Let’s talk about adult partnerships for a minute. An intimate community of two. Functionality in these relationships can enable other functionality elsewhere in your life, and lack of it can preclude the flow or productivity you may want in other parts of your life. Creativity, building your Thing, progressing on that skill you want to develop: all of this can be helped or hindered by your foundational partnership. Stuff is connected, after all, and your partnerships are part of the web.

By “adult partnerships” I’m talking about the common, typically monogamous relationship that spans years, may include marriage, probably involves cohabitation, and may involve children, especially when the partners approach middle age. Just so we’re all clear. You will probably think of an exception to my definition, but the gist of what I mean is spouses, life partners, or whatever you want to call them.

The reason this relationship breed is on display here today is because I’m thinking that we as a culture place an inordinate amount of hope and expectation on this one relationship. It can become, through all those hopes, dreams, and expectations, something rather confining. I think it squeezes our love. We have lots of types of relationship, and yet we get a cultural message that there’s going to be one person who comes along and saves us from ourselves, or something. They will fill all of our gaps, et cetera.

a puff of smoke

Eggs, and a basket

In the adult relationship, the actions and personalities of our partners have a lot of gravity and thus pull on us in powerful and often mysterious ways. We do or don’t do things we may not have otherwise done or not done because of our partners.

And after a time in one of these relationships, you might think, “This is hard. Maybe I should bail and try again—next time I’ll get it just right.”

Do you have one of these relationships? Have you thought this? I mean, maybe you haven’t and so: nice job, well done! If you have, however, let me share with you.

Love is often narrowly defined in our culture. Our lack of language around the concept creates a myopic view of what love could be or do in a relationship.

Our narrow cultural definition of love makes complex situations harder than they need to be. Perhaps love truly is hard, I don’t know ultimately, but I think we make something big and broad and grand into something small by giving one simple label (love) and then expecting it do do a million things.

It feels difficult to carry forward the wash of feelings that enveloped you when the relationship started.

“Of course it’s hard, things fade in time,” you say to me, perhaps. “I know love is hard because I’ve been told it shall be so by my culture, my peers, my family. I’ve seen it be so.”

Cupid’s dart

The feeling you had way back when, back in those yesterdays when you were swept off your feet and smitten: that’s what the Greeks would call eros. Erotic love. It’s intoxicating, it’s tumultuous, it’s intense, it’s fun, it’s passionate, and it’s bound to fade. It’s supposed to fade. It’s like a smell. You get used to it.

But the odd thing about this kind of love is that in American English (and in the rest of English dialects, I daresay) we just call that “love”. That simple label. We expect love to have this lasting eros component. Should it? I don’t know. I don’t think it’s a given, though.

Beyond cupid

Let’s bring in one of those fairly common life events that exist within these adult partnerships: what happens when we have a baby? A whole new feeling happens, and we call that “love”, too. But I think anyone, parents or not, can tell you that the states and nuances of parent-love and partner-love are, to understate it, different.

We love our children, and we love our partners. But still, just that single, simple label.

Look it up

We have a multitude of words for…a multitude of words. Why not more robust language around love?

Look up love in a thesaurus and you’ll find words that talk about different ways to show love (cherish, desire, adore, care for, worship, idolize, for example), but there aren’t really a set of words to describe differing states of love. The love of a parent for their child, for example: as a parent, I can cherish, adore, care for my child. As a lover, I can cherish, adore, care for my partner. But I describe the feeling I have for them both as love.

Why don’t we have more words for this? I think we need them.

Greek lesson

Besides eros, or erotic love, the Greeks had words for other states of love. I think this can unlock for us English speakers a less burdensome view of our partners. I wonder how we can see this broad spectrum of love and start to imagine a bigger cast of characters filling out our concepts of The Jobs Love Does. Our adult partnerships can take on parts of the Jobs of Love, but needn’t do quite so many.

If we could consciously embrace this, I think we’d approach those partnerships with different expectations. You don’t have to put all of your eggs in one basket.

You would, however, have to expand your community. Read on.

Remember going to school as a kid? Is one person there to do the teaching and the learning and the phone answering and the floor cleaning and the bill paying and the disciplining and the recess monitoring and the logistical administration? Of course not. That would be impossible. Silly. Instead, there’s a whole cast.

We have teachers, students, secretaries, janitors, accountants, principals, and so on. They all do big jobs, they all make it into “elementary school.”

Why can’t love be that broad, that grand? Why not bigger, even? It’s that important, isn’t it?

So here are some facets of love, according to the Greeks, to add richness and depth to what your understanding of love might look like.

  • Storge, or familial love. Brotherly love, family affection, instinctual care. The love of a parent for a child, or siblings for each other.
  • Philia, or friendship, particularly deep friendship or long-term close associates. For the Greeks, the height of philia was the friendships forged on the battlefield. So pressure-tested friendships are what is meant here.
  • Pragma, or mature love. The love between that couple who’ve been together, married for 50 years. They’ve been through all the stuff, and they have a deep or abiding respect and affection for each other.

  • Ludus, or play. The love of children for each other, or the fun and affection we feel when we’re enjoying casual relationships, or flirting. Light, sparkling, fun love.

  • Xenia, or hospitality. The affection towards strangers, guests, and the cultural generosity we feel towards them.

  • Agape, unconditional or divine love. Buddhists call it metta, Christians use it as an idea of God’s love for the world. Here we can think of it as abiding love for all things, for life, for the mystery and connection of it all.

  • Philautia, or self-love. Not to be confused with narcisissm, this is about healthy self-respect and care for oneself. The idea that when you love yourself well, you love others well: it starts at home.

Scope shift

I suspect you recognize all those forms of love that I just listed out. But we don’t have words for these concepts in English, just shared understandings. Look how big love is! Look at how many types of people and types of jobs it can do!

Why give all the jobs of love to one person? Why think the “soul mate” should do so much?

In many ways, we don’t try to. We have friends, we have children, we have pets, we take care of ourselves, we play, we appreciate the beauty of a dawn or a the grass bending in the fall wind. We have these loves in our lives already: we feel the filia, the agape, the ludus, the philautia.

But when we think of our adult partnerships and what they mean, and what those partnerships do for us, I wonder if we are putting too much pressure on just that one person when really love can be comprised of so many facets, actualized by so many.

If we consciously saw love as broad and multi-faceted and necessarily diverse, then would we spend less time with rom-coms and the concepts of soul mates and perfect adult partnerships and more energy on the idea of a well-balanced experience of love? Would we give our partners more of a break because we know that they aren’t supposed to do all the jobs of love?

Do we expect ludus and eros and philia and pragma frequently from one person? That’s a lot to ask (even if it is culturally mandated) and maybe a lessening of the richness we could experience if we broadened our sense of who can meet us in these moments.

Read more

The Wonder Box by Roman Krznaric introduced me to the concept of multiple love descriptors, which upon reading I thought, “Ah! Of course! This explains some of the trouble!” Love isn’t simple, but perhaps we confound ourselves by giving such a concept a simple definition. When we have nuanced language, we have good ideas, and when we have good ideas we have a better chance at good behaviors. Naming ideas is such a powerful tool in how we perceive and navigate our reality.

Also The Art of Loving by Erich Fromm. We spend too much time “Falling in love vs standing in love” and Homo Ludens by Johan Huizinga (ludens love).