Bob Van Oosterhout

What is Love? A Definition That Works
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What do people really mean when they say “I love you.”

It’s a statement with wide ranging implications and it can mean different things to different people. It can also mean different things to the same person over time. 

Most would agree that love is something that lasts, but what is love that lasts?  What is love that works?  What do we do when we love? How is that different than what we do when we don’t love?  A good definition needs to help us not only understand love but understand how to love.

Looking at what is meant by love when it doesn’t last might help us identify some of the weeds that obscure our understanding of what love really means.

One of the most common meanings of love that doesn’t endure is “I’m attracted to you.”  This “love”can be exciting and thrilling but lasts only until the allure starts to fade. We tend to be enticed by what is new and different. When someone is available to us all the time, they’re no longer new or different.  That’s when people say they have “fallen out of love.”

Attraction can be the start of a deeper commitment but it can also mean “I want you to make me feel good (or secure, important, wanted, etc.)  This “love” lasts until we no longer feel good (or secure, important, wanted, etc.) and people say “I love (him or her) but I’m not “in love.”

There’s a form of desire that at first looks and feels like what we call “love.”  It comes from a place that says “I want you to make me feel loved.” This can become unstable and fraught with complications because it starts from a deficit and tends to attract people who have similar deficits.  It carries a vulnerability that can lead to demands to prove or verify one’s “love” at any given moment.  When demands are made when a partner is least able to respond, the relationship spirals into blame, confusion, and anger.

Feelings of affection are often interpreted as love but they are more an effect and expression of love, than what it means to be loving.

Sometimes a relationship starts from attraction and desire and through hard work and perseverance, evolves into something deeper and more meaningful.  Erich Fromm called this “standing in love,” which he contrasts to “falling in love.”  The Greeks called it “Pragma,” as in pragmatic - a mature love that works.  

The Greeks identified five other kinds of love: Eros is passionate desire; Filia, the love of a parent for a child or between friends; Ludus is a kind of an affectionate playfulness; Agape is selfless love, charity, or “the love of God for man and man for God.”  Then there is Philautia, a love that takes one of two forms.  It is either the selfish desire for pleasure, fame, and wealth or it is self love, which involves acceptance of self and is seen by some as a basis for other love.  

Looking at different kinds of love provides a snapshot of the contexts for love and the effects of love, but they don’t tell us what it really means or help us learn to how love. Erich Fromm helps us understand what love involves:

“Love is a decision, it is a judgment, it is a promise. If love were only a feeling, there would be no basis for the promise to love each other forever. A feeling comes and it may go..”

“Love isn't something natural, it requires discipline, concentration, patience, faith, and the overcoming of narcissism. It isn't a feeling, it is a practice.” (The Art of Loving)

When Fromm says that “Love isn't something natural,”  I think he means that is not something that comes naturally in our world as it is today.  Love doesn’t appear to be understood or supported much in our culture.  But my experience counseling people with relationship problems taught me that dealing with obstacles to love was all that was needed.  It took hard work and patience, but love grew and deepened on its own when impediments were removed.  This led me to conclude that it is in our nature to love.  I believe it is where we came from and what we are here to learn.

I also believe there is a definition of love that covers all the bases.  It includes self-love and informs love in marriage and partnership, in friendship and families, in love of community and love of nation, in love of nature and love of God.  It tells us what to do when we want to love and guides us toward action when we choose to love.

Here’s what I believe:  Love is a commitment to the fulfillment of another.  It involves an ongoing choice to think and act in ways that support others in recognizing and utilizing their gifts and developing their potential.  It offers support and creates conditions where they can be fully and completely at ease being fully and completely themselves.  

Let’s break this down.  First of all it is a commitment.  That means it must be chosen consistently - not once during a ceremony, but many times during a day. It isn’t an ability that we master or a goal we reach. Its never finished and cannot be fully accomplished. What really matters is not how far we’ve come but the direction we’re heading in.  Having loved deeply for a long time makes it easier to choose love but it doesn’t mean that we will.  One simple question can guide our thoughts and actions: Are we moving toward love or away from love?  It’s a choice to be made moment by moment for the rest of our lives.

Second, We have to pay attention.  It’s not easy to choose love when we’re in a hurry, under pressure, or when tension is building.  It requires balance, and that too is a choice.

Third, we need to see clearly.  We need to understand how another person’s feelings and perspective make sense to them. This involves letting go of fear, blame, judgment, and dead-end statements and labels that block us from understanding each other. It requires focus on what we can do rather than what the other is doing or not doing.  We need to recognize that there is a best way to handle every situation, no matter how dire, and that we diminish ourselves and others to the extent that we place ourselves above or below them.  In short, it involves compassion, personal responsibility, hope, and humility.

We also need to commit to what is true and to recognize that each person has an essential dignity and value that can contribute to the betterment of us all.

This definition of love has no boundaries.  It extends well beyond love for a partner to love for family, friends, and neighbors.  It expands to love of one’s community, region, and country, and ultimately grows into love of all humanity and all life, to love of nature, and love of God. (What else could be God’s greatest desire and fulfillment than for each of us to fully develop the gifts and potential that were given to us.)  Exclusion and isolation stop love.  Choosing to include and connect with everyone who is touched by our actions and decisions makes it easier for them to feel loved and supported in their choice whether to love.

Modern culture does not seem to offer much support for this meaning of love.  The structure of our economy, politics, and the media tend to narrow our focus, make us self-centered, and throw us out of balance.  We learn to play games with the truth, exclude those we don’t know, and disconnect from anyone who is seen as different or a potential threat.  Too many of our leaders lean toward the nasty kind of Philautia (the selfish desire for pleasure, power, and wealth).
The opposite of love is fear and self-interest at the expense of others.  Politicians use fear to get elected.  The media use it to grab and hold our attention.  Self-interest at the expense of others is accepted as an aspect of competition and we are told is “hard wired” into our nature.  The definition of love offered here assumes there is a potential for good in everyone.  We can choose to love or we can choose fear and self-interest.  It is not an easy choice in our world today.

We can easily mistake love as giving someone what they want, for being polite, or sacrificing ourselves for another.  But these acts are only loving to the extent that they lead to the recognition and fulfillment of one’s gifts and potential.  Love may be kind, but it is not always nice.  Sometimes the most loving thing we can do is to confront.  Sometimes the most loving thing is to leave.

Love doesn’t burn out because we are part of the picture.  It is not a matter of loving self before loving others but loving self as well as others. Choosing love involves maintaining a balance between care for self (realizing our own gifts and potential) and care for the well-being of others.  To do one at the expense of the other excludes one from a love that, according to this definition, is radically inclusive.

Imagine what our world might look like if people dedicated themselves to learning to love in this way. Partners would create a deepening bond as each supports fulfillment of the other.  They would raise children who would do the same for their children.  People would come together to tap into the potential and improve the quality of neighborhoods, communities, and nations.  More and more of us would recognize the value and importance of the natural world and our place within it.  We would confront divisiveness in all its forms.  If the media wanted our attention and politicians our votes, they would have to stop spreading blame, discord, and hate and begin to work toward respect for truth, recognition of the dignity and potential of each person, and the value of inclusion and connection.

This is a process, not a utopia.  As Erich Fromm said, it “requires discipline, concentration, patience, faith, and the overcoming of narcissism.”  At any given moment we are either moving toward love or heading toward divisiveness and the selfish desire for pleasure, power, and wealth.

Let’s choose love.  It just might work.

-Bob Van Oosterhout