THE BLOG
02/05/2013 06:59 pm ET Updated Apr 07, 2013

What About Love?

With Valentine's Day coming up, there's lots of talk about love. Well, what about love?
If I asked you that question, how would you answer? If you can, write down your answer.

That's a question I did ask when I was conducting a longitudinal study at the Project on the Development of Girls and Psychology of Women at Harvard University some years ago.

Ken, a 36-year-old insurance agent, answered the question in this way:

I believe in love. I think everybody should have some. I use to have love, but I lost it. I didn't realize what a precious commodity it was. I guess I took it for granted, and didn't realize that it's more difficult than I thought to obtain it from another individual. I think I should have some again. I think I should go out and find some.

In contrast, Sarah, a 40-year old mother of three, answered in this way:

When I think about love, I think about my husband, when things were good between us, and really wanting to be with him. I just really enjoyed being with this person. I just thought he was so funny. We really laughed about things and when we laughed together about something, it was like looking into a mirror. It made us feel real close when that happened, like loving. That stopped a long time ago.

The qualitatively different way Ken and Sarah speaks of love breaks down to the most elemental difference -- parts of speech.

Ken speaks of love as a noun, a quantifiable thing that ought to be equitably distributed. For him, love is part of the world of objects: a static and fixed thing that he would acquire if only he could find it. Like a precious jewel, love is something to cherish, find, lose, replace, forget, take for granted.

Sarah, on the other hand, refers to love as a verb, as a dynamic process that happens between her and her husband, joining them to each other and felt within each person. Love is a moving experience -- she is moved by him and he by her. Unlike Ken who is concerned with finding and losing an object love, Sarah looks for opportunities to start an experience of love and regrets love stopping. One captures a static quality to love, while the other refers to love as in motion

OK, that's interesting. Two approaches to love -- love as an object, a static commodity-oriented view, and love that moves, a fluid, felt experience-oriented view. Gary Chapman wrote about The Five Love Languages, but my research shows that it can be reduced down to these two.

These two ways of speaking of love shape two different worlds that come with two distinct sets of assumption. These worlds, so tacitly different, for instance, have a different reference point -- who are they relating to when they speak of love? Ken, for example, places himself in relationship to an idea he has about love, which objectifies experience. Sarah, on the other hand, refers to love in relationship to another person, which locates her in the stream of fluctuating and changing experience.

If we objectify love as Ken does, then we create a static world of objects. Security is an acquisition of things; the beloved is a love object, predictable with certain characteristics; support is fixing someone as if they are broken; sex is working the right mechanical parts; problems with love circle around issues of performance (producing love) and control.

When we think of love as a connection with another that flows and changes with time, then security is felt as a continued sense of attunement with another; the beloved is an emerging, changing other; support is collaborating, cooperating and being with each other; sex is a changing journey towards a body/mind connection with oneself and another; problems are events that people move through rather than cope with.

These two ways of approaching love can be seen in the marriage vows themselves, in the Book of Common Prayer: "To have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part." Having and holding a person presumes that person is static, like an object. And, like a precious object, something to cherish. But love is also defined as an experience in the flow of life, where people gain and lose status and health. Love changes as people change.

The implication of this difference is that when people are having a conflict and feel misunderstood, they might be arguing about one topic but there is often an unconscious and subterranean struggle over the meaning of love itself.

So how do you think of love -- as an object, or as a felt experience? In a consumer-oriented culture most people tend to objectify love, like the size of a diamond ring can be seen as an indicator of how much you love and are loved. Love as "in motion," on the other hand, is not as reinforced in our culture. Some people are bilingual in love, weaving in out of objectified and experiential love.

Listen to how you speak of love and how your loved one speaks of love. Are you living in the same worlds? Maybe this Valentine's Day you can ask each other, "What about love?"

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