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Love & the Capacity to Love

written by Margaret Greenberg 14 February 2007

Margaret Greenberg, MAPP '06, is co-author of Profit from the Positive. After a 15-year career in corporate HR, she founded The Greenberg Group, an organizational effectiveness consulting practice, in 1997. Margaret specializes in coaching executives and their teams using a strengths-based approach. Full bio.

Margaret's solo articles are here and her articles with Senia Maymin are here.

02-14-07_margaret1.bmp There is but one topic to write about on this day…


Love and the Capacity to Love is one of the twenty-four character strengths identified in Peterson and Seligman’s book Character Strengths and VirtuesLove and the Capacity to Love is defined as “valuing close relations with others, in particular those in which sharing and caring are reciprocated; being close to people” (pg. 29).  Love and the Capacity to Love join Kindness and Social Intelligence to form what Peterson and Seligman call the humanity virtues – “interpersonal strengths that involve tending and befriending others” (pg. 29).  

Peterson and Seligman go on to identify the three prototypical forms of love: 

  • Child’s love for a parent
  • Parent’s love for a child
  • Romantic love

On this day, Valentine’s Day, we tend to think of this later type of love, but the researchers go on to explain, “Relationships can involve more than one type of love.  For example, best friends may love each other in both a child-parent and a parent-child way in the sense that each leans on as well as looks out for the other.  Relationships can involve different types of love at different points in time.  For example, people may gradually shift from a child-parent to parent-child form of love as they grow up, and their parents get older.  Relationships can begin with one type of love and acquire other types over time.  For example, dating couples may initially love each other only in a romantic way but eventually begin to love each other in child-parent and parent-child ways as well.  Mate relationships are unique in being the only social tie that encompasses all three forms of love” (pg. 304).

Peterson and Seligman go on to explain, “Humans have theorized about love and relationships for as long as they have theorized about anything.  Surprisingly, it has only been in the last 30 years or so that the methods of empirical science have been applied to the task of understanding and explaining love.  And for much of this time research proceeded along two separate pathways, with developmental psychologists investigating parent-child bonds and social psychologists studying adult romantic relationships.  Recently these two areas of inquiry began to merge, and the integration has thus far proved fruitful.  The capacity to love and be loved is now viewed as an innate, species-typical tendency that has powerful effects on psychological and physical health from infancy through old age.  It has also been established that this capacity can be affected in deep and lasting ways by early relationship experience” (pg. 305).   

I recently asked Chris Peterson if there were any new trends related to Love and the Capacity to Love from the VIA database (to determine the rank order of your character strengths, take the free VIA survey online).  Although he said there was nothing new, he has found that “Love not surprisingly is a robust correlate of life satisfaction – perhaps the chief one.”

Given that love can have such a profound impact on the quality of our lives, it’s not surprising that the topic often shows up in coaching conversations – even in corporate coaching engagements where career tends to be the primary focus.  The Wheel of Life exercise is one way to get the dialogue going.Wheel of Life

The Wheel of Life is a reflective exercise whereby the client takes stock of his life – his whole life – and how all the pieces fit together:  Career, Family/Friends, Finances, Personal Growth, Health, Fun/Recreation, Physical Environment, and let’s not forget Romance.  Here are the steps – give it a try:   

Step 1:  On a scale from 0 to 10 (0 = dismal; 10 = awesome), where you are today in each of the 8 categories.  Some clients express great joy when we get to the Romance slice of life, while others express deep sadness, especially when they are in a committed relationship, but the romance has faded.

Step 2:  Envision what a “10” would look like.

Step 3:  Develop some tangible next steps to create the life you want.  Much like setting goals for one’s career or finances — why not romance?

hearts for valentinesToday, on this most romantic of all days, I urge all of us to take one small step to create more romance or love in our lives.  Forget the commercialization of this holiday, and instead think about love from the three prototypical forms of love. 

You may be thinking “But I don’t have a lover in my life right now.”  To you I say, profess your love to a friend, parent, child, and/or grandparent. 

You may be thinking, “Romance?  What’s that?  We’ve been together for years now.”  To you I say, it’s the small stuff…the stuff that makes someone feel special —that really matters.  For example, actively/constructively responding to your mate’s good news with a heartfelt “You must be so proud!  Tell me more” rather than a perfunctory, “That’s nice dear” as you continue to read the newspaper or check email. 

Ok, I must admit I am no “love” expert, but Love and the Capacity to Love is my number one strength, and I have been happily married for nearly 23 years to a very special guy.    

As Jimmy Durante crooned decades ago:

Love is the answer,
Someone to love is the answer…

Make someone happy,
Make just one someone happy,
And you will be happy, too.

So what will you do today to make someone happy?

Happy Valentine's Day     




Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification.. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Whitworth, L., Kimsey-House, H. & Sandahl, P. (2007). Co-Active Coaching, 2nd Edition: New Skills for Coaching People Toward Success in Work and, Life, 2nd edition. Palo Alto, CA: Davies-Black Publishing. Contains the wheel of life exercise.

Big Heart of Art – 1000 Visual Mashups courtesy of qthomasbower

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Betsy Donahue 14 February 2007 - 1:58 pm

Margaret, thanks for directing me to this site! Excellent thoughts in your article! As a single-mom of one resently very heartbroken 23-year-old (who lives 120 miles away) and one delightful 10-year old, my heart is full of parent/child love. Today, I actually recieved conformation of my effort from my oldest daughter who e-mailed me this message after she recieved the flowers I sent to her …”Thank you so so so much…I was half dreading today, but you made it great! Who cares if I don’t have a boy to buy me flowers? At least I have a great family!” That was the best Valentine’s present she could have given to me!!!

Senia.com 14 February 2007 - 2:13 pm

Margaret, great article! And yes, many people think only of one kind of love. I really like the quotes you chose from Peterson and Seligman’s book. And I love how you showcased the Wheel of Life in this discussion. I’m a big fan of the exercises and games that exist as tools in positive psychology and in coaching – tools that let a person think more about himself and learn to understand himself more (like the Wheel of Life or taking the VIA). Thanks for highlighting this tool in your article! S.

Betsy, thanks for that story! That’s absolutely wonderful!

Debbie Swick 14 February 2007 - 2:42 pm

Dear Margaret,

Very appropriate for today! I was always intrigued by this character strength as it encompasses not only the capacity to love, but the capacity to BE loved.

C.S. Lewis wrote “The Four Loves” and it includes the Affection (storge) and Romance (Eros) referred to in Character Strengths and Virtues. It also includes Friendship (Philia) and Charity (Agape). The more the better!

Thanks for exemplifying this strength in so many ways.

Sherri Fisher 14 February 2007 - 7:32 pm

Hi, Margaret–

Thanks for writing about love. I am thinking about Philia-delphia :smile:and all of the friendships that were made there at MAPP last year and this one, too. Here’s to brotherly–and sisterly–love!

Margaret 15 February 2007 - 8:22 pm

Thank you ladies (hey, I’d love to hear from some of the guys out there) for commenting on the article and spreading your love! Betsy, I loved how you turned a potentially “dreadful” day into a bright one for your daughter –there’s nothing that will make a mother smile more than seeing her child smile. Senia/Debbie/Sherri — thank you for your friendship (“Philia” as Debbie shared). I still profess that the best part about MAPP was the people I met! And, yes, let’s not forget the capacity TO BE loved. Sending you all a BIG HUG! Margaret

Dana 16 February 2007 - 2:51 pm

Hi Margaret! I didn’t know that friendship-love is not a distinct prototype of love, but a combination of parent-child and child-parent love in Peterson and Seligman’s model…very interesting and timely article on love, from someone who is such a great model for the strength! Love, Dana

Dave Shearon 17 February 2007 - 12:39 am

Okaaay — can’t let the guys fall completely out on this one! Let me bring in another positive psychology researcher — Carol Dweck. Although I generally think of her in terms of theories of intelligence (http://daveshearon.typepad.com/daveshearon/2006/09/theories_of_int.html), her work on fixed vs. growth mindsets applies to relationships and romance, also. I one study, participants were asked about their worst romantic experience.

Some of the worst were often along the lines of “We had been together for 2 years and I thought things were good. Then I came home one day and found a note that he (she) couldn’t take it anymore. I haven’t seen him (her) since.” Some folks — those with a fixed view of relationships — never bounced back. They spent years hating the other person and wishing them ill. Others, those with a growth mindset about relationships, were also hurt and sad, but they took the view that they could learn from the experience and go on to a good, satisfying relationship. And many of them did.

Ultimately, the most positive thing about positive psychology is that it works. There are those who accuse positive psychology of putting too much pressure on folks to take some responsibility for how they live in the face of adversity. See, e.g., the recent Harper’s magazine column by Barbara Ehrenreich on “Pathologies of Hope.” Maybe so, maybe not. But, knowing what Dr. Dweck’s research found, which is the more caring, supportive act toward a friend who’s suffered a devastating romantic experience: to follow along and tacitly support his focus on hating the party that hurt him and wishing that person ill? Or to encourage him to believe in the possibility of his own growth that will lead to a satisfying relationship in the future? Each person has to make his own choices. And we can’t force folks to grow and judging and blaming our friends when they are hurting isn’t where we want to be. But if someone close to me had to go through such an experience, I’d want her friends to be with her in the pain, but to also encourage her to look up and see the possibility of her own growth and move toward a happier, more fulfilling future.

Jeff 19 February 2007 - 12:18 am

I read the Pathologies of Hope and found it unenlightening. PP is lumped in with Positivity Cults. All cultists here please raise your hands. Does that make Marty the high priest or what? The big kernel of truth is that there is a lot of victim blaming, but I don’t see that as part of the PP movement’s ideology. That’s just boorish behavior.

As for the love piece, I wonder if there is an optimal person-love fit, like the right amount with the right person in the right way. In the 60s there were communes and so forth. What kind of love is that or is that merely eroticism? What category is free love? How best might a person deploy their strength of love and are there ways to determine your specific love strengths? That’s something for Match.com to investigate or E-Harmony.com.

Sorry for the excessive questions…I guess I am a big fan of Socrates.:oops:

Jeff 19 February 2007 - 6:53 pm

Love, exciting and new
Come Aboard. We’re expecting you.
Love, life’s sweetest reward.
Let it flow, it floats back to you.

Love Boat soon will be making another run
The Love Boat promises something for everyone
Set a course for adventure,
Your mind on a new romance.

Love won’t hurt anymore
It’s an open smile on a friendly shore.

Love Boat soon will be making another run
The Love Boat promises something for everyone
Set a course for adventure,
Your mind on a new romance.

Love won’t hurt anymore
It’s an open smile on a friendly shore.
It’s the Love Boat-ah! It’s the Love Boat-ah!

Perhaps one of the worst shows ever made, but the lyrics are catchy, maybe even relevant to the Love theme.

Editor S.M. 20 February 2007 - 12:24 pm

Master-Reality.ru website has reprinted this article in Russian.
Here it is:

Ann Charbonneau 30 March 2007 - 11:23 am

Hi Mags – great article! You certainly “walk the talk” when it comes to this subject. Your vivacious enthusiam is contagious. You have the gift of focusing on the positive which inevitably leaves everyone you come in contact feeling love and warmth! Keep up the good work. Love, Ann

P.S. Have you read any of Leo Buscaglia’s books – I love them!

Peter 1 April 2011 - 5:57 pm


My number 1 strength of the test of Seligman was also love and the capicity to love. Strength 2. Learning, 3. Beauty en excellence, 4. creativity and 5. curiosity. (lowest strengths or weaknesses are self control en hope/optimis) Since a half year I have a wonderful relationship with my girlfriend, so in that case, the result of nr. 1 is not surprising. Remarkable is that I am much of my time struggling and not happy. This is because I am struggling with my current job , managing daily life and facing all the responsibilities en stress of the future ( i am not that optimistic). Two questions of the meaning of the capicity to love:

1. In what sense is love different than doing something for your neighbor or somebody passing by?
2. We should use our capacity in all aspect of life: relationship, work, bring up children. Love is of course useful in relationship en raising children….What do en how to work out the capacity of love in work? Especially in the sector of business, engineering, consultancy where I am working now….
I consider a carrier switch…so any idea’s/links for my question is welcome!

Kind regards,


p.s. sorry for my bad English, it’s not my nature language.

Margaret 4 April 2011 - 2:15 pm

Doing something for a neighbor or passserby as you say would fall into another strength in my mind: Kindness and Generosity. To me, the difference between this strength and Love & the Capacity to Be Loved is the depth and longevity of the relationship.

I do think you can apply your strength of Love to the workplace by asking yourself some questions: What would it be like if I really loved the people I work with? Would I treat them any differently? Would I be more compassionate when they were having a bad day?

As the Wheel of Life exercise points out, the 8 slices of your life all fit together,are interdependent, and can have a contagious effect – be it positive or negative. Sounds like you recognize how your career/work are impacting the other parts of your life. Good for you! Thanks for writing.


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