What is love?

In Quebec City, I got into a discussion with my French landlady about French semantics with regards to the concept of “love.” I felt that for a culture known for its interest in l’amour, the French language had a lack of diverse words for “love.” The verb for love in French is simply aimer, and this word also means “to like.” Liking an individual is different from loving an individual. Furthermore, there are many different types of love. It seem odd that the French language does not have more words for this concept.

I am of East Indian origin, and popular Indian culture uses the English word “love” in a very reductionist manner. In an Indian movie, when a guy wishes to tell a girl he is romantically interested in her, he will tell her he “loves” her, although he may not know her very well at all. In Western countries, the situation would be termed as “crush.”

The Inuit have many words for snow, as it is very important to their culture. Why do so many cultures have so few words for love, then? In his essay on “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell wrote, “When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning.” This means that the concept of love is so complex that it is difficult to find exact words to explain it. Interestingly enough, the Greek language has quite a few words for love: these include the words agape, eros, philia, and storge. Such words have been stretched in their capacity by philosophers, psychologists and literary writers to take on vivid meanings.

For example, the Christian theologian, C. S. Lewis, and contemporary Brazilian author, Paulo Coelho, have similar interpretations of Greek words for love. They both describe eros as a romantic love which could have arisen from attraction, though distinct from sexuality. Philia is love that arises from friendship. Paulo Coelho’s explanation of the word agape is “all-consuming love.” In a sense, one receives the impression that agape, in his viewpoint, is similar to what Buddhists consider part of enlightenment i.e. unconditional love, where an individual is able to see oneself as part of the universe or part of the individual that he or she loves. C. S. Lewis explains agape to be similar to “the love of God.”

Psychologists Clyde Hendrick and Susan Hendrick of Texas Tech University expanded on the psychological theories of John Lee theory on the styles of love. These love styles are called Eros, Ludus, Storge, Pragma, Mania and Agape. An individual can (and usually does) have an overlap of many of these love styles in a romantic relationship.

According to this psychological theory, Eros is an extremely sensual style of love. Erotic lovers select their lovers by intuition or “chemistry.” They see marriage as an extended honeymoon, and sex as the ultimate aesthetic experience. The advantage of erotic love is the romantic nature and sentimentality behind it. The disadvantage is the potential decay of attraction
Ludus lovers are more interested in quantity than quality of relationships. They wish to have as much fun as possible. They choose their partners by playing the field, and quickly recover from break-ups. They see sex as a conquest or a game, and they are in relationships because they regard them as a challenge.

The drawback of this love style is the likelihood of infidelity. In its radical form, ludic love can become promiscuity.

Storgic lovers are friends first. Their love grows steadily out of friendship, and their friendship can endure beyond the end of the relationship. Sex is sometimes seen to be of lesser importance in this love style, which can be a disadvantage.

Pragmatic lovers think practically about what they wish for in a partner, and choose them via comparison shopping or shopping-list love. Pragmatic lovers wish to find value in their partners, and work with their partner to reach a common goal. The positive side of pragmatic love is practicality and realism, but on the other hand, this love style does tend towards a lack of demonstrativeness of love and a lack of emotion.

Manic lovers talk of their partners in possessives and superlatives. They believe they “need” their partners. Love is a means of rescue, or a reinforcement of value. Individuals with such love styles can be extremely jealous and possessive but they respond well to therapy.
Agapic love is self-sacrificing, all-encompassing love. Agapic lovers are often spiritual individuals. They view their partners as blessings, and wish to take care of them. The advantage of agapic love is generosity, but sometimes individuals with such love styles give too much.

All of the above terms oversimplify the concept of love. As the poet Rilke once wrote, love is “just what is wholly unsayable.” One of the most important parts of love, in all types of relationships, is to realize its mystery, and to love the people in our lives more and more as they keep growing and changing.