There I was, innocently scrolling through my Facebook feed, when a black and white meme ensnared me. “How do you know you love someone?” it asked in deceptively casual font.
I’m slightly embarrassed to admit my academic brain jumped in before my romantic nature could yawn itself into coherence. I started pondering chemicals that produce a flush of affection and mimic addiction. Something a little like this head-over-heels-romantic ditty.
Yeah, nerds got game.
I actually kind of tackled this topic in my Sociology of Family class a few weeks ago, when we discussed the social nature of intimacy. According to sociologists Hammond, Cheney, and Pearsey, a truly reciprocal love emerges from mutual vulnerability. Only when a couple (romantic or not) develops trust through mutual disclosure, vulnerability, and support, our sociologists say, can love blossom.
And everyone’s favorite psychologist, Maslow, posits we love others according to how much they fill the psychological gaps left from our childhood. In other words, our love partners are the concrete that smooths over our emotional potholes. This gives the classic line from Jerry Maguire – “You complete me” – a whole new meaning.
By then, of course, my romantic self had awakened with its trademark dewy sigh. Surely I should write something about the brush of fingers through hair, about the comfort and safety of burying your face in your partner’s shoulder, about the feel of their breath in your mouth, about how meeting someone you love allows not for a merger of two into one but an expansion of each into a bigger, better, more rounded version of self.
But, you know, I am me, both nerdy academic and starry-eyed romantic. In the end, I wrote something true to who I am:
For me, love is valuing the well-being of the other, feeling affectionately for them, and being willing to act in their best interest. Love to me is the abstract term for the concrete enactment of compassion, empathy, and kindness. I love my students, my family, my spouse, my furkids, my coworkers. Loving almost seems to flow naturally from social interaction. Liking, though? Liking is way tougher.
In my latest, as yet unnamed, novel, my two love interests, Marin and Jack, have a conversation that perfectly reflects this philosophy:
“Marin, you love everyone,” Jack pointed out.
Marin nodded. Once she’d swallowed, she said, “I love humanity. I love people. But if you’re asking me if I’d have sex or build a relationship with just anyone, no, I wouldn’t. I love everyone, no matter their actions. I hurt for them and celebrate them. But I don’t want a romantic relationship with everyone, or just anyone. I have to like them, too. Love is easy; liking takes work and time.”
Jack glanced across the room at Kaitlyn before meeting Marin’s eyes. “I like you,” Jack said quietly.
Marin’s smile outshone the brightest Arizona afternoon. “I like you, too, Jack.”
How do you define love?