Despite being the frequent subject of literature and film, actually defining the concept of love has remained a somewhat difficult task, especially because some would argue that the concept itself resists precise definition. Of course, there individual interpretations and categorizations of love, but a definition that manages to include all the necessary information to describe love without limiting its scope remains elusive. However, by examining the consideration of love in literature and philosophy alongside some evidence demonstrating the need for an adaptive definition of love will help to reveal a specific definition of love that nonetheless remains useful for describing a wide variety of phenomena in contemporary society.
Before seeing how definitions of love have evolved through literature, philosophy, and social customs, it will be useful to briefly examine a description of two competing kinds of beauty that will offer a frame for the larger work of defining love. In a portion of Reading the River, Mark Twain discusses how learning the language of the river and how each detail of a sunset means something specifically related to steam-boating actually leads one to lose " All the grace, the beauty, the poetry" that was once in the river (Twain 1). Twain likens this process to what he imagines physicians must feel when looking at a beautiful person, wondering "what does the lovely flush in a beauty's cheek mean to a doctor but a "break" that ripples above some deadly disease?" (Twain 2). Twain's statement is important to note because he seems to be suggesting that looking too closely at something ostensibly beautiful, like a sunset, a beautiful person, or the concept of love, the very aspects which make it beautiful are stripped in the process of investigation. Read this way, one may be forgiven for thinking that Twain is arguing in favor of ignorance, because when he asks "doesn't [a doctor] sometimes wonder whether he has gained most or lost most by learning his trade?" that he thinks becoming a doctor, or learning how to safely navigate a river, are somehow beauty-less life choices (Twain 2). However, when examined more closely, Twain is actually hinting at the very reason why love requires a precise definition in order to deal with the gap between what is often professed regarding love and the actual reality.
While Twain is undoubtedly poking fun at one's ability to let his or her work strip the beauty out of something, he is also implicitly pointing out the need for a specified definition of love, because just as the younger Twain is able to find beauty in the mystery of the river and the sunset, so too could the older Twain find beauty in the secret language of the river, marveling at how the "the 'break' from a new snag [that] has located himself in the very best place he could have found to fish for steamboats" makes the river more like a living thing than a body of water (Twain 2). Looked at in this way, one may read the initial beauty Twain describes as analogous to something along the lines of what many would call and idealized love, which more often than not is characterized as immediate or near-immediate, eternal, and homogenized.
The experience of the sunset free from the knowledge of the river, while traditionally beautiful in its description, is also fairly boring, because each of the details mentioned are provided with flowery language lacking any lasting meaning. It describes a perfect sunset, free from any of the details or intricacies that reveal real truth about the river, just like "the idealization of marriage in the contemporary media [in which] the focus of discussion is the wedding day itself-- with hardly a mention of what comes next" (Schaefer 2). The focus is on the idealized moment, captured in time for eternity, and this mentality characterizes most common depictions of love, often with the qualifier "true" added to the beginning. A more useful definition of love is hinted at by the characterization of the river the second time through, when Twain reveals the greater meaning behind the various details mentioned in the flowery description of the sunset.
Whereas the first description of the river focuses only on the visual experience of a single moment in time, the second time around Twain describes the meaning of each detail, noting, among other things, that "this sun means that we are going to have wind to-morrow; that floating log means that the river is rising, small thanks to it; that slanting mark on the water refers to a bluff reef which is going to kill somebody's steamboat one of these nights, if it keeps on stretching out like that" (Twain 1). While at first glance one may read this as Twain complaining about all the negative things underlying the beauty, the important part lies in the realization that change occurs, and that one moment of a river is simply that. This kind of nuance is what is required in order to really understand love, because just like the changing river, love is far from eternal or idealized, but is rather enacted in a variety of situations and through a variety of different means, leading to aforementioned differences in categorizing and labeling love.
Although as stated previously, the divisions between categories of love ultimately serve to obscure the object, they may be helpful in constructing a useful definition. Most commonly, love is divided between romantic and non-romantic love, with romantic love being described as "at least according to innumerable literary works, much received wisdom, and even a gradually coalescing academic consensus -- to experience a strong desire for union with someone who is deemed entirely unique," and "to idealize this person, to think constantly about him or her, and to discover that one's own life priorities have changed dramatically," and finally, "to care deeply for that person's well-being and to feel pain or emptiness when he or she is absent" (Gottschall & Nordland 450). Non-romantic love generally includes close bonds between friends and family members, with non-romantic love including the same kind of concern for one another with different means of expressing affection.
This categorization is generally unhelpful, because human relationships, especially between close friends, exist more on a spectrum than in neat divisions such that non-romantic love may evolve into romantic love and vice-versa. Thus, a more useful definition of love would be broader, and include the mutual concern and affection without the unnecessary distinction based on the appropriate means of expressing that affection. Thus, when discussing love, one might say that it is the collection of emotions (including the underlying chemical and physiological changes) experienced in human relationships characterized by one party caring "deeply for [the other] person's well-being and to feel pain or emptiness when he or she is absent" (Gottschall & Norton 450). As the reader will see, defining love in this way removes many of the problems plaguing other conceptions of love which rely on outdated assumptions regarding human relationships.
The first way in which this definition of love removes some of the problems of other definitions and categorizations is by focusing on the emotional and physiological experience that characterizes love, because quite simply, this is probably the only consistent factor across any number of the things variously categorized as "love," especially because so many things commonly seen as the definition and markers of love, such as the "true love" of entertainment or the institution of marriage, either do not exist in reality or fail to accurately predict loving relationships. The act of getting married does not accurately represent the experience of love, and being in a marriage has no bearing on whether or not the members of that marriage feel love for one another, something born out by the fact that "though young adults are attracted to the idea of marriage, many of them are not sticking to it for very long: Divorce rates among Gen-X-ers are not much different from those of their parents" (Schaefer 1). However, many of these younger people are not staying single, but rather marrying later, choosing to divorce and leave a "starter marriage," before having children, and then marrying again later. The phenomena of the starter marriage does not spell the end of the institution of marriage, but rather represents a shift in which the traditions and standards surrounding love are finally adapted to the actual emotional and physiological experience of the people involved and not the other way around. Instead of attempting to force love from a marriage in which it has clearly left, the gradual discarding of outdated mores through a more accurate definition of love has allowed young people to participate in older traditions without unhealthily subverting the emotional and physiological results of their own experience.
Aside from helping human beings live healthier interpersonal lives, a definition of love which focuses on the experience, and not traditional (usually incorrect) markers of love also renders moot many of the previously debated arguments…