From Crush to Agape: How Do I love Thee?
In Sonnet 43, Victorian poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning pondered this question. Using space as a metaphor, she went on to say, “Let me count the ways: I love thee to the depths and breaths and heights my soul can reach…” Browning dedicated this poem to her husband, Robert Browning. Most of us aren’t that eloquent in our expression of love. But, can we all aspire to that kind of love in our daily lives?
For starters, we need to understand that there are several different types of love or ‘love’. These can quickly be broken down into:
I wrote about crushes in The Knack of a Happy Life. Many of us developed crushes in adolescence and thought that was love. This feeling can play an important role in adolescent development, but it’s not the stuff that real, long-lasting love is all about. A crush is an intense and, usually, passing infatuation. However, if a crush continues for too long it can become obsessive and take up more time and energy than we can spare. At its extreme, crushes that become pathological create stalkers. Our goal is not to deny or ignore these types of emotions but to learn from them and grow into a higher form of love.
Erotic comes from the Greek god Eros, the god of sexual attraction. A love that is an emotional involvement based on body chemistry. Eros looks for what it can receive. If it does give, it gives in order to receive. The basic idea of this kind of love is self-satisfaction. Though directed towards another, it actually has self in mind. “I love you because you make me happy,” is one way to think of it. Obviously, this is a conditional type of love. Many of us get stuck in this phase. Erotic love does not produce a deep feeling of connectedness and/or belonging.
Storge is a wide-ranging form of love and includes many relationship types. It is arguably more a feeling of attraction for a person (or even a pet) than strictly love. When we experience a quiet, abiding feeling for someone close to us that we feel good about, we are experiencing a form of storge love. It is a natural movement of the soul towards spouse, parents, children.
Somewhat similar to storge love, phileo love can be thought of as brotherly love. This is most often seen with close friendships. Phileo is a love that responds to kindness and appreciation. It involves giving as well as receiving but it can collapse when greatly strained, as in a crisis. Phileo love is a higher form of love than erotic love because it is about our happiness, not just my happiness.
Agape love is the highest form of love. Some say agape love is the love God has for man and man for God. It can be thought of as a universal, unconditional love. For example, the love a parent has for a child. Agape love does not depend on the merit or worth of its object. This is a love that delights in giving.
These different forms of love are not to be considered static for each of us. While agape is the highest level, most of us have experienced all of these different types of love from time-to-time and moment-to-moment. We shouldn’t think of any of these levels as automatically better or worse (good vs. bad) than the others. It is a sign of a healthy individual to assess where all of their relationships fall along the love spectrum and decide if some type of movement is necessary for personal growth and a more fulfilling relationship.
February is the month we focus on love. Valentine’s Day invites us to tell others how important they are to us; how much we love them. It is a good time to stop and take assessment of the kinds of love we embrace and to seek the highest form, a mature love that is strong enough to run the risk of losing the person who is loved. It’s not easy, but it’s doable and the rewards are immeasurable.
Give love a chance!