Love: A New Model

Love: a new model


Unpacking “Love” and Loves

Positive emotions tend to get lumped as “love” in English and many other languages.  The great cognitive psychologist Jerome Kagan (2006) admonishes us to unpack simple cover terms for psychological states, and see their full complexity.  If we do this with the English word “love,” we realize that we are talking about many quite different feelings.  There is a common emotional ground:  intense affection for and interest in a specific person or thing.

Still, the emotions associated with that enthusiasm and intensity can be very different indeed.   I love my wife, mixed green salad, and early medieval poetry.  Obviously, these three kinds of love are phenomenologically different.  Even love for the same individual may mean different emotions at different times.  My love for my oldest daughter, now 45, is certainly a different set of feeling from my love for her when she was newborn.

There is a delightful Spanish Renaissance song about a peasant who loves three things:  Inés, ham, and eggplants with cheese (which Inés obligingly cooks for him).  The poet assumes that his sophisticated readers will laugh indulgently at the foolish young swain who can’t tell a noble passion from a satisfied stomach (Alcázar 1961:167; my translation and discussion of it have been incorporated by David Kronenfeld into his book on cognition: 2008:212-213).

One can distinguish, within the space covered by the word “love,” at least the following quite different emotions or feeling-states.  (Various other minds have animadverted to this sort of listing.  A somewhat different list with some other possibilities is found in Kenrick et al. 2010; Hatfield et al. 2007 give a whole list of types of erotic love.):

Erotic infatuation

Familial love:  parents and children, siblings, relatives

Friendship and companionship

Dependency (loving someone solely because one depends on the person; a major part, though by no means all, of an infant’s love for parents; common in erotic relationships also)

Enjoying good food and other physical comforts

Familiarity love:  love for a pair of old shoes, or an old bathrobe, just because they are so familiar

Love for wild nature: flowers, mountains, deer, flowing water

Aesthetic love for great art, music, literature

Love for all humanity, or even all beings, as taught by world religions

Love for knowledge and wisdom:  philosophy, social theory, baseball statistics

Spiritual love (for God or functional equivalents, for natural wonders, and so on)

Love for principles:  justice, truth, helping

Patriotic love:  a strange emotion.  It seems to be basically passionate loyalty to leaders transferred to an abstract concept (the nation, state, or flag).

All these loves have subdivisions.  Erotic love, for instance, varies from wild passion—considered a major medical problem in olden times (Wack 1990)—to calm, quiet bliss (Hatfield et al. 2007).  In a lasting marriage, erotic infatuation generally gives way to companionate love.  There are many whole books on how to revive the infatuation, indicating a pent-up demand for that.  A love affair or marriage, if it’s any good, involves a range of loves:  erotic attraction, friendship, trust, mutual dependence, familiarity, and so on.  We get used to thinking that way, and have trouble unpacking “love.”

Familiarity love typically increases with time, but sometimes we get to hate familiar things more and more, and sometimes a worn shoe is just a worn shoe.  Usually this depends on whether the shoe has been worn in pleasant or unpleasant contexts (hiking shoes may be loved, formal ones just thrown away when a bit frayed) but sometimes the logic of familiarity love escapes us.  Children are particularly unpredictable in this regard.  Contemplate any young child’s choice of favorite stuffed animal, and the way such choice may change suddenly for no apparent reason.   “Loving” things like a familiar pair of old shoes, or a favorite food, involves awfully minimal interest.  Boundary phenomena define a category, so we cannot neglect the old shoes.

Aesthetic love is so vague as to be almost a “garbage-can category.”  Love for Bach’s harpsichord music seems pretty far from love for Tolstoi’s novels or Navaho rugs.  Even within music, love for Chinese opera seems hard to square with love for Chinese classical music (which is slow, soft, and mostly solo), but Chinese music aficionados adore both.

Patriotic love involves loving an abstraction, in an oddly impersonal yet passionate way.  This seems a very human thing; one can imagine a dog trained to die for a flag, but not to understand the abstract concept of “the nation” behind it.

In English, and in many other languages, the word “love,” by itself, is always understood to mean boy-girl.  It does not even include parent-child love, let alone a gourmet’s love for poule de Bresse.  One particularly benighted recent article on Darwin and psychology, for instance, restricts “love” to reproduction, listing only love for mate (singular) and kids (Nesse and Ellsworth 2009).  Psychologists of romance also restrict “love” to couples (Sternberg and Sternberg 2008; Sternberg and Weis 2006).  Some are even more extreme, considering teenage crushes as “infatuation,” not love.  All these limitations are truly culture-bound.  They exclude not only the hapless teenagers, but also temporary affairs, polygamous relationships (which can be deeply loving in China, Korea, and elsewhere), polyamory in general, and indeed everything except middle-class Anglo-American ideal mating.  One would think that no one ever has positive emotions outside of erotic passion and, perhaps, mothers’ love for babies.  There is very little on fathering, and, to my knowledge, not a single study of grandparental love (as opposed to the evolutionary significance of grandparenting).

Even romantic love has only recently been studied beyond the level of simplistic boy-girl mating (Sternberg and Weis 2006).  Rusbult et al. (2009) have recently shown that couples flourish in proportion to how much each member thinks the other brings out his or her “ideal self.”  This not only presents a relatively new subject for scientific research (novelists have long noted it, of course) but meshes with Viktor Frankl’s writings and other works that speak of the deeper desires of the human animal for ideals, life commitments, and true personal meaning in life.  We are most different from other animals when we are most involved with lifetime visions and projects.

This, however, somewhat ignores the fact that each love is different.  It often occurs that one passionately loves a person for reasons A, B, and C, then in the next affair passionately loves a person for reasons X, Y, and Z, then in yet a third affair loves a person in a quiet, gentle, non-“passionate” way.

The western world has had a positive, romantic idea of erotic love since the Greeks and Ovid.  Others have different ideas of it, and their knowledge might well be taken into account by modern psychologists.  In the Middle Ages, romantic love, at least if it became “severe” enough to interfere with ordinary life, was often considered a form of melancholia or other mental trouble, and treated by doctors—or sometimes philosophers (Burton 1932).  This was especially true in the Near East.  Here is the Arab physician ‘Ali ben ‘Abbās (c. 994) on dealing with this vexing illness: “On the Treatment of Love…. Such patients should undergo a moistening regime….  They should take baths, moderate horse exercise and anoint themselves with oil of violets.  They should look upon gardens, fields, meadows, and flowers, listen to sweet and low sounds as of the lute or lyre, and their minds should be occupied by stories or pleasant and interesting news.  But they must also have some work or business, so as to keep them from ideness, and from thoughts of the loved ones, and it is good to excite them to quarrel and argument that their minds may be yet further distracted” (Kamal 1975:421).

Perhaps the best balance is found in another Arab work, The Ring of the Dove by ibn Hazm (1953).  Ibn Hazm was a sober, serious judge and a leading authority on Islamic law.  That did not stop him from writing perhaps the most urbane, tolerant and wise book ever written on romance—one which, incidentally, gives equal place to homosexual and heterosexual love, without making an issue of it.  The book is a useful corrective to the extremist concepts of Islam now all too visible in the media.  Ibn Hazm covers everything from happy lifelong mating to obsessive and dangerous infatuation, with appropriate notes on treating the latter.

A vast amount of ink has been spilled on how love “evolved”—usually, I fear, by people who do not know much Darwinian theory.  This literature is inadequate even for boy-girl love, and ignores every other sort.  We all know now that fairly big breasts and a small waist attract men because they show reproductive fitness, and that men and women everywhere want someone who will listen to them and be sympathetic and kind, but we know surprisingly little more about even this best-studied of types of love.  We know a good deal about parent-infant bonding and early love, but there are mysteries here and many ridiculous claims in the literature (see Anderson 2007).  We have no clue—beyond the obvious facts known to the ancients—about how human family bonding with older children and grandchildren is maintained.  The family dog’s love for us is rather better studied than our love for him (Serpell 1995).  “Lord, help me be the person my dog thinks I am,” says a bumper sticker.  Showing how humans and mice are alike does not tell us how love evolved; we want an account of how humans and mice are different.  One doubts if a mouse wants someone who brings out his or her ideal self.

The literature on romance reaches amazing heights of of ridiculousness.  Great effort has been expended on a quest to find human body scents that attract the opposite sex.  This quest remains futile, yet biologists claim that love must be a chemical process.  The BBC (Murphy 2009) reported one Tim Jacobs as saying of love scent-chemistry:  “Unfortunately all this doesn’t seem to leave much room for romance.”  Well, yes, if it were true.  But we have plenty of hard evidence that love is about listening, caring, sharing ideal selves, living together and accommodating, and much else that is romantic—and no evidence that natural body smells are involved except in the well-known negative way.  An expert on the matter, Tristram Wyatt, writes:  “[S]o far, no [human] pheromones have been conclusively identified, despite stories in the popular press” (Wyatt 2009:263).  The human animal is wired to like natural-disinfectant smells on skin, hence the popularity of perfumes, most of which are based on disinfectant chemicals like lavender, jasmine, and rose oils.  Musk is an exception—an animal sex attractant—so one cannot rule out human sex attractant chemicals.  Certainly people are more sensitive to natural scents than we used to think.  Studies show people recognize their children’s and loves’ odors.  But romance survives.

David Buss, once the champion of extreme simplicity in regard to male-female attractions (women want wealth, men want reproductive vigor), now admits that men have many disparate strategies for attracting women (Buss 2009:143-144).  The insights of evolutionary psychology, cutting through common sense to the real core of things, have ended with a lame admission that common sense was right all the time.


Many languages are sharply different, focusing their words equivalent to “love” on the parent-child bond.  This too involves a range of emotionalities.  Some parents live for their children; others dutifully love their children without being much interested in them as people—especially once they have left home.  Cultures that focus on parent-child love (as in Polynesia, and on the island of Chuuk; see below) sometimes have different words for the other emotions in the “love” camp.  Ancient Greek unpacked “love” into eros for the obvious, agape for ideal selfless (nonsexual) love, caritas for compassionate love, and the verb philein for general strong positive affect.  The latter in turn had derivatives like philadelphia for “brotherly love” (a quality rather rare these days in the city named for it…).  There is also storge “friendship,” and still other words for mothering.  Already in the 18th century, Johann Herder, a major ancestor of anthropology, discussed various German loves and love-words in the late 18th century (Herder 1993:115-6).

All this means that “love” is a very difficult concept to use as “a motive.” Jesus clearly meant for people to “love one another” in the familial and companionate senses—a broad spirit of warm, accepting sociability.  Yet countless millions of Christians over time have interpreted it as meaning that their prime duty was to kill anyone who disagreed with them, or even anyone who looked different.

Real love for particular persons leads to caring and responsibility, unless one is fearfully disempowered, but obviously some kinds of love lead more directly and seriously to this than others do.  Family love (not erotic love) stands out as by far the most important motivator of care.  Companionate love is a strong second.  Caring for the environment is a lower priority (if it is a priority at all) compared to taking care of one’s family.  If my family was starving and I had to catch the last members of an endangered fish species to keep them alive, I would do it, though I realize that, to the world, the survival of my family may matter less than the survival of the fish.  Worldwide, millions of people are faced with essentially this choice.  Poverty forces them to catch fish, or cut down forests, to feed their families, though they may know that the end result of overuse is starvation for all.

Love, friendship, and respect are more based on morals than psychologists thought.  A recent study by Goodwin et al (2014) finds that morals beat warmth, pleasantness, and sociability in the long run, in evaluating persons.  More research is needed, but at the least, having shared morals makes for better relationships of any kind.  Conversely, McClure and Lydon (2014) found that people with high attachment anxiety are considered very undesirable as mates or partners.  Attachment anxiety typically follows from an approach-avoidance upbringing (often by an attachment-anxious mother).  It is a major handicap for anyone seeking a mate, and thus one of those things that ought to be addressed on a wide scale.

Love and caring may lead to active warm interest, but often we are interested in something we don’t really love—as I am interested in social theory without exactly “loving” either the theory or society itself.   In fact, most of us are interested in murder (at least to the point of reading mystery novels), and we certainly do not love that.  Conversely, the dependency love noted above usually goes with relatively little interest in the recipient, or with a very special kind of interest.  A newborn baby loves its mother and is intensely interested in her, in immediate personal ways, but obviously is not prepared to ask about her life story and hobbies.  Most of us know loving, long-standing married couples that have no intellectual interest in each other’s lives or thoughts.  Such couples are notoriously prone to break up when the kids leave home—they have nothing left to talk about.

Mystical experience is a part of intense erotic love for some (many?) people, but need not be, and mystical experience without love is common.

The development of love in humans can be roughly divided into stages, following Freud and Erik Erikson (1950) but without their specific theory commitments.  Babies and young children love without much understanding of those they love, or even knowing enough to seek understanding; they love from dependence and because of nurturing, care, and contact.  Teenagers tend to have brief, intense infatuations based on often rather superficial reasons, such as the conventional attractiveness or the popularity of their loves.  Their friendships are often similarly based and similarly transient.  Adults love from sharing, mutual friendship, longstanding commitment, trust, and the like.  Finally, a highest stage of erotic love, reserved for a fortunate few (or more—no one seems to know, involves a real mutual interest—seeking for knowledge of what will really please the other, seeking for knowledge of the other’s life and interests, but holding one’s own and expecting a return.  This sort of lifelong-learning love also plays across other attachments:  to friends, career, landscapes, art, even machines.


Hedonia and eudaimonia

Following Aristotle and his time, psychologists now distinguish between two very different kinds of happiness (Waterman 2007).  Hedonia is just good immediate fun.  Eudaimonia is the happiness, or satisfaction, that comes from having a deep life commitment.  Evolutionarily, this would have been one’s genetic destiny—children, and in a long-mated species like ours, normally also the other parent of said children.  By extension, humans have come to see life careers as meaningful.  Probably this evolved, and long ago:  hunter-gatherers had to feel eudaimonia for hunting and gathering, to motivate them to go out and get food for their families.

The obvious difference between hedonia and eudaimonia is that eudaimonia often isn’t much fun, but in the end is a lot more satisfying.  Parents, not only human ones but even higher animals, find young children are often an appalling trial, but more wonderful and delightful than all the “fun” in the world.  Many of us find our careers to be like that too.  I am perpetually being told to stop working and have some fun for a change; I can’t get it through people’s heads that I enjoy my work more than “fun.”

Some people seem wired for hedonia, some for eudaimonia.  Many people maintain a balance, but some seem interested only in immediate fun and unable to sustain commitments, others live for long-term goals and find transient pleasures quite unsatisfying.  Personality theories have sometimes noted this difference, but we do not really understand it.

Simply being interested is an extremely important, and extremely undervalued, mood-state.  Normal people are overwhelmingly interested in their social world, as we have seen.  Many are not very interested in anything else, though most people seem to expand their interest to take into account their work and work environments.  Some few, but reliably one or two in every group, displace much interest onto nature.  This becomes institutionalized as “science” when rapid expansion of a trade-and-commerce economy leads to floods of new information, as in Athens, early Islam, medieval China, and the western world since 1400.




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