I thought it good to write about love.
Several times recently, I have facilitated the question, What is Love?
In many ways, might as well be trying to explain quantum physics, anti-matter, or verb conjugation in a dead language. A working, comprehendible definition of love is elusive, slippery and bittersweet.
Love is confused with many things. Or perhaps is an umbrella concept that includes many things. Either way, a brief discussion of these related concepts would be helpful, especially on Valentine’s Day when everyone is supposed to “be in love.”
Passion, or Infatuation. This is one of the most common related concepts. This is the experience of being twitterpated, swept off your feet, caught up in the heat of the moment, that burning, the preoccupation, the longing, the obsession. Passion and Infatuation seem related to heartache. The more passion you feel when the person is there, the more heartache you feel when the person is not. Passion and Infatuation are volatile, unpredictable, impossible to conjure or predict. They are not love.
(If they are love, then one should only experience it after receiving highly specialized training and only when one can empirically demonstrate emotional intelligence!)
Lust. Love is very often connected to sex, sexuality, sensuality, and physical attraction. This sort of connection involves a cocktail of dopamine, oxytocin and a host of other hormones. People are beautiful; we like to look. People are social and relational; we (generally) like to be around each other. People grapple with loneliness, fear of rejection and the crushing(at times unconscious) sense of our eventual death and the reality that we will have to face our end alone. In the meantime we like to be touched, perhaps to stave off that eventual isolated end as long and convincingly as possible.
Sex and Lust have the potential to be extremely fun, pleasurable and connecting(as well as extremely hurtful, unpleasant and isolating). Further, sex can so preoccupy the mind, and the relationship, that more weighty matters of who each individual is and the contexts of their functional lives, can easily and indefinitely be ignored.
Sex is not love, or else it be a fickle foundation for love lasting only as long as the bodies meet particular specifications. Of all the imposters of love, this is perhaps the most violently destructive.
Affection. Or rather, friendship. Two people who enjoy each other’s company, have common interests, engage in everyday activities together, appreciate each other. They make each other laugh, maybe they cuddle. The feelings they have toward each other are neither as intense, nor volatile nor shot-lived as passion, but are pleasant, strong and enduring. Many a long-standing friendship has been birthed and maintained in the arms of affection.
Can affection be love? I say affection is integral to a functional love, but cannot on its own stand as a foundation for love. Affection is strong only as long as the relationship is pleasant, enjoyable and the two are getting along. Affection is threatened by crisis, by developing personalities, by diverging interests. By geography. The very things that can drive wedges into friendships. Affection on its own is unlikely to survive the assault of offense, insult or betrayal.
Thus I say that affection is vital to an enduring, loving relationship, but is not on its own love.
Partnership. This sort of relationship is a hybrid of several categories. Affection, commitment, service and perhaps even passion come together to form a partnership. When my toddler has recently asked what a partner is, I have explained the word this way, “Partners are people who choose to be committed to each other, working toward the same goal.” The aspect most resembling love is the, at times passion infused, common vision, which may also be laced with common interests. Think of business partners. Ministry partners. Parenting partners. Marriage and relationship partners. There is commonality, shared core values. Partners are marked by volitional commitment to each other.
Partnership is very much like love, but still falls short. A partnership, even a committed one, is dissolvable because a partnership is built around terms. We two can be partners as long as we share the same goals, same values, same priorities. We are partners because we choose to be, but will only be partners as long as we choose to be. Similar to the vulnerability of affection, people can diverge, thus partnerships can dissolve.
This then leads into another imposter of love. Or nuance of love. Commitment. People who stay together. This concept primarily conjures the idea of marriage, though commitment is an integral element in a good friendship as well. Commitment makes marriages, partnerships, families, teams and other communities thrive. Commitment allows for trust, consistency and stability to develop.
But is commitment love? What happens when people start staying together just for the sake of staying together. Maybe they are stubborn and have something to prove. Maybe they are desperate or insecure. Maybe they need the person or the relationship, so commit to it out of a sense of utilitarian logic so as to make the object-resource that is the person last for them as long as possible.
I’ve seen old couples that were committed to each other their whole lives. A few were full of joy, and others were completely miserable.
Besides that, people commit to all manner of things. They commit to nations, religions, ideologies, political ideals, geographical regions, schools, restaurant chains, coffee roasters, brands of soap. Comparing the relationship one has with a person to that which they have with their favorite soap seems cheapening.
Commitment, then, facilities love, but is not on its own love.
Acceptance, Affirmation. In these ideologically volatile days, love is often equated with acceptance and affirmation. If you love me, you’ll accept me. I will feel loved when you affirm this that or another part of me.
To accept an affirm a person is a vital step in relationship, especially early on the relationship. In order for there to be safety, each person needs to know that the other will not attack them, mistreat them, or casually reject them. These are good things. The problem arises when neither person is allowed to have a problem with problematic elements in the other person.
Acceptance and affirmation are a beginning of love, but cannot be the fullness of love. People are fallible and carry darkness within them. They do things that are unhealthy, unhelpful, even harmful and dangerous. To accept and affirm a person too much allows them to remain caught up in things that will hurt them or others. To permit these things to continue in a person is not loving, but rather a way to passively condone their own destruction.
At times the counterpart, confrontation and exhortation, can be the most loving action. In order for these actions to be helpful and loving, the end result must be that the person leaves what is harming them and turns to what will help them. If that is not the end result, then the confrontation failed, and was not fully loving.
Think of parenting and guardianship. A parent or guardian who never challenged or confronted their child would not be regarded as loving; they would be regarded as neglectful, which is a manner of abuse. Rather, when we love someone, we fight for their well-being, even if we must fight against our loved one themselves.
So then acceptance and affirmation are a way to begin to love, but if practiced in excess, become the opposite of love – they become harmful.
Welcome and Hospitality are concepts that are very close to love. A very tangible demonstration of love is to welcome a person into your home, into your space, into your life space and life rhythm. When you welcome a person into your life space in spite of great difference, you communicate something powerful. You say the other person is valuable, perhaps even more valuable than your own comfort or perspective. You say their story is worth hearing and you are wiling to hear it.
Welcome and Hospitality have structure, boundaries, rhythms. There is often purpose. The idea behind a practice of relational hospitality is to cultivate a space where conversations can gradually deepen as vulnerability increases. If you have the goal of teaching or leading the person, that process can be measured, invitational, moving at a pace for which the other person is ready and can follow.
Related to hospitality, structure and even loving confrontation is a further nuance of love, which is Sacrifice. Giving up of one’s self, one’s resources, one’s well-being, for the sake of the other. In the case of confrontation, this could mean taking the risk of giving up your personal comfort or relational security for the sake of benefiting the other person. In the case of hospitality, it means giving up personal comfort and personal resources. In the case of most long term relationships(marriage, partnering, parenting) it means giving up of your agenda, your needs, your preferences, your sleep, your physical well-being, at times to extremes and at other times on an ongoing basis.
We who love, do this by choice.
We choose to prioritize the well-being of the other, even at the expense of our own.
We desperately hope this value will be held mutually.
Loving sacrificially, on an ongoing basis is most sustainable when done in a community of like-loving people.
Sacrifice is the highest expression of love, but even sacrifice as a foundation for love can be incomplete. Sacrifice can be exacted non-consensually, leading to trauma and bitterness. Sacrifice can be given out of duty and obligation, not from a place of joy, leading to more resentment. People can make sacrifice out of love for their own glory and strength, or can over-sacrifice from a place of savior-complex, or sacrifice without wisdom or boundaries and over-extend themselves leading to burnout.
For sacrifice to be loving, it must be joyful, voluntary, and intentional.
So then, what is love?
Love is esteeming the value of the other person, their needs and well-being as highly valuable. Love is prioritizing the thriving of the other person, at times at the expense of your own. This is neither constant sacrifice, nor constant indulgence. This is neither unquestioning acceptance, nor dismissive rigid judgment. This is neither confined to euphoric feelings of passion, nor to the pain of ongoing sacrifice. This sometimes means giving to the person, or could perhaps mean withholding. Could mean drawing near, or puling away. It means commitment, but allows for variations of how that commitment is practiced.
Love is the balance and synergy of the greatest forces in the universe.