Chapter 8 The Meaning of Love

Chapter 8 Learning Objectives

Upon reading this chapter, the student should be able to:

  • Examine the plausibility of the initial definition of love and the three elements that can help one analyze and evaluate all relationships, whether they involve love or not.


Watch this video or scan the QR code to see what other people feel that love is.

With the previous chapters about feelings, satisfactions, and ethics as prologue, I will try to show that it is plausible to mean by “A loves B” that:

(1)     A has strong feelings of attraction in general, or to some reasonable extent, for B,

(2)     A, in general or to some reasonable extent, enjoys B (that is, A in general or to some reasonable extent is satisfied by B and by the things B does), particularly in areas of psychological importance (or meaningfulness) to A, and without particular disappointment or dissatisfaction in other such psychologically important (meaningful) areas, and

(3) B is good for (or to) A; that is, the things B does are good for A.

[This last condition will be stated more correctly after the section on ethics, but for now, this is a sufficient statement of the ethical content of a love relationship.]

To say then that A and B love each other is to say that 1, 2, and 3 are reciprocal — that A and B both have strong feelings of attraction for each other in general, that in general they satisfy (or enjoy) each other, and that they are good for each other.

Some remarks about the analysis:

Notice that the criteria are stated in terms of what actually is the case, not in terms of what A or B, or anyone else, believes to be the case. Insofar as one believes A and B are attracted to each other, satisfy each other, and are good for each other, one will believe A and B love each

other; but if one is wrong in any of those beliefs, one is then also wrong about their loving each other. This is true even if the believer is A or B themself. Certainly people can be mistaken about whether the above conditions actually are met and whether they are in love; and many times people have said things like: “I thought I loved him, but I know now I was just infatuated.” One easy way someone might mistakenly believe they are in love is to incorrectly think the other person is good for them just because they enjoy that person’s company and are deeply attracted to them. Hence, in the kind of case mentioned earlier where a parent and child disagree about whether the child really is in love with someone or not, a parent might point out specifically why he or she thinks the other person is not good for the child. Or the child may be unknowingly neglecting things important to its well-being because of the relationship. The

parent would have to point out what this is specifically and hope the child will understand it and believe it in order to see the point. This, of course, is not always easily accomplished; but it at least gives better focus to the disagreement than just continually simply disagreeing about whether it is “really love” or not. In such a case, there is not a disagreement about what love is; there is a disagreement about whether it exists — whether the conditions that constitute it all apply. The child believes the conditions (1-3 above) for love are met; the parent believes not all of them are. The discussion should be focused on the particular condition that is the center of disagreement. Just (incorrectly) believing the conditions are met does not make them so, and does not mean you are in love; it only means you (incorrectly) think you are.

The analysis puts love on a continuous scale or on many different continuous scales — one scale for the amount of each kind of attraction-aversion, satisfaction-dissatisfaction, and benefit-harm, with “sums” or overall balancing points or impressions in each of these areas; and I think love is that way.  We do think in terms of loving one person more than another, of love growing, of love becoming stronger or weaker or fading or dying out. By my analysis or criteria, “A loves B more than A loves C” any time that:

(1)     A has stronger feelings for B than for C (and/or, more strong feelings),

(2)         any time that A is satisfied more by B than by C (and more in areas of psychological importance to A), and/or

(3)     B is better for (to) A than C is; the things B does are better for A than the things C does, [as long, of course, as there is not some equal or greater loss in one or both of the other two areas]. Likewise, A’s love for B can grow or diminish in time as there is growth or diminution in the feelings of attraction, satisfaction, and goodness of the relationship.

When one aspect of the relationship increases and another decreases, it is then perhaps difficult to say whether the love has grown or not.  For example, A might have stronger feelings of attraction toward B than before, but might find fewer satisfactions in the relationship or might find fewer things good for himself or herself than before. Just in the area of satisfaction alone, A might become more deeply satisfied in some areas over time, but have fewer different areas of satisfaction than before. By my criteria or definition then it might be difficult to say whether the love is stronger or weaker; but this is all right since it reflects the difficulty one has in ordinary usage of the term love as well anyway in such cases. Yet even then my criteria or analysis has the benefit of allowing specific ideas and communication about how the relationship has changed (or how different relationships differ). And it also allows for greater specific description in comparing relationships (to others, or to themselves through time) as to which is more loving when one person loves the other more but the other loves the first less.

In such cases, nothing is lost by my use of the word love, but much is gained by conceiving and communicating about relationships in these primary aspects of feelings, joys, and benefits, since one can say precisely how a relationship has changed or how two relationships differ (for example, more or stronger attraction of a certain specified sort, but less joy of a certain specified sort) and thereby use that to point out why it is difficult or impossible to say whether love has grown or diminished or in which relationship it is greater. In many cases of marriage, for example, certain kinds of sexual attraction may diminish over time for one partner while emotional attraction or a different kind of sexual attraction may increase.

In the analysis, I use the word strong and the phrases “in general” and “to some reasonable extent”. It is difficult, if not impossible, to say how much attraction, satisfaction, and/or good there must be.  Certainly there has to be more than just a slight attraction, slight satisfaction, and slight goodness (and the more, the better) for saying there is love. There are other concepts in ordinary language that are like love in this regard of becoming less well defined in borderline cases — how much money is required to be rich, how little hair does one need to be bald, how little dirt does laundry need in order to be clean. It is easy to distinguish the very rich from the very poor, the very hairy from the very bald, the very loving from the very hateful. In many areas of classification, borderline cases may be difficult to distinguish or classify, but not all cases are borderline, and so distinction and classification are often possible and useful. But more useful than classification in cases, such as the amount of love in a relationship, is being able to specify in what ways love exists or what more is needed or is important to improve the relationship or make it more loving, perhaps particularly if some purpose like marriage, living together, sex, child-bearing, or divorce is under consideration.

Love changing: There are a number of ways to satisfy a person more — (1) doing more things that are satisfying, (2) doing the same (number of) things but in a more satisfying way, or (3) satisfying them in more areas of psychological significance or importance (meaningfulness) to them, (4) satisfying them more deeply in such areas, or (5) any combination of the above, without some equal or greater decrease in one or more of them. (Similar, but opposite, with regard to less satisfaction.) My analysis does not make any distinctions for comparing amount of change or amount of difference in love when comparing couples, or one couple at different times, when the depth of satisfactions is different from the number of satisfactions; but I do not think this is any different from our inability to make intuitive comparisons in such cases ordinarily. If there are two couples, one of which enjoys doing more kinds of things together, but the other of which, though doing fewer things, enjoys them more, we do not often find it necessary or even possible to describe one as therefore being more loving than the other. Or the same if one couple through time changes in a way that has them doing fewer satisfactory things together but has them enjoying more the things they do together.

Likewise with regard to improving or impairing (the goodness of) a relationship or in comparing the goodness of two relationships. It is difficult or impossible to say whether one relationship at different times is better or worse, or whether one relationship is better or worse than another, when the difference is between doing more good things that are each less valuable or fewer good things that are each better. At least this analysis lets you describe the differences quite specifically, even if you cannot use the simplistic general label “better” or “worse”.

With regard to the change of feelings, one may develop deeper (or less intense) feelings of one sort toward another, or one may develop more (or fewer) kinds of feelings of attraction (such as intellectual, emotional, magically romantic, sexual, brotherly, maternal, paternal,…).

Or some sorts of attraction may grow in intensity while others diminish. As in the cases of joys and other benefits, when changes occur in opposite directions at the same time, for example, more emotional attraction but less enchantingly romantic attraction, it is not particularly easy or possible to compare, simply in terms of the word love alone, whether love has grown or diminished. Similarly, it is difficult or impossible to compare which is more loving of two different relationships where the only difference is that one contains deeper feelings than another which contains more different kinds of feelings of attraction.

Still, it is in this area of love’s changing — or in comparing how a relationship is with how it could be better or with how it should be — that the analysis is the most fruitful, I believe. It is not so important that we are able to identify a relationship as one of love or not as it to be able to tell how to improve a relationship or how to make it more loving. It is important that we are able to perceive in what areas (goodness, joy, attraction) our relationships are strong and in what areas they are flawed or weak. And it is important that we are able to understand in each of these areas what specific kinds and quantities of attractions, joys, and benefits exist, especially ones that are important, and which ones are missing, especially ones that are important.

In writing before of being attracted “in general”, of being satisfying “in general” or “to some reasonable extent”, and of being good to one another, it was certainly difficult or impossible to specify how frequent or intense attraction and satisfaction should be or how much dissatisfaction or bad can be in a relationship for us to (still) call it love. I think there are extremes we would clearly want to call loving or unloving relationships. Some of the middle regions we might hesitate to characterize. The idea then of the continuous scales for each kind or area of satisfaction-dissatisfaction, attraction- aversion, benefit-harm is more important here. For it is usually not too difficult to point out how a relationship could be more loving — could be better for the partners and/or more satisfying and/or more full of feelings of attractions. It is easier to specify what there is and what there could be and what there should be in terms of the kinds, quantity, and balance of satisfaction, attraction, and goodness than it is to specify whether there is sufficient satisfaction, goodness, and attraction to call it love. Labeling a relationship as being a loving one or not is not as accurate or as meaningful in many cases as pointing out what kinds, frequency, and depth of attractions, satisfactions, and goodness it has and what kinds it lacks, and how important this is. Simply to label a relationship as one of love or not is not to be as clear as one could be about it, nor really to provide much specific information about it at all.

It is less likely to point out problem areas or areas of potential improvement; and it is not likely to help people be able to make a relationship become more loving when they want it to be. It is generally better simply to state where on the different ladders or continuous scales of satisfaction, attraction, and goodness the relationship is, where it is going, and where it should be or where you would like it to be. This framework for viewing relationships and thinking about love will allow problem areas or areas of disagreement to be more easily spotted, communicated, discussed, and, where necessary, debated.

No longer need there be unproductive, idle disputes over whether she loves him or not; loves him enough or not; or whether their love is strong enough to get them through some difficult time or other. One will not have simply to introspect about how one feels to answer such questions. There will be more valid, more easily answered, more fruitful questions to ask; for example, how strong are the feelings of attraction; in what areas; in what areas (sexual, intellectual, physical, etc.) are they lacking; what kinds of pleasure or joys does each lover get; how strong are they; how important are they to them; which kinds are lacking or weak; how reciprocal is the relationship in these terms; what areas of joy are likely to dwindle or increase with time and probable circumstances; how is each person good for the other, or bad; how is that likely to change in time or different likely circumstances. These are the more important kinds of questions and yet are also more easily answered than “Do I love him/her?” especially for determining such things as marriage, child bearing, continued dating, steady dating, living together, having sex, etc.

The question of whether to marry or not can be asked, not just in terms of “Do we love each other enough?” but in the more realistic and fruitful questions of, are we good enough to each other, do we make each other happy enough, and would we under the conditions of living together or having children or spending all the time together married people often do.  What would we need to improve along those lines? Could we improve that? Are we attracted enough, satisfying enough, and good enough to each other on a day-to-mundane-day basis to make marrying worthwhile?  How important is it to get married versus continuing unmarried, or continuing to wait to find someone with whom one might have a better or more loving relationship? What are the odds of finding such a better relationship at this time in one’s life? Are the odds worth the wait? Would a possibly temporary and/or childless marriage be beneficial at this time given our goals, wants, and the quality of the relationship? What are the legal differences concerning things like estate inheritance, etc. between being married and living together? The emotional differences? Etc., etc., etc.

I have two friends, now married, who lived together for four or five years before that. At first, they were both afraid of marriage for different reasons. Later, she wanted to be married, but only if he wanted to. He sort of did; but inertia seemed to keep him putting it off. They both made fairly good salaries and had a number of joint assets, yet those assets were not in joint names, and neither had a will or agreement listing who owned what or in what proportions. Luckily nothing happened to either of them before they married; but it seemed to me that their situation is one that marriage simply made better — not in terms of joy or emotions, but in terms of doing things that were right for each other in purely legal terms. They probably could have effected this sort of change through contracts, wills, and accurate record and receipt keeping, but marriage was an easier way and there was no particular reason in this case other than inertia and the unwarranted fear that the relationship would somehow change in other ways if it were legalized. I suspect that there are not even hospital family visiting privileges or decision-making rights for long time lovers not married. In their particular case, because they had, after the first few years of living together at least, every intention of living just like married people for as far in the future as they could see, it seemed better and simply easier from a legal and societal viewpoint for them to marry. Here was a case where just talking about “love” would not have been particularly helpful in deciding what they should do; they knew how they felt about each other and how much they enjoyed each other; what they needed to consider was how fair they were being toward each other, particularly in case of accident, illness, or death.

Universality of this analysis

This analysis is meant to apply to all relationships and all loving relationships, not just ones that are romantic (in the general sense). Certainly there are appropriate and right or wrong ways for parents to treat children, children to treat parents or brothers and sisters, for people to treat friends or even strangers, employers, employees, customers, sales people, doctors, patients, clients, etc.

Ethics concerns some of this; emotions do also, for how we feel about people often determines some of the appropriate behavior toward them and some of the kinds of joys we can derive. It is a legal and/or biological link that makes someone, say, our child, but it is a kind of feeling we have about a person that makes us feel about them in some maternal or paternal way, or not, whether they are our child or not. Being a spouse is a legal designation that may or may not coincide with being in love. Marriage and love can each be a contributing factor toward determining what is proper behavior. One has obligations toward even a spouse one may not love; and loving someone in some cases justifies treating them in a special way that would otherwise be unfair to others. Even incest prohibition involves both an ethical or societal and legal component as well as an emotional component; and it seems to me that the legal or cultural prohibitions against incest (which are different in different cultures to some extent) do not prevent it as significantly as the fact that it is normally very difficult to be sexually attracted to someone whose diaper you used to change and whose nose you had to keep wiping, or to someone who made you eat peas, come in when you wanted to stay out, go to bed when you wanted to stay up and get up when you wanted to sleep in, or with a sibling who provided, as you grew up together, numerous disagreements and disappointments. That so many of the stories in literature which deal with romantic or marital incest, such as Oedipus, concern partners who do not know their biological relationship because of early separation, is probably not accidental.

At any rate, all relationships can be analyzed in terms of feelings, joys, and ethics, so though I will be dealing in many cases with romantic relationships, what I have to say will often not be limited to them. There are right and wrong ways to treat people whatever your (lack of) relationship to them (and some of these ways are common to all relationships) and certainly there are joys and satisfactions or dissatisfactions and grievances or grief that people can give each other no matter what their legal, biological, or social relationships are. Most of the kinds of things I will have to say will be generalizable or transferrable though many of the particulars will concern relationships where the feeling of attraction is primarily romantic (in general) in nature.

And by romantic in general, I do not necessarily mean to imply nor to deny the existence of feelings that are passionate, magical, or stirring, but simply to distinguish the kind of love people have that is not parental, brotherly, etc. Romantic love in this (general) sense may involve attractions that are emotional and/or sexual and/or intellectual. They may be of great excitement and passion or they may not be.  It is meant to embrace passionate lovers as well as those people whose love for each other is of a more sedate or quiet nature. All are the kinds of relationships with which so many magazine articles, romantic movies, plays, stories, and advice columns are concerned.

W. Newton-Smith, in an article called “A Conceptual Investigation of Love” in Alan Montefiore’s Philosophy and Personal Relations, talks of paradigm cases such as Romeo and Juliet, Abelard and Heloise, and Caesar and Cleopatra to describe the kinds of love relationships he is talking about. I am not that sure I know how these people felt or acted toward each other but I think Newton-Smith gets the point across that he means to talk about the kind of relationships that I call “romantic” in the general sense. However, he goes on to make what I think is an error in trying further to describe this kind of love in order to make clear he is not speaking of cases of parental or other sorts of non-romantic love. I think his paradigm cases perhaps mislead him to this error, but it is an error many people make without that excuse. He writes “… so attention will be confined to cases of love which involve sexuality …  sexual feelings, desires, acts and so on.  Thus the stipulation excludes from … consideration cases of fraternal love, paternal love and other cases not involving sexuality” (Montefiore, 1973, p. 116) He later says that sexuality can serve as a criterial mark for distinguishing the sorts of paradigm cases he mentioned earlier.

Even with his later refinements of this criteria, I think he has made an error, has eliminated too many of the kinds of relationships he has wanted to discuss, and has injected sex into the analysis of relationships far too early and made it far more important than it needs to be or is. Certainly I do not mean by romance all those or just those attractions which are sexual in nature. Some romantic feelings may include some sort of sexual desire, but not all do; and even of those that do, the desire may not be for intercourse but perhaps simply kissing, hugging, or holding hands.

For example, most “young love” or first love may involve wanting to be around the other person or to be with them, but may not involve necessarily wanting to be in physical embrace, and certainly does not always involve wanting to have intercourse or genital stimulation. Such a thought may even be frightening or seem stupid or repulsive to many young people. And it was not long ago (if we are even past it yet) that many people thought that people they did not love were more properly the object of sexual advances than those they did, which if even a wrong, perverse, or perverted value, nevertheless helps show there is a difference between romantic attraction and sexual attraction.

Further, certainly one can have a sexual attraction for a person one cares little about romantically or in any other way. And the attraction can be a real one or just a fantasy one. By a fantasy one, I mean one that one knows is obviously better just to think about than actually to want to fulfill — one that is more fun to think about thinking about than to think about actually enacting. Sexual attractions or fantasies could be about almost anyone — a movie star, a teacher, a person seen walking down the street. They do not have to be about someone you know personally or someone with whom you would like to become romantically involved. Sexual attraction and/or lust are not always indications of love.

And, conversely, there are numerous relationships that seem to me fully romantic loving ones where two people perhaps like to cuddle closely without any need or desire to have (further) sexual stimulation. In some cases that might even spoil things, or may just be a temporary desire that, once fulfilled, allows them to get back to the primary fulfillment of just holding each other and perhaps talking and cuddling. Cuddling in this case seems emotional in some way without seeming to be properly described or thought of as sexual. The desire is not even sexual. Some older people with lowered sexual drive, some young people with low sexual drive to begin with, some perhaps handicapped or impotent or even frigid people may certainly love others romantically and/or even want some close cuddling without in any way having sex as a primary desire or sexual play as a primary goal or pleasure.

Again, intellectual stimulation and attraction or artistic stimulation and attraction might be the primary attraction between two people without sex being that important or even necessary. Yet such people might have full, romantic, loving relationships.

Finally, even in a loving relationship where sex is an important attraction, goal, or feeling, still there might be quite loving, romantic, tender, wonderful feelings and attractions other than sexual desires, or after the fullest of sexual experiences so that these feelings are themselves not feelings of sexual desire. After one has fulfilled all the physical or sexual urges one can possibly tolerate (assuming for most people there is some satiating limit, at least at a particular time), if one still wants to be close to the loved one and one still wants to touch, cuddle, talk, go to a movie, have dinner, go for a walk on the beach with, or write a poem to, the loved one, then the primary or paradigmatic feeling then is not one of sexual attraction.

I will say more about sex later. At this point, I only want it understood again that by romance or romantic feelings or romantic attraction, I am in no way necessarily implying or necessarily meaning sexual attractions, feelings, or desires. I am not ruling them out, of course; but I certainly do not think they are (always) a precondition for, or “criterial mark” of, love or romance, or even of infatuation.

Key Takeaways

  • Seeing that all relationships involve (potential) emotional, satisfaction, and ethical aspects

Key Terms

  • Love changing  suggests that there are a number of ways to satisfy a person more — (1) doing more things that are satisfying, (2) doing the same (number of) things but in a more satisfying way, or (3) satisfying them in more areas of psychological significance or importance (meaningfulness) to them, (4) satisfying them more deeply in such areas, or (5) any combination of the above, without some equal or greater decrease in one or more of them.

Chapter Review Questions

  • Question: What are 5 ways to satisfy a person more?
  • Question: Are sexual attraction and/or lust always indications of love?

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The Meaning of Love by Richard Garlikov is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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