We, in English, have a surprising lack of language when it comes to talking about love. Here is a breakdown of the most common words we use:
Like: Can be used for things as well as people, though the liking isn’t overly strong. When used in terms of relationships, it often skews romantic. If you add in the words “that way,” it transforms the meaning to exclusively romantic, as in, “I don’t like you that way” or “I just don’t see you that way.”
Like like: Used to express romantic interest, as in, “Do you like them, or do you like like them?” The doubling of the word “like” interestingly makes it clear that this is expressing strong romantic—as opposed to platonic—interest.
Love: The catch-all term, able to refer to anything from love for pizza to a pet, from familial to platonic to romantic love. Adding the preposition “in” transforms the meaning to very strong romantic love, as there can be a distinction between telling a partner “I love you” and “I’m in love with you.”
Lust: This term isn’t used very often. It’s a bit archaic, or too deadly-sins-y to be used in a positive light. It can almost imply sexual love at the expense of other types of love.
And… that’s about it. Four main words. In a society as preoccupied with love as ours is, it should be a shock that we don’t have more words to use when talking about it. Considering that most of the words we do have skew romantic, it’s a thread worth pulling on.
How is it that when someone says they’re “looking for love,” we understand that they are talking about looking for a romantic partner? Why do we have to normalize saying “I love you” to our friends? Why is that not already a norm? Why is it that romance is considered a deeper connection than platonic friendship, and sex sometimes the deepest of all?
The reason is that we live in an amatonormative society.
Amatonormativity is a term coined by Arizona State University philosophy professor Elizabeth Brake to “describe the widespread assumption that everyone is better off in an exclusive, romantic, long-term coupled relationship and that everyone is seeking such a relationship.”
Cue: “ring before spring”; the search for your “other half” or “the one”; the term “significant other”; family members asking if you’re dating anyone and consoling you with “you’ll find someone eventually” if you say no; the assumption that men and women can’t be friends; the terms “just friends” or “more than friends”; the concept of “spinsterhood”; the romcoms where the successful female protagonists and their otherwise fulfilling lives are only missing one thing—a man.
Essentially, amatonormativity says that you are not fulfilled until you gain a romantic partner and that it is better to be in any relationship at all, even a mediocre one, than to be single. Even within the bounds of desiring and having a romantic relationship, amatonormativity has constraints on how you do it: preferably heterosexual, before your 30s, and with a marriage certificate and a few kids down the line. Oh, and they better be The One, because divorce is out of the question.
As an asexual and greyromantic person, a lot of this is impossible for me to achieve. I don’t experience sexual attraction and don’t often experience romantic attraction. Any marriage I may have will not look like what society expects of me, especially since I would rather live with a close female friend in a queerplatonic partnership than with a male romantic partner in a straight-passing marriage.
And yet my experience of love is deep and varied, though not in a way that amatonormativity and our limited language surrounding love recognizes.
Conversely, an asexual lens recognizes many types of attraction: aesthetic, sensual, emotional, intellectual, and platonic, as well as romantic and sexual. All of these are potential ways to build bonds with other people that go beyond merely the romantic and sexual.
Similarly, the ancient Greeks specified different types of love, including agápe (unconditional love), éros (romantic/sexual love), philía (platonic or friendly love), philautia (self-love), storgē (familial love), and xenia (hospitable love).
In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis expanded on four of these with his own definitions: storgē as affection, philía as friendship, éros as romantic love, and agápe as charity. Within his ruminations, Lewis separates romantic from sexual love—calling them Eros and Venus, respectively. He explains that “sexuality may operate without Eros or as part of Eros” and that marrying for love rather than economics is a relatively recent phenomenon. Similarly, Lewis bemoans the recent devaluation of friendship compared to the Middle Ages.
He also argues that “friendship is in reality a love, and even as great a love as Eros” and points out that friendship is a type of love that is not necessary for survival as a species, but rather “one of those things which give value to survival,” capable of enriching our individual lives.
Though Lewis qualifies these statements, pointing out that each type of love—save agápe or charity—has its own pitfalls, it seems that he had a deeper and wider understanding of the various types of love sixty years ago than we do today, as far as the limited language we use in talking about love shows.
By saying all this, I in no way mean to denigrate romantic or sexual love, any more than Lewis did by giving friendship its due as its own form of love. I only mean to point out how the inordinate focus on romantic love obscures the plethora of other types of love we get to experience in our lifetimes.
There is only gain in recognizing the various ways in which our lives are rich in love. Our language for love may be impoverished, but the recognition we give our experiences of love need be anything but.
Lauren Cole (’20) graduated with a major in English and minors in French and psychology. She grew up in Grand Rapids and wants to live as she wants to die—surrounded by trees. She loves adding books to her TBR, but actually reading them is another matter.
I was tempted to say ‘I love this piece!’ but in light of the wonderful, full, and beautiful picture you paint of different kinds of ‘loves’ and relationships, I’ll say this instead: what a great picture of the nuanced importance of relationship – regardless of the label – and a reminder of why we, as humans, benefit from varied and valuable connect with others.
Was just having this conversation yesterday (not with this level of intelligence) and then this popped up. Perfect timing.
What a wonderful article, and timely. Thank you for talking so eloquently and expressively about such an important topic!
Heck yes, from one ace-spectrum dweller to another! Incidentally, for any nerds out there, I must gush about the latest incarnation of the Star Trek franchise (three seasons of Star Trek: Discovery). For being a fairly gritty sci-fi show, it’s full of great examples of non-romantic love/affection. Friends say “I love you” to one another, cry together during big life transitions, hold hands for strength and solidarity, hug often. There’s a lovely and nuanced relationship between a gay couple who ends up taking a nonbinary teen under their wing. And it’s all happening in space!
As if love wasn’t a difficult enough topic. 🙂 I absolutely delight in your romp through terminology. A better understanding of love will take time, but in learning betterment comes.