What is Love?
by Collie Collier
February 2004 Firestarter
Random thoughts in the traditional month of Love...
Some time ago I tried defining love, in discussion with some
folks I knew. We came up with some interesting dichotomies. I've
also listened (sometimes with great bemusement) to a lot of
women and men over the years, discussing their husbands, wives,
and intimate friends.
I have what I think is a working definition of Love,
but I know it isn't for everyone. It's initially easier,
I think, to define what love is not. You can also skip
that depressing realistic part, and just read about what I think Love
Symbols & emotions
"Love at first sight" is the basis for a huge, financially
profitable section of the entertainment industry -- but I still
don't believe in it.
From what I've seen, it's really either lust
(i.e. "MUST have sex with pretty person!") or limerence (i.e. being infatuated or
having a crush; specifically the longing to be in a perfect,
romantic relationship with another person who is perceived
as the ideal mate). If the participants are lucky, these feelings
can mature into love.
There's nothing wrong with lust; it's an important part of
Love. However, one shouldn't fall into the trap of believing
having sex with someone means you automatically love them. Yes,
we may call it 'making love,' but unless the love is there
first... it's not.
Love includes sharing -- it shouldn't be confused with duty
or fidelity. Sharing a mutual pleasure is loving. As an example,
I don't drink coffee, but my sweetie does. Occasionally I'll make
coffee for him. He takes great pleasure from that, which is why
I do it. That, and I am not required to make coffee for
him -- it is a gift. Just as surely, he knows he is not
required to drink the coffee.
That's what makes it loving: doing something you enjoy, for
someone who enjoys what you're doing. If I knew I had
to make the coffee every morning or he'd sulk, or if he knew I'd
whine unless he drank the coffee right away while it was still
hot -- then it's no longer love; it has become duty.
The same is true of any shared ritual between people. When
you must participate, it's no longer an expression of
caring -- it's a requirement, a sign of duty and fidelity.
There are lots of these sorts of rituals-on-demand. Putting
down the toilet seat, keeping a clean house, bringing home
the paycheck -- if it's demanded, or done in order to elicit
a particular response, then it's no longer about love... it's
Other signs of controlling behaviors are feeling possessive
or jealous, or using manipulation or other emotional tricks to
get the results you want from someone.
People aren't property! You can't trick or force someone into
loving you. If you do this crap with someone you're pretending
to love, you're lying -- to yourself and them. Grow
I've also heard some claim love is not being able to live
without that certain someone. From where I stood, it sure looked
like nothing more than emotional dependency (or possibly laziness)
People are not a drug! When I was a child I couldn't live
without my parents, but I don't need to behave like a child any
more; I can't live without oxygen or food, but I don't mistake
them for my beloveds.
"Traditional" marriage is supposed to express love also,
from what I've read. However, I suspect those who believe this
haven't actually read the religious texts describing what they
believe traditional marriage is.
Marriage in the Old Testament isn't the loving union of a man
and a woman. It's the union of a man and a woman, and another
woman, and maybe another as well... and don't forget all their
handmaids, too -- they all belong sexually to the man as well.
Sometimes if the man dies it's the union of the formerly
married woman with the deceased man's brother, to keep all the
property within the family... so I guess you could consider it
the union of a family and a woman instead?
Go read the Bible's New Testament sometime, and you'll find
not only is the wedding ceremony a later addition to the list
of church rituals, but also the Apostle Paul is downright
patronizing about marriage, as a second-best substitute for
1 Corinthians 7:1:
Now for the matters you wrote about: it is good for a man
not to marry.
1 Corinthians 7:6 & part of 7:
I say this [that people should occasionally marry]
as a concession, not as a command. I wish that all men were as
1 Corinthians 7:8-9:
Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for
them to stay unmarried, as I am. But if they cannot control
themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than
to burn with passion.
Personally, I can't imagine why an omnipotent god would make
sex so much fun if it's so evil, but I tend to be a pragmatist
It's sadly interesting there's nothing about marriage equating to
love in the Bible, although in Proverbs 31:10-31 it does say trust, praise, and
honor to the wife can possibly occur within a marriage.
Instead, the Bible seems to equate marriage more to
property rights -- the man literally owns the women he takes
This materially possessive attitude is codified and reflected
in the marriage ceremony itself. The man promises to "love,
honor, and cherish," but the woman (who is "given away" by her
father) is traditionally stuck with "love, honor, and obey."
Why would any woman today, in her right mind and with
a shred of self-worth, swear such a demeaning oath?! I can
think of several unfortunate options: a) she's never read it
or thought about what a binding oath is, b) she's aware of it
but really wants to live like that, or c) she knows but already
expects to break it -- which makes the marriage a lie
from the very start.
Read and think about the promise you're going to
swear! If you must marry, make up something honest and fair
to promise each other!
Heavens knows the divorce rate alone conclusively proves
marriage isn't love. Love does not require marriage, nor does
marriage affirm or guarantee love. It's not some sort of godly
Tupperware, sealing in "love freshness."
So if marriage isn't love, what is? Traditionally gifts have
served to signify love: flowers, chocolates, diamonds, stuff like
that. Yet again, though, we need to remember the symbol is not
Before about 1940 or so, and the DeBeers cartel,
diamonds were just another pretty rock. There's a creepily fascinating article written in the
late 1980's about this particular industrial cartel which will
permanently shatter any illusions about diamonds being synonymous
with love. I quote a particularly perceptive paragraph:
Specifically, the Ayer study stressed the need to
strengthen the association in the public's mind of diamonds with
romance. Since "young men buy over 90% of all engagement rings"
it would be crucial to inculcate in them the idea that diamonds were
a gift of love: the larger and finer the diamond, the greater the
expression of love. Similarly, young women had to be encouraged to
view diamonds as an integral part of any romantic
Movies helped to make diamonds popular. Movies also helped to
promulgate another unhealthy societal ritual -- smoking. I don't
know about you, but I have no intention of allowing societal
expectations, or media campaigning, to run my life.
There's one other peculiar version of pseudo-love I've heard
of -- apparently there are still people who truly believe you
aren't a "complete" person until you've had offspring. Of course,
they also believe this should be the only reason you're having
While I can see how love can occur despite having sex just to
procreate, I don't see any reason for it to occur automatically,
as they seem to imply.
Also, doesn't this mean people who don't (or can't) procreate
are somehow less than human? What a harsh and thoughtless
indictment of those childless folks who desperately wish they
could have children!
Okay, enough of that. All the above commentary shows is it's
terribly easy to mistake the symbol for the reality, especially
if there's cultural or marketing pressure to do so as well.
I don't have any good way to reliably help others discriminate
between symbol and reality. I wish I did, and that someone had
done so for me also... but as the wise old martial arts master
once put it, "You would not have believed me then, even if I
had warned you."
Some mistakes you have to make and live through and hurt through
on your own... unfortunately.
So here are some of the things I think help strengthen
relationships, and the Love between individuals:
Be honest! This is quite possibly the most important
basis of Love I know of. If you don't tell the truth, how can your
beloved know what you want, who you are, whether or not you're
trustworthy? Would you like it if your sweetheart lied to you?
Here's a big one I've unwittingly done myself, which has caused
all kinds of unnecessary stress and pain: hinting about what
you want instead of being forthright.
I didn't even realize I was doing it until
I read with disgust the following paragraphs in an on-line article -- then watched my
sweetie express heartfelt sympathies for the men involved in
the desperate guessing game of figuring out what was desired --
from nothing more than vague hints.
Women are in unanimous agreement that they want to be
surprised with gifts.... They want, of course, to be surprised for
the thrill of it. However, a deeper, more important reason lies
behind this desire.... "freedom from guilt."
Some of the women pointed out that if their husbands enlisted their
help in purchasing a gift (like diamond jewelry), their practical
nature would come to the fore and they would be compelled to object
to the purchase.
The element of surprise, even if it is feigned, plays the same role
of accommodating dissonance in accepting a diamond gift as it does
in prime sexual seductions: it permits the woman to pretend that she
has not actively participated in the decision. She thus retains both
her innocence -- and the diamond.
It's from the article I mention above regarding diamonds. Read
the actual quote in all the context -- it's well
worth it for an eye-opening look at societal expectations regarding
the public demonstration of Love.
Love yourself! If you have no faith in yourself, why
should anyone else? I've seen far too many people who were so
sure they didn't deserve a wonderful lover, that they chased
off anyone who might have gotten close.
I've also seen loving people treated horribly -- because their
lovers believed no one truly worthwhile would possibly
want to be around them! Be nice to yourself... then treat your
lovers more nicely than you treat yourself.
Be friends! How can you love someone you trust less
than you trust your dear friends? A beloved is so much more
than just a best friend. How can you share (but not require)
loving and caring, with someone who is not even a friend?
When you are hurting, if you cannot turn to your beloved, you
will have to cut them out of part of your emotional life. Would
you like it if that were done to you?
Be fair. Double standards are when you expect to get
something which you aren't willing to give in return. Quite
frankly, double standards are not compatible with love.
A few simple examples: you expect your sweetheart to always
have dinner on the table when you get home, because she's already
at home by then... but if you get home early, it's not your
job to put dinner on the table!
...or your sweetheart always picks up the kids from school
because you're at work then -- but if you get home early and your
sweetheart has to stay late at work, still it's not your
job to pick up the kids!
That's not love. That's ownership.
Yes, I know there are relationships where the participants have
unequal expectations -- but they're honest about it and happy with
those choices. The critical point for me is that all involved are
consenting adults who make informed choices together.
Browbeating someone into doing what you want isn't true consent,
and isn't loving. If you wouldn't like it done to you, then don't do
it to the people you claim to love.
Give without expectation of reward. Taking out the
garbage without having to be asked, not always demanding dinner
be precisely when you want it -- I'm not suggesting you be a
doormat for your beloved, and it takes a thoughtful eye to tell
when you're being taken advantage of.
But when beloveds are constantly worrying about who did what
last... is that really Love, or is it arguing about power
So, after all that rambling, what do I think Love
is? It's oddly, unexpectedly simple -- almost startlingly so. I
could puff it up with more verbiage... but if that's what we want,
we can turn to media for that.
It's when you're having an argument with a beloved, and it suddenly
hits you how unimportant the argument is, compared to your relationship
with your sweetie -- and you don't care if there's a 'winner' in the
argument any more, because there's someone else besides you at the center
of your personal universe.
It's when your sweetie is working hard on a project and has forgotten
you, and you've made a plate of apple slices and cheese & crackers,
set it silently next to them, and been delighted they ate it all, without
them even realizing you put it there... because it's more important to
you they're healthy and happy, than that you get a thank you.
It's taking out the garbage, or doing the laundry, or washing the
dishes, because it needs doing -- not so you can feel self-righteous
about it; not because it's 'your turn.'
What is Love? Real, true, deep Love, to me, is that feeling you have
when there's someone(s) in your life whose comfort and happiness is more
important than your own.
Joy and happy loving to you all.
02.02.04: E-mailed comments from Lou
I like the "What's the bestiary?" and "What's the Firestarter?"
I feel better about not knowing what "limerence" is. I didn't when we
first discussed it, and I didn't when I read the links in the article.
If it's not in the dictionary, how am I expected to know it? I'm glad it
isn't used a great deal in the article. It is interesting to put the
You weren't kidding when you said "You can skip the depressing,
realistic part" to read, "the depressing, harsh, realistic part." Some
of the commentary you have put in is very pointy. True, but harsh.
re: coffee -- Bob doesn't always drink the coffee he makes for
himself when it's hot, why would you expect him to drink coffee you made
while it's hot? =) (He's the wierdest coffee nazi I know, drinking cold
It's [the Shelley quote] a good quote.
God made sex so much fun it's evil, obviously, to make sure people
did it. If it weren't forbidden, He'd never have gotten teenagers
everywhere to do it as often as possible, and that's what was required
at that time, of course. =)
The consideration of the Biblical marriage being the woman being
given to the family is probably more accurate than most people want to
think. I wonder how "handmaids" was originally written, and if they were
really "junior wives" or some other multiple-wives scenario that modern
Christians don't want to hear about. Part of me can only hope, mostly to
watch the Christian squirm, not because I expect or particularly want
I like the comment about diamonds and smoking. Very true.
I like (and had a very similar description of) your description of
04.02.04: Thoughts from Dobie
(and replies from me)
I thought I'd toss in another angle of looking at this, because
there's more to it. I'm not clear what's meant by 'in order to elicit
a particular response.' It may just be we're talking past each other
Keeping a clean house or doing things like putting the toilet seat
down, ideally, as part of housekeeping, should be something that has been
talked out and agreed upon by the people in question. Now, arbitrarily
just demanding, without discussion, that Things Be Done a certain
way is certainly controlling. But once an agreement has been made,
repeated failure to abide by that agreement becomes something else --
absent-mindedness in need of an antidote, and often, a lack of respect
for the agreements that one's made (typically because the person doesn't
see it as a big deal).
As you've probably guessed, I'm not talking about mutually
agreed-upon arrangements -- those are a basic part of mutual honesty
By 'elicting a particular response' I mean more behaviors
along the lines of conveniently 'forgetting' to do something you've
promised to do; or doing it so shabbily that your partner is annoyed
into doing it for you; or carefully leaving just a single piece of
toilet paper on the roll so you don't have to change it since, after
all, you didn't use the last piece; or always having an allergy attack,
or working late, at just the time the job needs doing... I'm sure you
get the broad idea here by now.
That's not cute, or funny, or truly absent-minded --
and it's not honest or respectful at all. That sort of behavior is
manipulative, rude, and insulting.
Do you (generalized you) really think your partner is
that stupid?! And if you wouldn't like being treated that way, then for
heavens' sake, why would you treat someone you purport to love
Regarding early Christian attitudes towards marriage and such,
I highly recommend Elaine Pagel's work (if you haven't read her books
already, I suspect you may have) for a more nuanced take on the struggle
to define some of those matters in early Christian communities.
Oh, early Christian attitudes towards just about everything
are often radically different than what we're taught culturally today. Did
you know, for example, Jesus is not the only person to raise someone
from the dead in the New Testament?
I had someone argue with me about that, saying only the
"son of god" could do that -- until I showed him the verses. I don't
think he was happy about that, although I don't know why.
It was, in fact, Pagels and Uta Ranke-Heinemann who
initially taught me how singular and rigid our views on Christianity are
today, compared to the early centuries of Christianity.
Check out Ranke-Heinemann's "Putting Away Childish
Things" and "Eunuchs for Heaven: The Catholic Church and Sexuality" for
some fascinating research on the Catholic Church's changing views on,
respectively, the Resurrection and sex & marriage.
I also found John Boswell's books quite fascinating,
although expect to see his work repeatedly slammed with ad hominem attacks
(due to him being gay and having died of AIDS), despite his being a
In particular, his "Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe"
gives a fascinating review of several early Christian saints who've had,
shall we say, 'face-lifts' done on their PR.
Also, his book "The Kindness of Strangers: The Abandonment
of Children in Western Europe from Late Antiquity to the Renaissance,"
while not specifically about Christianity or marriage, does contain some
creepily interesting perspectives on the views of the early Catholic
I haven't yet picked up his "Christianity,
Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality," but I'm looking forward to
Those early centuries of Christianity appear to have
been far more thought-demanding, fluid, and self-awareness-encouraging,
in regards to the then-current perception of how one's relationship with
'god' should be defined. I'm sorry we lost that vitality in the religion,
to be quite frank.
So which of Pagels' books are you referring to? "Adam,
Eve, and the Serpent," "The Gnostic Gospels," "Origin of Satan," or
"Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas"? I'm guessing since you
refer only to marriage that you mean only the first two. I've read them
both and found them quite fascinating, in fact.
I've got the "Origin of Satan," and am quite looking
forward to reading and reviewing it. I haven't got the one about Thomas
(it's not due out until May 2004), but I'd gladly read and review it if
you had an overwhelming urge to send me a copy! ;)
Alternatively, it might be fun for both of us to read
and review either of the latter two I mentioned -- would you like to do
Some really excellent books
by Elaine Pagels:
by Uta Ranke-Heinemann:
by John Boswell:
25.02.04: Kathy's Comments
Most of what you said about love matches very closely with what I
believe, but I would go a bit further... Love isn't about feeling at
all; it's about doing. Doing for others because you care about what's
best for them and what they want or like, not because you feel you have
to (duty) or you think you'll get something in return
The feelings we have when we are with or thinking of our beloved
aren't the actual love. They may be lust, adoration, desire, insecurity
(due to opening one's personal boundaries), security (due to being loved),
gratitude, etc. But that's all too complicated, so we say that we "feel"
Love is making coffee for your sweetie even though you don't drink it
yourself because you know he'll appreciate it. Love is nursing your baby
at 2am when you're so sleep deprived that you can't think straight
because you know that you'll catch up on the sleep eventually and your
baby will have a lifetime of health benefits. Love is helping a friend
move because it will make her life a bit easier, and all the other
examples you give near the end of your article.
To put it more succinctly: Love is a verb.
Wow - that section on 'limerence' is really helping me find a lot of
answers! Thanks! =D
25.09.05: Brian's Comments
Wow. You have brilliant thoughts and brilliant friends; you shed light
on the pointless rituals of love as well as the true meaning behind it;
and this is one of those web pages I want to bookmark and save and read
again when I really am in love, but somehow I know it'll slip my mind
and I'll have to learn all this the hard way. :)
Aww, thank you! That's so kind of you to say.
Points which specifically caught my attention:
- Love versus duty. The most powerful female figures in my life are
women who have made me express my love through duty, and maybe that's why
today I haven't quite separated the two concepts completely in my mind.
Interesting. I'd love to hear how this works out to
- Diamonds. Ack. Just, ack. How... manipulative of the diamond
Yes. A bit too... calculated to me, to really be that
expressive of love, if that makes sense.
- Mind-reading. Ack, again. You're absolutely right that it's all
about innocence and diamonds. I'm reminded of how my mother gets mad at
my father for never taking her out someplace as a surprise, but then
she complains about all the places he's taken her; she wants it to be
a surprise, as long as he's cleared the details with her first.
Yes, I've seen that too, and still find it incredibly sad
they apparently can't realize they'll never get what they want through
that sort of unwitting deception.
My apologies for the delay in getting around to reading this - and
my thanks to you for sharing it with me. :)
Thank you for the lovely feedback -- and my apologies
for taking so long to reply! ;)
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