods, money, information and status. Dating a celebrity may help access money and status. Dating someone popular may help access a new network of friends. In essence, the relationship is a vehicle to something else.

A study conducted in the 1980s (by Seligman, Fazio and Zanna) examined the ways in which the different types of motivation were associated with love. The researchers found that those who joined the relationship because of extrinsic factors scored lower on love toward their partner.

This finding perhaps isn’t terribly surprising. But there is another piece of the motivation puzzle when it comes to relationships. This other piece is called instrumental motivation.

Instrumental motivation

Instrumental motivation is about the rewards that partners provide for each other. Instrumental motives relate to expectations and assessments of what we might get back from our partner. It involve thinking about what we get back from our relationship and whether this is enough in comparison to what we have invested.

Some people weigh up the benefits and losses of their relationship quite consciously. Others may not realize they even do this. Others may not do this at all.

Is instrumental motivation different from intrinsic motivation?

Yes, instrumental motivation is different to intrinsic motivation.

Intrinsic motivation is about the satisfaction inherent to the relationship itself. Intrinsic motivation does not focus on the shared benefits.

What this means for our relationships

Research has begun to explore the links between these different types of motivation and love. One study found that when it comes to love, love was higher in relationships for those who were intrinsically motivated and lowest for extrinsically motivated partnerships. Instrumentally motivated relationships scored in the middle when it came to love.

Also, people were more likely to have faith that their relationship would endure when the relationship was valued for itself (intrinsic motives) and when their partner’s qualities were valued (instrumental motives).

This means that you may experience more love when you are in a relationship that is valuable to you in and of itself, rather than for what it can give you. Also, if you are with a partner that has qualities that are appealing to you, you may believe that the relationship will endure.


Looking at our motives when it comes to love may help us gain insight into our relationship. It can help shape our relationships, regardless of whether we are in a committed relationship, in a civil union or married. Thinking beyond the intrinsic versus extrinsic divide may be helpful, and finding a rewarding relationship with a partner who has qualities that you value may help the relationship grow and endure.

Reference list

Rempel JK. Holmes JG. Zanna MP. Trust in Close Relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 1985;49(1):95-112.

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2 Replies to “Motivation and love: What motivates us when it comes to love”

  1. shelia from down under says:

    I like this type of stuff, psychology related articles. More of this please.

    1. Thanks for the feedback. We appreciate the suggestion and will be releasing more of these kind of articles soon. Stay tuned!

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