Like the brilliance of a diamond, the beauty of love is multifaceted. There is a rapture that lovers feel for each other. The love that fills the heart of parents as they watch their child sleep. The platonic love you feel for your friends, as well as the love you feel for others you don’t even know, simply based on your shared humanity. All these experiences are different enough that it can be difficult to know exactly what love is.
Although it is tempting to answer simplistically, I’ll know it when I see it (or feel it)., that is hardly satisfying or enlightening. At the very least, we can agree that love, in all its forms, is a powerful force. And with further consideration, some basic elements emerge as fundamental to all the different kinds of love.
Basics of love
It is important to understand that the feeling of love is not a permanent state. It must be maintained. This means that even though you love someone, you may not always fully connect with and act on that feeling. Sometimes, for example, you can shout at the person you love, acting more anger but from love. But you may soon reconnect with your sense of love, allowing you to stop yelling and approach the person with concern. So, as you think about what love is, be sure to remember that the love you feel for someone is like an underground river that could always be there, but you have to tap into it in order to enjoy its nourishment.
Although each of the different manifestations of love includes some unique characteristics, they all share these four basic elements:
Love: This aspect of love is simple. It includes a feeling of liking and affection towards its object. This is true whether you are talking about loving your mother, your spouse, or your friend.
Compassion: Empathizing with someone allows you to feel the affection that goes with love. It connects you to the other person’s experience, allowing you to connect and feel close to them. At its core, empathy is the ability to bond over experiences we share as humans.
compassion: When you empathize with someone, you are more likely to feel compassion, a desire to ease someone’s pain. This is true whether you feel compassion for an injured child you see on the news or your own child. Importantly, feelings of compassion make it more likely that you will take action to try to ease someone else’s pain.
Acceptance: True love, in all its manifestations, involves observing someone with an open heart.
In personal relationships (especially romantic ones), we often love idea someone before we loved them. Since we can only know about a person when we first meet them, our initial reactions are often based largely on our own fantasy as we imagine them to be. It takes time to truly know, accept and love someone.
Even as you notice their less-than-desirable traits, you realize that being imperfect is part of being human, which allows you to accept them for who they are. This can be tricky because acceptance is often mistaken for agreement or approval of someone’s actions. That is simply not true. You can accept someone you love for who they are, yet strongly disagree with some of their decisions or actions, and even refuse to support them.
For example, if your friend drinks too much, you can decide not to go out with him to bars anymore. And if that drinking gets worse, you could create more distance in your relationship. However, if they decide to seek treatment, you may be there to help them. In this case, you would accept and love them as a person even if you refuse to encourage or support their destructive behavior.
Love is a healing force
In my work as a psychologist, I was surprised to find that my research into what creates emotional and psychological healing led me to view love as central. To my ear, this sounds corny or jokey, and too simple. And honestly, without elaboration, I think it is. But the healing power of love is worth further investigation.
I wrote a lot about attachment a theory that has been extensively researched for decades. It tells us that connection with others is essential for our physical survival and emotional well-being. And as I explained, love is essentially a powerful experience of open, caring connection. This applies to the way you relate to yourself as well as to others. For this reason, compassionate self-awareness is an essential step in personal healing, as I explain in this short video, Self-love: a source of strength and healing:
As you learn to be more compassionate towards yourself, you will discover not only self-love, but also openness to love others and receive their love. You will naturally want to lead a life where you feel authentic. When you face the inevitable trials that accompany such a life, love will help you be resistant and to persevere. Don’t get me wrong. Love will not make life all heart and sunshine. But love, in its many forms, offers a sense of connection that can allow you to feel strong within yourself and to feel meaningful as part of a life that is bigger than you.