“Love is selfless,” “love cannot be fully captured with words,” “love transcends labels,” “love is unconditional,” the list goes on. What exactly is it that we are implying when we make these types of statements? Furthermore, what does “love” actually mean?
That word seems to describe a diverse assortment of states. People typically feel love for their family members, their close friends, and their partners. However, feelings of love sometimes extend to casual acquaintances, complete strangers, and nonliving things (e.g., I recently heard a vlogger expressing feelings of love towards the city). It is interesting to think about what it is that might rest at the center of all of these manifestations of love.
Hmm, could it be romance? No…most societies frown upon familial romance (a.k.a. incest), yet almost all family members feel at least some degree of love for each other. So that can’t be it. What about friendship? Well, once again, some people love their family members despite being out of contact with them or even disliking them intensely. So, no, not quite. Hmm, maybe love has something to do with feelings of long-term commitment? That’s often found in familial interactions. However, it’s entirely possible for romantic partners to love one another even if they have a short-term bond.
The Triangular Theory of Love
But wait a second! Is it a combination of romance (or, “passion”), friendship (or, “intimacy”), and commitment? That’s more or less what’s suggested by Robert Sternberg’s Triangular Theory of Love, which is one of the most popular psychological models of that emotional state.
This model seems to do a great job of explaining why it is that family members, friends, and romantic partners can ALL describe themselves as feeling love for one another, despite the radical differences inherent to those interpersonal relationships. Also, there’s something nice about triangles. We tend to associate those shapes with stability and elegance.
But what about feelings of love for acquaintances, strangers, and objects? Sternberg’s model would have a lot of trouble explaining those manifestations of love. Casual acquaintances, complete strangers, and objects are—by their very nature—neither friends, romantic partners (well, most of the time…), nor family members. So friendship, romance, and commitment cannot be all that there is to it. Furthermore, I get the sense that Sternberg’s three-part framework is lacking. Our intuitions are that love is a unified phenomenon, not a loosely connected set of three feelings. An adequate framework would have to find a way of boiling it down to one central idea…
The Conditions for Unconditionality
I think one word that deserves special attention when thinking about the meaning of love is “unconditional.” After all, most of us view unconditional love as being the purest, or even the only true form of love. Conditional love conjures up images of con artists typing saccharine messages to gain access to the bank accounts of potential victims, and then disappearing from the picture. Unconditional love evokes images of individuals continuing to be there for each other, even when they go through rough times. But what does it even mean for something to be unconditional?
Well, conditions are states that allow for other things to happen. For instance, having an internet connection is a condition for accessing this blog. If your access to the internet goes away, then you will no longer be able to get onto the blog. Similarly, breathing is a condition for staying alive. If your ability to breathe goes away, then you will no longer be able to stay alive. Please note that conditions typically don’t work in the opposite direction. You can have an internet connection yet not be able to access my blog if WordPress is down, and you can breathe yet fail to stay alive if you wind up face to face with a grizzly bear. From this, we can determine that “conditional” roughly means “dependent on conditions.” Our examples from before show that blog access and life are very clearly conditional. Alternately, “unconditional” would have to mean “not dependent on conditions.” So, if love is unconditional, its existence doesn’t depend on anything else.
At first, this might seem problematic. Friends can go separate ways, partners can break up, and family members can disown each other. So if love was limited to a combination of those states, then all love would, by definition HAVE to be conditional. Additionally, it at least seems as though it’s possible for people not to love each other or for the presence of love to change from moment to moment. This poses a difficulty for “unconditional love” because things that are unconditional must be permanent. The passage of time is an example of one such thing. The ticking of time, a clear instance of a property that’s unconditional, doesn’t seem to depend on any object or event in the universe. It’s just something that keeps on chugging along no matter what. If love is like time, then how is it that it can appear to intensify or fade?
Love: A Universal Canvas
My theory is this: love is a state that is always present in everyone: from saints to serial killers. (Random book recommendation.) Rather than being a particular thing, it’s the indescribable “something” that’s left over when thoughts, definitions, and concepts have all left one’s brain. If we imagine each mental judgement as being a figure that one draws in one’s mind, love is the background. As a result, love doesn’t ever go away. It’s just that the thoughts, labels, and expectations that we form can block our ability to see the love that’s inside of us. To put it another way, it’s as if love were a canvas: lines of graphite and smudges of paint can conceal it from view, but that doesn’t ever make the actual canvas go away.
How can that help us out? Well, for one thing, this would imply that love really is something that is unconditional. If it is a permanent part of our mental backgrounds, then its presence does not depend on any set of conditions. But the idea that it can be hidden from our view would show why it is that love seems to wax and wane with time. When we feel love for people, we drop our made-up ideas about them and come to see them without any filters. (This might be why people say, “It was at that point that I realized that I love you..”) Alternately, when we stop feeling the love that we have inside of us, the paint and lines of labels come up again and keep us from being able to see those people for who they truly are.
This theory has some other merits. For one thing, it provides a suggestion for how we can increase the love that we feel for other people. If we seek to gain a better understanding of them, we can more clearly see our love for them. But my theory also paints a picture of a very hopeful world. We don’t live in a desolate planet that’s mostly empty of love. Yes, there are lots of difficult people and those who don’t act in particularly loving ways. However, those individuals do so because they can’t see their love, not because they lack it altogether. If people can just get over their assumptions about each other, then we can all learn to see our love for humanity.
So, to anyone who is reading this post, I have something to say: I love you. This love might not always be something that I will be able to see clearly and it might take on different forms depending on who you are (e.g., it won’t be close, affectionate, or committed for most people…it’s perfectly okay to reserve special feelings for certain individuals), but love itself, in some form or another, will always be there. And if you ever feel like your love for others is fading, then look inside of yourself. Just as the earth keeps turning, your canvas of love persists. You just have to get through all of the noise in order to become aware of it.
So go out there and embrace your inner love!