The difficulty with defining what we mean by love is that, at least in English, we use the word to refer to lots of different things. For example, we can love people, but we also use the word “love” to refer to countries, food, movies, books, and so on.
One useful way of working out what we mean when we say we love something is to use a bottom-up approach. In this method, psychologists aim to examine how ordinary people think about love and their love experiences. For example, Beverley Fehr asked respondents to list words they considered to be elements of love and then asked a separate group of participants to rate the commonly used words for their centrality to the concept of love. The results of her study, as well as other research, suggests that the structure of love may be prototypical.
What this means is that a formal definition of love may be elusive. Rather, love can be better thought of as a set of graded categories, with some categories being more important than others. In Fehr’s original study, she found that trust, honesty, and respect were central characteristics of love.
More recent work has suggested that that the prototypic features of love can be reduced to the three main categories identified by Sternberg – passion, intimacy, and commitment. Other studies have asked participants to recount features of the experience of being in love. They found that central characteristics include wanting to spend time with someone, shared experiences, good communication, and feelings of warmth, joy, and happiness.
“The central characteristics of love include shared experiences, good communication, and feelings of warmth, joy, and happiness.”
However, not all psychologists agree that love is prototypical. The essentialist view suggests that there are characteristics that are considered essential for us to conclude one person loves another. The philosopher Irving Singer, for example, believed that an essential feature of love is that we are willing to invest in the well-being of another person for their own sake.
Recent research has supported this view: across different types of relationships (for example, romantic, compassionate, parental), such investment in another person is typically viewed as an essential feature of love. When this element is missing from a relationship, people are less likely to conclude that love exists between two people.
But this also highlights a different way defining love. Rather than thinking about love as a feeling, it may be better to define love as a set of related behaviours. For example, the psychologist and psychoanalyst Erich Fromm once said that love is not just a feeling, but it is also the actions. For him, the feeling of love was superficial when compared to the loving actions that we perform.
In other words, love is a commitment to loving actions that we do for others or for ourselves over a period of time. In this view, it is the things we do for another person – particularly things we do that are selfless – that defines the experience of “being in love”.