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Love Comes in Degrees

There is no right degree of love. You can always love someone more—or less.

Berit Brogaard
Source: Berit Brogaard

Though the Hollywood depiction of true love differs from the emotional state that exists between people in real romantic relationships, the way we perceive this central emotion does correctly reflect that love is not an on-off affair. Failing to realize this aspect of love is likely one of the main triggers of that gnawing anxiety that most people experience in their romantic relationships. For example, in the beginning phases of a relationship, you may obsess about how your new crush feels about you, whether he or she is in love with you, whether you should say the “L” word, when you should say it, who should say it first or what it means if one of you says it. During later phases you may be consumed with disturbing thoughts about whether your mate is still in love with you, whether she will fall out of love with you, whether she has fallen in love with others, whether she loves you more than her career or why she can’t fully commit to you if she says she adores you.

If love is not an on-off affair, most of these qualms are partially grounded in a failure to pay attention to the degree nature of love. How we use the word “love” gives us some valuable insights into the concept. “Love,” as it is used in the English language, is a gradable verb. Gradable verbs and adjectives are those verbs and adjectives that have a meaning that changes from context to context, that combine with degree modifiers and that give rise to indeterminate cases.

Familiar examples are “tiny,” “rich,” “expensive,” and “bald.” One apartment can be tinier than another, an apartment that would be tiny if located in Beverly Hills may be quite sizable if located in Manhattan and some apartments are neither clearly tiny nor not tiny. They are sort of in-between.

“Love” works in quite the same way. This becomes apparent in constructions, such as “I love you more than anything else in the world,” “I love both of my children equally,” “I am a tiny bit in love with him,” “Henry is more in love with Rose now than he was last year,” “Jacky would have been more in love with Wolfgang if he hadn’t cheated on her,” “she doesn’t love me as much as I would like her to,” “Carly loves Paris more now than when they first got together,” and “He loves him a lot for someone with an avoidant attachment style.”

If the word “love” in the English language picks out the relation of love, which we have good reasons to believe, then being in love is not an on-off affair. It is not like being pregnant, an unequivocal degree-less state. You can love one person more than another, you can love one woman a lot and another woman a bit less, you can love someone too much and you can be in that in-between phase where you neither definitely love someone nor do not love them. Likewise, an instance of love can be intense with respect to one person but not with respect to another. A consequence of this is that if someone sincerely denies that they love you, they don’t love you in the full sense, but they may still have some affectionate feelings for you. They may be somewhere amid that fuzzy gray zone. These lessons are good to remember when we think about our own or others’ emotional state. Love comes in degrees. There is no right degree of love. You can always love someone more or less than you do.

Saying “I love you” is informative, but there are limits to how much information the three sappy words can provide. The meaning of “love” is fixed in context. You may correctly say that you love someone in a low-stakes context and yet deny it in a high-stakes context. For example, you may give your childhood friend a big hug and say, “I love you,” when she brings you Ding Dongs, your favorite treat. But if a lot more hung on you saying the three words, you may have said nothing at all.

The idea that love comes in degrees gives us a way of understanding affection constituted by both conscious and unconscious elements. Suppose Lucy is aware that the sheer presence of her friend Angus has begun to make her feel more elated than usual, she is aware that her heart beats like a jungle drum when she is out with her comrades, but she is unaware that Angus is the underlying cause of this. When Lucy logs into her email account in the wee hours, she has an urge to scan her inbox to see if Angus wrote her before plowing through the other two hundred and thirty tiresome messages. She usually feels inclined to chat with Angus rather than with her other pals at festivities, and occasionally she begins to giggle for no reason. She has taken no notice of these revealing changes in her behavior. Susan, her BFF, has noticed a transformation in Lucy’s behavior and has asked her whether she has a crush on Angus. Lucy explicitly and adamantly denies it. Angus has been her pal since kindergarten. “Nonsense,” she says with naïve straight-faced honesty. “Of course, I don’t have the hots for him.” She insists that while she thinks Angus is a handsome and darling guy that even her granny would approve of, she merely has brotherly feelings for him. In a case like this we can correctly say that Lucy is in love with Angus to some extent, even though she denies it and doesn’t have the full conscious experience of being in love. But we would not want to say that the extent to which Lucy is in love with Angus is the same as it would have been, had she had the full conscious experience of affection. Lucy is in an in-between state that resembles the prototype well enough for it to be appropriate to say that Lucy is in love, but she is not in love to the degree she would be if her love had been fully consciously manifested.

The idea that there are many shades of affection also helps us apprehend love that has grown old. When you and your S.O. have settled down in suburbia with two kids, an SUV, a permanently half-full laundry basket, and a trip to Walmart and a movie from Netflix being the most exciting parts of your weekend, your love life doesn’t quite feel the same anymore. People prefer to say that the love that once filled their hearts has become a different kind of a love, a warmer, deeper and more caring kind of love. This may be true in some cases. In other cases, love simply isn’t manifested to the same degree. A couple’s love for each other at four in the morning in their bourgeois hell when the new baby wails and needs a clean diaper for the third time that night needn’t be warmer, deeper and more caring than the love they felt when they were walking down the aisle—free, bohemian, their whole life ahead of them.

Bearing in mind that love comes in degrees can shed light on the mystery surrounding the fact that your hotshot hubby can insist that he loves you one day, then shamelessly cheat on you the next and pack his suitcases and walk away a week later, leaving only a few pieces of clothes behind like the Wicked Witch of the West. He may be a shady sort of fellow but he wasn’t necessarily being dishonest when he declared that he loved you. He may not even have changed his feelings toward you. He may simply have been fooled into thinking that he loves his long-limbed, anorexic secretary more than he loves you.

Berit Brogaard is the author of On Romantic Love