Collie Creating
Codex Firestarter

What is Love?

by Collie Collier
February 2004 Firestarter column

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 is.

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 about control.


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 up.

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) to me.

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 permanent celibacy:

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 I am.

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 that way.

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 possession of.

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 reality.

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 courtship.

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 sex anyway.

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:

Helping Love

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 relationships?

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?" additions.

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 word there.

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 coffee.)

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 multiple wives.

I like the comment about diamonds and smoking. Very true.

I like (and had a very similar description of) your description of love.

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 here.

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 and respect.
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 that way?

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 Yale historian.
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 Church.
I haven't yet picked up his "Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality," but I'm looking forward to it.
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 that sometime?

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 (exploitation).

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.

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.

11.02.05: Firebringer's Comments

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 you.

- Diamonds. Ack. Just, ack. How... manipulative of the diamond industry.

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! ;)