If you ask someone to describe what being in love feels like, they will describe something that sounds like sexual passion and desire tinged with obsession. As far as our genes are concerned, sexual desire is where it’s at, and it’s a strong drive, so after a brush with passion we might find ourselves saying, “I thought I was in love, but it wasn’t love—just lust.”
And then there is the niggling difference between acting in a loving way versus being ‘in love’. The former is about being active. It encompasses what we mean when we say that being in a good relationship takes work. Whereas being ‘in love’ tends to sound passive, something we fall into, over which we have no control. Perhaps it even happens at first sight. Let me talk a little bit more about this ‘love at first sight’ phenomenon, because this is what being ‘in love’ is about for many people.
‘Love at first sight’ might be better described as ‘mutual positive erotic transference’. Transference is something we all do: it is what happens when we make unconscious assumptions about the person before us based on our experience of people we have known in the past. We may have had a significant bonding experience with a carer from our infancy, maybe a parent, a grandparent, or a nursery school teacher, and later we may meet someone who looks at us in the same way, speaks with the same rhythms, or elicits the same feelings from us, and we may feel what we call ‘chemistry’. The original love object from the past may even have faded from conscious memory.
Consciously we may think that we prefer a certain type of person, but this is prejudice. Transference is not as conscious as that, but it can cause a feeling that is highly charged and one that we cannot help but notice.
But just because something feels charged or familiar, it does not follow that it is all good even if it feels ‘right’: it might just be familiar. This is why some of us have a pattern of falling for the same ‘wrong’ types.
Transference is indeed passive—and it’s probably why we talk of ‘falling’ in love. When we fall in love, we trip over transference. Sometimes we will fall on our feet but at other times, when reality intrudes, the positive transference fades and takes love with it. There are other factors that add to this falling in love feeling—unromantic things such as a complementary immune system that we instinctively recognise via our olfactory systems, or facial symmetry, which our most basic of instincts recognises as indicating general good health.
So how can we tell if it’s really love we’re feeling? If we get this charged sensation which combines obsession with sexual attraction, it is not necessarily because the person we love is a good person or the right one for us, it only means unconscious forces are at work forcing us to see them through a filter that sifts out inconvenient realities. Jane Austen recognised that goodness has very little to do with love. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet, whilst wondering why Mr. Darcy fell for her, says to him, “You knew no actual good of me—but nobody thinks of that when they fall in love.”
It is entirely possible that this initial positive transference can turn into a deeper, more lasting love. When this happens, erotic love based in sexual attraction changes to mature love. This develops over a period of time between long-term couples and involves actively practising goodwill, commitment, compromise and understanding. This type of love is sometimes known as Pragma: it’s when the passivity of erotic transference turns into the active behaviours of listening, caring, dialogue, appreciation, mutual impact and priority. Actions backed up with commitment. Sure, a little of the initial positive transference may linger and it does love no harm.
Yet if we never experience the transference that makes people go dreamy eyed and rather boring company for anyone other than their beloved, we are only missing out on a trick our genes would have been playing on us: it does not preclude us from having a rich and fulfilling romantic relationship based on appreciation and action rather than on tripping up over transference. Arranged marriages can work and blossom because of the commitment of both partners to act in loving ways.
We can feel an erotic charge that is also down to transference and decide in a truly loving way not to act on it, but to stay with the person to whom we have previously committed. That is more loving than acting on an impulse. I find it difficult to be overly sympathetic to betraying partners who justify themselves with excuses such as, “The force of our love was too strong to resist.” Yes, erotic transference is a strong charge, but it has little to do with love.
There are other kinds of love and it is confusing for us because unlike the ancient Greeks and Romans, we have but one word for love. They were more explicit. Here are some examples:
Philia, which is a deep but usually non-sexual intimacy between close friends and family members. It can also manifest as a deep bond forged by people who have worked together or who have been through a dramatic or emotional experience together.
Ludus, which is a more playful form of affection found in fooling around and flirting.
If you feel love for all of humanity, a more generalised love, that is Agape.
In order to love another, I believe, we also need a type of love sometimes called Philautia, which is self-love. This is not as selfish as it sounds. As Aristotle discovered, and as any psychotherapist will tell us, in order to care for others we need to be able to care about ourselves.
So love is not just a non-specific emotion that plays an elusive game with us. It is not merely something we passively fall into. It can consist of many things, from the erotic to the pragmatic. It can also be deeply intimate yet non-sexual, as the ancients described Philia. It can be flirty, fun and Ludic, or our love can feel universal, or Agapic.
Love is not static. Feelings of love come and go just like feelings of sadness or happiness. It is commitment that does not waver. The old cliché ‘I love you but I’m not in love with you’ describes a transition from one type of love to another. What it really means is ‘I’m moving on because I want to stay with erotic love and am not yet ready for pragmatic love’. But when we are ready for more than eroticism plus obsession, we can feed affection and sexual feeling with the more rewarding worlds of pragmatic and philatelic love.
Here is a short film of Roman Krznaric, my colleague at The School of Life, talking more on this subject.