Loving one another is arguably the most powerful and complex thing we do as a species. We are genetically hardwired to connect, to bond. We need interaction and touch and belonging. We could reduce it to the biological reproductive drive of a pack animal species, compelling us to procreate and seek safety in numbers for survival. But as our societies have grown and evolved so too has the nature, scope, and complexity of our relationships. Those basic drives are still fully present but they now have an ever expanding spectrum of ways to manifest and express. So why are we still so often continuing to reduce and restrict our ideas about love rather than expanding them?
There is a lot of important work being done fighting for people’s right to love who they love, to expand the definitions of marriage and family and parenting. They are extremely important battles which still need to be fought. Things are getting better but there is still a ways to go as there are still far too many parts of the world where the struggle is literally one of life a death.
The diversity engines are also hard at work in the realm of sexuality expanding the understanding and array of options with regards to the variance in people’s sexual drives, preferred models of relationships, as well as the seemingly infinite spectrum of preferred or desired sexual practices. All are important, valuable, and lovely. But when we talk about loving each other, about connecting with each other emotionally and intellectually and even spiritually, we’re still stuck in a model which uses one word with but two allowed meanings.
Saying ‘I love you’ is only perceived as acceptable for family members or romantic partners.
We’ve given ourselves a couple of cheats around this, like rendering the idea safely casual with ‘Luv ya’. But the way we connect emotionally with each other is incredibly powerful, intricate, and widely differing so where is all the nuanced understanding and language? Why do the biological impulses get support and freedom but the deep and powerful emotional forces are left with limited and restrictive constraints?
The ancient Greeks at least had the language for seven types of love.
‘Storge’- love for a child within the family.
‘Philia’- affection or friendship between peers.
‘Eros’- sexual and romantic love.
‘Ludus’- playful love that is lighthearted even flirtatious but not necessarily sexual.
‘Pragma’- long lasting love that represents a lifelong bond.
‘Agape’- self-less and unconditional love.
‘Philoutia’ - love of self.
I’m not suggesting we all revert to the practices of ancient Greece, though on some levels it wouldn’t be the worst thing we could do, but how as our civilizations and societies have advanced and diversified have we ended up narrowing our language about love instead of expanding it?
The first half of the ‘short’ answer is that the physical and behavioral aspects are easier to explain and describe. They’re tactile, practical, demonstrable. We can show our partner the toy or costume, we can describe the practice, we can explain how we like to behave in a relationship or how many people we open to involving. All conversations about ‘what’ and ‘how’. They aren’t necessarily easy conversations but they are easier than ones about ‘why’ which, unfortunately, is the primary zone of the emotions.
Conversations about ‘why’ can be incredibly tricky but are immensely important.
Emotions are mercurial and hard to quantify, they can instantly overwhelm us and tend to be enthusiastically illogical. We can almost always trace back to the source after the fact, though it can sometimes take a lifetime of work, but we have to go through the emotion first then work our way backwards through all that mercurial illogic.
Those can be incredibly difficult conversations to have because we almost always run into tones and textures of feeling we don’t have words or handy visual aids for. Instead of avoiding these exchanges, however, they are the ones we need to dive fully in to. That is the space where true, deep, healing, connection, and understanding is found. Our standard 2.3 toned model of ‘love’ not only fails to give us much in the way of tools to do this it also quietly but actively pushes us away from it altogether.
And that is the second half of the ‘short’ answer. In a culture of instant gratification and conceptual simplification we don’t have time for long, intensive, complicated, messy, clumsy, uncomfortable exchanges which won’t necessarily produce a concrete answer at the other end. Trouble is ‘why’ conversations are and also where true growth and understanding occur.
Whether we have time for them or not the simple truth is our need those kinds of connections and exchanges is just as deeply wired in as the biological drives. And if any of our deep rooted drives aren’t able to achieve what we need directly they will find some other way, most often a lesser with potentially harmful side-effects.
Let’s use as example the concept of the ‘bromance’, a phenomenon I find particularly aggravating. Sure on the surface it seems adorable, perhaps even progressive for opening a small window allowing two men to behave with at least some degree of affection. “Aww, aren’t they cute?” The grinning and teasing over Robert Downey Jr. and Mark Ruffalo, both the actors and their Marvel characters, seems endearing. But the whole concept still operates from the ‘relative or lover’ paradigm. It just combines them to prevent the shared affection from diminishing their manliness.
Simple and genuine affection has to be reduced to a macho-ized adolescent parody of a crush which only spoken of in tones of condescension or teasing which must be received as such. This example also drags in the societal baggage and ignorance around issues of masculinity but if we could be more open and comfortable talking about love and feeling it, if we weren’t forced to jury-rig a self-mocking .3 version just to describe it or experience it, we might even be able to start sorting some of the masculinity mess out as well.
We need deep bonding connections in our lives and if we don’t have them we’ll latch onto anything close to it.
We endow our Facebook friends with greater importance than people actually in the room with us, substituting ‘likes’ for validation and ‘views’ for affection. Our emotions explode in all directions over a tweet or text because we’re trying to cram an entire stadium full of feeling and need into a child’s lunch box.
And as our globally connecting technologies ironically continue to make us feel more isolated instead of focusing on regaining and solidifying our direct and genuine connections we fixate our energies on trying to create better substitutes, like the French inventor who attached an animatronic digit to a smartphone so it could act as a physical emoji.
There are obviously a whole host of situations and circumstances which can pose enormous challenges for people sometimes making the substitutes their only options. And virtual connections can indeed be very powerful and fulfilling. It is crucial, though, that we try to get as close to the genuine source as possible. The problem isn’t simple so there are no easy or simple answers but here are four basic principles to start from.
1 - Face to Face
So much of how we communicate has nothing to do with our words, spoken or written. There are countless ways was can express our love and affection without speaking a word so any meaningful exchange about love needs access to the same tools.
Whether we’re talking directly with the source of our feelings or trying to explain them to someone. In order to convey our feelings we need to clearly express them and to achieve understanding we need to see and feel how what we are expressing resonates with the other person. Loving is connecting and connecting requires presence.
2 - Messy
Emotional exchanges are clumsy, messy, uncomfortable, unpredictable and that is perfectly fine. It’s just the way it is so give one another space and permission to stumble over your words, have no words at all and simply make strange gargling noises as you clench your fists, say it wrong 23 times so hopefully the 24th one will do the trick and if not take a breath and try a 25th.
The questions aren’t perfect so the answers won’t be either. Just because we’re trying to talk about things which are important to us doesn’t mean we have to hire a speech writer ahead of time. Emotions are raw, vital, and powerful and we can always make our way through them to find understanding if we give each other enough space and breath to be human while making the attempt.
3 - They Don’t Have to Match
Whether or not you are talking directly to their target feelings are powerful, ever shifting, and deeply personal. They won’t always match up in tone or intensity with another person’s and even when they do it’s never exactly. Which is perfectly fine. We feel what we feel and we don’t what we don’t. Whether or not we share someone’s passion, or even understand it, it in no way diminishes those feelings. If we feel them then are valid and important.
Obviously in the romantic context unshared feelings can be a source of incredible painful and embarrassment, all too often used as a sort of punchline plot device in TV and film. But the simple truth is we can’t make ourselves, or anyone else, feel something we don’t any more than we can make ourselves not feel something we do.
It is potentially one of the most awkward and messy conversations one can ever have but those kinds of emotions need to be expressed, understood, accepted even if they aren’t ever returned. Not talking about them doesn’t ever make them go away and denying them can cause life destroying pain.
4 - They’re Never the Same Twice, And Shouldn’t Be
Not only are emotional connections different for each person involved but they will also always be different with each person we connect with. Everyone we encounter is a different being so our connection with them will be equally varied,whatever we figure out in one context won’t necessarily be the truth of the next. Interests, experiences, ideas can be drastically different from person to person and so too the nature and strength of our connections. Different doesn’t mean greater or lessor, stronger or weaker. It just means different.
No one person will ever be the source and match for all of our loves, and no one way of connecting with people will work with absolutely everyone. It’s a question we will never have all the answers to but with practice we can get better and better at the messy process of helping one another ask.
Loving is a vital and essential part of living.
There are infinite tones and textures and ways of feeling and expressing it. Maybe a line from one of my favorite movies had it right and talking about love really is like dancing about architecture. Perhaps language can’t ever be fully nuanced enough to describe the indescribable. But 2.3 flavors is definitely nowhere near enough, so don’t settle for it. Roll up your sleeves, get messy, and take as many people with you as you can.