What Is Love? How To Tell
Updated December 17, 2018
Reviewer Ema Jones, LCSW
"If you love someone, set them free." -Richard Bach
"Love is patient; love is kind. It does not envy; it does not boast…It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails." -I Corinthians 13:4-8
"Love is friendship that has caught fire." -Ann Landers
"Love is a smoke and is made with the fume of sighs." -William Shakespeare
Love. It's a word that is probably used the most often and the most frequently misunderstood in the entire English language. It is something that eludes us constantly. But our souls crave it more than anything else, from our infancy all the way to old age. But despite our longing, do we even know what love really is? Our words and actions reveal a deep confusion about love. Sometimes we think it is something we give; other times, we just want to receive it. Sometimes, we treat love like a relationship that requires work and intention. Other times, we behave as if it's a fleeting emotion that we find by chance.
We use the word "love" to describe our feelings about pizza, our grandmother, and the cute boy we just met in the bookstore. We also use it to describe our intentions when making a lifetime commitment to a partner. How is it possible that one word can mean so many different things?
The answer is…it can't.
Our casual use of the word "love" reveals a deep misunderstanding of our emotions and intentions towards others. In making this word our umbrella term for every positive emotion we experience towards people or things in our lives, we have stripped it of any meaning.
No wonder we feel confused and empty. The truth is, it's hard to find something when you don't know exactly what it is you're looking for. In the words of countless songwriters and philosophers…what is love?
What is the true definition of love? Is there a love synonym that can make this all a bit clearer? Because it seems that once we have a love definition that really works, we might be that much closer to recognizing it when it is found.
Love's Many Names
Our language says a lot about the things that matter most to us. We've all heard the saying that Eskimos have 50 different words for snow because it is so important to their lives…and it's true. So why is it that in the English language we use just one word for so many different things that are important to us?
In fact, other languages have a variety of words for the many subtle shades and emotions that comprise what we think of as "love."
In the Yagan language, the word "Mamihlapinatapei" is used to describe a look that passes between two people who want to initiate something…but don't. The French use the term "douleurexquise" to describe the emotion of yearning for someone that you can't have. And in the Boro language of India, the word "onsra" is used to describe the experience of a love that you know won't last.
In English, we do not have words for any of these complex but poignant emotions and experiences. By not naming them, we deny their importance and lump them all together under one word.
We do have many synonyms for love: attraction, romance, attachment, affection. These synonyms for love all represent different experiences and feelings.
The ancient Greeks broke down the concept of love into seven different states:
- Storge(love for family)
- Philia (love for friends)
- Eros (sexual desire)
- Agape (divine love)
- Ludus (childish love)
- Pragma (love between married partners)
- Philautia (love of self)
This is a way to define love that can serve as a foundation for a deeper understanding of what love is.
Let's look at some of these types of love in more detail.
Lust And Attraction (Eros)
This is an intense, romantic desire for another person. On the most basic level, it is the primal urge that motivates humans to mate with other humans to keep the species alive.
Because of its primal nature, this may be the most selfish kind of love. The other person is perceived as an object, a thing that will satisfy this basic urge ingrained in us for survival.
It can be experienced simply as a passing sexual attraction or desire for another person. It can also be much more intense, resulting in possessive energy focused on the other person. When Eros is this strong, you might think about the other person constantly, long to be in his/her presence all the time and even have trouble sleeping or eating.
Because of its intensity, though, Eros does not last long and often burns itself out in six months to a year. There is the possibility of time for Eros to develop into a more lasting, less selfish form of love. However, this requires intentionality on the part of both people. At that point, it is no longer Eros but another type of love, which we'll discuss next.
Unfortunately, when people do not understand the different kinds of love, they may often mistake Eros for something else. This can lead to painful misunderstandings.
Long-Term Commitment (Pragma)
There is a point at which the erotic and maddening desire of Eros may evolve from fleeting urge to intentional partnership. Here, we decide that we will not simply give in to the urge to procreate…but will also form a team to raise a family together.
While there is an element of selfish survival instinct in this kind of love too, it holds more sacrifice and commitment than does Eros.This kind of love is not a fleeting emotion to be discovered, experienced, and cast aside. Rather, it is a practice, something you work at over time, like learning to play an instrument or speak a language.
The confusion about different kinds of love leads us to wrongly believe that we no longer love someone when Eros fades away to be replaced by Pragma. It's important to be mindful of these different states of love and to be clear about what it is we truly want.
Playful Enjoyment (Ludus)
When you are enjoying your favorite TV show, playing a game with good friends, or eating a delicious chocolatey dessert, you may experience deep feelings of enjoyment. At these moments, you might declare something like: "I love eclairs!" or "I love this game!" And you truly mean it.
This is the love that we felt as a child enjoying a popsicle on a sunny day at the beach. Such feelings of pleasure and joy are a big part of what makes life worth living, and we spend a good part of our lives chasing those feelings.
These feelings should not be confused with the feelings of attachment or affection that we have for the people who share those times with us.
Affection For Family And Friends (Storge and Philia)
The love of our family gives us both roots and wings. Parental love is crucial for our development. Infants who were deprived of it struggle with its absence for their entire lifespan. The love of our mothers and fathers and the way it filters through to siblings truly gives us the foundation for every other kind of love that we experience.
Later in life, we give that same love to our children, willingly sacrificing our own needs to keep our family unit going.
Of almost equal importance is friendship. Although this relationship is often neglected, especially as we get older, friendship provides valuable protection against loneliness. Friends offer us a shoulder to cry on when we're sad and someone to laugh with when we're happy. We can rely on friends at every stage of our lifespan, often when other types of love fail. If you're feeling the absence of love in your life, it may be time to reinvest some of your energy in the wonderful and underestimated power of Philia love.
A Divine State Of Being (Agape)
This is the highest, purest form of love. It is the most difficult to achieve…and possibly the kind we long for the most. This is the only kind of love that completely transcends the self. It is complete goodwill towards others with no expectation of receiving anything in return. This is the kind of love that is attributed to God, or to any kind of divine entity. It is rare and almost impossible for humans to show this kind of love…however, it can happen.
We see examples of Agape love in the lives of great spiritual leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Jesus Christ. If you joyfully give yourself to a helping profession such as social work or teaching, or if you have found pleasure in volunteering at a soup kitchen or homeless shelter, then you have probably felt the glimmerings of that rare Agape love.
So if you are searching for love and still feel empty, the answer may be simpler than you think. You may just need to fine-tune your definition. Sometimes you simply need to find another word for love to determine what truly might be missing.