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What Is Love?

Is there such a thing as love at first sight? I'm afraid there is, and I don't necessarily regard it as a good thing. It can feel like something so charged that it stops you in your tracks. What is that something? What is the exact nature of cupid's arrow?

My theory is that it is a historical ghost. An echo of inchoate feeling. The sort of feeling that bypasses words and pumps hormones about instead. I believe it to be triggered by an old association that causes us to make automatic assumptions about the person before us based on echoes of memories of someone we've had an early bonding experience with in our past. It could be as fleeting as the shape of a nose or the smell of a scalp. Or it could be a behavioural pattern we can only pick up unconsciously. For example, on the British TV show Dragons' Den, one of the millionaire investors, Hilary Devey, fell for and married someone she later discovered was a bigamist, just as her mother later discovered that her husband, Hilary's father, was a bigamist. Our neural wiring apparently favors the familiar because it feels right — which is great when the familiar is benign but not so great when it isn't. It might be necessary to do some psychological work to learn to recognise the charged feelings that can trip us up so we can choose whether to act on them, rather than be at their mercy.

Unconsciously mistaking the person before us in the present for a ghost of a memory in the past is what psychotherapists call transference, and it's something we all do: we'd go mad if we couldn't make instant, unconscious assumptions about the person before us based on our experience of people we have known in the past. There are different types of transference, such as positive, negative, and — what I'm talking about here — erotic transference. Beware of what lovebirds call "chemistry" because if you have a string of unsatisfactory relationships, or no relationships at all, your reliance on chemistry could be letting you down.

Consciously we may think that we prefer a "type" of person, but this is prejudice. Transference isn't as conscious as that, but it can cause a feeling that is charged and one that we notice. Transference is passive — probably why we talk of "falling" in love. When you fall in love, you trip over transference. Sometimes you'll fall on your feet, and sometimes, when reality intrudes, the positive transference fades and takes love with it.When you fall in love, you trip over transference. Sometimes you'll fall on your feet, and sometimes, when reality intrudes, the positive transference fades and takes love with it.

So if the sort of love called "love at first sight" isn't love, then what is love?

The ancient Greeks and Romans did not lump all the various emotions that we label "love" under one word as we do. They had several varieties for all the different subtleties of the emotion and the action.

For example:

Philia, which they saw as a deep but usually nonsexual intimacy between close friends and family members or between fellow soldiers bonded by fighting alongside each other in battle.

Ludus describes a more playful affection which can be found in fooling around or flirting.

Pragma is the mature love that develops over a long period of time within married couples and involves goodwill, commitment, and compromise and understanding.

Agape is a more generalised love; it's not about exclusivity but your capacity to love all of humanity.

Philautia is self love, which isn't as selfish as it sounds. It is not the opposite of agape. As Aristotle discovered and any psychotherapist will tell you, in order to like others you need to be able to like yourself.

Last, and probably least in my book because it causes the most trouble, we have eros for sexual passion and desire. Unlike other types of love, this is the most passive. It happens when there's an unconscious recognition of something familiar about the "love" object, which kick-starts the hormones and leads to a feeling of intense desire. Love at first sight would fall under this category.

÷ ÷ ÷

Philippa Perry is a psychotherapist and a writer. Her latest book is How to Stay Sane.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. How to Stay Sane (School of Life)
    New Trade Paper $16.00

Philippa Perry is the author of How to Stay Sane (School of Life)

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