What is Love?

An article with help and insight for anyone looking for love

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Everyone is looking for love. Judging by the articles on Medium, for most people, it is quite elusive. There is no shortage of advice on what to do. There are plenty of articles explaining why love is so difficult to find — unrealistic expectations, unearned sense of entitlement, impersonal Tinder, lack of opportunity to meet new people.

Part of the problem of finding love is the fantasy stories we tell each other about what love is. Cinderella tells us that you find love in outward beauty. Snow White tells us that you find love in being kind to everyone other than yourself. Fatal Attraction tells us love is found in fidelity. None of them reveals the true nature of love. And without understanding the nature of love, it can be difficult to recognise which of its seeds that cross our path have the potential to grow into true love.

This problem is not limited just to people looking for a partner. It is just as difficult for couples who have fallen out of love, or who never really loved each other in the first place. Over 40% of marriages in the UK end up in divorce.

If any of this is you, this article offers an understanding of love that may help you find or rekindle the love you once thought you had.

Defining Love

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Part of the confusion about love is that we use the one word to mean different things.

We love food, we love family, we love friends, we love nature. The word means different things depending on its context.

In respect of developing successful, long-term relationships, here is a slightly unusual definition of love.

Love is an emotional response. It is triggered when our brains associate someone with our current or future wellbeing.

When it comes to romantic love, our brains have two very different ways to associate people with our wellbeing. It is important to recognise which love is which when making decisions about your future relationships.

The Love of Attraction

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One form of romantic love is strongly influenced by first impressions. It is the most powerful, physical attraction. We know what looks we like in someone. We really can fall in this form of love at first sight.

It is useful to understand why we find people attractive. Outsiders have more of an influence than we realise. Generally, beauty in women involves perfect skin tones, slim bodies and a deferential demeanour. In men, it involves sculpted muscles, rugged jawline and self-confidence. It was not always like this. Two hundred years ago, the ideal woman was plump and full-bodied. Three hundred years ago, the ideal man dressed effeminately, wore wigs and put on heavy make-up.

Despite what we are led to believe, our attraction to someone is not exclusively biological. It is heavily influenced by what society tells us to look for in a good partner. We get this from adverts, songs, stories, films, friends and through many other ways. Attraction is also based on our own experience of people we have come across in the past. We are far more attracted by someone who reminds us of someone we have liked or who has taken good care of us in the past. If they remind us of someone we did not like, perhaps someone who hurt us or someone who let us down, we often experience a sense of repulsion usually without giving them a chance to reveal to us who they really are.

The love of attraction is very powerful. In some respects, it is a selfish love. It is based on a subconscious expectation that will experience good things if we enter a relationship without caring what our partner stands to gain. What can we do to entice the person into a relationship? Some people talk about attractive love as transactional. They mean we have a motive. If we do something nice for them, we expect them to do something nice for us in return.

This love is superficial because it is not necessarily based on the personality or behaviours of the person we are attracted to. Even if there is more to it, attraction is relatively temporary. It may last weeks, months or even years. But it almost never lasts a lifetime. Our looks change. The level of excitement we experience being with someone wanes as the new things we do together start to get repetitive. What originally attracted us to someone will not last. If we want to find lasting love, we need to look to the other form of romantic love.

The Love of Mutual Bonding

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The love of mutual bonding is driven by personal experience. It is not based on what we want from a relationship or what we hope the relationship may become. It is based on the actual benefits we enjoy from an existing relationship. This love is based on the positive association we have with benefits from the relationship we have built with our partner.

This love is a lasting love. It lasts for as long as both partners continue to maintain and build the relationship and the relationship continues to deliver benefits. If the original definition of love is correct, it lasts as long as we continue to associate our partner with our wellbeing.

A key part to knowing if you are bonding with your partner is understanding what are the unique benefits of your unique relationship that the bonds deliver. In order to understand that, we need to understand our own unique needs and the unique needs of our partners. This is how we are able to judge whether this relationship is the one. Can our partner help us meet our needs within the relationship, and at the same time, can we help our partner meet their needs? And if so, how?

You and Your Partner’s Needs

Since everyone is unique, there is no general advice anywhere that can give with all the answers about what you need from love. All the advice can do, including this article, is to point you in the right direction. And this one piece of advice is key.

The purpose of a loving relationship is to provide for you and your partner’s needs.

Everyone’s needs are based on securing our overall wellbeing. We all have multiple levels of need. The intensity of our needs is identified as our basic needs, our wants and our hopes. Our basic needs govern whatever we need to survive. They are largely driven by our instincts to survive, by becoming single-mindedly determined if we need to eat, drink, warm-up or cool down or do whatever else we need to stay alive. Our wants are whatever we think will support our survival, such as looking for a better job or finding a partner to make our lives easier, or just having fun. These are influenced more by our upbringing and intellect. Our hopes are just our needs and wants for the future.

Our actual needs may not be the same as what we think we need. This is one of the fault lines for finding a suitable partner. Many drug users, for example, believe drugs improve the quality of their lives, despite their experience to the contrary. Many people who are abused believe that they are to blame for the abuse, despite having no hand in the abuse itself.

Understanding our own and our partner’s actual needs is much easier said than done. The full article from which this is extracted offers a deeper explanation of how our bodies, shaped by evolution, determine our real needs. It offers suggestions on how we can use this information to get a better understanding of what we and our partners actually need. As a taster, there are three realms of need that determine our overall wellbeing — material needs, emotional needs and stimulation.

The Worth of a Relationship

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Perhaps the most significant failure of marriages today is a failure to understand the benefits and opportunities from a successful relationship. It is far easier to walk away from a bad marriage than to repair it if we can see no upsides.

As mentioned above, the worth of a relationship is in the way it serves the needs of its partners. We can all care for ourselves if we set our minds to it. But there are some needs that can be served only by the relationship itself. It is analogous to two people building a house. Once the house is built, the partners can enjoy its shelter and other benefits regardless of what either do at the time. Without a roof over their heads, both partners would get wet when it rains. In the same way, there are benefits from a relationship, built from mutual bonding, that are not accessible to either partner outside a successful relationship.

The worth of a relationship is measured in terms of a balance between the needs it serves and those it does not. Part of understanding our collective needs, wants and hopes involves communicating them with each other, honestly and respectfully. It helps us make sense of our own needs when we feel confused or depressed. It helps us understand what our partners feel they need. Examples of benefits that most people experience include gaining emotional security, having a wider perspective to deal with challenges, making it easier to raise children and the financial benefits that arise when two people share a single living space.

The love of mutual bonding is sometimes called transcendent love. Its benefits are associated with the relationship itself, transcending individual behaviours of either of the partners. It is almost as if the relationship acquires a life of its own, where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Relationships are more secure where partners understand and value the benefits of the relationship.

Being Honest with Yourself

Although there are two different types of romantic love, they do interact.

The love of attraction is what usually draws us into a relationship that has the potential to grow into something more. It turns out that the initial attraction is not necessary. There are many successful marriages that began as arranged marriages. But in Western cultures, arranged marriages are largely dismissed in favour of personal choice.

Yet the love of attraction is a powerful draw. It is so powerful, it is easy to mistake for lasting love. We so want the relationship to succeed, we choose to ignore the very factors that help us judge our compatibility with each other. A further issue is, even if we do not choose to ignore them, most of us are ill-prepared to know to judge in the first place.

This and other articles offer advice on how to judge relationships, whether it is a new one that is starting to blossom or an existing one. Whether you choose to follow the advice is down to you. But if not, remember that over 40% of marriages end in failure — and it is likely many of the “successful” marriages continue for a variety of reasons, even though the partners have fallen well out of love. The choice is yours.

The Ingredients for Love

The love of attraction opens the door to a love of mutual bonding. The question is, how do we sustain the love of mutual bonding once we walk through its door?

The answer lies in the title. We develop bonds of care through our social actions and attitudes towards each other. Social bonds can only develop in baby steps. Each step gives us the confidence to delve deeper. The goal is to be able to expose our deepest desires and fears to each other, our innermost vulnerabilities, without fear of judgement or exploitation. Intimacy is what happens when we open the parts of ourselves to a lover that we keep hidden from the rest of the world, and sometimes from ourselves.

There are four ingredients required to develop and sustain mutual bonding.

  • Mutuality is the equal status of both partners in the relationship. Both partners’ needs must be served. If the relationship is one-sided, it is not a loving relationship. This is largely a question of respect and attitudes towards each other.
  • Compatibility is the ability of both partners to understand and serve the needs of themselves and their partners. Conventional wisdom teaches us that compatibility comes from having similar backgrounds and sharing similar interests. But there is more to it. At its heart, compatibility is about having shared values and views about how the world should work.
  • Compromise is about balancing and accommodating the needs of each partner at any point in time. Again, this depends on developing mutual respect and positive attitudes towards each other.
  • Intimacy depends on both partners having the trust, confidence and experience of each other to know that their partner will use the intimate knowledge they gain about their partner to support their needs. If the knowledge is misused, intimacy opens the door to abuse.


Romantic love proves elusive to many. If we can understand the difference between the superficial love of attraction and the longer-lasting love of mutual bonding, it helps us develop the attitudes and understandings we need to forge a successful, long-term relationship with the love of our life.

This article is an extract of a more in-depth article. The full article explores many of the subjects touched on in this extract in more detail. It offers a greater understanding of our human nature. It offers a deeper insight into how to identify whether someone is likely to be a suitable long-term partner. It offers more detailed advice on how to work towards stronger, more effective relationships. And it offers many specific suggestions on how to build the bonds of love that underpin any relationship designed to last a lifetime. To download the full article, click here.

Further Reading

For more of my articles on a variety of topics written to provoke thought and to bring a vision for the future to life, check out my blog website: www.animating.vision



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