What is love? Not to recall certain catchy songs popular on the internet in the 2000s, I wanted to try to give a definition. The problem of getting definitions for commonly used words is a well known problem in philosophy, so as usual I will instead that I am giving my definition and hope that it hits an adequate amount of the way that people use the word.
The definition that I am using is "A fulfilling connection to something or someone you can treat as an entity with volition towards you."
I'm somewhat uncertain about this definition. I think it covers everything I care about, though I neglect smaller entities below for now (such as, e.g., pets or various digital entities). When I say volition I mean that you ascribe some sort of agentic behavior to it that you get a fulfilling connection from, not that it necessarily loves you back in the same way.
There is also an idea of a passive sense vs an active sense of fulfilling connection. To differentiate this I call one 'appreciation' or 'attraction', and the other 'love'. You may appreciate someone but until they act with volition towards you in a relevant manner, can you say that you truly love them as a friend?
Love of Others
The first category of loves that I identify are the loves of others—family, friends, and erotics/paramours.
In the vast majority of cases, you are born into the family that you will spend your life with. In the norm, there are two parents, some number of siblings, and some amount of more distant cousins. At the extremes there may be more parents (via divorces), many siblings, hundreds of cousins—or perhaps an orphan with no relatives, or only one relative. But the core idea here is around the three generation nuclear family.
Part of the atomicity of trying to break down love is that it becomes hard to say 'familial love is made out of some other thing'. Familial love is...familial love. Perhaps it is a recognition of the self, perhaps it is biological game theory. But we have a tendency to love those in our families by default, unless they do something to violate that love.
In line with various writings on social roles, we put different levels of expectations on those we love. If we consider a parent, a sibling, and a child to all be roughly the same distance from us conceptually (which they also are biologically), that doesn't mean that we have the same expectations for them.
In line with the fact that we recognize the similarity between those we love in our family and ourselves, we hold them to similar standards. From our progenitors, we have the highest standards, from our siblings we have standards perhaps similar to those we set for ourselves, and from our children the bar is the lowest.
We can confirm this by looking at tendencies (unfortunately, lacking numbers) to cut off ties in a family. I propose that it is most common for children to cut off ties with their parents, less common for them to cut off siblings, and least common of all for parents to cut off ties with their children—all for similar things (for example, narcissistic attitudes).
Why is this? I think it is likely due to one of two things—the first possibility that comes to mind is that is simply age. We have higher expectations for those who are, supposedly, wiser and have more experience. On the other hand, there might be a biological just-so story about it actually being about investment. We have the least investment in our parents (having received their investment instead), a moderate amount in our siblings, and the most in our children. This is a mixture of the resources we actually put forth towards that individual, as well as the expected future value of a good relationship with them (which is, currently, time bounded by mortality or at least years of useful life ahead).
Finally, when looking at the idea of a 'passive' love of family, it is more common than it should be to love a parent, or a child, and not have that love reciprocated—but we don't say our love for them isn't real. It seems like the relationship is intrinsically active in most cases. The only case that meets the passive equivalent that I know of is when we speak of (for example) loving a child you gave up for adoption that doesn't know about you.
I believe that friendship is the most complicated and most important of loves, and I struggle to contain the value of it in short. I have a compilation of some of the greatest quotes on it elsewhere, but I will attempt to summarize my thoughts here.
I think that friendship is the essence of a fulfilling connection with another person, mind to mind. If I was a spiritual man I might say spirit to spirit. I think that much of what we consider to be romantic love (addressed below, in slight) comes down to friendship that people have insensibly locked to only certain people.
Friendship is a ruler to measure by, a mirror to see the world by. Friendship is a spice that gives flavor to the blandest of foods and a lens that brightens the dullest of sights. Friendship can make days into seconds, can make seconds into days. Friendship builds and destroys countries, creates fortunes, and carves memories into the world.
Every time you want to be near someone just for who they are, and no physical reason beyond that—that's friendship.
If friendship is the most complicated and most important of loves, I think that eros (for lack of a better term to place in a sentence) is the type of love that we trip over the most, because unfortunately it has a tendency to make us flushed and stupid.
I throw in eros, as a whole, the entirety of a physical appreciation, engagement, and fulfilling connection with others. Attraction, cuddling, touching, grinding, breathing on ears, fucking, dancing, anything that makes your skin tingle and lines of cold lightning race down your spine, that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up like you want to feel every vortex of their breath on your skin, that's eros.
Moreover, eros contains all of the things that are about causing this sensation in the other (because, like friendship, we generally want the other to have eros towards us as well). Things that are purely about inspiration a sexual response are eros—such as buying chocolate, or fancy purchases.
This of course gets into the most complicated of the loves, and one I think may be somewhat controversial, which is romantic love. I don't actually know if romantic love is a thing on its own, when you break it down. Are there any things that we do in romantic love for someone that:
- We would not do for a friend, or do not do out of motives that resemble those of a friend
- We would not do for a paramour, or not do out of motives that resemble those of a lover
- Do not lead towards or stem from a sensation of 'family formation' (discussed outside this ontology)?
I don't think there is. Fancy dates—a combination of getting to know someone as a friend or seeking to have them erotically. Doing favors like buying chocolate or things you know they wanted? The same. The types of connection you're getting is a combination of friendship and eros, and perhaps the intent (and intent can be felt here, especially the first time you make it known to yourself) is for familial formation, but I don't know if there is an atomic element of romance aside from these two.
Love of Humanity
Love of humanity is about the feeling we get when we're around other people acting in a healthy, virtuous, and human manner. The warm glow of being surrounded by other families that we don't love in a familial way, but because they're human. The comradery of seeing someone else in the wilderness, a smile on the side of the road.
We love them for what they are, even if we don't know them. Perhaps, if we got to know them as individuals, or as representations of a class, we wouldn't love them anymore. But we do as long as they are a stand-in for the class of thing that we belong to.
Treating the love of the self is difficult. If we think of it as aimed at ourselves internally, we lose all other reference classes. However, if we think of it as aimed at ourselves externally (in other words, how would I love someone like myself from the outside), it loses the connection we have to it.
In reality, the answer is likely it's internally aimed but can be checked with the external model. Loving yourself is about feeling a connection to your own life, having meaning in what you're doing (if not 'existential meaning', a fraught term and concept), and being fundamentally fulfilled by yourself.
For whatever reason though, some people have issues loving themselves even when they are utterly worth loving by comparison (I say comparison rather than quantitatively since so much of this is intrinsic—someone who is reasonable and was in their situation would love themselves, is the comparison). In that case, they examine how they would love someone who was identical in attribute to them, and try to transfer the sensation.
Love of Abstracts
I am not the best person to speak about the love of abstracts. I use abstract loosely here, and perhaps offensively—love of entities that do not necessarily experience love the same way we do, either as a godhead or as an organization.
I don't experience these much. I didn't experience divine connection when I was practicing and believing (of a sort), and I have never connected well with communities to a degree that I felt that they, in their entirety, loved me. That said, I have somewhat loved communities I myself have created, with reservations. Perhaps that drives other parts of my life, the drive to create a community, or egregore, that I can love wholeheartedly. Uncertain.
Loving an egregore, an organization, a community, a state. Loving the emergent expression of will on the world that comes about when people are bound by common purpose, incentives, belief, or identification.
We love these gods made out of man, because we feel like they subsume us in a slightly spiritual but very civil way. Our efforts are magnified, given meaning, we are told that we matter. We love them for shaping the world in a way beyond what we think we could do ourselves...even if we're told by the entity itself that this is good rather than that feeling bubbling up from within our own self.
I've read more about the love of the divine but understand it even less than the love of the egregore. As above I will attempt to summarize my understanding.
At the end of the day, we seek a reason. A cause. We seek something that loves us despite everything, that desired for us to be created, that has a plan for us and will forgive our sins. We appreciate beauty, and want to transfer that appreciation into a love for something responsible.
The love of the divine is a love of the Godhead is a love of the self aware universe. It is the wellspring of meaning for billions in human history, it creates and destroys, it generates energies on an individual and group level far beyond what we might otherwise expect. It is respectable, it is ancient, it is holy—but I don't personally experience it.
Intents and Valences
There is clearly more to 'fulfilling connections to something or someone you can treat as an entity with volition towards you' (love) than just the atomic elements. These combine in different ways, which can be observed by the fact that no two relationships are the same.
Although I call things 'atomic' elements of love, there's really more underlying it that I think goes beyond what I want to cover here. For example there might be someone who is a better friend in terms of breadth and depth of interests, but less constant or more likely to let you down. There are many dimensions that might be covered.
But above that, types of friendship combine in different ways. Two of the factors that I think figure into this are what I call 'intents' and what I might call 'valences'.
One of the strongest and most distinct intents that I can think of is that of 'family formation'. As I noted above, there appears to not be much distinct about romance beyond friendship and eros. But, if this is true then where does the 'feeling' that differentiates a life partner (spouse, etc.) from just someone who is a close friend and fantastic in bed?
These things normally coincide, but there appears to be one significant difference that differentiates one from the other, and that's the idea of an 'intent of family formation'. The belief that this relationship, this love, is the one that will lead to (or has lead to) some combination of:
- Being treated as a single social unit by society
At least in my experience, if I consider what it 'feels' like to sleep with and be friends with someone, without this, it is very different from what it 'feels' like to have this. And that difference is what separates a spouse from a (non-familial intent) girlfriend.
Friends of pleasure are a limited form of friend that you can form an intent around. Someone who sees perhaps more relaxed parts of you, someone you can talk about your vices (because theirs are worse), someone to show you certain joys. This person may never serve as a mirror, a ruler, or any kind of amplifier...but perhaps you just put them into this category. Many people who you primarily engage with erotically might fall into here.
Friends who you want something out of are friends of utility. You don't get something out of the person themselves but some measurable aspect of them. You engage with them towards a goal other than the virtuous enjoyment of life alongside them. Likely, they are only borderline friends—you get some form of fulfilling connection from them, but very much a consequential one. Unlikely to involve any erotic connection.
In chemistry, there is the idea of electron shells, which is how many electrons a certain radius/shell from the atomic nuclear can be held. The valence shell is the outermost shell, which determines how many combinations that atom can make with other atoms.
Since different types of relationships are not-directly-rivalrous (there is a kind of shared resource they draw on, attention), they are somewhat like different atoms which have different valences, or combination power.
Now, I'm mixing my chemistry here. I've previously described different types of love with different atoms, and now I'm talking about each of these having a valence shell—but there's not more than one shell (of which the valence would be the outermost) and these numbers are different for everyone. This shouldn't be taken as a kind of relationship alchemy, merely a poorly stretched analogy.
We already have a loose set of language around this idea—'our one and only', 'before anyone else', 'soul mate', etc. These words indicate the idea that not only do we have one partner, but there is an inherent primacy to that partnership that excludes other people from that level. This is obviously in dispute by the polyamorous social movement, as well as certain cultures, but I think the words at least indicate the strength of the idea.
This isn't the only example of such a thing, either. 'Best friend' (implying a friend who—whether you include your life partner or not—comes before other friends), 'Dunbar number' (implying a limit to the number of people you can roughly consider socially, though that's not the precise definition), etc. Our language and culture is fully accepting of the idea there's limitations to the number of people that we can care about in different ways.
Someone who wishes to have healthy relationships might consider it worthwhile to examine what their 'valences' are in different categories—life partners, best friends, close friends, lovers, acquaintances, friends of utility (e.g. work friends), friends of pleasure (e.g. drinking buddies), etc.
One open question is how to handle when you have, as much as this idea is coherent (as love is continuous and so are relationships, but we are using some discrete language), say room for 'one and a half' lovers in your life. What does that mean? Does a half person get bumped down? Do you engage half the time? Do you only engage with one (even if more present)?
I think (and do not defend here) that you fill the closest valence to the partially-available one, and commit to all but the 'intent'. Once you commit to the 'intent' for the higher valence, tragedy is ahead.
To wrap up my section on types and theories of love, I want to talk about severing expectations.
When a love ends, regardless of what kind it is, it has a high likelihood of being extremely painful. When it's not, it's generally because the pain was experienced over a long period of time. This pain can be because of something the person or entity we loved did, or it can be because of a loss not their fault.
I propose that we build models around people, that we have expectations of the future built on them. The most intense of these expectations, of course, is of a family. When we break up with someone who we had an intent of familial formation with, the more likely or the more clear that image was, the more painful it is.
All of a sudden, this expectation of the future, our prediction, our target, our goal, is lost. Not only is the love that we get to experience in the moment diminished, but so is an entire integration of an expected future. It's incredibly painful.
Even when separation is calm and loving in other ways, we lose something when things decrease—just like when things increase, our expected future values grow even if in the moment nothing may change.
There is a backlash, as well. This pain causes us to withdraw a little bit, somewhat of a hysteresis effect that makes it difficult and painful to experiment with social and relationship configurations. Consider the two cases below:
- Anne and Bob stay friends, and their friendship continues to grow deeper throughout their lives, but they don't form any expectation of familial formation
- Anne and Bob are friends, start dating, get engaged, and then break up. Despite knowing each other better faster than they would, their relationship may never recover to what it would have been if they had never dated.
This lies at the root of the idea of 'I don't want to risk our friendship'. Unfortunately, the greatest of friends are also the greatest of loves. I think the way to manage this is to manage expectations and to not engage in familial formation feelings out of nowhere.
Carefully considering expectations, and understanding them, was a key motive of writing this.
Declarations of Love
Finally I want to address declarations of love.
Declarations of love are interesting, because they seem so variable in what they signal. The idea of declaring love as a child is sweet and innocent—truly an expression of friendship. When you declare love as a teenager, you have some stirrings but the intent of forming a family is only there by implication of the passage of time.
As you get older, it may or may not take more for you to declare love. In my first relationship it took six months, in my fourth it took three, with the woman I'm going to marry it took three weeks. At the same time, I think that I understood what the word meant each time, what I was committing to.
When you don't have someone you're spending your life with, when you declare love for someone without any sort of caveats, by implication (in other words if you aren't saying you love them as a friend, as a brother, whathaveyou) you are implying the idea of familial formation. I think this is well and good (I struggled with exactly what the idea meant for many hours when I was a younger man, and I am satisfied with what I have come to here).
But what does it mean when dealing with someone you love intensely as a friend, someone you love intensely in an erotic sense, but not someone you plan on spending your life with due to a lack of intent of familial formation? This could be either due to that valence already being filled, or due to lack of interest. I think what it means is a sense of commitment for a continuity of your level of engagement and perhaps escalation. It means that you want them to be a key person in your life going forward, that you value their combination of friendly and erotic engagement above anyone else not in the life partner valence, and that you think you have enough data to model that future with them.
This may be off—I am still exploring.
For other types of love declaring them is much more casual—from the 'I love you, man!' echoed by bros drunken or not, to telling someone frankly you love them as a brother, to declaring your love of God. It merely means that your love for someone or something in a way has surpassed a threshold such that it is worth calling out as a distinct factor of your relationship with them. They utterly fulfill you in some way.
I seek to have fulfilling connections with as many people as I have valence for.