In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychological terms. This week’s term: Love
“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…” began a famous sonnet by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. So how many different ways of loving are there?
From a psychological perspective, love is a social and cultural phenomenon as well as an individual emotional and cognitive experience. It may be interpersonal, impersonal (i.e. focused on an object or a principle), or directed toward the self. Interpersonal love may be mutual or unrequited. Extreme examples include narcissism and erotomanic delusions (believing that another person, often famous, is in love with them).
Psychologist Robert Sternberg’s triangular theory of love includes intimacy, commitment, and passion. Different types of love, e.g. romantic or companionate, involve different combinations of these three elements. Consummate love has all three of these elements present.
In psychologist Erich Fromm’s book The Art Of Loving, he argued that any sort of feeling of love is less important than the actions that demonstrate commitment. While sensations of love may initially be involuntary, as time goes on it becomes a conscious choice of commitment. So we may fall in love, but ultimately we make a choice to stay there.
From an evolutionary psychology perspective, love is seen as a means to promote ongoing parental support of children and therefore increased survival of offspring. From a biological viewpoint, it’s a primal mammalian drive along the lines of hunger or thirst. Parental attachment is promoted by hormones including oxytocin, while pheromones are involved in sexual attraction. During the falling in love stage there is a rush of neurotransmitters including dopamine.
Love may also be examined from a philosophical perspective. This includes questioning the nature, function, and value of love, distinguishing between different kinds of love, and considering the effects of love upon autonomy. One might consider how they would go about explaining the apparently irrational behaviour associated with love to a hypothetical person who had never experienced love.
Love is a frequent theme in various ancient cultures as well as religious traditions. Ancient Greeks described four types of love: kinship, friendship, sexual/romantic, and divine love. In ancient China, the concept of benevolent love was an important part of Confucianism. In Christianity, love is seen as coming from God, and in Judaism, love between marital partners is seen as an essential part of life. In the Quran, one of the 99 names for Allah is Al-Wadud (The Loving One). In Buddhism, there are several different terms to denote different kinds of love, which may range from selfish to selfless/elevated.
If there are so many different ways of looking at love, does it make sense to use the same word for all of them? And while some forms, such as parent-child love, seem to be viewed much the same way universally, I wonder to what extent our notions of romantic love are culturally derived. Does romantic love fit in with the (at least from what I remember) teenage binary view that there is a specific point where the great heart-bulb goes on over your head and you’re in love? Should falling in love happen before or after (as may be the case in arranged marriages) the wedding? And can you love someone and dislike them at the same time?
Do you have any thoughts to share on the great questions of love?
You can find the rest of my What Is series here.