What Is Love?

A couple in love holding hands

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What Is Love?

Love is a set of emotions and behaviors characterized by intimacy, passion, and commitment. It involves care, closeness, protectiveness, attraction, affection, and trust. Love can vary in intensity and can change over time. It is associated with a range of positive emotions including happiness, excitement, life satisfaction, and euphoria, but it can also result in negative emotions such as jealousy and stress.

When it comes to love, some people would say it is one of the most important human emotions. Yet, despite being one of the most studied behaviors, it is still the least understood. For example, researchers debate whether love is a biological or cultural phenomenon.

Love is most likely influenced by both biological drives and cultural influences. While hormones and biology are important, the way we express and experience love is also influenced by our personal conceptions of love.

How Do You Know?

What are some of the signs of love? Researchers have made distinctions between feelings of "liking" and "loving" another person. According to psychologist Zick Rubin, romantic love is made up of three elements:

  • Attachment: Needing to be with another person and cared for and desiring physical contact and approval
  • Caring: Valuing the other person's happiness and needs as much as your own
  • Intimacy: Sharing private thoughts, feelings, and desires with the other person

Based on this view of romantic love, Rubin developed two questionnaires to measure these variables, known as Rubin's scales of liking and loving. While people tend to view people they like as pleasant, love is marked by being devoted, possessive, and confiding in other another. 

Types of Love

Not all forms of love are the same, and psychologists have identified a number of different types of love that people may experience. These types of love include:

  • Friendship: This type of love involves liking someone and sharing a certain degree of intimacy.
  • Infatuation: This is a form of love that often involves intense feelings of attraction without a sense of commitment; it often takes place early in a relationship and may deepen into a more lasting love.
  • Passionate love: This type of love is marked by intense feelings of longing and attraction; it often involves an idealization of the other person and a need to maintain constant physical closeness.
  • Compassionate/companionate love: This form of love is marked by trust, affection, intimacy, and commitment.
  • Unrequited love: This form of love happens when one person loves another who does not return those feelings.

Is Love Biological or Cultural?

Some researchers suggest that love is a basic human emotion just like happiness or anger, while others believe that it is a cultural phenomenon that arises partly due to social pressures and expectations. 

Research has found that romantic love exists in almost all cultures, which suggests that love has a strong biological component. It is a part of human nature to seek out and find love. The fact that romantic love is not 100% universal, however, suggests that there is a cultural influence as well.

How to Practice Love

There is no single way to practice love. Every relationship is unique and each person brings their own history and needs. Some things that you can do to show love to the people you care about include:

  • Be willing to be vulnerable
  • Be willing to forgive
  • Do your best and be willing to apologize when you make mistakes
  • Let them know that you care
  • Listen to what they have to say
  • Prioritize spending time with the other person
  • Reciprocate loving gestures and acts of kindness
  • Recognize and acknowledge their good qualities
  • Share things about yourself
  • Show affection
  • Show unconditional love

Impact of Love

Love, attachment, and affection have an important impact on well-being and quality of life. Loving relationships have been linked to:

  • Better health habits
  • Decreased risk of dying after a heart attack
  • Increased longevity
  • Less depression
  • Lower risk of diabetes
  • Lower risk of heart disease
  • Lower stress levels

Tips for Cultivating Love

Lasting relationships are marked by deep levels of trust, commitment, and intimacy. Some things that you can do to help cultivate loving relationships include:

  • Try loving-kindness meditation. Loving-kindness meditation (LKM) is a technique often used to promote self-acceptance and reduce stress, but it has also been shown to promote a variety of positive emotions and improve interpersonal relationships. LKM involves meditating while thinking about a person you love or care about, concentrating on warm feelings and your desire for their well-being and happiness.
  • Communicate. Everyone's needs are different. The best way to ensure that your needs and your loved one's needs are met is to talk about them. Helping another person feel loved involves communicating that love to them through words and deeds. Some ways to do this include showing that you care, making them feel special, telling them they are loved, and doing things for them.
  • Tackle conflict in a healthy way. Never arguing is not necessarily a sign of a healthy relationship—more often than not, it means that people are avoiding an issue rather than discussing it. Rather than avoid conflict, focus on hashing out issues in ways that are healthy in order to move a relationship forward in a positive way. 

Potential Pitfalls

As Shakespeare said, the course of love never did run smooth. No relationship is perfect, so there will always be problems, conflicts, misunderstandings, and disappointments that can lead to distress or heartbreak.

So while love is associated with a host of positive emotions, it can also be accompanied by a number of negative feelings as well. Some of the potential pitfalls of experiencing love include:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Increased stress
  • Jealousy
  • Obsessiveness
  • Possessiveness
  • Sadness

While people are bound to experience some negative emotions associated with love, it can become problematic if those negative feelings outweigh the positive or if they start to interfere with either person's ability to function normally. Relationship counseling can be helpful in situations where couples need help coping with communication, stress, or emotional issues.

History of Love

Only fairly recently has love become the subject of science. In the past, the study of love was left to "the creative writer to depict for us the necessary conditions for loving," according to Sigmund Freud. "In consequence, it becomes inevitable that science should concern herself with the same materials whose treatment by artists has given enjoyment to mankind for thousands of years," he added.

Research on love has grown tremendously since Freud's remarks. But early explorations into the nature and reasons for love drew considerable criticism. During the 1970s, U.S. Senator William Proxmire railed against researchers who were studying love and derided the work as a waste of taxpayer dollars.

Despite early resistance, research has revealed the importance of love in both child development and adult health.

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