What is “love” anyway? By defining it’s components, could we gain insight into both our own needs, and into our ability to feed the souls of others (metaphorically speaking, of course, since we skeptics might argue that souls don’t exist)?

It’s been said that that the English language attempts to cram into a single word—love—disparate concepts that have been granted far better treatment in other languages. I don’t know if it’s true, but some say that other languages have as many as sixteen words for this magical, meaningful, torturous “L-word.” That makes sense, in that we English-speaking people tend to be efficient, perhaps too efficient in our lack of linguistic nuance; we just go ahead and call everything “love,” even though there may well be better words for what we’re trying to describe. Nonetheless, since Perspectives is about the softer side of skepticism, and since skeptics too, love and live, struggle and grow, I wanted to take a shot at defining this word that some of us toss about so liberally.

Rather than be skewed by what others may have written, it seemed appropriate to forgo the research upfront on this topic, and brainstorm my own list of definitions.

A thought experiment

 As you read through the results of my little exercise, consider a little thought experiment. Think of someone whom you love. As you read each type of love, see to what degree that type of love applies to the person of whom you are thinking. You might even use a simple scale of one-to-ten to rate how well that type of love applies to that person. Here we go:

1. Romantic Love—is often the first definition we think of. Let’s call it hot “mojo,” that longing, distracting, and powerful elixir with a potential sexual element, and likely a good dose of fear and/or mystery (see my last podcast with Stephan Coontz, author of Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage).

2. Lust Love—is pretty well understood to most of us as well. Some might argue that this is not a form of love at all, but that’s another debate for another day. This is that deep wanting, needing, definitely sexual kind of hungry “love.”

3. Respect Love—is admiration love. I love James Randi and Robert M. Price, because through my familiarity with their work, who they are, and what they stand for, they impresses me so greatly. Combined with other types of love, I certainly also love my wife in this way. These are people we look up to and care for because of who they are in their core, and/or how those character traits have been put into actions and behaviors.

4. Affection Love—I don’t love James Randi this way, but I do love my dog this way. I see affection love similar to how we feel toward those people whose cheeks you just want to squeeze, or people with whom you want to cuddle. This is a non-sexual form of loving attraction, based more on cuteness than hotness.

5. Faith and Hope Love—is a tougher form for me, since I don’t much admire faith like I used to, and false hope holds some serious concern for me. Nonetheless, life without hope would be brutal indeed, so I’m including it. Perhaps this could be described as love of a dream, or even the state of being in love with someone, something, or a concept, where earthly reciprocity need not be present—being in love with a fantasy, for instance. Perhaps another example would be the love one feels toward an object of faith, such as loving one’s god. (We once did some work for a woman who recorded what could only be described as euphoric love-making dissertations directed toward her god. Sweet woman, but the quasi-erotic nature of the recordings was borderline creepy. That was “faith love” to an extreme.)

6. Affinity Love—is love that is marked by sympathy, empathy or common interests. We might love our biking culture and buddies, our drinking buddies, or our church friends—based first and foremost on our shared affinity. We may also love that act or activity behind our affinity: “I love flying airplanes.”

7. Love of Inanimate Objects—is what I call love of food, deserts, cars, weather, nature, or even aesthetics and beauty: “I love sunsets and solar eclipses.”

8. Adolescent Love—is what some call puppy love. Frankly, this is here because my wife walked in during the brainstorm session and suggested it be here. Truth be told, I never liked the discounting nature of this term, as if by virtue of their age the love kids feel is any different than all the other kinds of love. I would argue this is not a distinct type of love, and that kids might feel many kinds of love more strongly, as the emotions are new and unexpected.

9. Parent/Child Love—is that powerful, instinctive, sacrificial, selfless, gutturally deep investment that comes with raising children, and the reciprocal, evolutionarily-driven emotion a child holds for his/her parents. It may combine with other types of love as well. I can tell you that until I had kids, I had no idea how unique and powerful this form of love could be.

10. Caring Love—is genuine, sympathetic caring for the welfare of another; professionals such as hospice workers display huge capacities for caring love. It too, is beautiful in its selflessness, and is probably only possible with people who have found their way to the higher levels of Maslow’s hierarchy. Some of the greatest people seem to care about others, without selfish motive. (I know what some of you are thinking: “It’s all self interest”; but let’s leave that for another day). This type of love is the Greek Philia (φιλία philia), which Aristotle promoted as virtuous and loyal love.

11. Love of Achievements—might be akin to admiration love, or a sub-category thereof, but many people seem to admire victory or accomplishment of any sorts, be it in sports, actions, other behaviors, or rituals.

12. Comfort Love—is what I call the attraction we have to the familiar. As Dan Ariely explains in his book Predictable Irrationality, ownership (extrapolated by me to familiarity), breeds a certain bias and preference that is not fully understood. We come to much prefer what we have and are comfortable with. I would argue that is especially true of relationships that we “own,” as those people come to know us as we are; less energy needs to be expended in the social traditions designed to impress; and we feel much more accepted and comfortable—which translates to our love of them and being with them.

13. Friend/Trusting Love—is the love we have for those whom we can share, trust, confide in, tell anything, keep secrets, and feel a sense of mutual support.

14. Long-term Marriage Love—is another form that twenty years ago I would have dramatically underestimated in terms of its power. I don’t know fully how to explain it, but it is the result of a huge investment of time, energy, and effort. This is the type of love that replaces romantic love over time; it is what the old and wise folks say can develop in a marriage after the flames have cooled, the kids have worn you out, the body fails, and gravity takes its toll. At least in my world, it is born of a combination of most of the other kinds of love—respect, admiration, caring, memories of romantic love, affection, and comfort love. So far in my life, I think this one has a transcendent quality in relation to the others.

That’s the end of the brainstormed list; that figure of “sixteen” suddenly seems quite plausible. What did I miss? Of course there are probably some dark brands of what people might call “love,” but that I do not: obsession, possessiveness, or love of self far beyond mere confidence and self-respect. No for me, love is by its very definition a positive and good emotion. If an emotion becomes unhealthy or hurtful to anyone, in any way, then it does not fit my definition of love.

How did your thought experiment go? How might your results be different for someone else whom you love?

Now, if you’re a strict materialist, or maybe even a naturalist, you see all of types of love as mere chemical transfers within the “meat” of our heads—our gray matter. This is where I have cognitive dissonance. I agree on one level, seeing all emotion as merely material interactions; yet at the same time, I treasure it as the very essence of being human and being alive! Is that not the stuff life is made of? The stuff that separates us from super-advanced computers? And almost especially if the meat is all there is, and all we have, then we might best buckle up and enjoy what it means to be alive. In that case we have all the more reason to marvel at love, enjoy it, curse it, live it, and ride this humanity thing for all it’s worth.

Can True Love End?

Candidly, of late the big mysteries for me are how and why people start and stop loving—especially the stopping part. What causes that? And if we stop because we find out people aren’t who we thought they were, did we really love them, or did we love a fantasy? A Chimera?

Of all the cards, letters, and emails I receive of personal stories of lost love, few baffle me more than the pain and disappointment people feel when a friend or loved one withdraws their love. Of course I receive such stories because a central theme of my novel is how beliefs can divide us if we let them; but still, the letters are moving. So many such notes relay stories of people who have had the love and support of others removed from them because they no longer believe in the same god, same church, or the same dogma. Perhaps the love that comes from these shared affinities, which above I defined as “affinity love,” is a weaker form of love—like the simple hydrogen bonds in water reflect a weaker chemical bond. (Read former pastor Dan Barker’s fascinating book Godless for a poignant view of withdrawn love, from a famous mega-church pastor and author of famous Christian children’s musicals.)

These stories do amaze me. The loving social family—which months before had pledged undying love and a willingness to do anything for one another—suddenly abandons the individual not because of who her or she is, but because of intellectually honest thoughts that are going through that person’s head—thoughts that if lied about or suppressed would be perfectly fine and normal. But because that person had the courage and integrity to be honest about those thoughts, these inquiries are not okay. Love ends. Fascinating.

Of course there are many other reasons love can end, but I will leave those to the body of art, literature, religion, and science that has chimed in already during the last 2,500 years. Indeed love is a fickle thing, particularly the romantic, lustful, and passionate types. How many of us have been married and divorced? Or at least had a powerful love interest, perhaps which faded over time?

And the Greatest of These is …

So by definition I argued that all types of love are good and positive by nature. Yes, they could be bastardized by some evil, but they are presumed innocent and good in my argument. Still, it appears to me that some are stronger than others, and some more likely to be withdrawn capriciously.

Perhaps that’s why I so treasure certain types of love in my life, and why I am trying to focus on relationships where the right mixes of the “right” kinds of love (for me), exist in healthy and plentiful supplies.

So playing off the Apostle Paul’s 1 Corinthians 13:13 famous phrase—which form of “love,” in your view, is the greatest of these? Can they be compared? Which forms would you like to have more of in your life? Which forms could you give someone else, to enrich both of you? Are some more noble and worthy of your investment than others?

Whatever your answers to these questions, I wish for you that you find what you need, in abundance.

(By Stephen L. Gibson, © 2009, Truth-Driven Strategies LLC; www.truthdriventhinking.com and https://truthdriven.wordpress.com)

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