After Valentine’s Day

6 Shades of Love: What We Mean When We Say “I Love You”

Now that Valentine’s Day is over, it’s time to wake up and reflect on what those declarations of love really mean.

My psychoanalyst friend says that love is a strategy to fill the existential void of our lives. My brother thinks that we’re attracted to people who we think will make good babies. A professor once told me that love is really just sex.

There are so many different ways to think about romantic loving, and the science is not clear-cut. Romantic love is a complex web of lust, desire, passion, yearning, intimacy, among other things. Below are some of the dominant ways that we define romance in the Western world. 

  1. Love is…salvation – The ancient Greek philosopher Plato described love as merging. In Symposium, an ancient book about love, the character Aristophanes explains that people used to be round creatures with four arms, four legs and two faces. They attacked the gods and as punishment, Zeus cut them all in two. Since then, people have desired their other half and yearn to grow back into their original whole. This myth encouraged the idea of romantic loving as a union of two people, who in compensating for each other’s deficiencies together make a single entity. That there is only one other person capable of doing this fostered the idea that finding one’s other half would result in perfect happiness, making it a monogamous and eternal bond, as well as one that allows for complete disclosure to, and understanding of, one another. Many modern definitions of romantic love incorporate aspects of Aristophanes’ myth. For example, we talk about lovers being soul mates, uniting, creating a ‘we’, and finding ‘the one’. (Read Plato’s Symposium here.)
  2. Love is…passion – Love is an exhilarating rollercoaster ride. Physical attraction is intense, emotions run wild, and we form a deep connection. The problem is that passion fizzles. Think of the movie Take This Waltz, where Margot trades in companionship with Lou for the intense chemistry with Daniel, which also fizzles out after they tire of experimenting with an array of sexual fantasies. (Read about Sternberg’s triangular theory of love here.)
  3. Love is…wanting to have babies – Love tempts us towards those who seem to promise happiness and pleasure, but really it is a sick illusion that tricks us into propagating the human species. Well, that is what the philosopher Schopenhauer and evolutionary theorists think. They suggest that passion is really all about reproduction, and that intimacy serves to support the relationship and give offspring a better chance of surviving. (Read more about Schopenhauer here.)
  4. Love is…having a lot in common – Another view is that people fall in love because they have similar stories or experiences. The more differences there are in lovers’ stories, the greater the risk of frustration within their relationship. This view would suggest that opposites don’t attract.  (Read more about Sternberg’s Love is a Story here.)
  5. Love is…self-transcendence – When we fall in love, we learn from each other, we are exposed to things we never experienced before, and we meet new people and make new friends. So, loving is a way that we grow – by reaching out into the world beyond the situations that we find ourselves in. (More about this idea from Arthur Aron, whose 36 questions that lead to love went viral recently here.)
  6. Love is…friendship (if you’re lucky) – If lovers are lucky, fading passion evolves into a deep, meaningful, and lasting friendship, or simple companionship that saves lovers from feeling lonely. Either way, it makes up for less adventurous gymnastics in the bedroom. (Check out Jane Austen here – or wait for the movie with Kate Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny Love and Friendship, filming early 2015.)

Written by Dr. Skye Cleary, Ph.D., author of Existentialism and Romantic Love (Palgrave Macmillan, March 2015).

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