What’s the real reason for couples use of baby talk?
“The very essence of romance is uncertainty”—Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest
“O flatter me, for love delights in praises”—Shakespeare, The Two Gentlemen of Verona
When you’re in love, nothing could make you happier than to feel more certain that your partner returns that love, to know that your inflamed—perhaps obsessive—feelings about the object of your desire are in fact reciprocal. If love does in fact “delight in praises,” it is through this flattery that both parties can be encouraged and reassured that their relationship is exceptional or extraordinary.
Sharing your feelings of enchantment with your beloved may be one of the most compelling emotional drives imaginable—at times, a need that’s simply overpowering. Popular songs talk about shouting out love from the rooftops, “globally” declaring how smitten one is with one’s beloved. Unashamedly, modern lovers have even hired planes to carry banners—or even sky write—their head-over-heels passion.
Here we might also want to explore how both the affectionately flattering language of romantic or passionate love—and its particular neurochemistry—can blissfully transport us back to the earliest joys and gratifications of childhood.
Consider the sappy terms of endearment below, which highlight not simply the wondrously captivating “baby talk” of love, but also its frequent allusions to childish sweets and delectables (especially pies!), primal rhymes, and baby animals, birds—and even insects:
- babe, baby, baby face, baby cakes, baby girl, doll, baby doll
- pet, pussycat, kitten [or (ahem!) sex kitten]
- buttercup, cookie face, cupcake, gumdrop
- cuddle bear, love bug, lovey-dovey, love muffin
- cutie, cutie pie, poopsy, toots, tootsie
- honey, honey bun, honey-bunny, snuggle bunny, honey pie
- puddin’, puddin’ pie, and pumpkin
- sugar, sugar daddy, sugar bun, sugar plum, sugar pie
- sweet, sweetie, sweetheart, sweet pea, sweetie pie
This is just a sampling of such regressive—or “cutesy”—language. Doubtless you could come up with several other equally tender, doting, or mushy expressions.
Why do we use them? In part, because the biochemistry of romantic partnerships replicates our earliest experiences of love and being loved by our parents. In fact, the same key neurotransmitters are involved in both scenarios:
- Dopamine activates the brain’s reward centers, so that an enamored couple is driven to spend as much time together as possible—as a mother is driven to be with her infant. Dopamine is released when a loving mother exhibits attachment behaviors with her baby and is linked to positive feelings of pleasure, excitement, and exhilaration; increased energy; and a heightened focus of attention.
- Phenylethylamine (or PEA) is the amphetamine-like chemical correlate of the physical and psychological connection between lovers. It’s the love chemical, and it induces the same euphoric feelings—or “rush”—that a mother (or possibly father) and child can have in each other’s close, alluring company.
- Oxytocin, the emotional attachment, or “bonding,” hormone, contributes further to the soothing, comforting, at times blissful feelings of intimate physical contact characteristic of both maternal and romantic love. Early in life, it’s released both during nursing and parent/child touching and hugging. In romantic partners, it’s triggered during orgasm. Additionally, when mother and baby are apart, they can each experience a powerful longing to re-unite—just as lovers can miss each other terribly even when separated for only brief periods.
Given the similarities, it’s hardly coincidental that romantic partners not only call one another “baby” but engage in some of the same “baby talk” parents employ when they talk to their actual babies.
Childhood—especially early childhood—is a time when the universal need to feel unconditionally accepted, cared and approved of, is paramount. As adults, it’s undeniable that in the glorious “heat” of a passionate attachment we get the most unreserved, criticism-free confirmation of our relational value. We feel fulfilled perhaps like never before—or at least not since infancy. And this gratification of our heart’s deepest desire to feel not just positively regarded but cherished and adored erases any and all anxiety about being abandoned—unquestionably, a child’s worst nightmare.
So how does flattery fit into this larger dynamic? Our infatuated nicknames and ingratiating compliments might be spontaneous—to the flatterer, in the moment they almost always feel spontaneous, anyway. But they can also be viewed as, however unconsciously, a major part of a lover’s strategy to persuade the one receiving such flattery to become as enamored with them as they are of their beloved. After all, they’re the ones responsible for giving the enamored object the rosy glow of feeling really, really special.
The broad assortment of fervid words expressing adulation, admiration, affection, appreciation, devotion, fondness, and downright reverence for our partners are instrumental in securing for ourselves the loving feelings we are so eager to put on verbal display. As was pointedly articulated in a book published over a century ago, “The lover sees, thinks, and feels only in superlatives” (Henry T. Finck, Romantic Love and PersonalBeauty, New York: Macmillan, 1887).
What do some of these enthusiastic superlatives sound like? Consider the following:
- I love hearing the sound of your voice!
- I never thought I could feel this way!
- I can’t stop thinking about you!
- You’re always in my heart!
- I can’t tell you what your love does to me!
- You’re so sexy! Nobody could ever turn me on the way you do!
- You are so precious to me!
- When we’re not together, I miss you so much it hurts! [a “withdrawal” symptom, perhaps?]
- To me, you’re the most beautiful [or handsome] woman [or man] in the world!
Note that such utterances aren’t simply “lines” phrased for seduction. They’re not crafted, contrived, or calculated to ensnare someone. They’re impulsive and unpremeditated, with no purpose other than to permit the speaker to emote what he or she (but more often he) is holding inside. Such declarations both relieve internal pressure and feel good to say, just as—assuming the feelings are mutual—they feel really good to hear.
Not that flattery can’t be overdone, or become overly saccharine or syrupy. But if the sentiment expressed is natural and authentic (no matter how cliche), it’s unlikely that it will be taken as spurious. And it will help assure the beloved that what’s “the real thing” for them is for you, too.
If this article in some way “spoke” to you, and you think it might to others as well, please consider sending them the link.
[Leon F. Sletzer]
Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D., holds doctorates in both English and Psychology. Formerly an English professor at Queens College (CUNY) and Cleveland State University, he now lives in Del Mar, California, where he has maintained a general private practice since 1986. With clinical specialties in anger, trauma resolution (EMDR), couples conflict, compulsive/addictive behaviors, and depression, he has also taught some 200 adult education workshops on these subjects. In addition, he has served as consultant to both corporations and publishers.
The author of The Vision of Melville and Conrad, he has also written numerous articles in the fields of literature and psychology. He is probably best known for his professional guide book Paradoxical Strategies in Psychotherapy, which describes a wide array of seemingly illogical therapeutic interventions. These powerful techniques can help therapists effectively resolve difficult individual and marital/family problems when more straightforward methods have proved unsuccessful.
An active blogger for Psychology Today, as of 1/1/15 his more than 250 posts–on a broad variety of psychological topics–have received over 8 million views.