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A close-up of a newly opened delphinium flower (Summer 2013).

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Conceptualizing Love

While researching for evidenced-based journal articles about how to make love last, I came across an article by Beall and Sternberg (1995) about the social construction of love.

I will summarize the four conceptualizations of love they have mentioned for you. Let me know what you think by leaving your comments in the Comments section below.
  1. Love is a universal emotional experience that is defined similarly in all cultures. This means that people in every culture experience love in the same way and all cultures share the same definition of love. Therefore, the definition and experience of love in Italy is the same in the US, in Canada, and in the Philippines. No real differences.

  2. Love is a universal emotional experience that is defined differently in all cultures. In this view, people in every culture experience love in the same way, but cultures interpret the experience in different ways. Hence, some cultures might define love as infatuation while other cultures would define it as romance. 

  3. Love is not a universal emotional experience. It changes according to its cultural background; however, all cultures share roughly the same view of it. This means that people in different cultures experience love differently but define it similarly. 

  4. Love is not a universal emotional experience. It changes according to its cultural background and is viewed differently in various cultures. This means that love is experienced and defined differently in cultures across different times and places.
Beall and Sternberg argue that there can never be a universal definition of love because any definition must reflect its time period and place. In short, love has to be defined, understood, and contextualized culturally. And when cultures define love differently, they experience it differently. Hence, two people who have different conceptualizations of love will experience love differently.

I would beg to disagree with Beall and Sternberg. I think human beings share some commonalities despite cultural differences and one of these is love. In fact, people of all cultures understand love, not because of a formal, universal concept, but because they live it--they feel it, they breath it, they dream of it. People understand love when they see lovers hold hands or kiss, regardless of what epoch or place these lovers are from. They understand what love is when they see a mother cuddle her baby, regardless of her color or belief. Photos of lovers taken in the 16th century evoke feelings of tenderness or passion in all of us in the 21st century. 

That is why Shakespeare is still read about today as he was during the Elizabethan period. His love sonnets depict passionate, tender feelings of people who are in love. There is nothing different in the understanding of love in Shakespeare's time and our time, even though he wrote about it from a different cultural milieu. An example of his love sonnet is below, telling us what love is:

...Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or Bends with the remover to remove.
O, no! It is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken.
It is the star to every wandering bark,
whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.

What Shakespeare meant in this excerpt is that real love (one that has evolved from romantic love) does not change when certain aspects within or outside the relationship become different. It is dependable and tenacious despite hard times. Love is like a star that guides every traveller regardless of who he/she is.

If the definition and experience of love is culturally determined, there would be no shared universal values about love, marriage or family. There would be confusion, chaos and a lot of misunderstanding. 

I was once married to a person who shared the same culture I have. That marriage, despite my attempts to save it for the sake of my two sons, did not endure. I am now in a relationship with a Canadian person, whose culture is different from mine. Yet we have a solid and loving relationship despite my constant complaining of the cold weather during winter and regardless of his aversion to  durian and smell of salted fish. 

It is the praxis of love, not its essence, that might be culturally defined. For instance, here in Canada, the age of consent (when one can engage in sex) used to be 14 but it has now been changed to 16. During my mother's time, a kiss could result in a quick marriage because it was considered scandalous. During my time, a kiss was okay but premarital sex was still disgraceful.

Let me end this writing with Singer's (1984) essentialist notion of love, cited by Hegi and Bergner (2010):

“The lover takes an interest in the other as a person, and not merely as a 
commodity ...He bestows importance on her needs and her desires, even 
when they do not further the satisfaction of his own ... In relation to the 
lover, the other has become valuable for her own sake” (1984, p.6). 

I am inviting my readers to write their comments below.

Watch for my next article on how to make love last. This is a Valentine's Day special article.

Until then, have a wonderful day and take care!


Bealle, A. E. & Sternberg, R. J. (1995). The social construction of love. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 12(14). doi: 10.1177/0265407595123006.
Hegi, K. E. & Bergner, R. M. (2010). What is love? An empirically-based essentialist account. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 27(620). doi: 10.1177/0265407510369605.