Is Love a Spectrum?
Updated: Apr 3
Love is a big word with just four letters; we all use the word from time to time, to convey different things, because we are, in my view, disadvantaged in the English language (and other modern languages like German and French) to have just one word to use as a vehicle for several very different qualities of the human experience.
Here’s how it goes in English:
I love you
I love football
I love chocolate
I love that outfit your wearing!
I love my mother
I love my dog
We’ve been friends for years; we love each other
I am sure you get the point…and having just one word doesn’t encourage us to become aware of love at all, and I would posit that the short easy word “love”; “liebe”; “l’amour” used in so many ways, does more to obscure love than it does to reveal it.
Fortunately we can get help from other cultures.
The ancient Greeks had five words for love:
Eros: passionate love, with sensual desire and longing
Agape: spiritual love or ideal love; the love of the soul; the love of the Divine
Philia: a dispassionate virtuous love, which includes loyalty to friends, family and community
Storge: the natural affection a parent has for a child
Xenia: the love conveyed through hospitality, even between strangers newly acquainted, which was of prime importance in ancient Greek culture
In Buddhism, there are three main distinctions for love:
Kãma: pleasurable, sexual love
Karunã: the compassion and mercy that drives us to reduce the suffering we see in the world
Mettã: benevolent love; the unconditional love that comes through deep self-acceptance; it is a love without attachment that fosters unselfish interest in the welfare of others
Hinduism has a similar approach:
Kãma: pleasurable, sexual love, but can also refer to sensory enjoyment and aesthetic appreciation such as music, dance, and nature
Prema or Prem: elevated love similar to the idea of unconditional love
Bhakti: refers to the loving devotion to the Godhead and thus is a form of spiritual love
In China, Confucianism viewed love (Ren- benevolent love) as dutiful actions and correct etiquette in relationships such as respect for one’s parents or elders, the kindness from parents to their children, and the loyalty given to leaders. Later in reaction to the structured conditional nature of ‘benevolent love’, the philosopher Mozi (4th century BC) introduced the concept of ‘universal love’ that aimed to overcome the strict attachments to family and clan and evolve the notion of love to include caring for everyone equally.
In the modern approach to love, I miss the detail and clarity available in ancient cultures that used more than one word for love’s complexity, and in my self-realisation mentoring sessions I often notice how the teasing apart of the word 'love' into the distinct different qualities as outlined in this blog is often met with a sigh of relief, as if the smallness of the word used so indiscriminately, results in an unconscious stifling frustration.
But there’s more to the love issue than a lack of adequate words.
For example, the notion of “unconditional love” is problematic for most of us, simply because it is very hard to attain, and yet it is very tempting to use this term inaccurately. I have heard parents tell their children that they love them unconditionally, while simultaneously laying down conditions!
In intimate relationships, what do we mean when we say “I love you”? I surmise that without true self-reflection, most of us generally fumble for the right words to convey what we are really feeling, and leave it to the other to figure out what we mean.
Sometimes when I hear the words “I love you” spoken, I wonder if the real underlying meaning is more accurately “I need you”. How can we understand each other when we’re trying to stuff so much feeling into three rather ambiguous words?
How can the love of chocolate, clothes and other inanimate things compare to the life-changing heart-opening and healing love for another person, that hurts as much as it feels sublime?
Is merely telling ourselves “this is love!” ever going to help us understand what is really going on?
Love and Romanticism
I think romanticism has a lot to answer for. It’s an approach to love that now dominates the western culture. In a nutshell, it’s the notion of love as an ideal, that encourages us to believe that there is one special significant other somewhere out there in the world who is going to miraculously complete us. As if we are somehow inherently broken and in need of fixing. I grew up swimming in the social-environmental soup of romantic love, imbibing into my essence the idea that the only love that matters is that ‘one true love’. So unconscious is this idea, that it lurks in the substrate of relational expectations and poses a fundamental obstacle to happiness. It's not surprising because we are bombarded with this storyline in fairy tales, Hollywood movies, and pop songs all the time.
But romanticism is relatively new. Go a little further back in time, and long-term partnerships took place mostly through the institution of marriage, which was more of a business contract than it was about personal love. In Indian tradition, it is conventional for the parents to choose a suitable match for their children, not based on temporary infatuation but on other criteria such as financial status, social class and moral character. In the modern liberal view this is now antiquated, and not surprisingly, given that both men and women are no longer tied to family resources as a means to survive; we get by well enough living alone, free to love as we wish, for better or for worse.
These days there is an automatic assumption that we will marry only for love, but which kind of love do we mean? And there are challenges to the pursuit of ‘ideal love’ and the assumption that as individuals we have sufficient self-knowledge to know who we should love and settle down with. This is evidenced by the high divorce rate in recent years. It is also now very common for families to fracture somewhat, as daughters and sons assume the right to love as they wish, without any thought for the compatibility of future spouses (or long-term partners) with their existing family; in my personal life experience it is ever more common to see parents struggling to relate harmoniously with their sons or daughters-in-law; the old hierarchies have been overturned and now just as often as not there is at best a truce or worse ongoing veiled battle.
And the unquestioned impulsive pursuit of infatuation as love, sadly leads to marriages that don’t last, leaving many young children marked by the emotional trials of parents splitting up.
There is a larger context to consider before we cast judgement on love though. The world is in the midst of accelerating change. The information era enables us to be more connected than ever before, privy to a vast array of information to draw from, which allows for faster and greater cross-pollination of ideas and customs. For example, how does easy, near limitless access to online pornography affect our approach to love and sex? In 2016 the call for labiaplasty (a procedure to trim the vulva's inner lips) spiked by 39% and has been a rising trend ever since, thought to be connected to porn. In fact artist, Jamie Mc Cartney’s genital sculptures such as “The Great Wall of Vagina”, which comprise plaster casts of the genitals of 400 women, was a response to the recognition that women, much like men, worry about how they look and compare with others.
Although love and sex are not the same, they do influence each other. As non-heteronormative love relationships become more commonplace and are reflected more in the mainstream, how will our notions of love evolve?
And do we need to review our approach to love?
Canadian psychologist John Alan Lee observes six styles of modern-day love:
(words taken from both Greek and Latin)
Eros: passionate, physical and emotional love driven by the need to satisfy, and to create sexual contentment and security (often by an agreement to limit sexual activity with outsiders). It is a highly sensual, intense style of love, guided by instinct, “chemistry”, and romantic ideals. This is the prevalent assumption of love we have today. Erotic lovers idealize each other, are ecstatic as they share everything with each other, and are deeply pained when rejected, criticized or separated. Love of this kind relies on novelty, hormones, and sex in order to maintain bonding.
Ludus: from the Latin word ‘game’; Ludic lovers want to have as much fun as possible; they may tease, indulge and play harmless pranks on each other. Love itself can be seen as a game. As a result, there is limited depth, less commitment, and a higher propensity for infidelity and emotional power games.
Storge: Is the kind of love that grows slowly out of friendship and is based on similar interests, values, and beliefs. This is the kind of love experienced between siblings, spouses, cousins, parents, and children, and is often accompanied by loyalties, commitments and duties. On the occasion that this style of love emerges between non-related individuals, it does so over longer time periods, and often survives the ending of sexual intimacy, migrating into friendship.
Mania: manic lovers desire to hold their partner in high esteem, wanting to love and be loved as something special. This type of love tends to lead to obsessiveness; lovers of this kind speak of each other with possessives and superlatives, and notions of love are often conflated with ‘need’.
Agape: is the purist form of love based on an unbreakable commitment and unconditional selflessness that is all giving. Agapic lovers view their partners as blessings, and get more pleasure from giving in the relationship, than from receiving. Agape requires one to be forgiving, patient, understanding, and loyal.
Pragma: is practical love not necessarily derived from romantic love. Pragmatic lovers want to find value in their partners, and ultimately want to work with their partner to reach a common goal. Practicality and realism often contributes to the longevity of the relationship, as long as common goals and values are maintained. The emphasis within pragmatic relationships is on earning, affordability, child care, and can have a more business-like quality to contracts of energy exchange.
(note that the above six definitions can appear as combinations, often with one primary and one secondary)
I am hoping that after reading this far that you have become more self-reflective of the love, both past and present, in your own life. It seems to me that the oversimplification of love leads to an unnecessary ignorance that leaves us deficient in some fundamental way. How much opportunity for love are we missing simply because we are not open to it?
Should we learn to see infatuation for what it is, and enjoy it without the pressures of commitment?
Should we approach long term relationship propositions from a pragmatic stance and not just from an erotic orientation?
Oddly enough we do have words in English that could help the situation. We could use the term ‘infatuation’ in a more neutral and positive light than we do currently, to mean the type of attraction that may not last, but which can be pursued without the burden of commitment. Maybe to have a crush could be seen more joyfully rather than as weak and immature.
We could use the term ‘fond’ much more than we do these days. ‘I am fond of you’ instead of ‘I love you’ to mean friendship love. We could also revive the use of ‘affection’ to describe platonic forms of love, as 19th Century people used to do.
I can’t talk about love, without touching a little on the psychological concept of projection; a defense mechanism we subconsciously employ in order to cope with powerful feelings or emotions. In my view, it is a necessary strategy for the soul, whereby through projection we can distance ourselves from inherent psychological qualities we have difficulty owning and integrating, in order to make them more conscious. This doesn’t just apply to the darker qualities such as hatred, anger, and envy, but to elevated qualities as well. When two people come together through attraction as friends or lovers, there will almost always be a degree of projection.
The well known Jungian writer, Robert Johnson, makes this observation about falling in love: “To fall in love is to project the most noble and infinitely valuable part of one’s being onto another human being. … We have to say that the divinity we see in others is truly there, but we don’t have a right to see it until we have taken away our own projections. … Making this fine distinction is the most delicate and difficult task in life. “
Sometimes we fall in love with someone who is utterly wrong for us, and learn through experience that once our initial infatuation is over, our passion can very quickly turn into indifference or even dislike. We might wonder at some stage what we ever saw in them, and the question arises, whom or what are we really loving in those intense uplifting moments of infatuation, when we see or feel so much goodness and, for want of a better word, ‘light’ inside of another person?
Suffice to say however, until we learn how to withdraw our projections within a loving relationship, it is impossible to love someone for who they truly are, and as Robert Johnson writes, the art of owning our projections is a delicate and challenging task, that requires an ongoing commitment to self-knowing and self-fulfilment, sometimes referred to as individuation.
The idea of projection being an aspect of love is not new:
Ishq meaning Divine love is the emphasis of Sufism, which sees love as a projection of the essence of the Divine onto the universe. Plato proposed something similar about love: although eros may initially be felt for a person, with contemplation it becomes an appreciation of the beauty within a person, and may eventually become an impersonal love of beauty itself.
Sufism sees love as the Divine recognising itself in the mirror of reality; in this way the Divine is lover, loved and beloved. In Sufism, it is believed that through love human-kind can reconnect with its inherent purity and grace.
The Sufi poet Rumi captures this concept in this well known poem: