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How do we define 'love'?

Psychologists, artists and philosophers have long grappled with defining the concept of love. It is, as the VIA Institute for Character Strengths suggests, ubiquitous in our world. It is ever-present, and arguably is one of life’s greatest motivators.

Niemic (2014) defines love as the careful balance between dependence and autonomy. However, there may be incongruences with this definition and the varying values of cultures around the world.

Graham (2011) conducted a large-scale meta-analysis of measurements of love, and reported three overriding categories of love: love, romantic love, and pragmatic friendship. These constructs – and indeed, the measurements used to decipher between them – must be assessed in reference to gender, culture and the VIA classification. What’s more, it is also vital to take a critical stance, and question whether scientific measurements of a concept so intimate and personal as love are even necessary.

The difference between ‘love’ and other related concepts must be deciphered. For example, Harms, Williams and Paulhaus (2001) stress the difference between being ‘love-prone’ and ‘lust-prone’. Lust involves physical, sexual connection, whereas love has more psychological and emotional connotations.

These two concepts and their vast similarities make the clear measurement of love somewhat problematic. Furthermore, Sprecher and Mett (1989) suggest that researchers more clearly differentiate between ‘love’ and romanticism. Therefore, this poses some dilemmas with definitions. By removing the components of lust and romanticism, much of the meaning of love is also compromised. Love is multi-faceted in every sense and therefore attempting to have one all-encompassing definition is difficult.

In my own personal opinion, soul mates, fate and romance are concepts that simply cannot be explained by science. The existence of these ideas give people – myself included – hope. They are a reminder that some aspects of human life remain a complete mystery and that, despite the best attempts of science, cannot be explained.

Intimacy, care and passion are fundamentals of love. They are, I would suggest, concepts that do not lend themselves to be studied in a lab. No two loves are identical, or even similar. For such a subjective, personal and individualistic experience – how can scientists even attempt to construct a complete generalisable theory?

When do we know when to stop? If every aspect of humanity is unpicked and explained, I fear that ultimately we are left with nothing but full scientific journals and empty brains. My final question is this: have we, with our white lab coats and statistical expertise, gone too far? I hope that in a discipline that is concerned with the study of people and human interaction, we understand that some stones are best left unturned.

Authors Bio


Madeleine Pownall is a second year psychology student at the University of Lincoln and writer who blogs from the Thought Bubbles blog which discusses current issues in a psychological feminist context.

Feminism, positive psychology and body image are all research areas which Madeleine would like to study later in her career. You can get in touch with Madeleine via Twitter

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