Editor’s note: This is part three in our weekly relationship series “Talking Connections.” Sensitive content may follow.
With Valentine’s Day seen as a day of love, it is a good time to talk about what love really is.
“Love is a complex set of emotions, behaviors, and beliefs associated with strong feelings of affection, protectiveness, warmth, and respect for another person,” according to the Good Therapy website. “Love can also be used to apply to non-human animals, to principles and to religious beliefs. For example, a person might say he or she loves his or her dog, loves freedom, or loves God.”
Love has been a favored topic of philosophers, poets, writers and scientists for generations, and different people and groups have often disagreed about its definition.
“While most people agree that love implies strong feelings of affection, there are many disagreements about its precise meaning, and one person’s ‘I love you’ might mean something quite different than another’s,” according to the Good Therapy website.
The Good Therapy website listed some possible definitions of love. These include: a willingness to prioritize another’s well-being or happiness above your own; extreme feelings of attachment, affection and need; dramatic, sudden feelings of attraction and respect; a fleeting emotion of care, affection and like; a choice to commit to helping, respecting and caring for another, such as in marriage or when having a child; or some combination of the above emotions.
“You can go the romantic all-encompassing desire for another person on an emotional basis,” said David Wahl, a graduate student in sociology. “You can have it as some sort of a more domestic trusting relationship of intimacy, it is really hard to put all together.”
Wahl said people love in different ways. The way someone loves their partner is completely different from the way someone loves their friends. He said love with a partner could be more romantic whereas love with friends could be more about trust and confidentiality.
People in romantic relationships and out of romantic relationships can display love in a wide variety of ways, depending on their relationship with the person and how everyone involved defines love.
In his book “The 5 Love Languages,” Gary Chapman explains that people show their love in five distinct ways: words of affirmation; acts of service; receiving gifts; quality time; and physical touch.
Depending on the relationship between different people, the way they show love for one another may differ, such as romantic partners using touch through sex while on the other side touch can be used by friends through hugs.
“Understanding how we want to receive love and how we want to give love can be challenging,” said Amy Popillion, teaching professor for human development and family studies. “‘Are we at a point that we can realize that there are things we need?' For example in my relationship, I feel like we are further along, we have done a lot of communication around that. He had this crisis at work that literally took about two weeks and I was able to say the other day, ‘Okay I have been really supportive of you these two weeks and I have purposely done that but I can start to feel myself become lonely.’ That is why communication around love is important.”
Popillion also said that how people show love is how they think “feeling loved” is but those actions may not be enough or even the right actions for the receiving person.
One of the biggest and well-known ways of displaying love for another person is simply saying the phrase “I love you,” which ties in as “words of affirmation” for Chapman.
“To be ‘in love’ is the recognition of being in that state of emotion, of finding yourself in a position where you have that connection to another person,” Wahl said. “Recognition of emotion, recognition of a connection, that would be being ‘in love.’”
In a Psychology Today article, Aaron Ben-Ze'ev, a professor from the University of Haifa, Israel, said it does not matter who says "I love you" first, or who says it more frequently, just as it does not matter whether you are the first or the second on your partner's romantic and sexual list.
“What matters is the profundity of your relationship and the way it develops. Timing and ranking are of no concern—depth and flourishing are what count. In light of the above considerations, in many circumstances, an appropriate response to a declaration of love might be ‘I think I love you, but I can't be sure whether it is profound love until we've been together longer,’” according to the Psychology Today website.
One conversation around the phrase “I love you” is that people fear it.
“People fear saying ‘I love you’ because it exposes vulnerability,” Wahl said. “Once you say you love someone, you have exposed yourself. You are now vulnerable and people fear to be in vulnerable situations. Once you say that you do not know if someone is going to say it back to you, you are putting a lot out there.”
Wahl also said people may put too much importance on the phrase.
“It goes beyond just ‘I feel this way about you,’ people put on a lot more connotations on to that almost like it is a binding contract,” Wahl said. “‘Once I say that to her I can’t take that back,’ like it is some sort of binding contract.”
Wahl said people may also avoid using the phrase to try and avoid pain. It may bring up pain for others or avoiding it may help lessen pain if a relationship ends.
“I definitely know in my life where I have grown up with trauma, I had grown up with people saying they loved me but yet they were also physically abusive at the same time, that creates a really strong contradiction,” Popillion said. “So when you get in a healthy relationship it is really confusing, you might always be waiting for the bomb to drop.”
Love is also more than just feelings, it can potentially affect someone’s mental health if they feel they lack it.
“Although almost no one can agree on a single definition of love, most people do agree that love plays a significant role in both physical and psychological well-being,” according to the Good Therapy website. “Numerous studies have demonstrated the benefits of love.”
The Good Therapy website listed some examples of the effects of feeling unloved. These include: the fact that babies who are not shown love and affection in the form of frequent holding and cuddling may be developmentally delayed or ill; feeling unloved is strongly correlated with feelings of low self-esteem and depression; people who both feel loved by others and who report loving other people tend to be happier; and love can play a role in long-term health and feeling emotionally connected may help increase immunity.
“Love is important because it situates us in a position with another person where there is a strong emotional bond,” Wahl said. “It is those strong emotional bonds which mean so much to us as human beings. We want those bonds so that we have someone else that we can relate to, to share values and beliefs, to share our most intimate secrets, someone that will be there when we get into trouble or need help, love is a bit co-dependent.”
One thing to point out is also the difference between love and lust, both of which are often connected with extreme emotions.
“Especially in the early stages of a relationship, it can be difficult to tell the difference between love and lust,” according to the Good Therapy website. “Both are associated with physical attraction and an intoxicating rush of feel-good chemicals, coupled with an often overwhelming desire to be closer to another person, but only one is long-lasting: love.”
Love is something that is cultivated between two people and grows over time, through getting to know a partner and experiencing life’s many ups and downs together. It involves commitment, time, mutual trust and acceptance.
“Lust, on the other hand, has to do with the sex-driven sensations that draw people toward one another initially and is fueled primarily by the urge to procreate,” according to the Good Therapy website. “Characterized by sex hormones and idealistic infatuation, lust blurs our ability to see a person for who [they] truly are and consequently, it may or may not lead to a long-term relationship.”