When Alfred Kinsey first published his groundbreaking book Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (also known as the Kinsey Report, along with the sequel Sexual Behavior in the Human Female), one of the complaints that was leveled at him is that he never mentioned or discussed the experiences of love among his interviewees. Given that he was a biologist and was studying sexual behavior rather than relationships, I can certainly understand why he took that route. And yet, it often seems to me that sex educators and sexologists shy away from talking about love, even though it’s deeply connected to our experiences of sex.
Of course, love and sex don’t depend on or necessarily imply each other. And there’s very little clarity about what love is. I’ve read and heard many different descriptions and definitions, and few of them have ever seemed to capture the scope and the scale of the experience. But I’ve found two amazing books that have powerfully influenced my understanding of love.
The first is bell hooks’ All About Love. Her exploration of love stems from M. Scott Peck’s definition of it as “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.” Peck based this on the earlier work of Erich Fromm.
I like this definition because it starts with the notion that love is an act of will. We choose to act out of love, rather than simply expecting things to somehow work without effort. When we don’t engage our wills, we can’t truly love although we may care for someone, feel attached to them, or hope for their happiness. I also like this definition because it makes room for self-love. It’s often said that you can only love others when you love yourself. I would also turn that around and say that you can only love yourself when you love others. At least, that has been my experience, because the more we develop the skills to love, the more we can find ways to use those skills in different parts of our lives.
This definition also makes it clear that abuse and love can not coexist simultaneously, a notion that we really need to wrap our minds around in our society. Abuse and its less extreme manifestation, control, are both antithetical to fostering growth, which makes them incompatible with love.
At the same time, I wouldn’t limit love to supporting spiritual growth. I would include physical, mental, and emotional growth and well-being in that, although I suppose some people would argue that spiritual growth rests on the other three so working with any of them would foster it.
While this definition is elegant, I find that it’s a bit too simple to capture the many nuances of love, so I am deeply indebted to Stephen Levine for writing Demystifying Love. Although it’s written for psychotherapists and is oriented towards the sorts of issues and concerns that show up in a therapy setting, his clarity of thought, graceful language and obvious compassion make it a great read for anyone interested in the dynamics of love. In particular, I want to briefly highlight his nine “nouns of love”:
Love is an idealized ambition because is so deeply celebrated, glorified, and advertised in US culture. As a result, we often have expectations of the rewards that achieving love will bring.
Love is an arrangement and a deal since any loving relationship requires an exchange of hopes, assets and expectations. In general, younger people are less likely to see love in this way and older people are more likely to.
Love is an attachment when we build connections with our beloveds.
Love is a moral commitment when we make public declarations in front of our families and/or communities, and when we make a commitment to our partners.
Love is a management process because most of us have a desire/need to see ourselves as easy to love, even when we know full well that our partners are not always easy to love. We usually strive to manage our negative feelings towards our partners in order to protect them and maintain the relationship. “[G]ood self-management in relationship to the beloved” is the process of balancing honesty and care.
Love is a force of nature when it brings two or more people together, to create a whole that is larger than the sum of the parts.
Love is a transient emotional state, which Levine describes as a blend of pleasure and interest, along with the more variable feeling of sexual arousal. Since our feelings and emotions wax and wane, it is only reasonable to expect our feelings of love to do the same. This is made more complex when other feelings, such as anxiety, fear, shame or anger get wrapped up in our experiences of love.
Love is an illusion because we want to believe in it as a concept, as an experience, as a possibility. Our self-perceptions as loving and as beloved aren’t always accurate.
Love is a stop sign when we use it as a justification for our choices. “Why do you put up with your partner’s behavior?” “Because I love him!” This use of love is a defense against looking at the question at hand.
In addition to these nouns of love, Levine also talks about the verbs of love, the skills that are needed to make love work, the ways that psychological intimacy can inspire love, and much more. It’s an amazing read and I can’t recommend it more highly.
I’ve been finding these different approaches to love really valuable because I think that love is missing from discussions of sex-positivity and sex education. It’s a tricky thing because, unlike many people, I don’t think you need to feel love in order to have satisfying sexual relationships. If there’s respect, care, and consent, I think you have a solid foundation for whatever adventures you want to get up to.
Having said that, I do think that sex educators need to understand the processes that help people manage their love relationships. For many people, love is (supposedly) the framework for many of their sexual experiences and if we want to help our clients discover their sexual authenticity, we need to include the context of their interactions, their beliefs, values and attitudes. When we shy away from discussions of love and how it influences sex, we lose the ability to really engage with people.
Our understanding of love is also part of the foundation of sex-positivity and celebrating sexual diversity. There are many people who are unable to honor love when it grows between people of the “wrong” gender combination, or among more than two people, or when it includes dynamics of BDSM, or when it doesn’t look like what they expect, or when it doesn’t look like what they think it should be, or when it’s between people of the wrong races, ages, social backgrounds, etc. When people’s hearts are closed to beauty, passion, and love because of how it looks or because they can’t see past their triggers, prejudices, pains and shames, it’s a deep tragedy. Any sexual behavior can be done with love, just as any sexual behavior can be done without it. If you can’t see past the actions, the appearance of the people, or your issues, you’ll be blind to the possibility that love is right there in front of you.
The path to overcoming this is learning to open to love. It’s discovering how to see beyond whatever walls we have built inside our hearts and connecting with the beauty that love brings. It’s finding ways to celebrate love, in all of its manifestations. It’s developing a curiosity about the ways that people love and recognizing that other people do it in ways that might not work for you or that trigger difficult feelings. It’s seeking new ways to give and receive love, even when that means leaning into the uncomfortable places. It’s learning to value love without falling into the mawkish patterns that suffuse movies and other media.
Opening to love is the start and the end of the Warrior’s Path because it requires us to be brave enough to let go of what we know in order to open up to new possibilities. It asks us to allow ourselves to be vulnerable, even when our wounds and our scars remind us of our pains. It challenges us to develop our wisdom while maintaining a beginner’s mind. It invites us to develop fierce compassion. It inspires us to discover our integrity, our flaws, our strengths, and our failures. It requires that we allow ourselves to be seen and to see our beloveds. This is not a journey for the faint of heart. And the more we open to love, the more we can give, receive, witness, honor, and celebrate love.
I once attended a workshop by Kevin Fortune in which he said that we don’t need to be perfect- all we need to do is move towards our joy. When something gets in the way, we can learn to figure out what it needs and then continue to move towards joy. A while back, I wrote that I think that the same thing holds for sexual communication. And once again, I’ll return to this and say that love works the same way. We don’t need to be perfect at it- we just need to deal with whatever hinders it. Once we let go of trying to be perfect, we can admit where there’s room to grow.
My best piece of advice for how to do that is to find people who are also working on it. My grandmother always said that you should give your time to the people who are like the person you want to be and my experience has definitely shown me the wisdom of that. When the people around you are loving, it becomes much easier to love. And when you are loving, you can inspire the people in your circles. Love grows more easily when it’s nurtured by community.
I invite you to learn to celebrate love in all of its forms, even (or especially) the ones that you find scary, challenging, or triggering. Learn to see the beauty and the joy in them. Learn to honor them, while also honoring the loves that work for you. Lean into those hard places and discover how you can open to love.