In the famous song from 1955, “What is the Thing Called Love,” the legendary American singer, Frank Sinatra, asks: “What is this thing called love? This funny thing called love? Just who can solve its mystery?” While we all want to understand what love is, we remain confused because there is not one single, unanimously agreed upon, clear definition for love.
The dictionary definition of love does not adequately explain love’s true meaning because it mostly emphasizes either the romantic dimensions or the sexual ones such as “strong affection felt for another; affection and tenderness felt by lovers, and attraction based on sexual desire.” The books on the subject of love also don’t deal with the definition of love.
Furthermore, we frequently use the word “love” to describe our intense feelings for both inanimate and animate objects such as cars, food, countries, and music, among others, as well as the special people in our life, adding to the confusion about its meaning. The lack of a clear definition of the word “love” and the sloppy way we use the word to mean pretty much everything has cloaked it in mystery. This is why we often find it difficult to define what we mean when we use the word “love.”
Furthermore, the portrayal of love as the stuff of fantasy and romance, especially in popular culture, and reinforcing the message that one can find perfect love in a romantic relationship, which will lead to happily ever after, is a myth that many of us are guilty of believing.
While this kind of mythical conception of love may be delightful to think about, the reality is often quite different because real love is often beset with challenges from which we grow to become more fully ourselves. Experts on the subject of love point out that this kind of portrayal of love as fantasy and romance has led countless generations of people to have unrealistic expectations about love.
The meaning of the word “love,” particularly in the English language, becomes even more confusing when we describe someone in love as “fallen in love” as if love were something like water that collects in pools, rivers, and lakes. So, one can “fall” into it or avoid falling into it by walking around it.
According to Thomas Merton, renowned Trappist monk, when we refer to someone in love as “fallen” in love, we shift the responsibility from one’s own will to something that is like a “cosmic force like gravitation.” In other words, when you “fall” in love, you lose control; you fall and there’s a strong chance that you may get hurt from the fall.
For experts who have written extensively on love, love is an act of will, which involves both an intention and action. According to M. Scott Peck, author of the classic self-help book, The Road Less Traveled, love implies a choice: “We do not have to love. We choose to love.”
Since love involves a choice that has to be made, this perspective counters the view that love is something that one falls into because one has no control over her/his movement. Similarly, in the oft quoted book, The Art of Loving, Erich Fromm tells us that love is an “activity, not a passive affect; it is a ‘standing in,’ and not a ‘falling for.’”
There are many who regard love in romantic terms due to the constant reinforcement from popular culture, but “real” love actually means something quite different and quite profound. According to Fromm, love is “the active concern for the life and growth of that which we love.”
Echoing the definition of Fromm, Peck defines love as: “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own and another’s spiritual growth.” When Peck uses the word “spiritual,” he is referring to that dimension of our core being where mind, body and spirit are fused into one.
Real love is all about giving and is not about receiving. Fromm believes that “in the act of giving lies the expression of [our] aliveness.” Merton also reminds us that in giving “we become fully human. In this process of giving to the other, we share our creativity, mutual care, and spiritual concern.” Similarly, according to the feminist scholar, Bell Hooks, “giving is the way we also learn how to receive…. Giving is also healing to the spirit.”
Love, as experts envision it, contains several important elements without which the very idea of love would be missing. Some of these elements include: care, responsibility, respect, honesty, commitment, and open communication.
As defined in the dictionary, the word “care” is “making provisions for the health, welfare, maintenance, and protection” of the loved person. When care for the loved one is missing, there is no love. Responsibility implies the willingness and ability to effectively respond to the needs, expressed and unexpressed, of the loved person.
Respect involves accepting and appreciating the uniqueness of the other person. When you try to change the loved one to suit your expectations, it is not respect. As for honesty, truth telling is at the heart of any kind of loving relationship. If we want love to last and grow, truth and honesty must be practised all the time.
All the experts have highlighted and affirmed the importance of commitment in love. For example, in The Road Less Traveled, Peck writes: “Whether it be shallow or not, commitment is the foundation, the bedrock of any genuinely loving relationship.”
For Peck, both discipline and devotion are necessary to have a strong, committed relationship. It is this kind of deep commitment that compels us to look for the interest of the other because we are committed to their well-being. The final element that must be present in love’s path is open communication.
Open communication is characterized by honesty, respect, mutuality, and empathy. Love involves engaging in authentic dialogue with the loved one where there is welfare of the loved one, the enhancement of her/his fulfillment and continued sustenance, and profound respect for their potential.
In such a dialogue, we must remember that listening plays a critical role. Writing on the importance of listening, Hooks reminds us that listening does not simply imply we hear other voices when they speak to us but that “we also learn to listen to the voice of our own hearts as well as inner voices.”
Due to an overemphasis on the romantic dimensions of love in popular culture, many of us think that love is only about romance, forgetting that there are many other ways to love, not all of which are consistent or consonant with romantic love. There are at least seven types of love discussed below, which are based on the western notion of love.
1. Agape: Agape is love for all human beings. It is the kind of love the Bible speaks of when it says love thy neighbour as thyself. It is characterized by lack of exclusiveness, which is a major feature in erotic love.
2. Eros: This is primarily sexual or passionate love, which is probably the most akin to our modern concept of romantic love. This is by its very nature exclusive and not universal like agapic love.
3. Storge: It is an affectionate kind of love that is usually found between parents and their children. This kind of love is based on caring and nurturing.
4. Philia: This is love that is found in friendship. Aristotle believed that friendships based on goodness are associated not only with mutual benefit but also with companionship, dependability, and trust.
5. Ludus: This is uncommitted love, which can involve teasing, overt flirting, and seducing. The focus is on fun with no strings attached.
6. Pragma: This is a kind of practical love founded on reason or duty and one’s long-term interests. In pragma, romance takes a back seat in favour of personal qualities and shared goals.
7. Philautia: This is self-love, which can be healthy or unhealthy. Unhealthy self-love is narcissistic, which gives an inflated sense of one’s status, abilities, or accomplishments. On the other hand, healthy self-love is good for one’s self-concept. Experts on loving relationships tell us that we need to love ourselves first before we can love others.
It is clear that love is has many facets; it is multidimensional and complex in nature. This is why it is critically important that we broaden our understanding of love and how it works in order to be more successful in our loving relationships, which, in turn, will provide us with a map to guide us on a more fulfilling journey to love.
(To be concluded)
The writer is Professor of Communication Studies at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles