How to Define Love

Love is a powerful and complicated feeling. It can be directed toward friends, romantic partners, family members, the universe, God or oneself. It can be both painful and joyful. It can be a strong motivation to work hard, sacrifice and overcome obstacles in relationships. It can lead to selfless acts of service, such as donating blood or volunteering in the community. It can also be a source of self-destructive behaviors such as codependency and addictions.

Psychologists and researchers disagree somewhat on how to define love. Some say that it is not an emotion at all but rather a basic physiological drive, comparable to hunger, thirst, sleep or sex. Others, like Paul Ekman, the famous researcher of emotions, argue that love manifests as unique facial expressions and body responses that are distinct from other emotions.

Regardless of the characterization, all psychologists agree that love is difficult to consistently define. This is illustrated by the varying definitions of love in any given dictionary. Several theories have been developed to try and explain the nature of love, including Hendrick and Hendrick’s six love styles, Sternberg’s triangular theory of love and various religious or spiritual teachings on the topic.

For therapist Sarah Calvert, who specializes in working with couples and relationships, love is about the way that you interact with someone else – the connection and comfort you share. It is about opening up to someone, even sharing the parts of yourself that are messy and complicated and not social media worthy, she says.