Love is a nebulous concept at best. It refers in ordinary speech to such a wide range of human emotions and experiences that from the standpoint of semantic clarity and more effective communication, as well as greater self-knowledge, it’s of inarguable benefit to parse out this confusing word.
So what should first be obvious about this model (and hopefully in any discussion of love in general) is that love refers to a wide range of phenomenal and emotional experience. To the extent that it is an emotion it is surely a complex one, but in reality its nature extends beyond the limits of mere emotional experience. It is a mode of being: a paradigm of connection and relating to other beings and the whole of the external world.
So where I began in the task of understanding the full range of “love”‘s uses and how they relate to one another was in some of the different terms used by other languages and philosophical systems. Many (especially Christians) are familiar with the four Greek words for love: eros, philia, storge (pronounced store-gay), and agape (ah-gah-pay). Buddhists will be familiar with the four immeasurables (from which I derived loving-kindness, compassion, and acceptance) and bodhicitta. These different terms and their differences in meaning formed the basis of piecing together this model.
The initial division to bear in mind of the forms of love is that they are either rooted in desire or in what I’m calling altruism–selfless forms of love. But at their core anything to which the label “love” is applied has one thing in common:
This is the core, unifying aspect of every form of love that exists, and I define it as a willingness to sacrifice–be it time, energy, preconceptions, values, self, or other things that we care for or love–for the sake of the thing we “love.” As this is the ultimate foundational aspect it’s worth considering the role that sacrifice plays in our lives, both subtle and apparent.
We can sacrifice our lives for another, or we can just sacrifice some of our money and time to watch our favorite movie that we “love.” We can sacrifice our preconceptions about what is “normal” or “right” to accommodate the lifestyle of a person we care about. Or we can sacrifice our energy and time to go to work to support our family, or even to court someone of romantic interest to us. In extreme forms we can sacrifice our own sanity and clarity of mind for something or someone we are neurotically addicted to, or we can sacrifice our very sense of an individual self, our ego, for the transcendent benefit of non-dual connection with others.
Our entire lives are basically a game of resource management, and everything we choose to do or to associate with in life is a choice of what to sacrifice and to what. Thus, love is at its core a question of devotion.
This is one of the more familiar aspects of love, and one of the most frequently referenced in everyday speech. This is romantic love: the love of the passionate, the intimate, the sexual, and everything pertaining to such connection with another individual or individuals. Except in rare cases of abnormal psychology I would say this is limited to connection with other humans, not animals or inanimate objects. Any experience of such desire for another person, for intimate connection with them, for sexual connection, any experience of lust or the like is an experience of eros.
This is the Greek word pertaining to friendly or brotherly love, or in compounded words like philosophy (love of wisdom) or any word ending in -phile or -philia. For me the semantic range is closer to that of the English word “fondness” or to “like” something. But bear in mind that it necessitates at least some degree of devotion or sacrifice. We experience philia with our friends, with our pets, and with any person who we can say we enjoy the company of. But we can also apply it to games, subjects of interest, hobbies, abstract concepts and so forth. Anything that we like to which we are willing to sacrifice some measure of our time, energy, money, and so on, is something to which we are experiencing philia. If you say you “love this show”, that you “love someone like a brother”, or even that you “love existentialism” you are loving that person or thing in the context of philia.
In the Greek this word had a connotation that more referred to familial love, or affection rooted in familiarity. But for me I have expanded this to what I call love out of duty. From the familiarity, from social or societal obligations we experience devotion towards others. Similarly if one can not even remember why they are devoted to someone or something (like religion) it is a devotion from duty. Furthermore, familial love is alone inadequate because a parent can love their child out of genuine philia, and because duty-based love is not intrinsically altruistic. It is a form of love which is selfish because it is fear of social implications, of punishment by a higher authority, or of guilt from of not exhibiting the devotion which motivates it. We see this in all forms of ritual when they are done non-mindfully or without proper understanding and motivation. Storge is a side of love which is often under-acknowledged due to its lack of “sexiness” (in the exciting or interesting sense, not the erotic), but which is important to be mindful of in one’s own life in seeking growth and more profound and meaningful experiences of connection.
Desire-based forms of love are not unhealthy or inherently negative in and of themselves in any way. In fact, in many ways they are largely what make human life beautiful and worth experiencing. Attachment is what happens when they begin to get a little out of control and we begin to rely out of fear upon the thing we are connecting to. Because these are fundamentally self-motivated forms of love, attachment is when they are deeply associated with our sense of self. No longer do we just seek them, but we are afraid of NOT having that outlet of connection. When the fear of losing a lover sets in, or of whether a friend reciprocates our philia. When we fear even being away from our pet, lover, child, or whatever. This generally breaks down according to the four attachment styles in attachment theory. So long as the attachment remains a secure form of attachment it can actually be healthy in many kinds of close human relationships, like in close family members or in marriage as a kind of connective tether.
When attachment gets completely out of hand it becomes all manner of different mental disorders, addiction, or strong afflictive emotions like anxiety, depression, and the like. This is fairly easy to grasp in all manner of obsession and compulsive behaviors. This is the absolute dark side of love.
In Buddhism there are the four immeasurables*, which are kind of like a list of four kinds of altruistic love for others that are of benefit to us spiritually or in terms of personal growth and dis-association with the ego. The first of these is loving-kindness which is the desire to see others experience happiness. It is the urge to make someone happy, like when we feel compelled to give someone a present that they will enjoy.
This is the second immeasurable, and it is the desire to not see others suffer. When others are in pain we feel their pain empathetically. Not to where we are suffering ourselves, but where we feel a vivid comprehension of the other’s suffering and wish to ameliorate it however we can. When you see someone upset and are compelled to embrace them and offer your presence or your ear, you are experiencing compassion. When a mother will selflessly do anything she can to end her child’s pain she is demonstrating pure compassion.
This term encompasses the fourth immeasurable of equanimity, but for me holds a wider meaning. Equanimity is the experience of true neutrality of affect. Contentment in the present moment, without desire for something or aversion to anything. Acceptance begins from equanimity, but stresses it in terms of how we are relating to others. In acceptance we are devoted to a person as they are, without wanting them to be different in any way. Doing this is harder than it might seem, as it requires sacrificing our preconceptions, our world views, our ideas about the person, etc. When a deeply religious parent embraces their child’s difference in ideology or lifestyle that goes against their own, they are realizing true acceptance. When a person accepts their lover as they are completely, without wishing to see them change who they are, they are experiencing acceptance.
This term comes from Mahayana Buddhism and it represents the desire to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings. The key aspect of it which applies to this model, and which represents the logical “next step” from the three basic altruistic loves is that it involves aspiration. On the basis of selfless love/devotion we seek to realize our best in every way, as that allows us to devote ourselves more effectively and deeply. It is the intent of self-transcendence in love. When in a healthy relationship a person wishes to improve, to grow, to be their best possible self, not for their own benefit, but for their partner’s benefit, it is an experience of bodhicitta. As bodhicitta progresses and expands it can grow to encompass the all-consuming aspiration to realize our highest potential to benefit all living things.
This is the final of the four Greek loves, and for this model represents the highest, most altruistic, ideal form of love–the love of non-duality. It is complete abandonment of the ego, complete conceptual unity with another or with all others, and all actions, words, and thoughts are an expression of altruistic love. Eating at this point is done with love felt towards the beings who provided the food for you and with the mindful, profound hope that the food can help to sustain your body so that you can continue to love others. This is enlightened love. The love felt by Jesus or the Buddha. Because you’ve conquered the self and realized a felt sense of unity with all things you enter a state of pure non-aggression. The realization of agape is the realization of our highest potential as human beings to love.
Each of the three basic altruistic loves and the three basic desire-based loves can easily become any of the other basic kinds of desire or altrusim based love, which are here represented by the arrows connecting them to each other. And even the lines between the three basic forms of desire-based love and between the three basic forms of altruistic love are fine and blurry. Compassion is the desire to not see others suffer, but that’s done through seeking their happiness sometimes. When does sexual attraction become philic love of the person or vice versa. It’s no wonder the concept of love is so nebulous!
But it is this quality of these characteristics that allows for one form of love to so easily lead to others. An initial connection in eros can lead to philia and storge as the emotional connection deepens, and even to loving-kindness, compassion, and acceptance.
“Being In Love With Someone”
When all of the six basic desire and altruism-based loves are experienced towards a person we have truly “fallen in love with them.” That experience of “being in love” with a person typically leads to both attachment and bodhicitta as well. When the bodhicitta fades it is no longer a healthy love of growth. When the attachment fades it can lose stability, groundedness, faithfulness, and security in the face of change. This is the ideal, or healthiest** form of “being in love.” Attachment rooted in eros, philia, and storge and bodhicitta rooted in loving-kindness, compassion, and acceptance, experienced as a unified whole towards a single person.
*I combined into loving-kindess the third immeasurable of empathetic joy or mudita which is experiencing happiness when witnessing the joy of others.
**Within this though, the attachment style can vary according to the four attachment styles presented in attachment theory. It is of course ideal that the attachment style experienced be the secure type, though experiencing it as one of the other three doesn’t preclude the real experience of authentically “being in love” with the other person.