What We Mean When We Use the Word ‘Love’

(1) I love french fries. (2) I love the way I feel when I’m on vacation in Mexico. (3) I love my children. (4) I love my profession.

All four of these statements are true but the word “love” in each one describes a very different experience. In the first, it means I enjoy having french fries inside my mouth, the way they taste and then swallowing them down. Sentence number two describes a subjective experience of pleasure aroused by my environment. The third sentence concerns emotions I have about other people, while the fourth applies to a value or ideal that I hold.

At first blush, it would seem these experiences or feeling states are so diverse that to use the word “love” for all of them is absurd. Does it make any sense to use the same verb to describe how you feel towards your children as well as your favorite food? In most cases, those experiences are entirely different; but in truth, there are varieties of love where the feeling someone has for another person isn’t so different from “loving” french fries. If individuals who suffer from Narcissistic Personality Disorder fall in love, it usually means they “love” how the other person makes them feel about themselves.


When some men and women fall in love, they want to devour the object of their love. I’m sure you’ve known people like that. You might describe them as “obsessed” or “overly possessive.” These individuals usually have problems with separation and merger; for them, to be in love means to take possession of somebody else and swallow them whole. It’s a very primitive type of love, its earliest form in fact, and one I think we all understand on some level. Ever heard a grownup say about a baby, “Ooh, you are so cute I could eat you all up!” Nursing infants “love” their mothers in this way, as an object to be eaten. They don’t see their mothers as separate beings with feelings and desires of their own, at least not at first.

Growing up means coming to recognize separateness; it involves caring about what goes on inside the other person and not simply “loving” him because of the way he makes you feel. When you’re separate and you love, it means that sometimes, you will care more about her feelings than your own.

Not everyone is capable of this kind of love.

Finding Your Own Way:

Who are the people you love and how do you love them?

Let’s start with your parents (assuming you do love them). Are you still longing for something they never gave you? If you came from a very toxic or chaotic family, that longing would be understandable; maybe you really don’t love them in any meaningful way. But if you do, are you able to see them as completely separate — not Dad who didn’t spend enough time with you, but John who never got to live out that dream of his; not Mom who is always criticizing you, but Mary who regrets never going to college. Without discounting yourself and how you feel, can you see and care about their pain and disappointments in ways that have nothing to do with your own?

What about your romantic partners? If you have a number of exes who you once loved and now hate with a passion, maybe your relationships were a type of narcissistic behavior, more like going to Mexico: you “loved” them for the way they made you feel.

Your children? How able are you to tolerate their separation from you? Parents who need to control the life choices of their kids want to feel a certain way about themselves as the parent of those children. “I want you to become a doctor so that I can feel like a successful parent.”

How different is that really from “loving” french fries?


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