What is love?
My psychoanalyst friend says that love is a strategy to fill the existential void of our lives. My brother thinks that we're attracted to people who we think will make good babies. I asked a professor "What is love?" and was told that love is really just sex.
There are so many different ways to think about romantic loving and how we end up choosing whom to say "I love you" to, and the science is not clear-cut. Romantic love is a complex web of lust, desire, passion, yearning, intimacy, among other things. Below are the six main ways we define love (and romance!) in the Western world:
1. Love is salvation.
The ancient Greek philosopher Plato described love as merging. In Symposium, an ancient book about love, the character Aristophanes explains that people used to be round creatures with four arms, four legs and two faces. They attacked the gods and as punishment, Zeus cut them all in two. Since then, people have desired their other half and yearn to grow back into their original whole.
This myth encouraged the idea of romantic loving as a union of two people who, in compensating for each other's deficiencies, together make a single entity. That there is only one other person capable of doing this fostered the idea that finding one’s other half would result in perfect happiness, making it a monogamous and eternal bond, as well as one that allows for complete disclosure to, and understanding of, one another.
Many modern definitions of romantic love incorporate aspects of Aristophanes' myth. For example, we talk about lovers being soul mates, uniting, creating a 'we', and finding 'the one'.
2. Love is passion.
Love is an exhilarating rollercoaster ride. Physical attraction is intense, emotions run wild, and we form a deep connection. The problem is that passion fizzles. Think of the movie Take This Waltz, where Margot trades in companionship with Lou for the intense chemistry with Daniel, which also fizzles out after they tire of experimenting with an array of sexual fantasies.
3. Love is wanting a family.
Love tempts us towards those who seem to promise happiness and pleasure, but really it is a sick illusion that tricks us into propagating the human species. Well, that is what the philosopher Schopenhauer and evolutionary theorists think. They suggest that passion is really all about reproduction, and that intimacy serves to support the relationship and give offspring a better chance of surviving.
4. Love is having a lot in common.
People fall in love because they have similar stories or experiences. The more differences there are in lovers' stories, the greater the risk of frustration within their relationship. This view would suggest that opposites don't attract.
5. Love is self-transcendence.
When we fall in love, we learn from each other, we are exposed to things we never experienced before, and we meet new people and make new friends. So, loving is a way that we grow—by reaching out into the world beyond the situations that we find ourselves in.
6. Love is friendship (if you're lucky).
If lovers are lucky, fading passion evolves into a deep, meaningful, and lasting friendship, or simple companionship that saves lovers from feeling lonely. Either way, it makes up for less adventurous gymnastics in the bedroom.
Dr. Skye Cleary is an Australian philosopher and author of Existentialism and Romantic Love. She holds a PhD and MBA from Macquarie University in Australia, works at Columbia University, co-founded the Manhattan Love Salon, lectures at the New York Public Library, and is a certified fellow with the American Philosophical Practitioners Association. Previously, she was an international equity arbitrageur and management consultant. She has a black belt in taekwondo and lives in New York City with her husband and son. You can read more of her writing at SkyeCleary.com.
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This article was originally published at SkyeCleary.com. Reprinted with permission from the author.