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If You Loved Me: 4 Levels of Love

Love fully so your loved ones feel truly loved.

Key points

  • Love can be experienced on four levels: sensory/perceptual, emotional, cognitive, and behavioral.
  • Feeling loved is associated with psychological well-being, healthy affect, self-esteem, and meaning.
  • Conscientious attention to loving on all levels enriches us and the lives of those we love.
Source: Krystine I. Batcho
Source: Krystine I. Batcho

So much meaning can be packed into a statement that begins, “If you loved me.” In the past tense, the conditional sentence conveys an accusation. It is understood as “I know you didn’t love me because if you had, you would have...” Accusations about past grievances can signal the end of an irredeemable relationship. Or it can express a last-ditch attempt to salvage a failing relationship. The present tense, “If you love me,” can be understood as a critique of a relationship, a communication of an unmet need, or a plea for something of great importance. Whether past- or present-focused, what’s at stake is the quality and survival of the relationship.

Conditional language reveals a person’s expectations and criteria for love—their definition of love. Disagreements about many aspects of close relationships, romantic and non-romantic, take on greater significance when understood as imperfections or failures of love. Conflict often arises over ordinary, fairly insignificant, choices. It isn’t just that a person spends too much time or money on something not valued by their partner. The activity can be very hurtful if it is perceived as neglect or abandonment of the partner’s feelings, opinions, or needs. The other might argue, “You weren’t here when I needed you,” or “That was money we needed for more important things.” Understood within the frame of love, even seemingly superficial activities or things can assume greater meaning.

Love Is Lived on Several Levels
Why would someone interpret activities as signals and measures of love? Love is lived on several levels—the sensory, emotional, cognitive, and behavioral. Love can make one warm, tingly, and excited. It can feel ecstatic, happy, comforting, and secure. Love can generate and influence thoughts, attitudes, expectations, and aspirations. And of course, love can motivate and be expressed behaviorally. People work and sacrifice for love. Love can be expressed in words and deeds. Ideally, love would be experienced and manifest on all four levels. But lovers are rarely perfect, and love itself can fade or be eroded over time by challenges and adversities. When one of the levels begins to decline, feeling loved can be diminished accordingly. Assuming their love is felt and known, a partner can lessen or cease their expressions and thoughtful acts of love (remembering anniversaries, giving small gifts or flowers, or simply saying “I love you”).

Although one can logically conclude that actions are not the love itself and that love can remain true even as the loving acts decrease, someone may not feel loved in the same way they had when the loving acts made the love more salient, and more real. Thinking one is loved is not the same as feeling loved. For love to remain vibrant, it needs to thrive on all four levels. Physical time together, joyful and comforting activities, and explicit acts and messages of love contribute to the overall understanding and belief that love is authentic and meaningful. Engaging all levels is possible despite our busy lifestyles. A text message reminding one’s partner to pick up milk at the store can just as easily include “love you” or a heart emoticon. On a trip, it’s easy to switch to a partner’s favorite music channel. In many small ways, lovers can maintain a behavioral and sensory environment of pleasure, comfort, and joy—together constituting a knowledge and feeling of being loved.

Not Feeling the Fullness of Love
Although love is often thought of in romantic terms, love is also experienced on four levels in other close relationships, including parent/child, relatives, and friends. A parent who provided well for their child might not realize that the child felt cared for, but not necessarily loved. Feeling loved is more than thinking one is loved. Based upon his own father, songwriter Richard Leigh wrote “The Greatest Man I Never Knew,” recorded by Reba McEntire. After his father’s death, Leigh knew that he’d never hear “the greatest words... He never said he loved me. Guess he thought I knew.” Without all the levels of love, one might not feel the fullness of love. As Leigh recounted, “Every day we said, ‘Hello’ but never touched at all... How was I to know he thought I hung the moon?” In a conversation with Jerry Seinfeld on Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, Howard Stern reminisced, “I would have loved if my father had sat me down and just said ‘How are you? How are you feeling?’” Seinfeld remarked, “It seems like such a small thing.” Stern replied, “But it’s huge.”

A parent might assume that all the time and effort they give to caring for their child—driving them to soccer practice, preparing dinner, shopping for clothes—constitute unmistakable love. Against the backdrop of busy parenting responsibilities, warm hugs, family stories, special one-on-one time, and the precious explicit declarations of “I love you,” might not seem necessary. But love is felt most fully, securely, and memorably when experienced on all levels.

Loving so conscientiously is worth the time and effort. Research has shown that in everyday life feeling loved is associated with greater psychological well-being, enhanced emotional wellness, positive affect, gratitude, flourishing in relationships, self-esteem, purpose, and optimism. The benefits of feeling loved are not limited to romantic love. Extending love to others can enhance their happiness and feelings of self-worth. As with romantic relationships, close relationships are enriched and sustained with greater attention to all levels of loving. Don’t take relationships for granted. They are the core of a rich and meaningful life.


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Johnson, M. D., Horne, R. M., & Neyer, F. J. (2019). The development of willingness to sacrifice and unmitigated communion in intimate partnerships. Journal of Marriage and Family, 81, 264-279.

Leigh, R., & Martine, Jr., L. (1992). The greatest man I never knew. Recorded by Reba McEntire. On For My Broken Heart [CD]. MCA Records.

Oraveczz, Z., Dirsmith, J., Heshmati, S., Vandekerckhove, J., & Brick, T. R. (2020). Psychological well-being and personality traits are associated with experiencing love in everyday life. Personality and Individual Differences, 153, 109620.

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More from Krystine I. Batcho Ph.D.
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