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What is Love? Part 2


In What is Love? Part 1, I discussed the evolutionary functions and neurological foundations of love. Although fascinating, knowing that love is “a complex suite of adaptations” that leads our brains to release neuropeptides doesn’t directly help us to engaging with others as we would wish.


Philosopher Rolf Johnson conceptualizes three love types, which I have named our love triangle: appreciation-love, care-love, and union-love. Although these three sides of our love triangle will play out differently in different relationships, they are applicable to all relationships.


Appreciation-Love. Often the first form of love that we experience in a new relationship is appreciation-love: beholding and appreciating the beloved for who they are, or we perceive them to be. Appreciation-love is a powerful and healing form of attention. As Johnson eloquently puts it, “The lover sees deeply into who the beloved is, discovering depths and complexities that are missed by mere acquaintanceship.” When we are immersed in appreciation-love, we embrace all that is our beloved, without feeling the need to try to change anything in them or the relationship. Although seeing the beauty in another person does not mean denying their difficult qualities or unskillful actions, appreciation-love supports them in relearning their loveliness. And, for the lover, engaging in appreciation-love leads to noticing the beauty of life, and increases our openness and engagement.


Care-Love. With care-love, our objective is the good, welfare, or growth of the beloved—we desire their health, happiness, and personal growth (physical, psychological, and spiritual). In other words, we want to see that our beloved’s needs are met and that they can develop their potential. Care-love creates a disposition to act and assist in the welfare and growth of the beloved. As philosopher Harry Frankfurt explains, “Loving someone or something essentially means or consists in, among other things, taking its interests as reasons for acting to serve those interests.” Care-love enhances emotional commitment only when it is understood that it is given freely and without expectations of repayment. But, if both parties have the ability, the relationship is enhanced when care is reciprocated.


Union-Love. As part of our love, we want to effect, preserve, or deepen our union with the beloved—this is union-love. We desire a shared identity alongside, within, or surrounding our individual identities. It is often through small, everyday acts that we evidence and perceive union-love. The roommate who replenishes the toilet paper supply is evidencing a commitment to continued cohabitation through their purchase. With union-love, the lover seeks to diminish the distance between the self and beloved—physically and psychologically. As our relationship with someone intensifies, we sit closer to our beloved than we did when we were first becoming acquainted. We attend to each other’s well-being and the well-being of the relationship: each communication is about both the topic and the relationship. A highly prioritized union is threatened by equal or greater attachment outside of the union. It is perceived as competition to the relationship, as it challenges our expectation that our shared past and present will lead to a shared future. For example, if we consider someone our best friend, we would like for them reciprocally to consider us their best friend—manufacturers have capitalized on this with ‘BFF’ merchandise. When we perceive that our prioritization of a relationship is incongruent with our beloved’s prioritization (either higher or lower), often we lessen our commitment to the union. If we maintain the relationship, lopsided union-love often leads to one party playing a dominate role, and the other playing a submissive role.


Unions are often based on similarities or complementary differences. And, the longer we are in a relationship with someone, the more complementary our roles become. Our shared history quickly makes our beloved irreplaceable. As Johnson observes, “No one else has participated in this history, shared the same joys, sorrows, disappointments, and fulfillments.” Ideally, in union-love, the self enlarges to embrace the other and create a shared identity, with space for separation and individuality as well as the ‘we.’ However, these identities will not always fit together harmoniously, and we may set aside some personal pursuits for the betterment of the union. I grew up loving to play cards; I am married to a person who does not like card or board games. Although I get an occasional evening of cards, overall I have set aside this pursuit to engage in shared activities.


Interactions between the Three Sides of Our Love Triangle. Each love-type increases the likelihood of the others—it strengthens the triangle. Love researcher Anthony Walsh uses a definition that integrates the three sides, “I define love as that which satisfies our need to receive and bestow affection and nurturance; to give and be given assurances of value, respect, acceptance, and appreciation; and to feel secure in our unity with, and belonging to, a particular family, as well as the human family.”

I find conceptualizing love as a triangle useful for looking at how I am loving currently, and asking myself if I am utilizing the most optimal balance between the three sides for myself and my beloved—or, is my love triangle lopsided? In my day-to-day hurry, I am prone to overlook and not acknowledge to my amazing colleagues and students what a delight it is to get to work with such brilliant, dedicated, insightful people—I lose sight of my appreciation-love. When I make a point of doing this, work becomes more fun—and more productive.


Coming to a Definition of Love. Love is a distinct driver of our motivations and behaviors. Psychotherapist Erik Fromm notes, “Love is not primarily a relationship to a specific person; it is an attitude, an orientation of character which determines the relatedness of a person to the world as a whole, not towards one ‘object’ of love.” Our experiences of love both join us with other humans and set us apart. Our shared biological and cultural evolutions, combined with our unique proclivities and life experiences, interact to form our experiences of love and expressions of loving. Here is my working definition of love:


Love is an innate, inherently good drive to care for, join with, and appreciate the beloved. Love drives one to act, but is distinct from those actions (which I term ‘loving’).


As we embrace our love and fears, our loving becomes progressively more healing for ourselves and others. With attention and practice, love can become the driving force in all our behaviors—and, our loving expands to encompass all people. As psychotherapist Tara Brach states, “When we pay careful attention, we see every person as an expression of the love and goodness we cherish. Every being becomes the Beloved.”


What is your definition of love?

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