What is Love?

“What’s love to you?”

“I don’t know. You tell me!”

A dear friend caught me off guard a while back when she challenged me to define love. It turned out to be a lot harder than I thought. The problem for me was not that I don’t know what love is, but rather I had a hard time trying to identify and pull apart the characteristics of the kind of love we were talking about – spousal love; the love you hope you can share with a partner for a lifetime. I had to think about it a lot and essentially the best I could come up with is that it is a kind of “pinnacle” love… it contains all the characteristics of many kinds of love.

"I asked my 6 year old goddaughter what is love? Her response, 'When two people come together and form the biggest heart.' This is her painting." - Photo by Andreanna

"I asked my 6 year old goddaughter what is love? Her response, 'When two people come together and form the biggest heart.' This is her painting." - Andreanna

So, for example, I believe the sentiments of the following verse: “And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.’ The second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ No other commandment is greater than these.” While this is a component of my relationship with my Mrs., obviously I love her differently than I love God or my neighbor.


I also look to a different verse – Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” This is the “rope over a precipice of death” test. If I was dangling on an unraveling rope with her, would I be willing to let go if I knew my sacrifice would save her life? Is there a component of wanting to put the other person first? This one is a little counter cultural these days, but I feel it still applies if your goal is a long term relationship. It must also be viewed in the light of the first verse as it follows that if we do not love ourselves, we can’t really offer love to our neighbor. The problem with this definition of love, however, is that there are many people that I could say this about. I certainly would let go of the rope for my children, for example.

Then there is the oft-quoted-at-weddings passage from 1 Corinthians 13.

“4 Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. 7 Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

Verse 7 alludes to a kind of unconditional love built on truth and staying power that I believe is essential to spousal love, but ultimately I am not convinced that this passage is even meant to describe romantic spousal love. Rather it is there to give some ideas on how we should “love our neighbor as ourselves.” I know that it guides me in my interactions with everyone, not just my Mrs.; it is just that the degree to which it applies and my overall success in achieving these ideals is best and deepest in my spousal relationship.

One of my favorite discourses on love comes from a movie I once saw.I can’t place it (anyone?), so I’ve never been able to get the dialog quite right, but it goes something like this.:

“Do you want the best for her?”
“Yes.”
“And do you want to be a better man around her?
“Yes.”
“If that isn’t love, what is?”

Or, a little more flowery but somewhat similar, this quote from the Notebook is really beautiful:

“The best love is that kind that awakens the soul and makes us reach for more. That plants a fire in our hearts and brings peace to our minds. That is what you have given to me, and that’s what I hope to give to you forever.”

This is definitely a type of love, but again I can’t say this is exclusively spousal love. I have a list, albeit a pretty short one, of others in my life besides Mrs. that I love in this way – they make me want to be a better man when I am around them and I want all the best for them.

So we still aren’t there yet.

My biology background tells me that it can be argued that sexual reproduction is the core essence of love. I was taught in evolutionary biology that a species’ biological fitness is measured by its ability to create children that can also reproduce. As such, it has been argued that all of the trappings of “pair bonding” are there merely to ensure the replication of our genetic material.

Sexual “love”, eros, in Greek terms, is obviously a very, very important part (one of my favorites <grin>) of a lasting relationship, but it shouldn’t be confused with the kind of love I am trying to define. If people are capable of having dozens of sexual partners in their lifetime, it follows that sexual love is not the same as long term relational romantic love.

I personally believe that, while we are driven by our biology, we are not prisoners to it. We are spiritual entities capable of reason and choice that goes beyond our animal nature.

However, the significance of sex and reproduction probably explains why this is something most spousal couples reserve for themselves and in that sense it is a very important characteristic of spousal love. Sex is something I share with my spouse exclusively, so in that sense it must be part of my definition. But it is only a partial definition as I know I would still love my Mrs. even if, knock on wood, something horrible happened and sex between us became impossible. In its truest expression, I believe sex can be a reflective metaphor of true love, but it is not love in and of itself. We’re still not there.

The kind of love described in most love songs is what I used to call infatuation. However, after doing some research, the more correct term apparently is limerance. Limerance is “what is meant when one expresses having intense feelings of attachment, preoccupations with the love object, and a similar mind-state to obsessive compulsive disorder.”It’s the “can’t live, if living is without you” feeling; what people often call being “in love.”

However, limerance is involuntary love – a chemical response. It is essentially no different than being on drugs and it comes and goes. Studies have shown that the full force, continual effects usually wear off in under three years.

To emphasize why limerance should not be confused with spousal love, we need only look to the “limerance trap.” There is research to show that one of the ways a guy can keep a girlfriend on the hook is to not reciprocate limerant feelings, essentially creating a chemical love trap by being distant – a classic “bad-boy” move. If this is your form of love – if it is your addiction or what you are content with it – you are essentially committing yourself to a life of manipulation or a string of relationships to keep the chemicals flowing. The 7 year itch is not a myth (although apparently it is now the 3 or 5 year itch). It is a side effect of people establishing the foundations of their relationships on this type of “love” alone.

While downplaying limerance seems unromantic and thinking this “love” will wear off almost offensive, try and imagine a world where limerant feelings did not eventually wear off. Everyone would always have their head in the clouds, daydreaming about their significant other, be overly sensitive or mellow, or on the uphill or downhill side of an emotional rollercoaster. The world would be one giant middle school! <grin>

Fortunately, while we can’t control the chemicals, we can control our actions. So, being brutally vulnerable here, I confess that there have been at least two times in our 26 years together that I can remember being “in love” with – or more precisely, had a limerant “crush” on – a women other than my wife. But I have been able to openly tell my wife about these because she knows that our love is deeper than mere chemicals and she trusts me to stay within the boundaries we have set for our interactions with others. An ironic side-effect of this kind of trust and expression of true love is that I ended up “crushing” on my Mrs. again at those times because I was reminded of how special she is and, well, the chemicals were already flowing. 🙂

Limerance is not love and we are not slaves to it. If limerance is your idea of love, I can see where the above paragraph may seem very, very, very odd. Our culture tends to view limerance as an excuse to “move on” or “trade for someone new,” not as a signal to try harder with your existing significant other. And that is sad.  Limerance is there to help us get to the point where we have built the kinds of roots that will sustain deeper, lasting spousal love; a kind of kick start, if you will, but not the real deal.

But if being “in love” is still not the special, exclusive lasting love we are after, what is?! I think for me, the following is the closest description written by someone else of what I mean by love in my “I love you” to my Mrs.

A visual metaphor for spousal love? Needs leaves.

A visual metaphor for spousal love? Needs leaves.

“Love is a temporary madness, it erupts like a volcano and then subsides and when it subsides you have to make a decision. You have to work out whether your roots have so entwined together that it is inconceivable that you should ever part, because this is what love is. Love is not the breathlessness, it is not excitement, it is not the promise of eternal passion, and it is not the desire to mate every minute or every second of the day. That is just being “in love” which any fool can do…Love itself is what’s left over when being in love has burned away, and this is both an art and a fortunate accident. Those that truly love, have roots that grow towards each other underground, and when all the pretty blossoms have fallen from their branches, they find that they are one tree and not two.” -Louis De Bernieres

or consider this poem that I wrote for my Mrs. during our 25th anniversary romance-a-thon.

eyes closed, smiling
I hold your hand
embracing warm
intertwined fingers,
memories and dreams.

I guess for me, what distinguishes spousal love from all the others is not that it is different from all the “loves” I’ve discussed before, but rather that it is all of those loves PLUS the unshakeable conviction that the world you two have built and will build together is better than what you could have built alone or what you could possibly conceive of building with anyone else.

What does that look like? For me, it’s the kind of love that lets us be apart, but makes me wonder what I’m missing out on when she’s not there. It’s the kind of love that encourages me to make a better world by helping others, but makes me run back home when she calls for my help. It is sex that is so much more than mere gratification. It is love so entwined in history and dreams, so much more than simple emotions, that saying “I love her, but I don’t really like her at this moment” can make perfect sense. It’s missing half my brain – confirmation and reminder of the subtle tones and colours of my memories – when she’s not there to add to the picture. It is feeling safer and more “me” in her arms than anywhere else. It is me separate, but connected, with our forever as my context.

4 thoughts on “What is Love?

  1. 50 years ago, when 15, I wrote a paper on love based on The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder in which I explored the many types of love I could identify in books as they were illustrated in that story. Now I know a lot more about love but have no illusions tht I will ever understand it. Love remains a subject that fascinates me. Thanks for an interesting read.

    • There’s a lot to be said for that “Now we see through a glass darkly” line, isn’t there. 🙂 Thanks tons for the feedback.

  2. A good read but defining love to me is analogous to defining God. It is always present but often there is an absence of perception. As you mentioned there are many “kinds” of love yet love without an agenda leaves a soul feeling complete…a merge of Divine Mind and human mind….where there is no separation, no need. It is all encompassing, all engulfing, complete. Where can one find such love? I found it in a way I don’t recommend…through a 27 min clinical death in the high Alps of Austria. What I came away with was a sense of knowing that we as humans search all of our lives for the same measure, the same “kind” of love I experienced when I was with the Holy Spirit and “the boys” I fondly call them. It is my theory that we always fall short of finding that “kind” of love here on earth..seems to be reserved for those no longer of the earth….I don’t know. What I do know, what I am certain of is this; that we should strive as humans to bring that kind of love to every area of our lives, our spouse, our friends, our children, our work, our pursuits. Then perhaps we would come close to defining the true measure and meaning of love.
    With Beams of LOVE, LIGHT & LAUGHTER, Ariaa Jaeger

  3. Pingback: RR#3 – Deep connections give rise to intense emotions | WEfulness

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