[Question] Are most people deeply confused about “love”, or am I missing a human universal?

(In the following I am talking about “love” towards human beings only, not love of other things (such as music or food or God).)

A pet topic of mine is that the term love is so ambiguous as to be nigh-useless in rational discourse. But whenever I bring up the topic, people tend to dismiss and ignore it. Let us see if Less Wrong will do likewise.

Modern western culture (and maybe also other cultures) is obsessed with the ideal of love. Love is pretty much by definition the best thing in life which everyone should strive for.

The problem is that people don’t agree on what love means.

Everyone will acknowledge that love can mean different things. But my claim is that most people do not truly understand this, even though they think they do. When this is brought up, people will say “oh yes, love can mean different things”, but they will go on to act and talk as though love refers to something well-defined.

I would argue that many people treat love as a semantic stop sign. Love is by definition good and beautiful and virtuous and thus needs no further analysis. I have even heard people say that love is too “big” and too ineffable to analyze or define. In my opinion this is a problem, because people do use the term in “rational” discourse.

One might try to resolve the problem by arguing that there are different “kinds” of love:

  • Altruism.

  • Platonic love (eg towards friends or children).

  • Romantic and/​or sexual love.

  • Romantic and/​or sexual infatuation.

This helps a bit, but it still does not resolve the problem. Altruism is relatively well-defined, but the other two are still nebulous concepts.

I think a different approach is better. As I see it, the concept of love is garbled mishmash of at least 3 different things:

  • Love as giving: The drive to protect someone and do stuff for them. (Altruism is a variant of this.)

  • Love as craving: The desire to be with or “have” someone (sexually or not).

  • Love as euphoria: The pleasant feeling/​emotion that you may sometimes experience when interacting with someone you “love”.

These 3 things can co-occur and correlate, but they are clearly distinct things, and it is a mistake to shoehorn them into being 3 “aspects” of the same thing.

Love is usually treated as a binary thing: Either you “love” someone or you don’t. This is another misconception that gives rise to bad reasoning. The above 3 things are obviously gradual, not binary, and the same goes for pretty much all attributes that people commonly associate with love.

People will often try to distinguish between “true love” and “not true love”, or between “love”, “lust” and “crushes”. But there is no clear consensus. Most notably, people don’t agree on whether “true love” has a craving component or not.

(One could of course argue that the various “kinds” of love exist on a continuum. Sure. But all sorts of things can be arranged into continua; this does not mean that it is useful to view them as variants of the same thing.)

This appears all over the place in popular culture, old and new. For a slightly older example, look at Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan and Isolde. It is generally agreed that the story of the opera revolves around love, but the love shown in the opera is obviously a destructive obsession and not at all a good thing. Yet people who describe Tristan and Isolde as being about love will—in the same breath—insist that love is something beautiful and virtuous. (I suspect that Wagner himself was a prime example of what I am complaining about. His work has a clear overarching theme of love, but it remains highly muddled and ambiguous.)

It is also worth noting that love can be used as virtue signalling. People will say things like “I love my wife, but… [complaint]”. In such a context, it is not clear whether the profession of love is supposed to convey any rational meaning.

People use the term love in discussions of relationship and family matters all the time, and that causes misunderstandings and problems. As a consequence, I avoid the term in rational discourse. When I say “I love you” to my wife, I don’t intend this as a statement of fact with any well-defined meaning, but as an emotional signal like a kiss or hug. If anyone asks me “do you love your wife?” I will ask them what exactly they mean by that.

Or am I wrong?

I have argued that love refers to a range of things, some of which are completely unrelated. They exist at opposite ends of a contrived and unnatural continuum.

Or am I wrong? Do all these things which people call love genuinely share something important in common? Is there some “feeling of love” that underlies them all?

From my own inner life I do not recognize a singular “feeling of love”. I recognize several different feelings: Of appreciation, of protectiveness, of longing, of infatuation, of empathy-with-suffering. But not a “feeling of love”.

I have reason to believe that I am a bit of a psychological outlier. I have some degree of chronic anhedonia, and I might have a mild autism spectrum disorder.

Am I the odd one out? Does there exist a clear “feeling of love” that most people recognize?

Alternatively, are people more rational than I give them credit for? Is this confusion all in my head? When people talk about love, is it actually clear to everyone what they are talking about?

Or am I right and most people are confused?