“Love is a many-splendored thing…” How many popular songs, books, or movies, can you think of which avoid love scenes and themes? Why is reference to love so universal and ubiquitous?
Yet, at the same time, how many conversations delve deeply into the nature of love or attempt a clear and comprehensive definition?
How important, then, is a serious consideration of love? On the one hand, boys are whispering into someone’s ear, “I love you.” Then, on the other hand, a commercial makes fun of young men able to say they love their beer, but unable to express love for their girlfriend. Meanwhile teenagers are talking about “making love” to this one or that (of course they have other expressions for sex as well).
Do you see a basic difference between (mere) lust and (real) love? How, then, can we tell the difference?
It seems clear that many in our culture cannot tell the difference between strong physical and emotional attraction and long-lasting, committed love. Our marriage and divorce rates seem to bear that out.
According to David Boyle and Aniti Roddick’s 2004 book Shocking, Hilarious, Bizarre, Mindboggling, Frightening! Fascinating Numbers, ten percent of people who have extramarital affairs and get a divorce, go on to marry the person they were having the affair with. Likewise, according to the June 2007 issue of The Oprah Magazine:
-Los Vegas, Nevada, which is known as the “Wedding Capital,” issues an average of 120,000 marriage licenses each year. Yet the state also has the highest divorce rate in the country.
-In New York’s Yankee Stadium, the scoreboard gets inundated with marriage proposals at least once per game. Yet at least five times per year, someone calls “frantically” and cancels their scheduled proposal.
Obviously, when it comes to saying, “I do,” many are quite squeamish.
What accounts, then, for this disparity between love and lust? Why can’t we often tell the difference? The Wikipedia article on “Love” points out that this is due in large part to the lack of a universal definition of the term.
The English word “love” can have a variety of related but distinct meanings in different contexts. Often, other languages use multiple words to express some of the different concepts that English relies mainly on “love” to encapsulate. One example is the plurality of Greek words for “love” (eros for physical, sexual love; philia for brotherly, friendly love, and agape for godly, unconditional love). Cultural differences in conceptualizing love thus make it doubly difficult to establish any universal definition.
There are also many varied philosophies and theologies of love. Psychologist Robert Sternberg formulated a Triangular Theory of love arguing that love has three different components:
Passion, which in contemporary culture is the most common form of love. This includes sexual attraction and is shown through infatuation and romantic love.
Intimacy, where two people share confidences and various details of their personal lives. This is usually shown in both close friendships and in romantic love affairs.
Commitment, or the expectation that the relationship is permanent.
Sternberg here indicates three levels of love—or even three definitions of the word. The statistics on marriage above seem to indicate too many see these aspects of love as mutually exclusive, sensing they can choose whatever aspect of love feels best for them at the time. In the minds of many, intimacy need not lead to commitment, nor passion to either intimacy or commitment.
Perhaps love is best understood from stories. Great writers have provided the world with stories like the Greek Paris and Helena, the German Tristan and Isolde, the British Lancelot and Guinevere. A quintessential story of young love is found in William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler (in “Gone with the Wind”), Tony and Maria in “West Side Story,” Bella and Edward in “Twilight,” have roused the feelings of young and old. Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachael, and the lovers in the Song of Songs, are biblical examples. To these we can all add our favorite romance.
Psychologist William Glasser, in his Reality Therapy, said all human beings have two basic needs:
1. to love and be loved;
2. to achieve and be affirmed as successful in something, to feel worthwhile.
If he is right, that we all need both love and achievement in life, our life quest becomes a search for the right kind of love and accomplishment.
There are many vague philosophies and theologies of love around these days. Really loving everyone seems impossible. Unconditional love toward an abusive partner, an addictive son, daughter or friend, can be dangerous to all; it so easily leads to enabling and co-dependence. This is where the idea of “tough love” comes in. We have defined tough love as “the willingness to hurt and be hurt for another’s healing, growth and welfare.”
You undoubtedly have much to add to this discussion of love. Hopefully you can do it with others who are interested.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
1. What is your reaction to this article? Do you agree that lack of a common understanding of love, or a misinterpretation of its meaning is a contemporary problem? Or, are you one who feels that love should be watched, experienced, felt, perhaps joked and gossiped about, without trying to break it down or understand it?
2. How would you define love?
3. Have you ever been in love? How many times? Do you believe there is a true or best love only experienced once in a lifetime?
4. How important is it for a society, for its media, to have a healthy understanding of love? What harm can distortions of love do?
5. What do you think of these two statements: “Love is what makes the world go round,” and “Economics (consumption) is what makes the world go round.”?
6. How would you describe your commitment to be a lover?
1. An understanding of love seems to be the foundation for healthy interaction with the world. Loving and achieving do seem to be primary goals for wholesome human living.
2. Love is experienced first in the womb and at the breast. Love is then found in family and friends. Reading and movies bring the subject of love to a growing person’s attention, and soon young love is being played out among friends.
3. There is something fundamentally satisfying in loving and being loved. The absence of love prevents full human development—rejection and abuse hinders growth. A human being without love tends to live an isolated and unhappy life.
4. It is commonly accepted that we can search for love in all the wrong places.
5. People of faith see in the human heart a craving for ultimate divine love. Lack of this love seems to create a futile quest search for substitutes.