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Do We Really Know What Love Is?

Many of us are stumped to define love, and even those of us who can define it often find that others may not agree with our definition. Yet we all have an idea of what love is.
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Love is why we marry, or at least that's what many of us believe. Of course, something as fragile as love alone isn't a good enough reason to create a life together, as noted marriage historian Stephanie Coontz has written volumes about.

Still, we want to believe that love is essential in marriage. That's fine except, what is love? Many of us are stumped to define it, and even those of us who can define it often find that others may not agree with our definition. Yet we all have an idea of what love is.

A friend, a college professor who teaches a class in love, says her students are terrified of having to define love, terrified by the idea that love should even be defined. Hate, narcissism -- they have no problem agreeing on definitions for those. But love? They shrug, a defeatist shrug, and say, "Well, it's different for everyone."

Is it? If love is different for everyone, then what love are we talking about when we're building a marriage around it or divorcing because we no longer have it? What love are we talking about when we insist people marry "for love"?

Do we even know how to love?

Some would argue we don't.

In the late M. Scott Peck's classic self-help book, "The Road Less Traveled," he notes that most of us "confuse cathecting with love," cathecting being the emotions and feelings we have toward someone we're drawn to. But we can be drawn to people who give us affection and care, but who also abuse us, physically, mentally, sexually. Abuse has no place in love.

Care and affection are not love, or so argues author and cultural critic bell hooks in her book "All About Love: New Visions":

Many of us chose relationships of affection and care that will never become loving because they feel safer. The demands are not as intense as loving requires. The risk is not as great. So many of us long for love but lack the courage to take risks. Even though we are obsessed with the idea of love, the truth is that most of us live relatively decent, somewhat satisfying lives even if we feel that love is lacking ... Undoubtedly, many of us are more comfortable with the notion that love can mean anything to anybody precisely because when we define it with precision and clarity it brings us face to face with our lacks -- with terrible alienation. The truth is, far too many people in our culture do not know what love is.

She doesn't sound much different than my middle-aged friends who have "relatively decent, somewhat satisfying lives" while staying in loveless and sexless marriages. She also doesn't sound much different than my friend's students: "Well, it's different for everyone."

"I am afraid that we may be raising a generation of young people who will grow up afraid to love, afraid to give themselves completely to another person, because they will have seen how much it hurts to take the risk of loving and have it not work out," writes rabbi and author Harold S. Kushner in "When All You've Ever Wanted Isn't Enough." "I'm afraid they will grow up looking for intimacy without risk, for pleasure without significant emotional investment."

That may already be the case. Certainly that thinking has given rise to hookups, friends with benefits and no-strings-attached sex. It may be what's behind the rise in single mothers by choice and the reluctance of many young men to marry. Perhaps it's why there are more than 32 million people living alone -- a statistic some are celebrating, such as Eric Klinenburg, author of the new book "Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone." And it may also be why there are 12 times as many people cohabiting now than in the 1970s.

So, how do we define love as we walk down the aisle? What love do we lack when we sign the divorce papers? For Peck, love is "the will to extend one's self for the purpose of nurturing one's own or another's spiritual growth" -- "spiritual" meaning not religion but the core of us that, when nurtured, allows us to be self-actualized.

Rather than a feeling, he says, love is an intention and an action. When we are loving, hooks says, we are openly and honestly expressing care, commitment, knowledge, responsibility, respect and trust.

I can live with that definition.

"Perhaps the most common false assumption about love is that it means we will not be challenged or changed," hooks says.

I can live with challenge and change, too. Can you?

Huffington Post bloggers Vicki Larson and Susan Pease Gadoua are collaborating on a book on reimagining marriage, "The New I Do." If you have a nontraditional marriage and are interested in being a part of their research, please contact them at