What is Love?

I enjoy reading “Dear Abby.” Though her answers are often insipid, the letters are a window into human psychology. Not that they’re necessarily representative; but certain themes recur so regularly, they do tell us something.

Marriage and love problems loom large. Inevitable when two people try to mesh together. But what I see, again and again, is one not even trying to mesh with the other. Taking them for granted. Most strongly manifested in “controlling,” a word that comes up a lot. A controlling spouse is assuming the partner is there to be controlled.

Perhaps fortunately, my own dismal romantic history barred such attitudes. Relationships were elusive, and by the time I finally succeeded, at forty, it was the most important thing in the world to me. I once read how the “surprise and delight” newlyweds typically feel about their marriage normally dissipates. But I still feel surprised and delighted after 33 years.

It helps to have the perfect spouse. Well, she does have her idiosyncrasies. As do I. But we’re both very mindful of, and grateful for, the bigger picture of what we mean to each other.

I do see other good marriages like that, but also some like the “Dear Abby” cases. I think the taking-for-granted syndrome is often key. People seeing their partner as a kind of entitlement, as opposed to “surprise and delight.” As though the partner is an accessory, like a handbag. You don’t have to do anything to satisfy a handbag.

One might suppose that if you love someone, you wouldn’t treat them that way. Certainly true up to a point. But it’s also true that the feelings of romantic love, often intense, that precede marriage, dissipate too, evolving into a different set of emotive operators. Love of another kind. Hopefully. Yet even that mellower kind of love should surely still mean treating a partner, well, lovingly. Not callously.

However, love can also actually turn into hate. Grievances build up and obliterate whatever positive feelings you began with. That’s fatal to a relationship.

But what is “love” anyway? Seemingly it’s in relation to the other person. Yet it’s a fundamental truism of human existence that we live only inside our own skulls. Limited to experiencing only what happens in there. Your brain is the sole mediator of your reality. Of course, the other person does exist, outside that, regardless; but can exist for you only as a construct within your own mind. The matter then becomes one of instantiating your own behavior in such a way as to shape the interplay with the other person so that what consequently obtains in your mind is most conducive to your own sense of well-being.

Sure, if you love her, you want her to be happy too. But again, saying “you want” indicates that it is really all about what’s happening within your mind. You want her to be happy because her happiness, and your wanting it, make you happy. Otherwise you wouldn’t want it.

And some people really don’t — as in many of those “Dear Abby” cases. The idea of one’s own happiness being somehow served by the other’s gets lost altogether (if it was ever even there). Their feelings just stop mattering to you. It’s solipsism; a short-sighted selfishness that actually disserves one’s own interests. Obviously, if the other person gets angry and lashes out, creating unpleasantness, that matters to you. It’s not their feelings per se that do. It’s the results.

I think the answer, in any case, is to treat your partner as if you love them. Leave aside the fraught issue of whether you actually love them — and whatever “love” actually does mean. This formulation works even under the paradigm suggested here, wherein “love” is really a matter of what’s conducive to your own sense of well-being. Many of those “Dear Abby” problems would be resolved if the people just treated their partners as if they loved them.

Like with free will. Another very fraught conceptual issue. But our modus vivendi is to operate as if we have free will. That works, and renders irrelevant, for practical purposes, whether or in what sense we truly have it. So too with love. Behaving as if you love the other person makes moot the issue of what love is — and the issue of whether or in what sense you truly do love.

7 Responses to “What is Love?”

  1. Don Bronkema Says:

    Post 90+ years of fateful miscalculation, respondent is obliged to concur re questions of sensation & volition you raise. Some of us are born dead. Others are beaten to death. Chance rules the universe & the enveloping Kosmos…You happily married folk seem an ever-diminishing cohort in a world of greed & grievance. Existence is 99.99% pain, broken by microflashes of some bizarre other landscape…His dottir, having entered college & found Aristoteles, takes for the nonce a different view–more like yours–the aureus mediocritas. Some, broken on the wheel, hasten the ineluctable.

  2. Robyn Blumner Says:

    Really nice post. You have it right.

    Robyn E. Blumner *President and CEO*, Center for Inquiry *Executive Director,* Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science 1012 14th St. NW, Suite 205 Washington, D.C. 20005 RBlumner@centerforinquiry.org

    The Center for Inquiry strives to foster a secular society based on reason, science, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values. Our vision is a world where people value evidence and critical thinking, where superstition and prejudice subside, and where science and compassion guide public policy.

    On Mon, Sep 27, 2021 at 10:37 PM The Rational Optimist wrote:

    > rationaloptimist posted: ” I enjoy reading “Dear Abby.” Though her answers > are often insipid, the letters are a window into human psychology. Not that > they’re necessarily representative; but certain themes recur so regularly, > they do tell us something. Marriage and love probl” >

  3. Don Bronkema Says:

    For reason & equity to prevail, we’ll need to regineer the amygdala. By 2121, couples who decline optimization via CRISPR will be replication-decertified [a fortiori for Colonia Martialis]. Mene, mene, tekel upharsin!

  4. Lee Says:

    I don’t think that “taking for granted” or “controlling” are the biggest problems. I think that most friction comes from having different expectations. In particular, our own expectations and norms may be so ingrained that, although there is no malice, we do not even consider the possibility that another’s expectations might be different.

    So, I think the key to success is communication and, specifically, an airing of expectations including needs, wants, ambitions, and dreams. That way there is a better understanding of each other and a basis for choosing how best to thrive together.

  5. Don Bronkema Says:

    Romance endures 15 months; thence colloquy & complaint.

  6. David Lettau Says:

    Being in love can be such fun! Yet some eschew it all together (“I don’t do love”=Gore Vidal) How many who are outwardly disdainful of love secretly long for its passions? As Edna St Vincent Millay wrote in one of her most memorable sonnets=.Love cannot restore the fading breath/ Nor set a fractured bone / Yet many a man is making friends with death/ Even as I speak,for lack of love alone/ Even so,we must remember Andre Malraux’s well known saying that,”Love is not a solution to human solitude.It is a refuge from it”,I am glad my friend that you found love and have had 33 years of relationship.Man fulfills himself in the temporality or not at all as Simone De Beauvoir warned.

  7. Don Bronkema Says:

    Love is an illusion produced by oxytocin, absence of which ensures misery & despair. How many experience it purged of control, qualification or exploitation? In 90+ years, respondent has never met anyone who claimed such an ontos [state of being]: all demonstrate its absence in their neuroses. It seems to manifest mainly in the arts & efforts to save an unworthy H. semper unsapiens. Luckily, we are not immortal: surcease awaits in the Reaper. Rebut if you dare.

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