But are these really the questions we should be asking when we ponder whether we are in love or whether others love us? Are these instead red herrings that distract us from the questions we should be asking?
The answer I want to suggest is in the affirmative; for in my view, love is not a feeling in the first place. While people in love do indeed experience tingles, titillations, or other warm and fuzzy churnings, these are not themselves what love is. These positive feelings and sensations may be like the icing on the cake, but not the cake. They make loving feel good; but they are not what makes love so valuable and coveted by all or most of us. When you're in love you may get goose bumps but we would be hard pressed to say that being in love is getting goose bumps. So what then is love?
To be sure, love does take different forms depending on the type of relationship. In romantic love, there is sexual attraction to the beloved. In familial love the attraction is based on blood; in close friendship it can be a kindred soul, like-mindedness, or shared experiences. In the love of a mother for a child it can be the bond established through birth; or in fatherly love a projection of self. But the feelings to which these bonds and attractions give rise are not themselves what love is. So what, then, is it?
Love, I submit, is a purposive activity undertaken by two (or more) people in a close, intimate relationship such as the aforementioned ones. While it is often said that "love is blind," this is, strictly speaking, only true of misguided love or love that has strayed from its essential purpose.
To see that love has such a purpose and what that purpose is, try saying something like "I love her but I don't give a damn about her." Such a statement falsifies itself because to love someone you must care about them, and care about them a lot. People who truly love others want them to be safe, secure, and happy. They place their welfare and happiness at a premium.
Of course, I can be highly concerned about the welfare of certain others without loving them. Thus, doctors, teachers, or other helping professionals could care about the welfare, happiness, and safety of their patients, students and clients but would be hard pressed to say that they love them. This is because such individuals, if they follow their codes of ethics, will maintain professional distance and will not become intimate with their patients, students, and clients.
So loving is an intimate, personal activity that seeks the welfare, happiness, and safety of another. Here intimacy may involve living with the other and sharing very personal aspects of one's life. It may involve being a parent, a close friend, a spouse, or a partner. Here, friendship could sometimes include co-workers and confidents and others whom you have gotten to know on a close personal level.
However, we should tread carefully here because it may be easy sometimes to confuse infatuation with love. Thus, people may imagine themselves being in an intimate relationship with people they barely know. They may feel sexual attractions for and even be obsessed with others. Some people may think they love others who may not even know they exist. However, these relationships are not ones that support love, even if some of them may evolve into love.
Loving involves being in a relationship with another. In a functional loving relationship there are mutual expectations. If I love you and you don't accept my love then the relationship is dysfunctional because the primary purpose of love is not easily accomplished. If you don't let me love you, then my love will be squandered on you.
As such, to be in love is to be engaged in an activity that can be done well or not so well. One can be good at loving or poor at it depending on how good (or bad) one is at accomplishing the purpose or goal of loving someone. The statement, "I love you very much" may sometimes be a deep expression of a feeling that comes with being in love; but it can also be uttered by people who do not know the first thing about how to love another. This is because this statement, if it is meaningful, is not simply a report about a subjective feeling going on at the time that it is uttered.
To be meaningful, you must put your actions where your mouth is. This means doing things that promote the other's happiness, welfare, and safety. Now, within intimate relationships there are certain human qualities that tend to promote these values and which, when absent, greatly lower the prospects for attaining them. The qualities in question consist of cognitive-behavioral habits, that is, habits to act and think in certain ways that tend to promote the happiness, welfare, and safety of loved ones. The following are some of these key cognitive-behavioral qualities.
If you love someone, you will be there for this person in difficult times. For example, if I am upset over life circumstances (for example, the death of a parent) and you love me, then you will be there for me, even if it's a shoulder to cry on or an empathetic ear to listen and reflect. If I am ill, then if you love me you will be there to care for me in my time of need.
So, "being there" may sometimes require some degree of self-sacrifice. Suppose, for example, your spouse has a professional opportunity that requires that you move to another state, or even country. While this might involve self-sacrifice (say giving up your job and seeking employment in this new location), it would be an act of love to do this for your spouse. Of course, if your spouse loves you, then he or she would not want to cause you unhappiness. Thus there would invariably be mutual consideration among people who truly love each other.
In any event, lovers who are willing to make personal sacrifices for each other are better at loving than those who are not so willing. It also seems fair to say that people tend to be poor at loving who are unwilling to make any personal sacrifices. This is because promoting happiness of another with whom one is intimate tends to involve some measure of sacrifice, even if it is giving up an occasional preference or making reasonable compromises.
It is not enough to be there in time of need. If you love someone you should want to do things to advance this person's happiness even when there are no crises or significant problems at hand. This may include anything from surprising loved ones with a special gift to encouraging and helping to advance their careers, education, or other positive goals conducive to their happiness. Indeed, when parents send their children to a top notch college even when they cannot easily afford it this is a significant act of love because it is calculated to positively advance the child's happiness and prosperity now and in later years.
Beneficence accordingly involves advancing positive welfare, not merely remedying or ameliorating pain and suffering. The opposite of being beneficent is being maleficent, which means doing harm to the other. Clearly, people who love others are non-maleficent toward them; for they cannot promote the happiness of others with whom they are intimate by doing things that harm them. People do indeed sometimes hurt the people they love; however there are limits to the nature and extent of these harms that any functional relationship will allow. For example, physical assault or forcible sex breaches these boundaries along with a functional, loving relationship. Emotional harms resulting from name-calling, mocking, scolding, embarrassing, and other similar degrading acts are also affronts to a functional loving relationship, especially when they are done with the frequency of a persistent habit.
Making a Commitment
Making a commitment to another involves taking a personal risk in a relationship. This might be taking a marriage vow or anything else that creates responsibilities and obligations to the other person. Thus goes the popular adage, "Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free." A person who loves another will "buy the cow" notwithstanding. In a committed (exclusive) relationship, one has special allegiances to the other. You cannot, for example, "play the field."
So, being a loving person, you must also be faithful. Cheating or otherwise betraying the one you supposedly love destroys the prospects for happiness inside an intimate relationship. This applies not just to sexual relationships, but also to parental ones, for example. Children who perceive their parents to have betrayed them-either through acts or deeds-confront an impediment to thriving. For example, a parent who abandons a child inflicts a profound psychological wound on the child. Human beings, including adults, tend to respond unfavorably to betrayal by those who are supposed to love them. Loyalty is not optional if one is to enjoy a happy relationship.
Nor is it a part-time job to love another. Being supportive today and absent tomorrow does little to support the happiness of the other. Being loving involves acting in loving ways. This does not mean that you have to be perfectly consistent to do well at loving. Few if any of us are ever entirely consistent. It instead means that you tend to act in loving ways. For example, loving your spouse does not mean that you won't ever say hurtful or unkind things to him or her. But it means that you will tend not to do these things. Similarly, keeping your promises or being true to your word should be the rule, but a perfect track record is not necessary to maintaining a loving relationship.
People who are in an intimate relationship with another are not likely to advance their individual and collective happiness unless they are open and honest with each other. Lying, deception, and other forms of misrepresentation tend to destroy personal happiness. An honest and open sharing of deep personal secrets brings people closer together.
Lying and deception breeds lack of trust. Parties to a relationship who do not trust one another are not likely to share personal information. Without the sharing of such information, it is difficult to know what makes the other happy and therefore what to do in order to achieve this end. On the other, if I am open and honest with you about things that matter to me, you are better situated to act and speak in ways that advance my happiness, and conversely.
Being trustworthy in an intimate relation also includes being able to be trusted with personal information. If I confide in you about something deeply personal and private, I ordinarily expect you to keep it in the strictest confidence. So if you betray this trust, you can do serious damage to our relationship and to the prospects of future happiness, yours as well as mine. This does not mean that breaching the other's trust will necessarily subvert a relationship. Indeed the person whose trust was violated may never find out. Still, being untrustworthy portends a habit of violating another's trust; and such untrustworthy habits have a strong track record of destroying the prospects for happiness inside an intimate relationship.
This means not doing or saying things that could reasonably be predicted to cause the other person needless inconvenience, hardship, or distress. For example, some people tend to complain a lot even though such a tendency succeeds only in dampening the relationship. Indeed, human beings are imperfect creatures who will invariably make mistakes in acting and speaking indiscreetly. Nevertheless, there is a point at which such mistakes become a problematic pattern. People who love well try their best to avoid such needless destructive patterns.
This means a willingness to try to enter the other's subjective world to understand the way he or she may be feeling. When parties to a relationship are ego-centered and refuse to acknowledge or understand the other's preferences, values, and views, the relationship is not likely to be a happy one. People who love well tend to be open to the other's reality rather than closing their minds to it.
People who lose patience easily are not likely to make a relationship work. Being willing to let things go, to forgive, and move on are necessary if an intimate relationship is to flourish. People who are bent on being right, even if it destroys the quality of life, are not likely to live happily with others; nor are they likely to enhance the lives of those they profess to love. This does not mean that people who love must be absolutely tolerant. Abusive relationships should not be tolerated, for example. Thus, accepting the gifts of a perpetually abusive spouse or partner only to fall back into a cycle of abuse is contrary to one's welfare. Such relationships are often better off being dissolved (safely) rather than being sustained.
The aforementioned set of qualities can provide an important barometer of loving well. To the extent that these qualities are present, one loves well; to the extent that they are not, one loves poorly. Indeed, there is always room for loving better because, realistically, these qualities are not going to be completely actualized even in very loving relationships. Likewise, very loving relationships can also degenerate when these barometric indicators fall.
While there is no algorithm to determine how good a person is at loving, there can be some ballpark assessments based on the aforementioned criteria. The following "Love Inventory" can help you determine the ranking of your or your loved one's love.
So, for example, if you assigned 2 for each of the eleven qualities of loving, your Overall Total would be 22 and your Final Average would be 2 (22/11); or if you assigned 3 to five of these qualities (=15) and 5 to 6 others (=30) your Overall Total would be 45 and your Final Average would be about 4.1 (45/11).
As you can see, loving is more than having a warm fuzzy feeling. Almost anyone can have the feeling; but loving someone takes work. People have to work at cultivating loving relationships by improving upon the above eleven qualities.
As stated, these qualities are habits; and cultivating stable habits requires practice. So to become better at loving you will need to practice. Practice won't make any of us perfect (not even "excellent" on the Love Inventory means perfect), but it can make us better.
How good are you at loving? We can all use some work. But what can be more worthwhile than making someone you love happier by improving your capacity to love!