What We Mean When We Use the Word ‘Love’

(1) I love french fries.  (2) I love the way I feel when I’m on vacation in Mexico.  (3) I love my children. (4) I love my profession.

All four of these statements are true but the word “love” in each one describes a very different experience.  In the first, it means I enjoy having french fries inside my mouth, the way they taste and then swallowing them down.  Sentence number two describes a subjective experience of pleasure aroused by my environment.  The third sentence concerns emotions I have about other people, while the fourth applies to a value or ideal that I hold.

At first blush, it would seem these experiences or feeling states are so diverse that to use the word “love” for all of them is absurd.  Does it make any sense to use the same verb to describe how you feel towards your children as well as your favorite food?  In most cases, those experiences are entirely different; but in truth, there are varieties of love where the feeling someone has for another person isn’t so different from “loving” french fries.  If individuals who suffer from Narcissistic Personality Disorder fall in love, it usually means they “love” how the other person makes them feel about themselves.

When some men and women fall in love, they want to devour the object of their love.  I’m sure you’ve known people like that. You might describe them as “obsessed” or “overly possessive.”  These individuals usually have problems with separation and merger; for them, to be in love means to take possession of somebody else and swallow them whole.  It’s a very primitive type of love, its earliest form in fact, and one I think we all understand on some level.  Ever heard a grownup say about a baby, “Ooh, you are so cute I could eat you all up!”  Nursing infants “love” their mothers in this way, as an object to be eaten.  They don’t see their mothers as separate beings with feelings and desires of their own, at least not at first.

Growing up means coming to recognize separateness; it involves caring about what goes on inside the other person and not simply “loving” him because of the way he makes you feel.  When you’re separate and you love, it means that sometimes, you will care more about her feelings than your own.

Not everyone is capable of this kind of love.

Finding Your Own Way:

Who are the people you love and how do you love them?

Let’s start with your parents (assuming you do love them).  Are you still longing for something they never gave you?  If you came from a very toxic or chaotic family, that longing would be understandable; maybe you really don’t love them in any meaningful way.  But if you do, are you able to see them as completely separate — not Dad who didn’t spend enough time with you, but John who never got to live out that dream of his; not Mom who is always criticizing you, but Mary who regrets never going to college.  Without discounting yourself and how you feel, can you see and care about their pain and disappointments in ways that have nothing to do with your own?

What about your romantic partners?  If you have a number of exes who you once loved and now hate with a passion, maybe your relationships were a type of narcissistic behavior, more like going to Mexico:  you “loved” them for the way they made you feel.

Your children?  How able are you to tolerate their separation from you?  Parents who need to control the life choices of their kids want to feel a certain way about themselves as the parent of those children.  “I want you to become a doctor so that I can feel like a successful parent.”

How different is that really from “loving” french fries?

Joe is the author and the owner of AfterPsychotherapy.com, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.


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    What does love mean to you, If you were brought up in a chaotic abusive family?

    If you were yelled at, hit, abused, then that is what love means to you! It is what you know and feels familiar. So you seek out relationships that feel the same. Not on purpose it is just what “love” feels like to you.

    Sometimes it is dangerous to tell someone they should “love” themselves when they have those perceptions.

    I had a client who said she wanted love in her life and kept repeating bad relationships.
    When she was little her father was teaching her how to tell time. When she would make a mistake he would spank her and then tell her it was because he “loved” her.

    Why down deep her idea of love equaled pain.

    Yes true love for another human being for me is caring about how they feel, what they think and how they act with their benefit, welfare and happiness in mind not my own. For my relationship with my children its sharing without intrusion, offering support and guiding only when necessary. Allowing them to make their own decisions and mistakes – the later is a hard challenge for me but they always remind me of it.

    I think the most important message here, and one that all of us can take the time examine, is “Who are the people you love and how do you love them?” Being able to give love is a gift of emotional maturity, and if we all took more time to think about the people we love and why, it will bring more joy and contentment to our lives.

    I feel the ability to love and accept yourself firstly, when we can feel this love for ourselves, we can love and accept others. I genuinly feel we should look within ourselves for real love, in some it may be hidden deeper than others but it’s there, really worth searching for.

    Good article — I found myself wanting to hear more. It’s funny because I have been on a quest to try to understand this “love thing”. I don’t say it if I don’t mean it, and I have openly admitted, “I don’t understand it, and may not know what love is”. I know and have examined the many cliches: the Love is … quotes; the Biblical quotes; I am good about defining words and concepts, but I recently decided that love defies and goes beyond definition — love is an experience, many experiences; and I want to have more and more experiences of love. So, instead of defining love, I attempt to understand what love seems and feels like for me to experience and demonstrate to others. So, when I see your posting explain “experiences” of love, I am encouraged that I am on the right track, in figuring things out. Hallelujah! I am growing, as I have also come to know that I love myself, and that love allows me to extend love to others.

    P.S: I don’t understand the concept of a love that makes you want to devour and or possess (and don’t really want that experience) (smile)

    This post was very insightful and made me really question what I mean when I use the word love. The other day I came across a similar article that also talked about what love meant as well as how to love which I found here http://www.psychalive.org/2009/06/love/. Thank you for giving me a new outlook on what love really means!

    ~Megan T

    I struggle with separating myself from others and seeing the intentions and desires of other people as different from my own (slowly working on this). I have a hard time understanding the phrase “you “loved” them for the way they made you feel” in your post. Do you mean the person loves how they feel (or has loving feelings?) when they see a behavior another performs that pleases them? When you say loves one’s children… does the parent love the feelings they have because of the perception they have of their children they created in their mind or the loving feelings come from appreciating ones children as separate people with strengths and faults (seeing their children as real people) which would still be the parent’s perception but the parent would be able to see the children as separate from themselves in their perception?. I feel confused, are the loving feelings generated by another or from another…. or do we always feel loving feelings from within ourselves based on the explanations we give ourselves of what we see around us? I ask because what if you hear I love you from a parent who is not capable of seeing you as a separate person, is it okay to not accept their love/ statements of love/ expressions of love. I was wondering what you think a parent who has BPD/Narcissistic personality disorder or traits means when they repeatedly say I love you. The parent is not able to see you as an individual but still says I love you, in other words you feel unseen and invisible around the parent. What are the feelings of love about? I feel rage when I hear the words I love you because I do not feel loved around the parent. I have a hard time deciding how to accept and think about the messages I get from my parent who says “I love you” but who went through/ still goes through periods of screaming and rage which left me feeling ashamed and terrified as a child and then confused when I would be idealized and told how much I am loved by said parent. When is it okay not to accept the “loving feelings” of another person towards you/about you? Growing up being forcefully told I am loved still leaves me with this residue of guilt about choosing to not accept the “love” offered by the parent. As though the child doesn’t have a choice and has to accept the parent “loving them” and “has to accept their love” (how I feel). As though not accepting the “love” offered by the parent would be considered unacceptable. Lots of things for me to work through and think about. I am still not sure what I am trying to get at. The best question to summarize is what does it mean to accept or reject the love of a parent or the love of another? In every interaction, whether between parent and child, between lovers/partners, or between friends does a healthy relationship mean being free to not accept the love of another person? Does a child have to accept the love of a parent or is this always a choice?

    I share your confusion. There are so many questions here that I don’t know where to begin. My overall impression is that you are “thinking” way too much about these issues; it’s not as conceptual as you make it sound, and this question of whether or not to “accept love” sounds remote from experience. Either you feel loved in an authentic way or you don’t. It’s not a choice.

    I found your post very helpful, especially for telling the difference between what I’ll call selfish love (loving someone for how they make you feel) vs selfless love (caring more about the other person than yourself). Missing for me in your catalog of types of love is “romantic” love, e.g. love for a spouse/life partner. It is different from parent-child love, it is the most debated form of love – what does is mean to love someone? How do you “find love?”; “true love” vs “puppy love”; “do you love me?”; etc. – but what is the difference? I am speaking from a psychological framework point of view of course; I am very interested in how you look at it.

    That is a good post as well, but I was referring to the mature type of romantic love, the type you might feel for your wife or lifelong partner. Maybe “romantic” is the wrong word, but I’m referring to a love that is like the love for your children, only for the mother (or father) of your children. Are you saying they are the same? I’m neither a psychologist not a parent, but it seems like they must be different if nothing else based on a combination of the way each one arises and the evolutionary implications of each.

    I wouldn’t use the word “romantic” for the love between lifelong partners. I reserve romantic for the idealized, heady kind of love that occurs early in a relationship. I haven’t written about that yet but let me give it some thought.

    I wonder exactly what *love* is sometimes, but I do know one thing for sure:
    Love yourself (as in genuinely loving yourself, not seeking approval from others) and others will love you. I’ve had a few moments where I’ve thought I was being shockingly honest over the last few months, and yet people have said to me I’m nice (!!!) . So I guess in being fair to myself I must be being fair to others at the same time.
    I laughed at the phrase “I want you to become a doctor (so it will reflect well on me as a parent” because that is exactly what happened to my cousin. LOL.
    The best gift you can give a child is moral support and a sense of security and balance within themselves. Then they can go and be a doctor …if they wish.

    I have a simple question for you: will I ever be able to love in the sense of recognizing separateness, given that I have problems with core shame and are sort of addicted to the feeling of being in love?

    I desperately want to feel like I genuinely care for other people, but is it even possible to develop this to any extent? I do show other people that I care, but simply because I want to have a sense of self esteem – not because I empathically care in the way you are describing here. I don’t want to be a bad person, because it would make me feel like shit, and simply because it does not work.

    Essentially, I’m a horrible person doing good things. What am I supposed to do? It feels hopeless.