The word love is used in a multitude of ways; I'll distinguish two that seem worth discussing. In explaining each, I'll sacrifice generality to avoid grammatical ugliness by using the pronoun that has been most significant to my experience; I trust, dear reader, you can manage the obvious extrapolation to your own experience, so as to restore the generality I sacrifice.

Falling in love is an emotional roller-coaster I sometimes experience, rejoicing in some particular person, that leaves me – in love with her – earnestly eager to see her happy. There is a certain mild insanity to either aspect of that, at least when we don't yet know each other particularly well. Typically, if this roller-coaster happens once it'll happen many times more; roughly as often as I see her.

Actually loving someone is trickier: I don't consider it meaningful to speak of loving someone except in so far as I actually know her. Falling in love may leave me full of affection for her – but, if I barely know her, that affection is likely clumsily-directed. If I allow myself the delusion of loving someone more than how well I know her, I would be loving an imaginary person invented inside my head, a hybrid of her and who I imagine her to be. The latter is apt to involve far too much optimistic guess-work, making such a delusion perilous. To love her is to rejoice in who she is, to respect her hopes and aspiration, to actively look for ways to promote her happiness. (I'm afraid I'm not much good at that last. Note, also, that love, in this sense, is applicable outside its romantic senses; feel free to mess with pronouns all you like.)

That may sound terribly altruistic; but I have some fascinating mental machinery – probably rooted in all sorts of odd instincts and woven together in diverse ways by culture, with emotions somewhere in the mix – that leave me happy to see other folk liking life; and this effect is at its most pronounced with those I love and fall in love with. So promoting my beloved's happiness serves me, as her happiness engenders happiness in me. Of course, when there is also some element of desire involved, pleasing her may serve in other ways; but, even without that, there is a perfectly good feed-back mechanism through happiness. If she, also, loves me then that feed-back becomes a loop – a virtuous cycle.

Being in love with someone tends to lead to loving her, in so far as I get to know her (albeit I try to keep my eyes open: if I discover a character trait that derails the roller-coaster, and I'm sane, I'm apt to stop being in love with her). It is also possible to come to love someone by getting to know her, without taking the emotional roller-coaster on the way; this is a gentler, calmer path; though less passionate, it can grow just as profound; and, by this slower path, it is far easier to avoid the pit-fall of delusional love for an illusory hybrid of real and imagined.


I believe the pit-fall of delusional love plays a large part in how (and why) many relationships fail. In the early stages of a relationship, you know each other only partially; whether you mean it or not, whether you are aware of it or not, you supplement your knowledge of one another, each with guesses about how the other is. Those guesses are apt to be optimistic or pessimistic; being attached to them can, in either case, cause stress to the relationship. Pessimistic guesses limit willingness to commit to moving forward, or can lead to artificial restrictions on how you move forward; this excessive caution is often the cause of a relationship not getting off the ground. Optimistic guesses tend to lead to disappointment and disillusionment, once the truth comes along; these effects can be particularly acute, if the same optimism has lead to hastily over-commiting on the basis of expectations now seen to be unfounded; this can lead to a relationship faltering, or it can sow the seeds of rifts that can drive a couple apart later on.

If both (or, for the polyamorous, all) parties stay aware of how well they truly know each other, and remember that some of what they think they know is such guesswork, it is possible for the relationship to grow stronger as learning the truth leads to shedding these guesses. Even when pessimistic guesses prove true or optimistic ones false, recognising this and then taking stock of who it is you're dealing with more honestly, it is easier to recognise what you do like about a partner while fairly accepting what you're not so wild about. Holding onto the early guesses in the face of mounting evidence tends to colour that assessment and lead to stress until you accept the reality. Since stress in relationships can cascade, by exacerbating stressors of a partner, it is prudent to shed guesses in the face of evidence earlier rather than later.

It is usual (but not universal) for either loving someone or falling in love to come entangled with at least some measure of desire for intimacy: which is apt to embroil a hope for reciprocal desires and a wish (at least when physical intimacy is prominent) for exclusivity. Others speaking of love commonly include some element of these in what they mean by love: but I chose to distinguish love from desire and all its fellow-travellers. They are commonly found together, and a discussion of either is thus incomplete if it ignores the other, but that does not make them one and the same thing; nor are they inseparable.

As with love, desire has its roots in diverse instincts, woven together in diverse ways by culture, with emotions in the mix. One may fairly object that the instincts involved with desire and love have evolved together and are so entwined with one another that it is artificial to separate them; likewise for the cultural influences and emotions. None the less, decades of careful thought about love and introspection prompted by heartache have lead me to a view of these topics in which I find it instructive to distinguish the mess in the way presented here (just as I find it instructive to describe the solar system in terms of inner planets, rubble, outer planets and more rubble, despite the ways in which the classification is artificial). It is for you to decide how instructive you find the distinction, however artificial it may be.


modest proposal There are many ways to express love for someone. I live my life, doing her whatever kindnesses circumstances permit: those may be few and minor or many and profound. I tend to seek to at least be her friend, if only to create more opportunities both for discovering what is apt to be conducive to her happiness and for doing such things. Being friends also fosters getting to know each other better, allowing love to grow; and may reveal some clues as to how she feels about me. (Everyone has trouble reading such clues: my neurochemical history leaves me unusually inept.) Knowing each other, in turn, opens the possibility to consider whether any more intimate entanglement is worth hoping for or exploring; if one you love wants it, exploring intimacy together is indeed a delightful and generous way to express love. Even without that, I am eager to spend more time with one in whose company I rejoice; and I can plausibly hope to spend more time with a friend than with a stranger.

Friendship before intimacy

Much popular culture focuses on the case of mutual affection expressed through intimate entanglement, to the extent that it gives the impression this is the usual case of love. I know nothing of the statistics, but I am bound to suspect this is an illusion caused by selective reporting. For my own part (and I suspect I am not, in this, so very unusual), I have fallen in love with several dozen women (and, when I was a boy, girls: who grew to be women, so I here count them with the rest). Before I was past the first dozen, in my early twenties, I had spotted the obvious consequence: that I must surely learn to accept never being more than friends with most. I have no interest in more than one intimate entanglement at a time; and would heartily prefer such to last; so I must expect to fall in love with others during any entanglement, which I would not wish to endanger by going beyond friendship with anyone else. If, as I suspect, other folk commonly also fall in love with more than they get entangled with, being friends with those one loves is likely the more common pattern, for all that the minority of loves expressed more intimately naturally occupies more of our attention. In any case, regardless of which is more common, I know from personal experience that love may be expressed through friendship (that is how I have almost always expressed it), even if not quite so fully as through a more intimate entanglement.

Learning initially to accept and later to celebrate being (just) friends with those I loved went a long way to taking the heartache out of decades of never being closer than friends; and, when eventually I did get to enjoy mutual love and intimate entanglement, equipped me to simply be friends with the others with whom I fell in love, without jeopardising my existing relationship. So, if you're courting someone, you might do well to first discover whether they're able to love you within the bounds of friendship, if only to get some sense of whether they'd be able to stay faithful to you when (as you might do well to anticipate) they meet others for whom their heart sings.

Another problem of popular culture's focus is that it distorts those relationships that do express love through intimate entanglement, by tending to encourage haste to entangle. Early entanglement seems to trigger a tendency to commit to a snapshot of each's perception of the other, that mixes up what each knows of the other with what each has guessed; in this snapshot, it seems common to mistake the guesses for something the other has presented self as being, or had appeared to be. When later evidence contradicts the guesses, it is then all too easy to see this evidence as exposing that (imagined) presentation or appearance as having been a deception, leading to a sense of betrayal once the truth comes along – instead of the truth simply displacing what you knew all along was a guess and can now discard in favour of what you have learned. Such snapshotting is by no means exclusive to hasty entanglement, but I do have the distinct impression that early intimacy does make folk more susceptible to it, and likewise to the other perils of committing to one's early guesses. A slower progression from friendship towards intimacy seems to reduce the risk of these diverse perils of delusions distorting love, allowing a couple to build a solid foundation for a later relationship in the course of getting to know each other.

Popular culture's focus on intimacy, furthermore, seldom gives much time to any intimacy but sex: yet there is a wealth of intimacies by which one can incite happiness in another – I doubt I shall ever forget one brief moment, when the one golden thread of sunshine left in my life clasped my hand in passing and I was overwhelmed with joy, while just friends – and this provides a vast territory a couple could explore together. While that exploration can, indeed, follow an early dive into the closest of intimacies, there is much to say for at least beginning with an exploration of minor intimacies. Juxtaposition with major intimacies tends to drown minor ones out of memory; isolated from the major, the minor can be enriched by anticipation of the major, appreciated to their full and remembered vividly, to later enrich enjoyment of the minor even when juxtaposed with the major.

Love does, indeed, commonly come mixed up with a bunch of desire. Answering your love's desire for you is an entirely proper way to express your love; and as generous to your beloved as it is delightful for yourself. At the same time, desire for intimacy can be answered with a slowly rising crescendo of intimacies, rather than rushing to a climax at the very outset; and taking the time to explore diverse intimacies on the way can enrich the pleasure of the closest of them, the joy you shall both experience on sharing these and the happiness you can later harvest from the minor intimacies once you become used to sharing all intimacies.

It is also worth noting that the importance of intimacies shifts between anticipation and hindsight. The focus of those hoping for a relationship is often upon the path towards sex; yet, looking back on the one happy decade of my life, it is the snuggles I miss the most.

Fuller intimacy

As already alluded to, popular culture tends to focus heavily on this. Mayhap I'll find more to say about it – but, for now, I refer the interested reader to the ample existing literature.

Perversions and corruption

Like anything, no matter how good, our capacity for love can be twisted around; particularly when we fail to distinguish desire from affection, we can let our selfish motivations hide behind a mask of love. If one lets oneself fool oneself, this can lead – in the name of love – to conduct that runs directly contrary to respecting the wishes and aspirations or promoting the happiness of the allegedly beloved. Trying to coerce someone into loving you (or, at least, acceding to your desires) is not love, nor even compatible with it: coercion is the enemy of love. When someone you love appears to love you back, they may be entirely sincere yet fooling themselves and (just as when the sincerity is an act and the love a lie), in fact, merely trying to coerce you into being what they want. Discovering whether that is so, or whether their love for you is true, is another thing that can take time; another reason to take time to get to know each other on the road to intimacy.

Property myths

Poems and songs of love tell you lies. That is to be expected; and the trickiest of those lies are the ones that feel so seductively right that you want to believe them; especially the ones which can fairly be justified as a concise short-hand for something it would be tiresome to articulate. I'm yours, all yours and only yours can, with judicious interpretation (to which I'll return), be made an honest protestation of love; but when Sting's protagonist pleads Oh ! Can't you see – you belong to me ! he has lost sight of the interpretation and taken the connotations of property seriously, missing the meaning of a short-hand. Folk commonly do neglect to expand out short-hands, to check that what they're claiming or hearing actually makes sense when properly articulated; which is why such poetic short-hands can be hazardous (albeit they do make for such sweet little lies).

In truth, I belong to me and you belong to you; this is inalienable and, in fact, the foundation of what is to be treasured in the fact of sharing ourselves with one another – for, I contend, the real miracle of love is such sharing of that which inalienably belongs to each. We actually, in moderate little ways, share ourselves with all around us: we share our skills with colleagues, our company (cheerful or otherwise) with all about us and a great deal more with diverse others, each according to their respective rôles in our lives. None the less, we keep much of our selves to ourselves; and opening up to sharing that is a surrender of autonomy, a sacrifice of self that leaves us vulnerable to those with whom we share; we do not do so lightly, yet we may chose to do so with those we love; and this is the I'm all yours part of the poet's short-hand above. Although the polyamorous skip this next part, many chose to do so with only one of those we love; and this is the I'm only yours part. As long as such a protestation of being owned comes from the one choosing to share their most intimate self, with no demand for reciprocity (for all that they may come with acceptance of known reciprocity, or even dependence thereon), the short-hand works admirably. The trouble comes when I love you is used as a demand for reciprocity, or when you're mine is anything but a humble recognition or acceptance of another's choice to share.

That surrender of autonomy and sacrifice of self, in sharing our most intimate selves, is another of the things that is often over-looked when a couple dive into intimacy. The vulnerability that goes with being so generous as to share is an important matter to acknowledge, each in accepting the other's sharing. Making explicit that you do accept this gift is one way to reassure your beloved about that vulnerability, as well as to express your love. Pausing to acknowledge this crucial threshold in a relationship can deepen and enrich your love for one another; rushing hastily past it can leave scars, perhaps unnoticed at the time, that may later lead to discomfort – most commonly, a sense of being taken for granted.


I'll not gainsay the prudence of those who'll embark on courtship with enough caution to remain able to back away with good grace if their interest isn't reciprocated; while I would advise against too much caution – there is such a thing as enough – I recognise that committing yourself before you know the other's intentions is the set-up for a world of pain. A judicious attention to whether love is mutual is a right and proper part of any courtship. So I must distinguish carefully between a precondition and a demand; the two are commonly used as near-synonyms, yet they are distinct even when the demand comes with a commitment (as the precondition comes with the tacit offer of whatever is conditioned on it).

I have seen I love you used as a demand for you to love me: when so used, it comes with the promise to (allegedly) love you but it also comes with the threat of resentment (at least; quite likely anger) against you if you do not. The problem with a demand is that it takes for granted that you have a right to what's demanded (however unstatedly): because I love you, you should love me. No such claim is true (quite apart from those making it commonly meaning I want you, so you should be mine, whether they recognise this or not). If I love you – rejoicing in who you are, respecting your hopes and aspirations – I must accept that it is for you to decide what's best for you; I might have advice or opinions to offer about that decision, but respecting your decision is inescapable. That decision may shape how I chose to express my love for you – certain expressions of my love may be conditional on my believing you love me – and my love might wither if you treat me unkindly; but my love for you gives me no right to expect love from you.

There have been many cultures in which the act of giving something imposes on the recipient an obligation to give something in return, sooner or later. It is also not uncommonly rude to not accept what one is given, making such a culture's reciprocity of giving a tool of potential coercion. Rejecting coercion, I thus chose to deal with giving as unconditional and reject any presumption of reciprocity: do not give me something unless your joy at my gaining it pleases you enough to make the giving a win for you, in its own right. Sadly, when I give to others, all too often I meet mistrust of the giving because they presume that I make such reciprocal presumptions; whether that be buying a drink for a friend or loving someone. Reciprocity, because it can be abused as coercion, poisons our ability to give and to love generously; it teaches us to expect pay-back, when we should not even want it; and it taints our ability to accept the love and gifts of others. In the case of love, it is the root of the toxic property myths, above.

Insecurity and the green-eyed demon

We never truly know the contents of anyone else's head; who and what they appear to be may be an illusion caused by conscious fraud or their own sincere delusions. This is just as true for love as for anything else we believe might be going on in someone else's head; so I can never be certain that one who appears to love me truly does. Maybe she's faking it for some ulterior motive; maybe she's in love with some guy she imagines me to be and is going to be horribly disappointed when she discovers I'm not him; maybe she mistakes some other emotional or instinctive pull towards me for love and, dosed to the eye-balls on popular culture's myths about love, deludes herself that she loves me. I can never be sure. Fortunately, if in fact I love her, I don't actually need to know whether she loves me: I can chose to act for her happiness and help her fulfil her hopes and aspirations, safe in the knowledge that I shall be glad of any success I have there, simply because I shall rejoice in seeing her life flourish.

None the less, most of us, most of the time, want to be loved; and, among those we love, are more willing to commit to acting on our love for one that does reciprocate. This makes it easy to slip into insecurity about not knowing whether someone loves us; if she doesn't love me, I'm wasting a whole lot of effort, that I could be devoting to someone else that does (roughly speaking). If you're going to leave me sooner or later, it can seem to make more sense to get that over with sooner. (I am not convinced; if I love you, even if you shall move on, in the mean time I can help make your life happier, which I rejoice in. When you do move on, so long as I can see you have a good prospect of being happy, I can rejoice in that, for all that I may feel my loss that comes with it.) I do not properly understand these insecurities.

I have lived with being alone again while remembering happy intimacy. As withdrawal symptoms go, that can be pretty hard to handle. So I can understand the fear one intimately entangled can feel on suspecting partner of considering moving on, especially to someone else. That fear leads to the worst insecurities associated with love, jealousy – aptly characterised traditionally as a green-eyed demon. It leads to fearing beloved's friendships may grow to displace present entanglement; such fear leads to trying to limit beloved's friendships, which is disrespectful to beloved's hopes and aspirations and limits beloved's happiness. You can have all the happiness you want, but only in so far as you get it from me.

I can sympathise with your fear, if your beloved and I are friends and I love her; but stop to notice she has chosen you and realise she probably meant it. If in doubt, talk to her about her intent and trust her. I'm not that scary, really. If you try to keep us apart, it'll hurt me; I have no reason to expect you to care about that, but she might; in which case hurting me might hurt her. Of course, her caring that much might feed your fear; but hurting her can't be what you intend, if you love her; and is apt to distance her from you. The worst thing about jealousy is that it is apt to goad you into mistakes that are apt to make come true the very thing jealousy made you so afraid of. This is a common feature of insecurities and how folk react to them.

See Also

Various others have relevant comments that I deem worth sharing. Let's start with one and see what else I find to add here:

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