What is this Thing Called Love

CHAPTER 4: Defining Love

What is this thing called love?

This magic thing called love?

I ask the Lord in heaven above

What is this thing called love?

                  (Pop song from the 40’s).

Since love has been the topic of countless articles, books, discussions, and sleepless nights, I might as well explain how I got interested. I have long been addicted to popular songs, especially love songs. They play in my head, usually uninvited, and often at odd hours. Some of them show up from out of a dim past, so I am frequently searching for lyrics to fill gaps in my memory.

Several years ago in the course of looking for a lyric, perhaps the one quoted above, I happened upon an extraordinary website called Lyrics World (now defunct). What was unusual about this site was that it contained the Top Forty popular songs for the last 70 years (1930-2000), over ten thousand lyrics. As I began to read lyrics of love songs at random, it seemed to me that the majority of them fell into only three patterns: infatuation, requited love, and heartbreak. There were also romance lyrics which didn’t fit, but in any given year, they were never in the majority.

The study I later did (Chapter 5) confirmed: about a quarter of all pop songs in the Top 40, year after year, are about heartbreak, about a tenth, about infatuation, and about a tenth, about requited love. Another fourth involves miscellaneous kinds of romance, and a little more than a fourth are not about love or romance.

But in reading these lyrics, a new question arose. It seemed to me that none of these three forms, often not even requited love, suggested genuine love. However, in order to state this idea with confidence, I would have to find out, at least to my own satisfaction, what I mean by genuine love. At least in English, the one word covers so many different things as to be almost meaningless. Of all the emotion words, I think that love may be the broadest and the most vague and pliable. The pliability of this word results in many problems, both in scholarship and in real life.

For this reason I propose a concept of love that is bio-social-psychological: genuine love, in its non-erotic form, has a physical basis in attachment, and a social psychological basis in attunement (shared awareness and identity).  Romantic love involves a second physical basis: (sexual) attraction. Each of these forms in itself can involve very intense feelings. Combinations of two or three forms can lead to overwhelming feelings. Non-erotic love is intense because it conjoins attachment emotions and genuine pride. The added experience of sexual desire in erotic love means a powerful confluence of three feelings, each intense alone.

These three affects and their various combinations form different types of what is called “love.” According to the new definition, only four of these are genuine love; mutual and one-way non-erotic love, and mutual and one-way erotic love. The other single affects and their combinations are look-alikes that would be better understood as different kinds of psuedo-love. One of the central themes of this book is the many kinds of psuedo-love may function to cover up the intense pain of separation in modern societies. This seems to be a new idea; I know of no earlier formulation of this proposal.

I begin with vernacular meanings of love. If love is defined so broadly in modern societies as to be virtually meaningless, how can we rescue its meaning? This book seeks a conceptual definition, one that ultimately might be helpful not only in scholarly research, but also in real life.

Investigating the emotional/relational world is a deeply subversive activity. As the study proceeds, it should be clear that it challenges many of the assumptions that are taken for granted in everyday life. As we go about our daily activities, we have neither the interest nor the resources to investigate the thousand of assumptions that we make, and to a large extent, share with other members of our society, about ourselves and the world. Just getting our activities completed is usually quite enough of a challenge.

Only eccentrics, artists or scientists have the time and inclination to challenge everyday assumptions. Erving Goffman’s work seems to partake of all three of these worlds: eccentricity, art and science. One of the most common criticisms of his writing is that it is bitter, cynical, or sour. The charges, for the most part, arise out of his challenge to our taken-for-granted assumptions. Any objective investigation of the emotional/relational world is sure to challenge major institutions; not only the political and economic ones, but also those dealing with family, education, and religion.  This book may pose such a challenge.

This chapter spells out a concept of love that distinguishes between genuine love and its look-alikes.  For example, pop songs that are about heartbreak virtually always suggest lost attachment. Many, however, in attempting to explain the break-up, also suggest lack of attunement. Lyrics that center on infatuation, on the other hand, usually suggest either attachment or sexual attraction, or both, but rarely refer to attunement in any way. Pop songs about romance always invoke at least one of the three a’s. Some invoke two, but rarely all three. Genuine love, in the sense it is defined here, is seldom found in pop love lyrics. Like current usage, these songs define love only vaguely, and very broadly.

One of the central ideas in this book is the massive individualism that is taken for granted in Western societies. Our “commonsense,” the shared understandings we have in these societies, tells us that individuals are good, they are connected to freedom, and relationships are bad, they are associated with restraint. A less celebrated set of assumptions concerns which emotions are good and which are bad.

In this chapter, I suggest that the emotion of love is seen as good, and is used, therefore, as often as possible. This assumption is groundless, of course, since love in itself is neither good nor bad, or better yet, both good and bad. Love can be experienced in different modes, some very painful. Increasing our understanding of love, step by step, challenges the major institutions in our society.

Current Usage

One obvious cause for confusion is the many ways this word is used in Western societies. According to Harold Bloom (1998 p. 549), Aldous Huxley suggested “we use the word love for the most amazing variety of relationships, ranging from what we feel for our mothers to what we feel for someone we beat up in a bordello, or its many equivalents.[1]"

The comment about beating someone up because we love them is probably not an exaggeration. A recent set of experiments suggests that subjects’ condemnation of murder is softened if they are told that it was committed out of jealousy (Peunte and Cohen  2003). These subjects seem to entertain the idea that one can love someone so much that one murders them.

Solomon (1981, pp. 3-4) elaborates on the vagueness and broadness of the vernacular word:

Consider… the wealth of meticulous and fine distinctions we make in describing our feelings of hostil­ity: hatred, loathing, scorn, anger, revulsion, resentment, envy, abhorrence, malice, aversion, vexation, irritation, annoyance, disgust, spite and contempt, or worse, "beneath" contempt. And yet we sort out our positive affections for the most part between the two limp categories, "liking" and "loving." We distinguish our friends from mere acquaintances and make a ready distinction between lovers and friends whom we love "but not that way." Still, one and the same word serves to describe our enthusiasm for apple strudel, respect for a dis­tant father, the anguish of an uncertain romantic affair and nostalgic affection for an old pair of slippers…

Solomon (1981, p. 7) goes on to quote Voltaire: “There are so many sorts of love that one does not know where to seek a definition of it.” In modern societies, the careless use of the word love tends to defend us against the primitive pain of separation and alienation. The broad use of the word love may defend against the excruciatingly painful loss of true intimacy and community in modern societies.

What does Love Mean?

One place to seek definitions is the dictionary. In the English language unabridged dictionaries provide some two dozen meanings for love, most of them applicable to romantic or close relationships. These are the first two meanings in the American Heritage Dictionary (1992):

       1. A deep, tender, ineffable feeling of affection and solicitude toward a person, such as that arising from kinship, recognition of attractive qualities, or a sense of underlying oneness.

       2. A feeling of intense desire and attraction toward a person with whom one is disposed to make a pair; the emotion of sex and romance.

These two definitions are of great interest, because they touch upon several complexities. Particularly daunting is the idea that love is ineffable (indescribable). I can sympathize with this idea because genuine love seems to be quite complex. Both popular and scholarly accounts flirt with the idea that one of the crowning qualities of love is that it is mysterious and therefore indescribable. Nevertheless, in this chapter I will proceed along the lines that “love” as it is often perceived, may feel like a mystery, especially to the person obsessed with it, but it can be described. I propose a concept of love to reduce the extraordinary ambiguity of the meaning of what may be the most important of the emotions.

The first dictionary definition (above) is very broad, covering both romantic and other kinds of love, such as love of kin. The second is narrower, involving only romantic love, and emphasizing sexual attraction. Of the twenty or so remaining definitions, a few are unrelated to interpersonal relationships (such as the use of the word love in scoring a tennis match.)  Most of them, however, involve various shadings and gradations of love, and especially, of romantic love. Given the many possible meanings of the word, it is no wonder that scholars and, more recently, social scientists, seem so divided on its significance.

Of all the basic emotions, love is the least clearly defined. Our conceptions of anger, fear, shame, grief, contempt, disgust, and joy may be fuzzy around the edges, but they are clear enough so that we can communicate about them. At the most elementary level, we feel we are able at least to distinguish between painful emotions, such as fear, grief and shame, and pleasurable ones, like interest, excitement, and joy.

But about love, particularly romantic love, there is nothing but disagreement. Even on so basic an issue about whether love is painful or pleasurable, experts are divided. Indeed, reading the scholarly literature, it often seems that they are not talking about the same emotion. Some experts, both classical and modern, consider love not only pleasurable, but in many ways the most important thing in life. Nevertheless, this view represents only a minority. The dominant view has long been that love, especially romantic love, is a painful affliction or madness, a view widely held by the ancient Greeks (De Rougement 1940). Over 2500 years ago, Sappho described the pain and impairment of love:

For should I see thee a little moment,

Straight my voice is hushed;

Yea, my tongue is broken, and

Through me

'Neath the flesh, impalpable fire

Runs tingling;

Nothing sees mine eyes, and a

Voice of roaring

Waves in my ear sounds;

Sweat runs down in rivers, a

Tremor sizes

All my limbs, and paler than

Grass in autumn,

Caught by pains of menacing

Death, I falter,

Lost in the love-trance.

Certainly in the teachings of the Church Fathers, beginning with St. Augustine, romantic love has been viewed as a disorder because of the sinfulness of sexuality. The 11th century scholar Andreas Capellanas (The Art of Courtly Love 1969), after an extended indictment of romantic love, concluded that it was the work of the Devil.

The majority of secular scholars have also taken the position that romantic love is an affliction or madness. The most elaborate description of romantic love is found in Stendhal's Love (1975). Although he denies that passionate love is pathological, he inconsistently acknowledges that it is a disease. Certainly his description emphasizes the painful rather than the pleasurable aspects. At the beginning, one is lost in obsession:

The most surprising thing of all about love is the first step, the violence of the change that takes place in the mind…  A person in love in unremittingly and uninterruptedly occupied with the image of the beloved.

In the later stages, Stendahl notes, many other surprises await, most of them unpleasant: "Then you reach the final torment: utter despair poisoned still further by a shred of hope"

Although Stendahl included positive aspects of love, the philosopher Ortega y Gasset saw only the negative (On Love 1957), calling romantic love an abnormality. This passage suggests the flavor of his critique:

The soul of a man in love smells of the closed-up room of a sick man--its confined atmosphere is filled with stale breath.

Even Freud, a champion of sexuality, saw romantic love negatively. He commented that falling in love was a kind of "sickness and craziness, an illusion, a blindness to what the loved person is really like" (Freud 1915). Here he seems to equate love with infatuation, a topic I will take up below.

On the other hand, to give Freud credit, he also saw the positive side of love, at least of non-erotic love. When Jung challenged him to name the curative aspect of psychoanalysis, Freud answered very simply “Love.” This answer is very much in harmony with the definition of love that will be offered in this chapter.

Modern scholarship is more evenly divided between positive and negative views than classical discussions. Hatfield and Rapson (1993) distinguish between passionate love (infatuation) and companionate love (fondness). Both Solomon (1992) and Sternberg (1988) distinguish between love and infatuation. They note that both involve intense desire, but that love also involves intimacy and commitment. Kemper and Reid (1997) also distinguish between what they call “adulation” and what they see as later stages, ideal and romantic love. Like Persons (1988), they seem to assume that beginning with infatuation is likely to lead on to love.

In my experience, infatuation mostly leads to more infatuation, either with the same or different persons.  For Solomon and for Sternberg, love is highly positive and complex; it is infatuation that is simple and negative. As we shall see, this distinction may be too crude. But, if refined, it could be a step toward the development of a workable concept of love.

A very detailed and precise analysis of the meaning of the word love in English is provided by Johnson (2001). He shows that the vernacular word implies three different kinds of love: care, desire for union, or appreciation. These three forms, he argues, may exist independently or in combination. One limitation of his approach is that it does not include the physical component of love, attachment. Another is that it is atheoretical, in that it is based entirely on vernacular usage in the English language. Although it is useful to have such a detailed treatment, it still leaves the analysis of the meaning of love located completely in only one culture.

Kemper (1978) analyzed the way in which social relationships generate love as well as other emotions, in terms of status and power.  The awarding of status, which is crucial in Kemper’s theory, will be important here also, since it is an aspect of shared identity. Power, however, does not seem to be involved in love as defined here, since shared identity means its absence. Although I agree that most emotions arise out of relationship dynamics, Kemper’s theory seems to deal only partially with shared identity, and not at all with attachment, attraction, and empathic resonance (attunement).

Perhaps the best empirical study of romantic love, and certainly the most detailed, is by Tennov (1979), who interviewed hundreds of persons about their romantic life. She found that the great majority of her subjects had frequently experienced the trance of love, like the one in Sappho's poem. However, Tennov does not call this state love or even infatuation. Instead she used the word “limerance,” which refers to a trance-like state. Perhaps aware of the many ambiguities in the way the word love is used, Tennov seems to have wanted a neutral term, rather than the usual one.

The conflict between the different points of view described above is the result, for the most part, of the broad sweep covered by the word love. The argument is a confusion of meanings, since the various sides are referring to different affects. Those who see romantic love as pathological are considering the affect that I prefer to call infatuation and/or the sex drive, without considering other aspects of what is called love. This usage is perfectly proper in English and French (but not in Spanish). Most references to “falling in love” or “love at first sight” concern infatuation. And with regard to lust, recall that one of the dictionary definitions of love is “A feeling of intense desire and attraction toward a person with whom one is disposed to make a pair; the emotion of sex and romance,” which is entirely about sexual desire.

On the other hand, those authors that stress the positive aspects of love focus on the emotional and relational aspects, companionship and caring. I will consider these aspects under the heading of “attunement,” the sharing of identity and awareness between persons in love. As should become clear in this essay, this is only one part of love, even non-erotic love.  Perhaps there will be less conflict and confusion if we can agree on a definition of love that is less vague and broad than vernacular usage.

Two Components of Love

The social science literature on love is divided into two separate schools of thought. The first school focuses on biology. This school holds that attachment, a genetically endowed physical phenomenon is the basis for non-erotic love, and that sexual attraction, together with attachment, are the twin bases of erotic love. The idea that the dominant force in love is attachment and/or sexual attraction is stated explicitly by Shaver (1994), Shackleford (1998), Fisher (1992), and many others. This idea has strong connections with evolutionary theory, proposing that love is a mammalian drive, like hunger and thirst.

A further frisson for this school of thought has been provided by recent discussions of limbic communication (Lewis, et al 2000). According to this work, persons in physically close quarters develop physiologically based resonance, body to body. One striking example they cite concerns women roommates whose menstrual cycles gradually move to the same date. Lewis and his colleagues urge bodily resonance as the dominant component in love. They also explicitly link it to attachment theory (idem, pp. 69-76). From this point of view, love is a constant and a universal, from individual to individual, in all cultures and historical times.

Various studies both of humans and animals have suggested that attachment is primarily based on the close relationship of infants to their caretakers. In close quarters, usually with their parents, the infant seems to imprint on those two persons, and anyone else in close and continued proximity. Although not all of the causes of imprinting have been established, touch, body warmth, and especially the sense of smell are prime candidates. Several studies suggest that an infant will select its own mother’s milk over the milk produced by other mothers, probably based on smell rather than on other senses. This sense of smell may be carried with us as long as we live, even if only far below the level of conscious awareness.  As adults, we may still become attached to others because of their smell, even if we don’t realize it. But there are undoubtedly other roads to attachment as well, as will be discussed below.

There is a second major school of thought, however, that gives little or no attention to a physical basis for love. This school proposes that love is largely a psychological/ emotional/cultural phenomenon. In this perspective, love is seen as extremely variable and changeable, by individuals, social classes, and/or cultures and historical epochs.

Most of this chapter will be devoted to this second idea. Not because the first idea is unimportant. In the scheme of things, the physical basis of love is just as important as the cultural/cognitive/emotional one. My attention will focus mainly on the latter idea because it is much more subtle, complex, and counter-intuitive than the first. It is also a component which is more susceptible to intentional change than attachment and attraction.

Attachment and sexual attraction are relatively simple, constant and universal in all cultures and historical periods. They are built into the human body, as they are built into the bodies of other animals. They can vary in intensity, and in the degree to which they are expressed or inhibited, but they are basically one-dimensional. Not so with the cultural/cognitive/emotional basis for love, which has many dimensions, ramifications, and contradictions.

The Wisdom of Solomon

By far the most sophisticated version of this second perspective is proposed by Solomon (1976, 1981, 1994). There are many features of Solomon’s treatment of love that distinguish it from other writings. First, his analysis of love is conceptual and comparative: in his treatments, he examines love in the context of a similar examination of other emotions. The way in which he compared the broadness of the meaning of love with the narrowness of other emotions, quoted above, is illustrative of his approach. Indeed, his first analysis of love occurred in a volume in which he gave more or less equal space to the other major emotions (The Passions 1976). Locating love with respect to other emotions is extremely important, since many of the classical and modern discussions get lost in the uniqueness, and therefore the ineffability of love.

A second feature of his approach is that he provides a broad picture of the effects of emotion on the person undergoing them, in addition to the central feeling. He calls this broad summary “the emotionworld.” For example, he compares the “loveworld” to the “angerworld.” The loveworld (Solomon 1981, p. 126) is “woven around a single relationship, with everything else pushed to the periphery...” By contrast, he states, in the angerworld “one defines oneself in the role the ‘the offended’ and someone else….as the ‘offender. [It] is very much a courtroom world, a world filled with blame and emotional litigation...” Solomon uses the skills of a novelist to try to convey the experience of emotion, including cognition and perception, not just the sensation or the outward appearance.

From my point of view, however, Solomon’s most significant stroke involves his definition of the central feature of love as shared identity (Solomon 1981, p.xxx; 1994, p.235): “ …love [is] shared identity, a redefinition of self which no amount of sex or fun or time together will add up to….Two people in a society with an extraordinary sense of individual identity mutually fantasize, verbalize and act their way into a relationship that can no longer be understood as a mere conjunction of the two but only as a complex ONE. “

By locating love in the larger perceptual/behavioral framework, and by comparing love with other emotions, Solomon manages both to evoke love as an emotion, and develop a concrete description of its causes, appearance and effects, a significant achievement. His work suggests that the reason scholars decide that love is ineffable is because they treat it that way, a self-fulfilling prophecy that Solomon avoids.

At first sight, Solomon’s deconstruction of the concept of love may appear to be Grinch-like. Why remove the aura of ineffability, of sacred mystery by means of comparison with other emotions, by locating feelings within a larger framework of perceptions and behavior, and by invoking a general concept like shared identity? Perhaps this attempt is only one more example of what Max Weber called the progressive disenchantment of the world.

This is an important issue; we cannot afford just to shrug it off. Perhaps it is the price one has to pay for the advancement of understanding. But there us a further reason that is less obvious. One implication of Chapter 2 is that the broad use of the word love is a defense against painful feelings of separation and alienation. It is possible that the way that the idea of love evokes positive feelings of awe and mystery is also a defense against painful feelings of separation and alienation.

In any event, this chapter seeks to extend Solomon’s conceptualization of love as an emotion like other emotions. Solomon’s idea that genuine love involves a union between the lovers is not new. It is found, as he suggests, in Plato and Aristotle. It also appears in one of Shakespeare’s riddling poems about love, The Phoenix and the Turtle, as in this stanza:

Property was thus appall'd,
That the self was not the same;
Single nature's double name
Neither two nor one was call'd.

The idea of unity is also alluded to in the first dictionary definition, quoted above, as “a sense of oneness,” and in many other conceptions of the nature of love. In current discussion, the idea of unity is referred to as connectedness, shared awareness, intersubjectivity, or attunement.

In order to develop a usable definition of love, I will draw upon both literatures, the one on attachment, the other on attunement. For romantic love, a third “A” is needed, (sexual) attraction.

Love and Solidarity

Any theory of social integration, like attachment theory, assumes that humanness requires being connected to others. There is a vast literature supporting the idea that all humans have a need to belong (Baumeister and Leary 1995). Love is one form of belonging, friendship and community are two other forms. But in modern societies these kinds of needs are difficult to fulfil. Infatuation, heartbreak, and on a larger scale, blind patriotism offer a substitute: imagining and longing for an ideal person or group instead of connecting with a real one.

One complication involved with the idea of the need for connectedness is that humans, unlike other mammals, also have a strong need for individual and group autonomy. These two needs are equal and opposite. The clash between needs for both connection and autonomy form the backdrop for cooperation and conflict between individuals and groups. I will return to the issue of autonomy in the discussion of micro-solidarity and micro-alienation below.

The idea of a connection between two persons is difficult to make explicit in Western societies because of the strong focus on individuals, rather than relationships. It implies that humans, unlike other creatures, can share the experience of another. That is, that a part of individual consciousness is not only subjective, but also intersubjective.

The idea of an intersubjective component in consciousness has been mentioned many times in the history of philosophy, but the implications are seldom explored. As indicated in Chapter 2, Cooley argued that intersubjectivity is so much a part of the humanness of human nature that most of us take it completely for granted, to the point of invisibility:

The idea that we “[live} in the minds of others without knowing it” is profoundly significant for understanding the cognitive component of love. Intersubjectivity is so built into our humanness that it will usually be virtually invisible. It follows that we should expect that not only laypersons but most social scientists avoid explicit consideration of intersubjectivity.

This element is what Stern (1977) has called attunement (mutual understanding). John Dewey proposed that attunement formed the core of communication:

Shared experience is the greatest of human goods. In communication, such conjunction and contact as is characteristic of animals become endearments capable of infinite idealization; they become symbols of the very culmination of nature (Dewey 1925, p.202)

In ordinary language, attunement involves connectedness between people, deep and seemingly effortless understanding, and understanding that one is understood. As already indicated, this idea is hinted at in that part of the dictionary definition about "a sense of oneness."

In order to visualize intersubjectivity, it may be necessary to take this idea a step further than Cooley did, by thinking of it more concretely. How does it actually work in dialogue? One recent suggestion that may be helpful is the idea of “pendulation,” that interacting with others, we swing back and forth between our own point of view, and that of the other (Levine 1997). It is this back and forth movement between subjective and intersubjective consciousness that allows mutual understanding.

The infinite ambiguity of ordinary human language makes intersubjectivity (shared consciousness) a necessity for communication. The signs and gestures used by non-human creatures are virtually without ambiguity. In the world of bees, the smell of bees from outside the nest is clearly different than the smell of one’s own nest: it signals enemy. But humans can easily hide their feelings and intentions under deceitful or ambiguous messages. Even with the best intentions, communications in ordinary language are inherently ambiguous, because all ordinary words are allowed many meanings, depending on the context. Understanding even fairly simple messages requires mutual role-taking (attunement) because the meaning of messages is dependent on the context.

As suggested in Chapter 2, any context can easily change the meaning of any message. To understand the meaning of messages in context, we have all become adroit at pendulation: seeing the message from the point of view of the other as well as our own.

Independently of meanings, winging back and forth between self and other viewpoint also has a great advantage in the realm of emotions. In this process, one is able to access otherwise occluded emotions. One can experience one’s feeling from the point of view of the other, which may be less painful than feeling them as one’s self. The state of balance, which I referred to in an earlier work (1979) as “optimal distance,” suggests how solidarity and love benefit close relationships whether in families or psychotherapy.

Mutual understanding often fails to occur, of course. But if a society is to survive it must occur most of the time. When we find that our friend with whom we made a dinner date shows up at the right time and place, we realize that he was not joking or lying. Driving an automobile safely requires taking the role of other drivers. In making a loan, a bank must usually accurately understand the intention of the customer to repay. In fact, our whole civilization is possible only to the extent that mutual understanding usually occurs.

It may help to understand this process by also considering contexts where mutual understanding breaks down. There is a debating tactic that is sometimes used in conversation such that one or both of the speakers doesn’t actually hear the other person out. In the quarrel mode, this practice takes the form of interrupting the other person mid-sentence. But there is also a more subtle mode, where one party listens to only the beginning of the other’s comments. Instead of continuing to listen until the other is finished, the “listener” instead begins to construct his own retort, based only on the first few sentences that the other has uttered. This practice is difficult to detect, and has probably never been studied empirically. But it represents one source for the breakdown of pendulation, and therefore of mutual understanding.

Certain types of personality also tend toward lack of mutual understanding. Narcissism,  for example, is a tendency to see the world only from one’s own viewpoint. This idea is played out in detail in the film As Good as it Gets. The character played by Jack Nicholson falls far the character played by Helen Hunt. But he has great difficulty in relating to her because he must struggle to get outside his own point of view. The last scene, in particular, portrays the agony he suffers in trying to take her point of view as well as his own.

There may also be a personality type with the opposite difficulty, balancing one’s own point of view against the others. Perhaps there is a passive or dependent personality type who penchant is to stay in the other person’s viewpoint, rather than balancing it against one’s own. I have known professional actors and politicians who had no secure bond because they seemed not to have a point of view of their own.

A relationship may be relatively stable when the personality styles of the two persons are opposite. A person with a narcissistic or isolated style might fit with a person with a dependent or engulfed style. The first person would expect the second to take his point of view, and the second person would expect the other person not to. But in As Good as it Gets, the Helen Hunt character would not put up with the male character’s lack of empathy: she clearly showed that he would have to change his ways. Undoubtedly there are many other sources of lack of mutual understanding that require investigation.

In struggling to define what is meant by a sexual perversion, the philosopher Thomas Nagel (1978) came very near to defining genuine sexual congress in terms of attunement[2]. Although he doesn’t use that term, or any of the others I have used, such as intersubjectivity, his description of genuineness in terms of each knowing that the other knows they desire and are desired certainly implies it:

These [sexual] reactions are perceived, and the perception of them is perceived; at each step the domination of the person by his body  (‘s arousal} is reinforced, and the sexual partner becomes more possessible by physical contact, penetration, and envelopment. (p. 48).

In another passage, he invokes the idea of unity and oneness. He goes on to propose that sex between two persons is perverse if it lacks this kind of self and mutual awareness. He points out that this definition inevitably broadens the definition of perversion; ordinarily one doesn’t consider it perverse if one or both of the partners is imagining being with someone else other than the person they are having sex with. The idea of attunement is closely linked to a theory of social solidarity,  to be discussed next.

Solidarity and Alienation

In the framework proposed here, the non-genetic component of love would be one type of solidarity, a secure bond (Bowlby 1969), involving shared awareness between lovers. As Solomon has suggested, the love bond also means sharing of identity.

There are many passages in literature that imply the idea of shared identity between lovers. Here is an example from Wuthering Heights, in which Kathy, the heroine, exclaims that she IS her lover:

I cannot express it; but surely you and everybody have a notion that there is or should be an existence of yours beyond you.  What were the use of my creation, if I were entirely contained here?  My great miseries in this world have been Heathcliff's miseries, and I watched and felt each from the beginning: my great thought in living is himself.  If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger: I should not seem a part of it.... Love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary.  Nelly, I AM Heathcliff!  He's always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being.

However, the passage “He's always, always in my mind” suggests a lack of balance, at least on the heroine’s part. Rather than loving Heathcliff, from the point of view of the definition offered here, she seems to be engulfed and obsessed with him

The amount of sharing of identity is crucial for a secure bond. Each lover needs to treat the other as of equal value as self, neither more nor less. The idea of equality of valuing self and other equally means that the loving person can see both persons' needs objectively, without overvaluing self or other. This idea is represented in the airline instructions that the parent place the oxygen mask first on her/his face first, not on the dependent child.

The idea of love involving equality of self and other has been touched on by many earlier discussions. Sullivan (1945, p. 20) states the idea exactly: “When the satisfaction or the security of the other person becomes as significant to one as is one’s own satisfaction or security, then the state of love exists.” Note that he doesn’t say that the other is more significant, only as significant. But like most of the other discussions of this point, Sullivan doesn’t dwell upon it or provide examples. It is mentioned  casually, and in passing.

This idea can be linked to the more general framework of social integration (alienation/solidarity). True love involves being neither dependent (engulfed) nor independent (isolated), but interdependent, to use Elias’s terms (1972). It is particularly important to distinguish between a secure and an engulfed bond, since most social science confounds these two types.

In an engulfed bond, one or both partners give up basic aspects of self in order to be loyal to the other. In a traditional marriage, for example, the wife often suppressed anger and resentment to the point that it seemed to disappear, in order to be loyal to her husband. Perhaps this is the major source of emotional estrangement in long-term relationships.

Those who are infatuated or heartbroken with “love” do not have a secure bond. In cases of infatuation at a distance, the contact that is necessary for the development of attunement is missing; there goes “love at first sight.”  Even where there is contact, the infatuated or heartbroken one may be so self-absorbed (isolated) or engulfed to the point that attunement cannot occur. As will be considered in the next chapter, these two states are consistently presented in popular song lyrics as if they were genuine love.

Solidarity and alienation are usually discussed as if they were macro phenomena, occurring only in large groups or even whole societies. But these concepts are also useful at the level of interpersonal relations, both over long spans of time and also moment by moment.

Love is usually thought of as long term, involving commitment to the relationship. But love can also be seen as occurring or not, moment by moment. In fact, the moment by moment occurrence of love and other emotions may point toward an important issue in defining attunement in genuine love.

Marshall Rosenberg (1999), defining what he calls “non-violent communication,” has suggested that in close relationships, maintaining empathic connectedness (what I have been referring to as attunement) must be treated as more important than any particular topic being discussed. This idea seems to go to the very heart of genuine love, since it brings up the issue of impediments to love and resulting lapses.

In Rosenberg’s workshops, this question often arises in parent-child relationships, when a mother or father complains about a child’s behavior. For example, a mother may repeat dialogue between her and her son about getting his homework done before watching TV or playing electronic games.  Rosenberg begins by explaining that the child has a need for autonomy, for being his own persons, as well as a need for remaining connected with the parent.

This idea seems to be lost on the parent. She will ask: “So how do I get him to do the homework?” The parent seems to have the idea that what is involved is a test of wills, and that the way to go is to have a stronger will than the child. Rosenberg then goes on to explain that the parent needs to show that empathic connectedness is more important to her than getting the homework done. That is, that she respects the child’s need for autonomy.

In terms of love, Rosenberg’s idea seems to be that in genuine love, the lovers show that maintaining attunement is usually more important than anything else. That is, nothing outside of the relationship (work, children, household tasks, and so on) is more important than the relationship itself.

One implication is that any kind of ultimatum, no matter how subtle, violates the love contract. One of the ways this issue comes up is in discussions of commitment between men and women. Because of differences in upbringing, often it is the woman in a relationship who confronts the man about his commitment. Typically, both sides behave badly in this confrontation. Here is a dialogue between students in one my classes that illustrates the problem.

Janey and Charlie have been dating for two months, seeing each other every day. But one day Charlie doesn’t call or show up.

Janey phones: What’s going on, Charley, are you still interested in me?

Charlie: I don’t know.

Janey: You don’t know?

Charlie: Well, I just heed some time and space right now.

Confronted by Janey, Charlie appears to feel cornered. It doesn’t matter whether he actually doesn’t know, or if he is just stalling. He has disconnected. Whatever love the two have for each other is not happening in this particular episode, because there is no attunement.

Although lovers often confront each other with direct questions about degree of commitment, a more diplomatic approach would probably work to maintain the bond, or at least settling the issue more quickly and with less pain. For example, if Janey had opened the discussion by leaving off “are you still interested in me?” (What’s going on Charley?), Charlie may have entered into the dialogue instead of disconnecting from it. Rosenberg’s idea of maintaining empathic connectedness (attunement) seems to have many implications for understanding the meaning of love, and love’s maneuvers.

The idea of attunement also may help to understand the intensity of the feeling of love. Balanced attunement is a way of describing a secure bond; the corresponding emotion is genuine (authentic) pride. Just as shame/embarrassment are the emotions of lack of attunement, so pride is generated by attunement (Chapter 3). Even for non-erotic love, the conjunction of feelings of attachment and genuine pride, the absence of sadness and shame, presumably can give rise to powerful sensations of wellbeing. In erotic love, when further conjoined with sexual arousal, these three different rivers of sensation may be the most intense pleasurable experience of which humans are capable.

To understand the emotional components of love, it is necessary to consider both the presence and the absence of emotions. First consider the emotions connected with attachment and separation. Sadness (grief) is the crucial indicator of attachment: we miss the loved one when she or he is away, and we are struck down with grief at their loss. But what is the motion connected with the presence of the loved one? Joy is too strong a word for this feeling. I suppose one might say that rather than feeling a particular feeling, one merely feels normal, or the absence of pain.

But the situation maybe a bit more complex than it seems. Suppose that in modern industrial/urban societies, one experiences a sense of separation from others early on in childhood. There is such intense pressure for individuation and individual achievement and recognition that we are practically forced to separate ourselves from others. Not just our parents, but from all others, even, to some extent, from those closest to us.

Supposing, for the sake of discussion, that modern societies give rise to this kind of extreme separation in virtually every one, what would be the consequences? There are two that I think are relevant to understanding the emotion of love. First, we all learn to defend against feelings of loneliness and isolation. That is to say, we learn to suppress and/or ignore these painful feelings. Secondly, however, this kind of maneuver is usually only partially successful. Most of us go through most of our life bearing at least a hint of sadness as background to our activities.

But genuine love silences this background noise, at least temporarily. When one is connected with the loved one, one feels normal in the sense of sadness being absent. The attachment emotion may be the absence of sadness, as if a heavy weight has been lifted.

The same reasoning applies to the presence of pride that accompanies the shared identity and awareness during moments of genuine love. The feeling of authentic pride that is registered is not only that of the emotion itself, but also, and probably much more intensely, the absence of the background noise of humiliation, shame and embarrassment.

Not only sadness, but shame and embarrassment, real or anticipated, are a continuing presence in the life of denizens of modern societies. Goffman’s first and best known book, Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959) made this point in many different ways. His Everyperson is constantly aware of her or his standing the eyes of the others, but helpless to do anything about it, and is usually anticipating, or often, actually experiencing shame or embarrassment. Perhaps the most powerful feelings connected with love concern not only the presence of pleasurable emotions, but the absence of painful ones.

Defining Love

Formulating a concept of love would seem to be a fool’s errand. Not only must one refute a vast number of scholarly definitions, but much worse, try to overturn the vernacular, commonsense meanings. Might as well stop the wind, or repel the ocean tide. Nevertheless, it may be worth the effort if we are to understand ourselves and our relationships,

I define non-erotic love as having two main components, attachment, on the one hand, and attunement, on the other. Romantic love also has these two components, as well as third, sexual attraction. Attachment is a physical bond, attunement, in the sense of a balanced sense of shared identity and awareness, a psychological and emotional bond. The two together can provide a definition of non-erotic love much less ambiguous than the vernacular ones..

Attachment gives a physical sense of a connection to the other. The most obvious cue to attachment is sadness when the other is absent or lost, and the sense of normality and fulfillment when the other returns. Another, less frequent cue, is the sense of having always known a person whom we have just met. This feeling may be extremely intense when it occurs, but it also may be completely absent.

Feelings of loss are not continuous, but they are much more stable than attunement, which varies from moment to moment.  The attachment component accounts for an otherwise puzzling aspect of  “love” in its vernacular sense: how one can “love” someone that one doesn’t even like? One is attached, despite one’s negative cognitive/emotional reaction to the other, and despite the other’s behavior, no matter how rejecting. A popular song from the 40’s evokes this kind of “love”:

I don't know why I love you like I do,
I don't know why, I just do.
I don't know why you thrill me like you do.
I don't know why, you just do.
You never seem to want my romancing.
The only time you hold me 
Is when we're dancing.
I don't know why I love you like I do.
I don't know why, I just do.

Physical attachment gives the lover a sense of urgency, even desperation. Furthermore, attachment is like imprinting in other creatures; it occurs very early in infancy, and may last a lifetime. It is attachment that makes loss of a love one profoundly and unavoidably painful. After such a loss, one may suffer grief for many months or years. Grief is the price that our bodies exact for lost attachment.

When we lose a loved one, we may be in great pain, off and on, for a long period of time. This process is biologically based on genetic inheritance. It cannot be completely avoided. But it can be very long, months or years, or shorter, depending upon the completeness of mourning. If one does what Freud called “the grief work,” the work of mourning, the amount and duration of pain may be lessened.

However, modern societies have difficulty recognizing the necessity of mourning. Our individualistic ethos maintains that we are all self-contained, not recognizing how dependent we are on others, especially those we are attached to. After a loss, a person who cries for more than a month or so may be told get a grip, or see a psychiatrist, or take a tranquilizer. Such attitudes interfere with mourning, which is always necessary because attachment is genetically based.

However, there is probably a link between the attachment system and the attunement system. Attachment can find new objects based on clear or obscure similarities with an early attachment figure. This process has been described in psychoanalysis, under the name of “transference.”

Transference produces a link between the attachment and the attunement systems. Most people become deeply attached to their country of birth. Patriotic feelings seemed be based in part, on attachment. Since the smell of one’s native land is probably not a primary source of attachment, it may be that it arises from transference of the feelings one has an infant and small child for one’s parents to one’s country. Most citizens more or less blindly admired and obeyed their parents as children, and as adults more or less blindly admire and obey their government.

States of attunement, unlike attachment, vary from moment to moment. There is a dialectic of closeness and distance, reaffirming not only the union, but also the individuality of the lovers. The idea of the love bond as involving both continuous attachment and a balance between self and other solves a critical problem in the meaning of love. The bestseller Women Who Love Too Much (1985) describes continuing relationships with husbands who are abusive of wife or children, or both.

The women profess that they can’t leave these men because they love them too much. Since the word love is used so broadly in vernacular English, this usage is perfectly proper. But these kinds of relationships fail the test in terms of the way love is being defined here, because they lack balance between self and other. The husband is overvalued; the wife undervalues herself and/or the children. The wives are engulfed with their husbands. In these cases, the word love serves as denial of pathological dependency and/or passivity.

In terms of the idea presented here, these wives are at least highly attached to their husbands, and may or may not be also sexually attracted to them. But it is clear that they are not attuned, in the sense of equally representing self and husband in their thinking and feeling. The husband counts too much, the wife too little. If, as proposed here, genuine romantic love involves a combination of attachment, sexual attraction, and equality of mutual identification, a relationship in which the wife is dependent on the husband in this way clearly fails the test.

Combinations of attachment, attraction, and the three levels of attunement result in 24 possible kinds of “love” (see Chapter 6 for a graphic representation). But only four represent LOVE as it is defined here: non-erotic mutual and one-way love, and romantic mutual and one-way love. The other twenty combinations represent affects that are often confused with love. This confusion, as mentioned above, may help to hide the painful separation that is characteristic of our society.

To the extent that the definition of love proposed here is found to be useful, what practical application might it have? One implication concerns the possibility of change in each of the three underlying dimensions. The first two dimensions, attachment and attraction, are largely physical and constant. These two dimensions are more or less given and fixed. But the third parameter, degree of shared identity and awareness, may be open to change through effective communication practices.

One goal of communication between persons in love relationship would be to balance the level of shared identity so that it is roughly equal on both sides, over the long run. That is, although one partner might be valuing the other’s experience more than her own in a particular situation, momentary isolation or engulfment could be managed over the long term so that the experience of each partner, on the average, is equally valued in the relationships. This issue comes up continually, especially in marriage: the dialectic between being two independent persons and being a we: “I-ness” and “We-ness.”

A second issue that is dependent on effective communication is shared awareness. Frequent and effective communication can lead to revealing the self to the other, and understanding the other. This issue is particularly crucial in the area of needs, desires, and emotions. By the time we are adults, most of us have learned to hide our needs, desires, and feelings from others, and to some extent, perhaps, even from ourselves. Long-term love relationships seem to require that these practices be unlearned, so that we become transparent to our partner and to ourselves. Unlike the extent of attachment and attraction, effective and frequent communication can improve the balance in shared identity, and increase shared awareness. In this way, love, which is usually thought of as given, may be increased intentionally.

One final issue concerning the degree of attunement needs further discussion. The definition of love offered to this point hasn’t specified one issue that is extremely important for practical reasons. How near to exact equality must the empathy of each partner for the other must be to qualify as love? All that has been said so far is that the amount should average out, over the long term, to near equality. But how near?

Exact equality of empathy between partners might exist in a few moments, but even there it would be rare. Usually one partner is more empathic than the other, in most of these moments, and over the long haul as well. In terms of my definition, does this mean that the more empathic partner loves more? Yes, the definition requires that. But it doesn’t eliminate the possibility of other kinds of equality in the relationship.

One possibility involves what might call secondary attunement. If the less empathic partner becomes aware that he is understood better by his partner than he understands her, he can compensate in other ways. For example, by listening longer to her than she does to him. Direct attunement is important in a relationship, but it is by no means the whole story, just as neither attachment and attraction are not the whole story either.


Before ending this chapter, a few examples of various types of “love” will be offered to help flesh out the abstract ideas discussed above. Further examples will be offered in the chapters that follow.  One example is the feeling of a mother for her new born infant. Is this feeling genuine love in the sense it is being defined here?

Granting that strong attachment between infant and parent begins at birth, the newborn infant cannot return the love of the parent because it is unable to become cognitively and emotionally attuned to the parent.  The parent and other caretakers have to teach the infant how. Until the infant is capable of at least a modicum of sharing awareness with the mother, the feeling between them is not mutual love, but strong mutual attachment.

Very early in the infant’s life, however, the caretaker can learn to understand aspects of the infant’s experience, by accurately interpreting body language and cries (Stern  1977). Perhaps during the first weeks, the caretaker is able to experience one-way non-erotic love toward the infant.

The beginnings of mutual attunement seem to occur long before the development of language. Tronic et al (1982) have documented the exchange of smiles between infant and caretaker after only several months. Quite properly, according to the definition of love offered here, they refer to this process as “falling in love.” From the moment of birth, the infant and the mother are intensely attached. Exchanging of mutual glances and smiles begins the other component of non-erotic mutual love, attunement.

As indicated in Chapter 2, the process of teaching the baby cognitive attunement has been described by  Bruner (1983). He shows how the parent, in seeking only to teach the child names of objects, also, inadvertently teaches attunement.  The child sees that the parent is looking at the object and referring to it, so the child understands that the object is not only in its own mind, its also in the mom’s mind. Completing this process takes many years. Until this happens, the child is unable to take the role of the parent to the point that it becomes interdependent, rather than dependent.

Another similar combination, but between adults, is unrequited romantic love. This kind of affect is one-way romantic love. Perhaps the love of the Helen Hunt character toward the Nicholson character in As Good as it Gets, already mentioned above, is of this type. She is evidently attracted and attached to him, and is able to share his point of view. But since he is unable to do the latter, her love for him is not returned. Like an infant, he cannot partake of and value her point of view as much as his own. The affect he holds for her might be called obsessive desire. He is apparently attached and attracted to her, but tends toward self-focus, rather than balance between self and other. This cell also characterizes most cases of intense jealousy, which is also a psuedo-love.

A further combination that psuedo-love can be visualized in terms of the relationship between Kathy and Heathcliff, already mentioned above. Judging from the portrayal of them in the novel, they are obsessively and erotically engulfed with each other. This idea of requited “love” can also be found in many other novels and in the lyrics of popular songs.  Similarly, one-way obsessive, erotic infatuation is often called love in novels and popular songs.

This chapter has suggested that the mindlessly broad definition of love in modern societies is a defense against feeling the painful emotions generated in the emotional/relational world. In particular, the notion that love is sacred, and/or indescribable can function to defend ourselves against the pain of loss, separation, or alienation.

Perhaps any kind of relationship that contains attachment, attunement, or attraction to any degree, no matter how much hostility or withdrawal are involved, is seen in an alienated society as preferable to no relationship at all. But this chapter provides a definition of love that is narrow and precise, one that might help discover the emotions disguised by vernacular usage, and the kinds of dysfunctional relationships that are hidden under the many meanings of love.  The next chapter, on the portrayal of love in popular songs, provides examples of how the broad definition is played out in mass discourse.


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[1] I couldn’t find this passage in any of Huxeley’s essays, and Bloom was unable to remember the citation.

[2] Ronald de Sousa called this essay to my attention.