What is Love? Relationship Experts Weigh in on an Age-Old Question

This Valentine’s Day, since we publish the work of so many relationship experts, we thought it’d be fun to ask just a few of them to answer a simple but age-old question: What is love?

Here’s what they had to say:

Love is not a term to be used without careful consideration.

If only one of you gets an upgrade to that buttery leather seat in first class with treats from the ice cream sundae cart, you give it up. Love is about being willing to sacrifice your own well-being to ensure theirs gets a boost. When someone shares a funny story, you often relish the experience because you know that your partner will crack up during the retelling. Love is about adopting another person’s perspective of the world.

Love is about an expansion of the self whereby another person’s interests, values, social network, and finances become part of your life just as you share your resources with them. Love does not mean that you give up everything for another person. Rather, you possess sufficient trust to give them the keys to everything that you can access. We offer them a springboard to higher peaks because their enjoyment is our own; their sense of meaning adds to our own, and we are bigger, stronger, and more agile because they become part of who we are.

A neuroscientist will say love is possible when the security-seeking parts of your brain are put at ease, and the more evolved, social parts are free to take the lead. An attachment theorist will explain love as the ability to bond with another which you likely developed if you felt secure in your earliest relationships. And an arousal regulation theorist will say your experience of love is a reflection of your moment-to-moment ability to manage your energy, alertness, and readiness to engage.

A couple is “wired for love” when you and your partner are able to create a couple bubble based in true mutuality; when the social parts of your brain (which we term your ambassadors) keep the primitive parts in check; and when you possess an up-to-date owner’s manual for your relationship. Sound hard? Not really. We—are social animals, and therefore it’s never too late to rewire our brains for love and to avoid the common pitfalls that trip up so many would-be lovers.

—Stan Tatkin, PsyD, Clinician, researcher, teacher, developer of A Psychobiological Approach to Couple Therapy®, and author of Wired for Love.

The best chance of finding freely-given love in a safe relationship (one unlikely to suffer betrayal) is to approach it out of desire, not emotional need. An emotional need is a preference that you’ve decided must be gratified to maintain equilibrium; that is, you can’t be well or feel whole without it. The perception of need begins with a rise in emotional intensity—you feel more strongly about being with someone or having something. As the intensity increases, it can feel like you “need” it, for one compelling reason: it’s the same emotional process as biological need. (You can observe the process by planting your face in a pillow; emotional intensity rises just before you struggle to breathe.) When emotional intensity suddenly rises, your brain confuses preferences with biological needs. In other words, the perception of need becomes self-reinforcing: “I feel it, therefore I need it; and if I need it, I have to feel it more.”

To love freely and safely, get in touch with your deepest desires, lurking beneath surface feelings of loneliness or shame, which give rise to emotional intensity. Your deepest desires will lead you to a relationship based on compassion, kindness, fairness, intimacy, and loyalty, rather than temporary excitement or relief from shame and loneliness. “I want you,” is far more loving (and likely to produce a safe and satisfying relationship) than “I need you.”

—Steven Stosny, PhD, Clinical psychologist, founder of CompassionPower and author of Living and Loving After Betrayal.

What is love? That’s easy! Love comes from the secret ingredient: work.

Hollywood shows us stories in which powerful emotions sweep destined lovers into each others’ waiting arms. But I think Hollywood shows us infatuation more often than love. Rarely do they show us what happens beyond the first exciting, lusty days of a relationship.

Love comes later, as we discover how to incorporate our partner’s foibles, their moods, and even their weird family members into our own lives. I think love has its roots in musty old factors like inclusive fitness and genetically-driven altruism. These sorts of motivation have been with humans from the beginning, and they steer our behavior. They lead us to depend on one another, to make each other laugh, to overcome obstacles together, and to negotiate a thousand little problems and joys—like who’s going to wash and who’s going to dry.

Truth is, I did not love my wife when I first met her. I thought she was hot, smart, and intriguing, and I still do. But love came later. The same was true when our daughter came along. She took some getting used to.

But now, all these years later, we have built a life together. We have acted like people who love each other on good days and bad. Now I cannot imagine life without the two of them. The very thought is painful.

Infatuation is fun, but it quickly fades. In the long run, love is more about how we act and what we do, especially in those moments when we don’t feel like acting as though we’re in love. The result is something far more rewarding than infatuation: the knowledge that we have built something together, and that life would be barren without it.

Shawn Smith, PsyD, Psychologist and author of The Woman’s Guide to How Men Think

For many years when I was single, love was an elusive mystery to me. I wanted to know: what was it, and how could I get it? Would I recognize it when it happened? My years studying and then teaching psychology helped me understand the basics of love: Storge is parental love from parent to child, Philia is love between friends, Eros is erotic, sexual love, and Agape is unconditional love for mankind. Ludus is a playful type of love, whereas Mania is possessive and dependent love, and Pragma is practical, logical love (John Alan Lee 1973). Sternberg’s Triangular Theory of Love includes three integrated parts: intimacy, passion and decision, or commitment. Sternberg thought that putting together different combinations of his core triangle created more nuanced types of love: infatuation, romantic love, companionate love, fatuous love, consummate love, and empty love.

Falling in love and marrying my husband immensely deepened my understanding of love. Love is so complex and nuanced. On one hand, there’s the softer, gentler side of love: tenderness, vulnerability, compassion, and deep affection. On the other side, there is a strength: fierce loyalty, sexual passion, adventure, and even a protective element for your partner’s well-being. I think the most fulfilling love relationships have a balance: there’s playfulness and fun along with deep passion, respect, support and commitment.

Love is conveyed in your feelings for your partner, the way you treat them, and the way the two of you intertwine and build your life together. And most importantly, there’s a sense of intimacy; love is a closeness and deep understanding of one another. You share with one another your dreams, your desires, and your hopes—and your intimacy grows. I think the closeness that true intimacy brings is the foundation of love.

Shannon Kolakowski, PsyD, Psychologist and author of When Depression Hurts Your Relationship

Romantic love is a meaningful experience for countless human beings. It can bring great joy, but it can also bring immense pain and suffering. Given the importance of love for so many people, it behooves us to understand it, both its positive and negative aspects.

The conventional view of romantic love is as an emotional experience. Viewing love as a valued action, rather than an emotion, can lead to vibrant and fulfilling relationships. If love is simply an emotion, we are in trouble, since emotions come and go constantly. Romantic love based marriage is actually a new concept within the human history of committed partnership. Families and contracted partnerships have historically been built on values such as health, and social welfare of its members.

We all love to feel “in love” but when love is experienced primarily as a feeling state, it is self-centered and without shared values, tends to be more tenuous, not unlike an addiction to a drug. In fact, relying on feelings may destabilize relationships. It is easy to “fall in love” and just as easy to “fall out of love.” The problem is not love but love filling a void in you. While it can feel very good to be in love it is also wise to recognize that an endless search for pleasure and “feeling good” can lead ultimately and ironically to unhappiness. Enhanced engagement in shared valued actions, rather than searching for happiness or fulfillment directly, may increase the likelihood that you will find happiness and fulfillment in your relationship.

—JoAnne Dahl, PhD, Clinical psychologist and coauthor of ACT and RFT in Relationships.

I decided to treat “love” as an acronym. Rather than focusing on romantic, couple love, I decided to highlight features that I consider important in “big” love. Obviously, I’m not able to capture all of the essential ingredients that make for a loving relationship, but here are four:

Michelle Skeen, PsyD, Therapist, host of Relationships 2.0 with Michelle Skeen; author of The Critical Partner and the forthcoming Love Me, Don’t Leave Me

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