Love's Many Meanings

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Love's Many Meanings

by Gordon Coates

April 2011


In English, we use the word "love" very often, but we mean so many different things by it that it can be quite confusing. Other languages sometimes have a wider choice of words. For example, there are at least five Greek words which might be translated into English as "love".[1]

However, as this "musing" is in English, I am going to try and define the different types of "love" without resorting to words from other languages. I am also going to attempt a somewhat whimsical classification of the types of love which I define, partly with a view to making them easier to remember, but also as a means of highlighting the similarities and differences between the various meanings of this small, but very overworked, word.


Firstly, there are FOUR well known types of love:

"The Conditional Quads"

1. Like-it-a-lot love

2. Family love

3. Friendship love

4. Romantic love

Like-it-a-lot love (which I sometimes refer to as "ice cream love") is really just an emphasised version of "like". Friendship love and family love have a close warm affection in common, which most people think of as being significantly different from "like". Romantic love (which I sometimes call "only-wanna-be-with-you love") is, to say the least, complicated – not only by its association with sexual desire, but also, in many cases, by an optimistic expectation that those involved will each solve most or all of the other's problems, and that both will therefore "live happily ever after".

Kindness, friendliness and the giving and receiving of pleasure "with strings attached" feature, in one way or another, as a subtext to much of our communication about these four types of "love". For example, instead of saying to children (as my mother used to say to me) "When you're good I love you happy, and when you're bad I love you sad", we often manage to give children the impression "While you're good I will always love you, but if you're bad I may not".

I might say a bit more about each of these four common types of "love" one day, but for now the main thing I want to say is that, if you look at them carefully enough, you can usually find an "if", or a "but", or some other condition which suggests that, however strong the "love" may be, it is not necessarily unbreakable. Therefore, it seems reasonable to apply the term "conditional love" to each of these four types of "love" – which is why I have called them "The Conditional Quads".[2]


Secondly, there are THREE closely related qualities:

"The Tender Triplets"

1. Sympathy

2. Empathy

3. Compassion

I have discussed these three qualities elsewhere, so I will not repeat myself here. The only point I would like to make about them in this context is that they usually have fewer "strings attached" than the "Conditional Quads" discussed above.


Thirdly, there are TWO simple (but not always easy) choices:

"The Transitional Twins"

1. Acceptance

2. Forgiveness

A great deal could be said about each of these, but for now I just want to say that, if an attempt is made to attach conditions to them, it creates a ridiculous contradiction. If you really, completely, accept something, you cannot attach conditions or define exceptions. If you really, completely, forgive someone, the same applies. As you can see, I have called these two the "Transitional Twins". They are, in some senses at least, very similar, which is sometimes the case with twins. More importantly, though, when they are practised with sincerity and persistence, I suggest that they are powerful facilitators of a transition towards...


Finally, there is ONE thing which, though actually quite impossible to define in words, nevertheless belongs in any discussion of "love":

"The One and Only"

1. Unconditional Love

This type of "love" is sometimes given a capital letter, as in Love. That is easy enough to do, but defining it is not. Unconditional Love goes far beyond anything that can be expressed in words. Most scriptures, and a great deal of poetry, are attempts to say something "between the lines" about Unconditional Love – and I am not about to go into competition with most scriptures and a great deal of poetry. However, as this is, after all, a "Philosophical Musing", I will add one more or less meaningless paragraph, and suggest that you replace it with some musing of your own...

One thing (in words) is Love, and only one. Kindness with no strings attached is Love; and nothing else (in words) is ever Love, or ever was, or ever will be. On the other hand, in the parts of the mind where there are no words, perhaps everything is Love. But there is no point in writing about that. Or, perhaps, there is every point – but no possibility. In the "everyday mind", where we store and rearrange our sensations, emotions and thoughts, it is usually possible to describe things in words. But beyond (by which I mean within) the "everyday mind", descriptions are no longer possible. In that silence, and on the fringes of the infinite Silence beyond that silence, the absolute peace and causeless joy which hint at the presence of Love may perhaps sometimes be felt – but neither they nor it can ever be described.



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Footnotes: (Click the number of a footnote to return to its reference in the text)

[1] I am no Greek scholar, but I have read that EROS is a yearning or desire for an intimate and often sexual relationship (though it is sometimes also thought of as the source of creative inspiration, passion or attraction in a more general sense); PHILIA is a fondness felt for friends and family, presumably based on a common background as well as familiarity; STORGE is rather similar to philia, and is sometimes applied to affection between family members, but is also used for comradeship between soldiers or team-mates, and is sometimes applied to an underlying friendship which both precedes and, where relevant, continues after the end of a sexual relationship; THELO is a general desire, intention, preference or choice to do something; and AGAPE is an unconditional kindness and caring regardless of circumstance, often attributed to God by religious teachers who use that word, and also aspired to by spiritual seekers of any religion or of none. (The exact usage of these words differs somewhat between ancient and modern Greek, and in the latter case is of course still evolving.)

[2] For readers for whom English is a second or other language, "quads" is an abbreviation for quadruplets, meaning four children born at the same time from the same pregnancy.


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