What Is Love?

February 4, 2014

Love is a very complex word.  It is used all the time – and is one of the most researched key words on the internet – but what does “love” actually mean, and why do we only have one word for so many different feelings?

Love can be beautiful.  It can warm your heart and make life worth living.  Loving without reciprocation can also be that catalyst that sends you spiraling into gloom and misery.  Love can be thrown to the wind, hoping it lands somewhere great.  Or, it can be kept close to your heart and only let out to peek at the open sky every now and again. We all share and receive love in our own unique way.

There are many types of love: Parents’ love for their children; the love of a father for the mother of his children; the love of a child for his or her parents; grandparent love; lusty, sexy love; the love of a man and woman who are celebrating a half-century of marital union; and, love for many of our pets, neighbors, friends and co-workers.love

How is it that, in the English language, there is only one word used to describe this wide panoply of feelings?  Is it the relative sameness of the physiology of love (i.e. the totality of the chemicals, electrical impulses, and other physical effects brought about by love (or is it vice versa ?)) that strands us with only one word for so many different modes of the feeling ‘love”? It seems absurd and probably could use a redo.

It has not always been this way.  Way back in the days of the ancients (mostly ancient Greece), all the various emotions that our culture now labels as “love” were not categorized under a one-word umbrella.  Instead, they had several variations on this theme, including:

  • Philia a deep, but usually non-sexual intimacy between close friends and family members, or as a deep bond forged by soldiers as they fought alongside each other in battle.
  • Ludusa playful affection found in fooling around or flirting.
  • Pragmathe mature love that develops over a long period of time between long-term couples and involves actively practicing goodwill, commitment, compromise and understanding.
  • Agape – a more generalized love, which is not about exclusivity, but about love for all of humanity. Agape was used for the love in a “spiritual” sense.  This love is selfless; it gives and expects nothing in return.  (Agape was used by early Christians to express the unconditional love of God.)
  • Philautia – self-love, which isn’t as selfish as it sounds. As Aristotle discovered, and as any psychotherapist will tell you, in order to care for others you need to be able to care about yourself.
  • Storge – which means “affection” in ancient and modern Greek. It is natural affection, like that felt by parents for offspring.
  • Eros – used for sexual passion and desire. Eros does not appreciate the balance of logic and is found everywhere there is a claim of “love at first sight”.  Unless eros morphs into another brand of love, eros will burn itself out.  In other words, eros is a love for a short-term only.

We all have the basic human need to experience love in its myriad forms as both the giver and the receiver.  What so many people seem to miss, however, is that experiencing the various forms of love is best accomplished by having loving relationships (not necessarily love of the romantic brand!) outside of your spouse and children (if you have any).

I have seen over the years that this “putting all your love in one basket” approach can be devastating when your spouse disappoints you with his or her lack of love-skills. This is why friends, extended family and community are so important.  External relationships (to be distinguished from tawdry affairs!), which are built on the types of love that are not necessarily strong within the marriage due to personalities, emotional limitations, and even time constraints, help to balance the marital relationship by taking the pressure off the spouses to be their partner’s “everything”.

As the famous psychologist Erich Fromm wrote in his classic book, The Art of Loving (1956):

“. . . love is not merely a feeling but is also actions, and that in fact, the “feeling” of love is superficial in comparison to one’s commitment to love via a series of loving actions over time.” 

Fromm also described love as a conscious choice that, in its early stages, might originate as an involuntary feeling, but which then later no longer depends on those feelings, but rather depends only on conscious commitment.  This is the transference of “eros” to some of the other forms of love that were so artfully referred to by our predecessors as unique and often independent forms of love.

Love is something that you cannot have too much of – especially considering the wide variety of loving feelings that we are able to experience as human beings. Also, there are different times in our lives when different types of love will be dominant, while others recede (often temporarily) into the background. There are shifts, too, in our capacity, willingness and desire to love and be loved as we have children, get older, find ourselves going through divorce, form new relationships, rekindle old relationships, change our outlook, engage in therapy, and make determinations to forge new, loving relationships when there may have been a previous void.

“Love,” said Erich Fromm, “is the only satisfactory answer to the problem of human existence.”   Go for it.

And now, a musical interlude:

Posted by Robin Graine, JD, Virginia Supreme Court Certified Mediator

This blog and its materials have been prepared by Graine Mediation for informational purposes only and are not intended to be, are not, and should not be regarded as, legal advice.  This information is not intended to create, and receipt of it does not constitute, an attorney-client relationship.  Internet subscribers and online readers should not act upon this information without seeking professional counsel.

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