Love is such an important part of each of our lives. But what exactly do we mean when we say ‘love’? And what types of love do we include under the catchall word? How do we see the various types of love in relation to each other? This post is about how I perceive the different forms love takes and how I see their relationship with each other and with me.
Now, if I’m going to talk about love, then I should at least give a basic explanation of how I define love. To me, love is the feeling you get when you look at someone and know that you can be who you really are, when you don’t have to hide what makes you tick, when you get to see yourself through the eyes of someone who sees you for the person you are. Love is a feeling of human kinship, of looking at another person and adoring them for their flaws and strengths, for who they actually are rather than who you want or expect them to be. Love is a lack of judgment and a fullness of acceptance, mixed with copious amounts of compassion and understanding.
There’s more of course, but for the purpose of this post that should hopefully suffice as a basic definition of how I see love. Plus, if I go on, I think I might make myself sick.
Alright, before I get into how I see the relation between the various forms that love and attraction can take, let’s first have a look at how I imagine a lot of people see the different types of love.
The way most people talk about how love and life are supposed to look, I always imagine a pyramid. At the bottom of the pyramid you have purely erotic love, followed by platonic love, familial love, companionate love, spiritual love etc., and capped off with romantic love. The order or classifications of the middle levels may vary, but the standard feature seems to be purely erotic sexual attraction at the base and romantic love and attraction at the apex.
As an aside, let me say that though a pyramid is what pops into my head, a ladder would work just as well, as would an obelisk. By that I mean that the width of the different sections of the pyramid doesn’t matter, as each of the sections could also be represented by different rungs on a ladder, with romantic love perhaps forming the top of an obelisk, for example. It’s just that neither the ladder nor the obelisk is the image I personally see in my head; the pyramid is.
According to this model, the importance of the type of love is denoted by its position in the pyramid: the higher it is, the more important it is. Once the hierarchy is established you can then fill in people by determining what type of love it is you feel for them and putting them in the corresponding level. The sex buddies go in the lowest level, the platonic friends higher up, the closest platonic friends and family as well as spiritual and emotional companions in the higher levels, etc., with the top of the pyramid being reserved for that most cherished lover to whom we swear love till death do us part, the person who is supposed to complete us.
In this model romantic love—and by extension the associated person—is at the top of the pyramid, higher and thus more important than all the rest. From Disney films to romantic comedies to many sitcoms, books, and magazines, we’re taught that life is the search for the one person who can fill the romantic love level of the pyramid, allowing us to make something of our lives. Sometimes to the extent that all the “lower” forms of love are really just ways of supporting ourselves until we fill our romantic level, tools that can help us ascend to the realm of romance if used properly. It is, after all, never a happy ending until the romance is palpable and the couple gets together.
Thus, it would seem that the importance of any given relation is determined not by the individual qualities of the relationship, but rather by the type of love involved. People who primarily interest you sexually and not at all romantically are obliged to stay in the base level, while people you are romantically interested in are boosted above all others purely by virtue of the type of love in the relationship.
This would explain why some people in romantic relationships pity their single friends; it also helps explain why some couples pull away from their single friends. In the former case, those in a romantic relationship feel sorry because their single friends haven’t attained the “highest level of love”. In the latter, the couples have filled the top of their pyramid with the significant other that completes them and don’t need the lower loves quite as much.
It also helps explains why some spouses get pissed off when their partner spends more time with people who are “just friends”, or why it’s at times hard for some to comprehend two people being intimately close but not romantically involved or interested, or even why some people get so down in the dumps and see themselves as failures or lacking just because there is no romantic interest in their life.
Let me take a moment to reiterate that the pyramid model is the imagery that my mind conjures up when other people talk about love. I’m not saying this is for sure how lots of others see love; I’m saying this is a basic rendition of how I perceive their model must look when they expound on love and the role various types of love should play in their lives, and it’s the image my mind calls up when I see magazine covers or other forms of media.
As you might imagine, this model doesn’t suit me. So now that I’ve explained how I imagine the prevalent model of love (or at least the one society seems to push) might look, let’s take a gander at the imagery I see when I imagine my own model.
In my mind I see not a pyramid that hierarchically arranges the various types of love, but rather something akin to a radar screen, a flat area with me at the very center. The farther away from the center someone appears on the radar, the less substantial our relationship is. The closer one is, the more intimate and personal our relationship is—regardless of what each individual relationship entails.
Now, imagine that there are several sectors, each reaching from the center to the furthest reaches of the radar screen along the radii. To put it differently, each sector is like a section on a pie chart and not like one of many concentric circles, since concentric circles would essentially make this the same as the pyramid model. One sector might be for romance, another for erotic love, another for platonic love, another for familial or companionate love, yet another for sensual love, etc. Each sector is on the same plane rather than stacked on top of one another like in the pyramid, so no type of love is inherently better than any of the others. Thus, to go back to the radar analogy, a person at one point in one sector would be as close to me as someone at an equidistant point in a different sector.
In the pyramid scheme, a person’s placement is primarily based on the level that corresponds to the love I feel for them, not necessarily based on the depth of our intimacy with one another. In the radar scheme, however, people are primarily placed according to the depth of our intimacy; the sector they fall into is really only a secondary classification that is largely irrelevant.
And it’s largely irrelevant because in this model, no type of love is higher or more important than the others. Yes, there are differences between the various types of love. Nevertheless, while the reasons for attraction and love may be different, the type of love doesn’t place any barriers on the level of intimacy in any given relationship. If one person is standing 10 meters to my left and another 10 meters to my right, they’re both 10 meters away from me and thus equally close, even if coming from different directions. Does it really make a big difference that one is to the left of me, and the other to the right?
The last time I was in a serious romantic relationship, I said upfront that there were other people I’d be having sex with. One in particular was (and still is) very dear to me, the kind of person I can bare my soul to without feeling judged. Some might laugh because our relationship has always been primarily based on erotic love and attraction, but it has still blossomed into a close, intimate relationship that has nothing to do with romantic interest. My partner accepted that my relationship with the one didn’t have anything to do and didn’t interfere with the other, and everything was copacetic on that front.
That same now ex-partner and I are much closer now than we were when we were a romantic item. Rather than being downgraded from the top of the pyramid to a lower level when we broke up, we maintained our friendship and got closer, in large part because of our romantic experience together. Now he’s nearer to me on the radar screen that he was when we were romantically involved, and though I love him differently, I nevertheless love him more.
I have a girl friend with whom sex seems to flutter at the periphery. We’ve come close a few times, but haven’t ever actually done it. Yet the very fact that we can talk about having or not having sex brings us closer, gives each of us a deeper glimpse into who the other is. Regardless of whether or not we one day dabble sexually, our relationship continues to grow in other ways—and each step builds more mutual trust, respect, and understanding. Neither of us has ever shown any romantic interest in the other, but I still consider her one of the people closest to me, closer than most of my romantic interests have gotten.
Again, I know that there are differences between the various forms that love can take, though trying to explain what exactly those differences are could take lifetimes. But the various forms are nevertheless equal in my eyes. Why pick out any particular form of love to set above the rest when I can just take love in all the forms it comes? Rather than seeing a lack of one type of love, I see a plentitude of love and intimacy in pretty much every direction I turn.
And any future romantic interests would have to understand this about me. They wouldn’t be put atop my pyramid because I’m romantically interested and think I need that relationship to be the best one in my life. They would have to work their way toward the center like everyone else, and would have to respect the other people near the center—something I expect of everyone near the center and also give in return.
They could one day grow to be the most important person in my life, but that would be a consequence of them as an individual, not of the type of love that serves as the basis for our relationship. And if they don’t become the person closest to me, well, I wouldn’t have a problem with it. Because the implication is that there is at least one other person I’m closer to; thus, it wouldn’t be that the closeness and intimacy was lacking in my life, but rather that I found it with someone else whom I love differently. I’m perfectly fine with that.