"What is True Love?"

I sometimes wonder whether the notion of "true love" is something everyone on earth is now familiar with.

Or, might there still exist a people so remote, so removed from the rest of us, so incredibly isolated from our rapidly globalizing world, that they themselves would even today -- even nowadays -- be absolutely astonished to hear spoken the preposterous and outlandish meme of true love?

But if there does indeed exist such a remote people, I can only imagine how utterly simplistic the meme might seem to them, should anyone tell them of it.

For it is true that most of us are taught the concept of true love when we are yet young children -- naive, uncritical, vulnerable to the wholesale swallowing of absurdities, children. And anything we uncritically learn as children is quite often likely to remain unexamined by us forever.

Or at least, such things will remain unexamined until some life event comes along with sufficient gale force to shake even our most unshakeable childhood "truths".

Just so you can be sure, I am by no means one of those angst-ridden adolescents who doubts the very existence of love.  That's not where I'm going with this.

Instead, I beg to propose the slightly radical notion that the meme of true love is, at best, confused.  For I think the meme might have its roots in the commonplace observation that there are many different things many different people call "love".  And, once you have observed that much about "love", you are perhaps quite likely to ask which of those things are false, and which are true.

At least, you would seem quite likely to ask such a question if you first assume they can't all be true.

But is that assumption warranted?  Is it really the case that the love one has for one's child cannot be just as true as the love one has for one's friends?  Or is it really the case that the initial, fleeting stages of romantic love cannot be just as true as a spousal love that lasts a lifetime?

Of course, how one answers those and similar questions depends almost entirely on the test one creates for determining what is (or is not) "true".  For instance, I think most of us are taught that the crucial test for whether love is true is, basically, how long it lasts.  We might have been taught other tests and measures for true love, too, but -- unless love endures -- it cannot be true love.

When measuring loves by how long they last, several things that many of us routinely call "love" fail to pass the test.  For instance, our first non-familial love becomes "a mere childhood crush".  The passing loves of middle school or high school become "mere infatuations".  And, if we are so unlucky as to marry and divorce, we might then conclude that we never "really loved" our ex at all, no matter how deeply felt our initial commitment to them actually was.  All such judgments might easily slight the authenticity of our feelings at the time we felt them.

Yet, we might ask a simple question: Is endurance a necessary property of something being "true"?  That is, is it a necessary property of something being real, genuine, or authentic?

I think it is easy to see that endurance, in this case, is not a necessary property.  An ice cube does not long endure a glass of warm water, but does that mean the ice cube is not genuine?  A squirrel in the wild lives only for about two or three years, but does that mean the squirrel is not a true squirrel or a real squirrel?  No kind of love lasts beyond the death of the one who loves, but does that mean no kind of love is authentic?   

It seems to me there are no legitimate grounds for saying that the crucial test of true love is how long it lasts, for if even the brief life of an ice cube can be genuine, cannot a brief love also be genuine?

But to my mind, that raises an interesting question: Why do so many of us accept endurance as the crucial test of true love?  Beyond that we have usually been taught from childhood to do so, I think another reason might have to do with the fact love is generally pleasurable while it lasts, and quite painful (at least for a while) when it ends.

Put differently, we might be highly motivated to value enduring love as a means of maximizing our pleasures and minimizing our pains.  And it can be a short step from valuing something to pronouncing it the only genuine thing in its category.

Now, despite all possible appearances to the contrary, there is something that I would call "a false love".  That is, I do not think everything that anyone calls love is genuine, real, authentic, or true love.  But unlike so many of us, my personal test for what is true or false love has nothing to do with endurance.

To put it in a ridiculously simple manner, there is a key difference between loving someone for who they are, and loving them for something they are not.

Our love for who they are might be platonic.  It might be altruistic. It might be purely sexual (such as when we don't know much else about them but that they seem sexy to us).  It might be deeply, but fleetingly romantic.  It might involve a lifetime of profound attachment to them.  Or it might be some other kind of love.  But it is in all cases genuine in the sense it is in all cases a love for them -- or what we know of them -- even if we don't know everything there is to know about them.

On the other hand,  an inauthentic or false love -- to my thinking -- occurs when we do not love them, but love something other than them, something they are not.  Perhaps that something other is their money, or their possessions, or their power and position in society. For those things are not intrinsic to a person. But, in my experience, what we falsely love is often enough our idea of them.  I myself would call such false loves, "infatuations".

I will offer a brief example.  When I was in high school, I was infatuated with Janet, who was in real life quite unlike my idea of her.  I thought of her, for instance, as an intellectual.  And that was fine with me, because I myself was something of a high school intellectual, too.  In reality, she was quite smart, but in a non-intellectual way.  Nevertheless, I was in love with the notion I had of her.

I might be very wrong about this, but I think that -- much more often than when we falsely love people for superficial things, such as their possessions or positions -- we falsely love them for our own ideas of them.

In sum, true love -- as true love is most often conceived of -- appears to me a deeply confused idea, for it rests on the seemingly silly notion that the crucial test of it is how long it endures.  But endurance has nothing necessarily to do with whether a thing is real, genuine, authentic, or true.  Nevertheless, I think that we can be mistaken about whether or not we love someone, and that these false loves are characterized by our loving something that is not them, but which we might believe is them.  True love, on the other hand, is any love -- any kind of love -- that is love for someone as they really are.

That, at least, is my take on the issue.  What am I over-looking?  Your turn.


  1. "But endurance has nothing necessarily to do with whether a thing is real, genuine, authentic, or true."

    I think you hit the nail squarely on the head here Paul. Based on my own experiences...I think it's entirely possible to truly be in love with someone and fall out of love with them as time passes. That doesn't mean it wasn't "true love" while it lasted. As for the love most parents have for their children, I wouldn't describe it as "true love." I call it "unconditional love" and no matter what happens, that bond of parental love can not be broken.

    1. Thanks, Anna Maria! I very much agree with you that the love most parents have for their children is unshatterable. For instance, my mother is 95 this year, and though dementia is beginning to take its toll of some aspects of her personality, her love for her children seems to be ever-present.

  2. I once mentioned to my husband how many poems about love there were on my fav artist's community website. Falling in love... being in love... breaking up. Poem after poem. Shortly thereafter he came to me with the February issue of National Geographic. It featured an article on Love, focusing on the biochemical aspect thereof. "Read it." he said, "It explains how love is like a mental illness. You should write a poem about THAT!" And so I did...

    Crazy Love

    They said that it was Breaking News
    A triumph scientific
    Not one minute did they lose
    The message was specific...

    ‘Neath camera’s glare the man announced
    In an excited wheeze
    “Our studies show this thing called LOVE
    Is akin to a mental disease!”

    Perplexed and stunned, the crowd was still
    No reaction did they show
    Till one man shouted, “Tell us please
    A thing we don’t already know!”

    “Mushy poems on Valentine’s Day
    Rings that swallow half our pay,
    Not happy till your wife you’ve made ‘er
    A screaming brat comes nine months later...”

    “D’you think we’d go through all that pain
    If LOVE were something that was sane?”

    1. I'm somewhat in awe of your poetic talent, Garnet.

    2. Thanks, Paul. True love is, indeed, a deeply confused idea. And deeply confusing. But fun to think about now and then. Nice topic choice.

    3. True love is knowing you have another's heart in your keeping and being honored and glad of it.

  3. I agree with so much you say here. The 'true' love and 'one true' love ideas are like some of the religious stories made for children that last throughout our lives. Something doesn't seem quite right about them, but they're so deeply ingrained that we can't quite point to where the stink is coming from.

    Re: love/attraction toward real vs projected/imagined attributes... I'd say that it's so often a mix of both, we might as well just leave it at that.


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