What is love?!


I want to thank you for the opportunity to share my efforts at grappling with this big question.


I thought about polling you on some questions, but I realized they were probably rhetorical, so I won’t ask for a show of hands.

Have you ever believed you loved someone? 


Have you ever stopped loving someone, after you thought you did?


Have you ever felt you loved your parents… or your children?


Have you ever ever felt you loved

a sports team, a movie,

someone you’ve never met,

an inanimate object…

          A car…       Shoes…      chocolate?!


What an amazing, versatile word, or concept or emotion it is! 

Could it really apply in all those situations?


Is love a behavior? …feeling?…an energy


Could there be some sort of unified field theory of love;


can love, like quantum light, be more than one thing at once?… both a particle and a wave?


Ortega y Gasset said : “no land in human topography is less explored than love.”


On the other hand, an internet search on the word “love” gets 59,000,000 hits on Yahoo.




Welwood says: 

“Now that most of the old rules for relationship no longer apply, starting from “I Don’t Know” is the essential first step

on our own path of discovering what genuine

 intimacy, love and communication involve.


That seems like a good place to start.



When I was in college, I was trained in the reductionist psychology of behaviorism, which  seemed intent on understanding all of human behavior in a mechanical context of  instinct and stimulus response learning. 


One evening I undertook a sort of thought experiment,

trying to see if there was anything about myself

that couldn’t be explained in the mechanical functioning

of a highly sophisticated robot. 

One by one, as I examined my behavior and emotions,

it seemed I could fit everything into that model.

I could even see that the strong feelings for my girlfriend

 had a lot to do with hormones and instinct to perpetuate the species.  It was chilling. 

But then I felt overcome by belief that there was one thing

that defied that mechanistic explanation:

my love for this girl …who would eventually become my wife. 

And when our first child was born,  it seemed clear

that his very life was a physical manifestation of that love.


I continue to be fascinated by that theme,

questioning what it really means to be human. 

Of course, my favorite character in Star Trek: The Next Generation was Data, the android. 

In one of my favorite episodes, we see him create his offspring, manifested as a teenage girl. 

Despite his exceptional manifestations of

caretaking, loyalty, concern, protectiveness…

all the attributes of a good parent,

he acknowledges that he cannot feel love for her. 


In another favorite, a judge rules on whether Data has something akin to human rights, or is simply a piece of equipment, or property. 

One piece of evidence, that he had been “intimate” with a past crew member for whom he seemed to maintain a sentimental attachment, was inconclusive. 

In the end, the judge defines the essential question as,

“Does he have a soul?”, and allows he has as much right to explore the uncertainty of that question as any of us.


Ironically, the actress who played the judge, Amanda McBroom,  was the author of this song that attempts to answer to today’s question:

                              THE ROSE

Some say love it is a river, That drowns the tender reed

Some say love it is a razor, That leaves your soul to bleed

Some say love it is a hunger, An endless aching need

I say love it is a flower, And you it's only seed.







Let’s see if we can learn anything by examining love through the lens of History


The ancient Greeks didn’t seek any unified theory. 

They were content to recognize 3 different concepts of love.


Agape, was what Joseph Campbell defined as–

“the sublimating spirit, the mind and the community of man”,

or a sort of spiritual love of all humanity.


Eros was “the spontaneity of nature, the mutual incitement of the phallus and the womb”,

or sexual love


Philia has been described as “brotherly love”.

Agape’s love of “all humanity” was limited in that it did not necessarily include outsiders. 

Originating in a sort of anti-war sentiment preceding the golden age  of Pericles,

There was a new willingness to accept people from other states or regions as also human, like us.

 The resulting relationship with former enemies was called philia, care and love of the other as “friend”


The Romans added the Latin word “caritas”…

extension of care and kindness and a commitment to the welfare of those who are ‘not kin’.



Aristotle though the highest form of love was

the attachment that exists between friends…


The concept of Amor, (or Minne in German) 

arose in the 11th century. 

The Doctrine of Courtly love, inspired by Sufi’s,

was developed by poets and troubadours in the courts of nobility [who I picture as the Michael Boltons of their day]

in the south of France. 

It follows the lead and allure of the senses… in particular sight….

It is the belief that love cannot exert its powers between two people who are married to each other. 

Lovers give each other everything freely,

under no compulsion or necessity,

but married people are in duty bound

to give in to each other’s desires.

The purest romantic love was never sexually consummated.


Before the industrial Revolution,

marriage always existed within a network of wider social supports…  Marriage was an alliance of families, not individuals.  ..

No traditional society ever considered

individuals’ spontaneous feelings of love

to be a valid basis for enduring relationships between men and women …


Not until the 19th century Victorians

did a society envision marriage based on romantic ideals.


What is different today is the widespread expectation that

[marriage] should provide personal happiness, peace and contentment. 

Measuring love purely in terms of feeling good

leaves us unequipped to handle its

hard, painful or demanding aspects.




What about the realm of Myth… Religion… the Spiritual

… Isn’t this the place where people traditionally look for meaning?


In one of the earliest Greek myths,  Aristophanes writes:

“in the beginning Chaos gave birth to Night and

Erebus, the unfathomable depth where death dwells. 

Then, “…black-winged Night/

Into the bosom of Erebus dark and deep/

Laid a wind-born egg, and as the seasons rolled/

Forth sprang Love, the longed-for,

shining, with wings of gold.”

Edith Hamilton writes:

”From darkness and from death Love was born,

and with its birth, order and beauty began

to banish blind confusion. 

Love created Light … 


So love brings order from chaos,

 the antidote to entropy!

 Maybe my quantum, unified field ideas aren’t so far off after all!


In the myth of Cupid & Psyche…

Psyche is a beautiful woman who arouse the jealousy of Venus.

She sent her son, Cupid to make her fall in love

with the most vile creature in the world. 

But she was so beautiful, even he fell in love. 

He took her for himself,

but insisted she could only be with him in total darkness,

so she wouldn’t know who her lover was. 

But, incited by her sisters,

she snuck in to see him at night,

afraid he must be some sort of monster. 

He turned out to be not so bad after all,

but she spilled hot oil on him and he awoke. 

That ended that. 

But a happy ending was worked out by turning her into a goddess.  This anticipates the work of Carl Jung, who we will discuss later.



In the Christian bible, it is written,

Love is patient, love is kind. 

It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.

It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.

Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 

It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. 


In the story of Tristan and Isolde, Gottfried von Strassburg, writes in 1210:

“I pity love with all my heart;

for though almost all today hold and cleave to her,

no one concedes to her her due. 

We all want our pleasure of her, and to consort with her. 

But no! 

Love is not what we, with our deceptions, are now making of her for each other. 

We are going at things the wrong way. ..

All that we possess of her is the word,

the name alone remains to us;

 and that, too, we have so bandied about, misused and vulgarized, that the poor thing is ashamed of her name,

disgusted with the very sound of it. 


In the Sufi tradition,  Rumi wrote:

Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere. 

They’re in each other all along.”  

And  Ibn al-Arabi writes:

“It is God who in each loved one manifests himself to the gaze of each lover… 

Thus it goes for love;

a creature really loves no one but his Creator.


Haule writes, “The romantic love that results from Cathar and Sufi currents, therefore, is a powerful expression of the human spirit. 

It is an ennobling bond between two human souls

who are separated by physical, moral and social constraints….”



More recently A Course in Miracles asserts,  

“The course does not aim at teaching the meaning of love,

for that is beyond what can be taught…  

the opposite of love is fear,

but what is all-encompassing can have no opposite.”

And “You are only love,

 but when you deny this,

you make what you are

something you must learn to remember.


Or Perhaps there are some clues in Science


The anthropologist  Ashley Montagu  [writes]

‘It has, I believe, universally been acknowledged

that the mother-infant relationship

 perhaps more than any other

defines the very essence of love… 

love is the relationship between persons

which contributes to the welfare and development of each.


Dan Siegel assserts:

“We’ve survived as a species

not so much because of our physical brawn,

 but due to our interpersonal capacity. 

More and more, we’re realizing

that evolution has designed our brains

to be shaped by our interpersonal environment.


So Evolution favors someone who can

Love, attach to, and care for a baby.


Psychology, biology and neurobiology seem to agree

on the fundamental importance of attachment,

the process of connecting an infant to its caregivers. 

Attachment is described as

“a tie that binds individuals together over time and space.”


Harlow’s experiments indicate

infant monkeys have a survival need

for what might be called attachment or love

even greater than for food.


So love might be described as

evolution’s way of making us a  social species.


Science tells us that

during the attraction phase of a relationship,

 the brain releases dopamine and norepinephrine…

 the brain increases its production of

endorphins and enkephalins, natural narcotics,

enhancing a person’s sense of security and comfort. 

Dr. Michael Liebowitz… even suggests that

the mystical experience of oneness that lovers undergo

may be caused by an increase in the production of

the neurotransmitter serotonin.

: “When the dopamines, norepinephrines

and especially the phenylethylamines

become chemically neutralized

after a year or two of being metabolized,

like any drug, the natural high of romantic love falls away.





Psychology is a study of

human emotion, behavior and relationships;

perhaps it should have an answer.


To Freud...

’love was really “aim-inhibited sexuality”.

All is sex (libido) or

aggression (death instinct or thanatos)

However, I prefer to define libido more broadly as

“life force”, going beyond sexuality.


Carl Jung laments: 

I falter before the task of

finding the language to express the incalculable paradoxes of love.  Here is the greatest and the smallest,

the remotest and nearest, the highest and lowest,

and we cannot discuss one side of it

without also discussing the other. 

Whatever one can say, no words express the whole.


But Jung hypothesizes that

we project a part of our selves, the anima or animus,

on to the other,

and become attracted to a disowned part of the self

which we recognize in our partner. 

If we are successful, we learn to love the other for who she is,

while taking back the projected part. 

This same animus or anima then comes to represent

the greater spiritual self, which is projected first

onto our concept of God or Higher Consciousness

and then taken back in a recognition of our own greater self.


Ian Suttie states that  infants are

“born with two independent propensities. 

The one that is primary is a desire for

the social give-and-take and responsive relationship

that we call love…. “



Haule says: “Loneliness lies at the very heart of love. 

[ We are] drawn by the person who is

…calling us out of our aloneness.”


Nathaniel Brandon defines,

“Love is, in the most general sense,

our emotional response to that which we value highly. 

As such, it is

the experience of joy in the existence of the loved object,

 joy in proximity, and joy in interaction or involvement.

 …. Love represents a disposition to experience

 the loved being as the embodiment of

profoundly important personal values

---and, as a consequence, a real or potential source of joy.



Harville Hendrix writes

“…all words exchanged between lovers since time began

can be reduced to four basic sentences. 

“I know we’ve just met, but somehow I feel as though I already know you” (“recognition”);

…”even though we’ve only been seeing each other for a short time, I can’t remember when I didn’t know you.” (timelessness);

“When I’m with you, I no longer feel alone; I feel whole, complete.” (reunification);

“I love you so much, I can’t live without you” (necessity). 

 He says, “Romantic love comes easily, but it is fleeting,

nature’s gift from the unconscious

to lure us on the journey to our full potential.”

 Real love is born after the death of romantic love.



As a family therapist, I often discover that couples I work with

insist they love each other,

but each has grown up with a unique mix of messages from their culture, their families, their bodies, their friends… 

Chances are there are some significant differences in their definitions of love. 

Those differing expectations are frequently at the root of their problems.


Perhaps we can find wisdom in Popular Literature


Here is a list of pithy quotes, from mostly famous people:


Love is an ideal thing, marriage a real thing;

a confusion of the real with the ideal never goes unpunished  



In Alice in Wonderland; Lewis Carroll writes.

”Oh ‘tis love, ‘tis love, that makes the world go round”


Benjamin Disraeli:  We are all born for love. 

It is the principle of existence and its only end.


Thornton Wilder:

There is a land of the living and a land of the dead

and the bridge is love,

 the only survival, the only meaning.


Marilyn Gustin:  How about thinking of love as

the force or capacity that is the source of

all our feelings of

wonder, gratitude, beauty, affection, concern, interest, enjoyment,… our “liking”. 


M. Scott Peck:

“I define love thus: 

The will to extend one’s self for the purpose of

nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth../. 

“Falling in love is not an act of will…

is not an extension of one’s limits or boundaries;

it is a partial and temporary collapse of them…

“Genuine love, on the other hand, implies

commitment and the exercise of wisdom. 

Love is constant, it is we who are fickle. 

Love does guarantee, people betray. 

Love can always be trusted, people cannot.


People marry for a variety of other reasons, and with varying results; but to marry for love is to invite inevitable tragedy. 

James Branch Cabell


That great philosopher, Brigitte Bardot, said

“To marry while blindly in love is dangerous;

to marry without it may be fatal.


Alan Watts: Love is an act of surrender to another person;

it is total abandonment.  


Levines  “—the boundarylessness of your own great nature [is]expressed in its rapture and absolute vastness

by the word “love”


Welwood:The dream of love

distracts us from the real path of love,

which continually leads into vast unforeseen possibilities.

The reason [a relationship] often is hard

is that we are set in our ways,

and it takes great energy and dedication to break free of them.. 

Love helps us to do so, by inspiring us to open our heart.


Germaine Greer: the hallmark of egotistical love,

 even when it masquerades as altruistic love,

is the negative answer to the question,

‘Do I want my love to be happy

more than I want him to be with me?’


Carolyn Hax has one of the more recent answers. 

Responding in her advice column,

published last month in the Post-Dispatch,

to a letter asking the question,  “what is love” , she replied

 “It is sharing yourself with someone who enjoys, accepts, honors, supports and experiences life with you as a whole,

not as a list of selected character items and physical traits. 

It is when you return that favor, freely and with pleasure

and without keeping score.  It’s also unique, dynamic, private. 

It’s not limited to romance.  It’s right in front of your face

 in more forms than you can count, which is why if you’re looking for something specific, I highly doubt you’ll see it.”

Perhaps the answer is in the art of poetry and music



From Rilke: 

For one human being to love another human being:

that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been entrusted to us, the ultimate task, the final test and proof,

the work for which all other work is mere preparation. 

Loving does not at first mean

merging, surrendering and uniting with another person

—it is a high inducement for the individual to ripen,

to become something in himself,

to become world, to become world in himself for the sake of another; it is a great, demanding claim on him,

something that chooses him and calls him to vast distances.


 Emily Dickinson:  That Love is all there is,   

             Is all we know of Love


Vincent van Gogh: 

There is the same difference in a person

before and after he is in love,

as there is in an unlighted lamp and one that is burning. 

The lamp was there and was a good lamp,

but now it is shedding light, too

(and this is its real function)


Kahlil Gibran: 

Let [love] be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.


DH Lawrence: Love is a relationship between things that live,

holding them together in a sort of unison…  

Hate is not the opposite of love. 

The real opposite of love is individuality.


The song says:

Love is a many splendored thing…

Love is nature’s way of giving a reason to be living.


In the Wedding Song, Paul Stookey asks:

If loving is the answer, then who’s the giving for? 

Do you believe in something that you’ve never seen before? 

There is love…

What’s to be the reason for becoming man and wife? 

Is it love that brings you here or love that gives you life?


John Lennon wrote,

All You Need is Love



Love is real, Real is Love

Love is feeling, feeling love

Love is wanting to be loved


Love is touch , touch is love

Love is reaching , reaching  love

Love is asking to be loved


Love is you, you and me

Love is knowing we can be


Love is free, free is love

 Love is living, living love

Love is needing be loved



I am he as you are he as

you are me

and we are all together

 Goo goo g’ joob

But it exposes the Dark side of “love”.

Popular music is full of stories about

Possessiveness, suicide, jealousy, obsession…


---Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone.


---I can’t live, if living is without you.


The stories of Frankie and Johnnie, Hey Joe


As a family therapist,

I’ve worked with couples who claim to love spouses or children they’ve treated with astonishing cruelty.


Tina Turner sang



Marriage isn’t a process of prolonging the life of love,

but of mummifying the corpse.  P. G. Wodehouse


Sting wrote in “Every breath you take”:

Since you've gone I've been lost without a trace;

I dream at night, I can only see your face
I look around, but it's you I can't replace; 

I feel so cold, and I long for your embrace
I keep crying baby, baby please,
Oh, can't you see   You belong to me?
How my poor heart aches  With every step you take
Every move you make Every vow you break
Every smile you fake, every claim you stake
I'll be watching you
Every move you make, every step you take 

I'll be watching you
He intended this as a song about a stalker, and was disturbed when he found out it had become a favorite at weddings.


So, is there a Unified Field theory of love?


I think so!


Hendrix writes: 

 “What it all boils down to is that

our inchoate longing for connectedness,

and those moments when

we pierce the veil of our everyday existence,

stem from a hazy memory that at some time we were not separate, but connected to everything,

and particularly to all other humans,

in a way that felt safe and supporting.

And our fundamental yearning

to transcend the barriers that now separate us

from our awareness of this connection.”


Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: 

Love alone is capable of uniting living beings

 in such a way as to complete and fulfill them,

 for it alone takes them and joins them

by what is deepest in themselves.


In a discussion marking the anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks,

a TV news analyst defined evil as the

disconnect from recognizing others’ humanity,

reminiscent of the pre-philia Greek attitude. 

Perhaps love then is simply

the connection to other people and things,

or the awareness of that connection. 

Perhaps this miracle of connection

is the essence of ethical behavior:

to make decisions as if you and I are one.


Could it be literally be that, as in the Greek chaos myth,

love is the same as the weak and strong nuclear forces,

the energy that binds together and

converts chaos to matter, awareness of the fundamental glue of the universe? 

If Thanatos, the death force of decay and entropy

is a tendency toward disorganization and disconnection,

 then the libido or life force is the connection, the opposite.


So the unified field theory is: it's all love!


The problem with intimate relationships may not be

that they aren’t expressions of love,

as that they arouse as much fear as love. 

Perhaps then the key to having more love in your life is

“fear management”.

How do we face the risk that we will

“lose that lovin’ feeling?” 

The fear that interferes with love may be

the fear of death, the fear of annihilation--thanatos.

And yet, in some mystical traditions,

that is the moment of the truest love of all,

oneness with the universe,

annihilation of the ego represents surrender to pure love.

So, is it the fear of the loss of love,

or the fear of the achievement of love?


Perhaps there really is only one “love”,

Perhaps what differs in the apparent different types of love

Is only the different types of fear attached to it. 

Love is colored by the spectrum of fears…

of loss, betrayal, alienation, isolation, disappointment, etc. 


If so, my advice for having more love in your life

would be to develop a relationship with

the fear aroused with your love. 

If you can understand the nature of

the fear that accompanies your love, you may be able to find ways

to dissipate it, reassure it, stand up to it, or protect yourself

in a way that is more supportive of love.



Mythology, Edith Hamilton


Challenge of the Heart, John Welwood, ed.


On Human Nature, Edward O. Wilson


Born for Love, Leo Buscaglia


Self and Others, N. Gregory Hamilton


The Bible, various


A Course in Miracles, foundation for Inner Peace


The Couples Comanion, Harville Hendrix


The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran


Creative Mythology, The Masks of God,  Joseph Campbell


The Psychology of Romantic Love, Nathaniel Brandon


The 501 Best and Worst Things Ever Said About Marriage, Ronald B. Schwartz


Keeping the Love You Find, Harville Hendrix


Divine Madness, John Haule


Getting the Love You Want, Harville Hendrix


Why Religion Matters, Huston Smith


Journey of the Heart, John Welwood


Embracing the Beloved, Stephen and Ondrea Levine

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