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What is love?

~ We think about love on Valentine’s Day more than other days, don’t we? Maybe not? Perhaps we think about cards with red hearts, and chocolates, and flowers to buy for our romantic partner. But is it love?

Year after year, one Valentine’s Day after another, it seems that we are all just as confused as ever about what this thing called love actually is.

The central theme of Greek tragedies is love; how love can be all consuming, and how it can cause us the deepest pain, drive us to killing and even suicide. Shakespeare also writes about love as a force that can make us feel alive and kill us, too. Some of the more modern stories moved from tragedy to drama. Love is often represented as the most important thing to attain, and is equally the source of our greatest heartache and angst. And then we have the romantic stories, when ‘true love’ is the ultimate goal, it is hard to get, but once you have it you are happy ever after.

I talk about stories because it seems that our ideas of love lives in all the stories we absorb, influencing the meaning of what we feel in our heart. The topic of love has different associations depending on the culture we live in, the messages we get in childhood, our life experiences, and the stories we listen to. Some people who are looking at the stories of love from a tragedy point of view might think it is dangerous. Those who are keen on the fairy tales stories might be ‘hopelessly romantic’.

In the UK and Europe, we have learnt to associate love with romance and sexual satisfaction. Although we are lucky to be in a liberal and progressive society where same-sex love is accepted, there is still enough homophobia around to see it as a ‘lesser’ love than heterosexual love. However, with both heterosexual and same-sex love, the same singular narrative prevails: monogamy is the Gold Standard; if you find the one then you’ll be happy ever after. This narrative is problematic because it puts much pressure on all of us to be the perfect one. We have to be the best romantic partner (never run out of conversations at the dinner table, always get all the gifts right, able to meet all the needs of our partners even if they don’t verbalise them, indeed a mind-reading superpower is essential), and we have to be the best lover (always up for sex, always desiring our partner sexually, always providing a great sex moment for our partner, always giving the best orgasms, not wanting solo-sex, and not ever being turned-on by anyone else), and we have to be the best housemate (putting the dishes in the dishwasher just in the right way, happily cleaning the house, cooking dinner lovingly), and we have to be the best protector (always having our partner’s back even when they’re unreasonable, having the good job that earns enough money, putting partner first before anyone else at all times, never being ill or vulnerable because we have to be a strong person). This thing called love puts a lot of unrealistic pressure on one person!

The other problem with our love narrative is that the image of ‘happily ever after’ stops at the moment of what people call the ‘honeymoon period’, so we don’t really have a sense of the efforts that it takes to maintain a good relationship. Some people say: ‘what can’t my relationship be easy?’, like the kind of easy we see at the end of the rom-com movies? Well, relationships are not easy, because love is not a thing we get, it is a delicate and fleeting emotion that comes and goes, develops over time and feels different depending on the quality of human connections.

Although they made great tragedies, the Greeks think of love as a diversity of experiences, instead of our singular one. They have identified seven types of love:

Eros is the passionate love wrapped in sexual desire. This passionate love concept is also the one closest to what we have adopted as our modern narrative of love. It is also the one of the Greek tragedies, the passion can be all consuming and uncontained.

Philia is the friendship love, the strong bond that we feel with people whom we don’t have sexual desire for, but those loyal ones who feel part of our ‘tribe’.

Storge is the unique love of parent and child.

Agape is the universal love. The love for strangers, humanity, animals and nature.

Ludus is the kind of love that is fun and uncommitted. It is when we can dance or flirt with each other, or have pleasurable no-string attached casual sex, the focus being on the fun of it.

Pragma is the practical love grounded in reason and interested in long-term advantages. Compatibility of personalities, shared values and goals are more important than sexual attraction.

Philautia is self-love. The idea of this love has diluted in our modern society, and replaced by what we call ‘self-esteem’. However, ‘self-esteem’ isn’t quite the same as it primarily lives in our cognition, whereas Philautia lives in our heart; a deep sense of love for ourselves. Our society often mistakes it for narcissism, selfishness or arrogance, which is why people tend to avoid it, but I think it is an important love to reclaim.

Seeing love through the pluralistic lens of the seven types of Greek love, offers us a much broader way to think about it, help us challenge some unhelpful ideas, and also reframe the meaning of what we feel in our heart.

As love is a constant flow of diverse emotions and stories, and it changes over time, I think we would do better to think that all the seven types of love are just as important and not one is better than another. For example, if we didn’t have Agape during the COVID-19 pandemic, our society would have broken beyond repair. We think Philia might be less important than Eros but in fact it is one of the crucial love that keeps us connected and alive.

Many people struggling in their relationship are actually having difficulties in adapting in the unavoidable flow of love. Some people see Eros disappearing and feel threatened that their ‘happy ever after’ is fading away, when, in fact, they might be moving into Philia, not realising that Philia is very compatible with Ludus (having some light fun with a long-term partner like dancing, teasing and flirting with each other is great!). Some couples move to Pragma, and that is also just as a great place to be because shared goals and values and having the same long-term vision provides essential grounding for relationships. That love feels very different from Eros, yet, it is not a lesser love.

On this Valentine’s Day, how about seeing love from a broader window. Shall we swap the tokenistic heart-shaped box of chocolate for celebrating all the different, equally important love instead? How about embracing the love for our romantic and sexual partners, our friends, our communities, our planet and ourselves, on Valentine’s Day and every day.

Bought from istock

Source: Bought from istock



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