What Is Love? Real Voices Weigh In

By: Lauren Freier, Guest Blogger

We sing about it, complain about it, get intoxicated by it, and toss it around frivolously when we’re intoxicated. But when we tell someone that we love them, what are we really saying?

I recently began developing a workshop for prospective clients on what it means to date authentically, motivated by conversations with current clients, friends, as well as my own personal experiences. In my initial brainstorming stages I created an outline delineating my areas of focus, one of which was entitled “What is Love?” As I continued to fill in the gaps, this particular section was glaringly (and in my sister’s opinion, laughably) empty.  I was cursor-blinking stumped. I stood clear on the significance of self-worth, expectations, and what love is not, but the converse was an entirely different story. 


Going back to the origins of my inspiration—my friends—I decided to survey my nearest and dearest, requesting a “quick” response about what love means to each of them.  Based on the feedback from my female twenty-something pals, the wisdom I gathered is as follows.  

“Love means putting someone else's needs and happiness above your own. Love means unconditional acceptance of a person, including all flaws and imperfections, without criticism or judgment. Love is when you cannot imagine your life or happiness in the absence of the person or thing you ‘love.’”

“Being selfless and providing unconditional support while being incredibly connected… It = impossible.” 

“…the first word that comes to mind is 'care'. Though I don't think that really covers it all. Maybe a sense of deep care (because that's really different). The willingness to sacrifice for someone else and the will/want to put someone else's needs before your own. I would say there is also a safety and comfort in your connection.”

“Love... a deep level of selfless affection?  Gosh, I'm not sure.”

“Love is a choice. Yes, it is a feeling, but to choose to love is more important than to feel love. Pursuit of the feeling is, at its root, self-serving; while choosing to treat someone with love is completely unselfish… Love the action is so much more challenging than love the feeling - that thing that just happens to us - but in the end, actively living with love is the only real love there is.”

“Love is having unconditional respect, care, passion and acceptance for a person despite his/her flaws, imperfections and genuine weirdness.”

“Acceptance, warmth, security, comfort, trust, strength in an ability to care even when it's hard and even when there's anger… a feeling of connection and belonging when with someone.”

“Love means family...and friends that become your family, too.  Like a family, love can be comforting.  You don't always choose it, but it pulls you out of the worst times and lifts you up even higher in the best times.  I also think that real love never completely leaves you.  Even if it changes or you lose it, it changes you forever…”

“Love means respect.”

“Real love means that you inspire each other, you complement each other, you challenge each other, you comfort and support each other.”

“Love is honesty, commitment, loyalty, and most importantly respect.  Love is not only supporting someone, but putting them on a pedestal and thinking they're worth the work.  Love is being there for someone when it's not easy, but being there because you can't imagine being anywhere else.  Love is wonderful, but returned love conquers all…”

The pattern of responses citing selflessness as a key ingredient prompted me to ask my same question to a number of my male friends as well. I was curious as to whether (and what) gender dynamics would come into play.  What does love mean to these guys, or any guy for that matter? I wasn’t so sure that selflessness would be such a prevalent response. What I found out? While there was clear evidence of gender differences, it was not in the way I originally hypothesized. It instead manifested in the minimal number of responses, perhaps highlighting the stigma toward the emotional expressiveness of males.

“Love is when you care about someone more than you care about yourself.”  

“Love is a passionate display of respect, admiration and care.”

At this point, I went on to consult the research of a renowned couples and family therapist, Esther Perel, in her international bestseller Mating in Captivity. Perel concisely asserts that “love rests on two pillars: surrender and autonomy. Our need for togetherness exists alongside our need for separateness.” She notes that love embodies familiarity and newness, an ever-fluid dynamic that is undoubtedly hard to define. It comes with no instruction manual, no standard return policy, and absolutely no guarantees. It is an ocean of vulnerability.

So what do I make of all of this feedback? I believe that love calls for trust, commitment, independence, passion, timing, and a dash of luck. It isn’t something you simply stumble into one day—mutual love is hard work!  Exhausting, energizing, infuriating, and amazing, it is a delicate balance of a walking contradiction. By analyzing and dialoguing about the inner-workings of love, the intention is not to intellectualize and eradicate romance, but is rather to replace love from its fairytale throne and set it in a more realistic chair. 

My (oxymoronic) advice is simple and simultaneously complex. Love wisely and wildly, love humbly and honestly, love actively and artfully. Be clear on what love means to you and those with whom you share it, be accepting of the madness that love ignites, and be bold in who you are and how you choose to love.

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About Lauren

Lauren_Freier_Thumbnail.jpgLauren is a passionate writer, Beatles fanatic, celebrity gossip junkie, therapist, and mental health advocate.  Her personal and professional experiences in both LA and Chicago have inspired her dedication to emotional wellness, resiliency, and self-acceptance. She holds an MA in Clinical Psychology and is a therapist at InnerVoice Psychotherapy and Consultation, a Chicago-based private practice, as well as a social-emotional health educator at a non-profit organization.


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