Love Levels: My Latest Psychological Theory

So, remember that moment, sometime in middle school, when everybody suddenly became obsessed with liking somebody, you know, like that, and the prospects of it became "real" because there were actually dances and things to go to with people? Well, when my life hit that point, there was this question I started asking myself. It had to do with the fact that, by my understanding, we as Christians were all supposed to love each other, to love everybody we came into contact with, to love them as God loves them, or at least to try. But then here were all my peers talking about how they loved this person or that person, and I knew they meant something slightly different, but I couldn't figure out exactly what it was.

I mean, did it just have to do with adding to the basic love they felt for everybody an additional feeling of physical attraction? I didn’t like that very much, or at least, it didn’t seem like it deserved to be called “love.” “Lust” sounded more like the appropriate term for that particular sentiment, and what was all so meaningful about lust? How could it possibly (looking, admittedly, a little far ahead in the timeline) cement a lifelong, meaningful relationship like marriage? Why should we allow it to guide us towards that sort of a relationship? Why not base that process on some more reliable force? But what?

I pondered this for a long time, for years, drawing gradually closer to some sort of answer, putting pieces together, but I was still pretty perplexed about it all. But I was pondering things a few night ago, and at the end of an intensive journalling session, I had put together a framework that made a sort of sense I had never quite achieved before. I don’t think this is necessarily the whole picture or the definitive answer or anything, but it explains a lot of things in a way I’d like, so I’m interested to hear what other people think about it. It’s a bit complicated and involved (this probably comes as an enormous surprise to those of you who know me) so you’ll have to bear with me to get through it. But I appreciate anybody who takes the time to do so and to share any of their responses, questions, arguments, etc.

Here we go.

So, as I see it, there are these different levels at which we are able to love a person. First of all, at the deepest level of a person, there is the person that God created them to be, the person God sees when He looks at that person in love, the person He died to save. And I think that if we could see that person deep inside somebody, we would love them, we would love everybody we could see in that way, and that is the way we should try to see people as much as possible.

But that's made more difficult by the fact that on top of the person God has created us to be, we have each layered on various sins and selfishnesses and insecurities and other things, so that when people look at us they can barely see the true person we have dwelling somewhere deep inside of us. As we look at a person, what we see are all the things that have been layered onto them. The more we get to know a person, the deeper we see into these layers.

At first we see a few of a person's actions, and that's all we know of them. As we get to know a person more and more, we next see the patterns within their actions, and then we start to see the intentions behind those actions, and then we see the desires and drives and beliefs behind those intentions. Each descent into deeper knowing brings us closer to the person they are trying to be. And somewhere in there underneath is the person they were created to be, but I think even in the best of people the person they're trying to be never quite approaches the person they were created to be, although for some people it's closer than others.

So then among everyone we meet, there are some people whose outward selves, at whatever level we see them, we are able to love for one reason or another. Either their actions themselves are simply lovable, or if not, then as we get to know them better we see that those unlovable actions are really failed attempts towards a lovable goal, and we love the person they are trying to be. I think some people have become so twisted that we can't even love the person they are trying to be. But I still believe that, somewhere underneath, there is still an ultimately lovable person who God created them to be. This is my understanding of concepts like "Hate the sin, but love the sinner." At some level, every person is lovable, because God loves each of us.

So anyway, the next level after this love for the person we see, which has to do with appreciation or respect for how they act or at least how they're trying to act, who they're trying to be--the next level is friendship-love. This comes when, among people we love/respect/admire because of what they're trying to do with themselves, we recognize in some of them a special kind of affinity, a connection in areas that we deeply value. They're not the areas we think every good person should consider important, but they're ones that we consider important, and so we are able to connect with other people who also consider them important in a special way that we can't connect to people who we still deeply respect, but don't happen to have these particular interests or values or ways of thinking about things in common with us. And that special affinity is friendship. You might deeply respect someone with whom you simply don't have enough in common to be a friend--that doesn't mean you love them any less, or they're any less worthwhile or valuable of a person, it just means you don't happen to have enough of the slightly more superficial things in common with them to love them through the particular actions and relationship of friendship.

So friendship-love is a little more arbitrary, which doesn't make it un-meaningful, especially because it is at the level of friendship that we are more able to make our love felt because it involves more direct interaction, but it just doesn't have as much to do with the things that really matter in the bigger picture in terms of who a person is. So then the next level, which is in a similar fashion even more arbitrary but at the same time more personal, is romantic love. I've been talking over the past few months to a number of different friends about romantic attraction, and those whose opinions I most trust and respect have all mentioned a similar phenomenon.

They have talked about romantic attraction. At first I thought they just meant physical attraction, and this is a conversation I have had with friends before--should you date somebody who is pretty perfect in a number of ways, but you don't happen to find physically attractive. And since it has always been my opinion that physicality is way less important than personality and character and such, my position has typically been, "sure, give it a try at least, you might find them more and more physically attractive as you get to know their beautiful personality." But then one friend made a distinction, saying it wasn't just physical attraction she was talking about this time, that physical attraction was, if present at all, a relatively unimportant part of what she was talking about, which was a more global, if not much less arbitrary, feeling of magnetism towards a certain person, a still probably chemical and fluttery-stomach-based fascination for everything about a person--the things they do, the way they talk, the way they think, tiny little quirks, that sort of thing.

I knew instantly what she was talking about. This I had experienced before. For me, it starts not quite the moment I meet a person, but soon thereafter. They'll do or say something that somehow alerts me, and instantly reveals a whole interconnected set of characteristics that for whatever reason are immensely appealing to me. And then that interest bleeds back into the moment I first saw them, and forward into my desire to get to know more about them, and deepens the more I find out and the more they reveal certain characteristics. And as I look at all the people I have felt this way about in my life, and the degree to which I've felt it about each of them, I see patterns begin to emerge--certain common traits. It's as though I have a sort of model in my head that I am attracted to romantically, and I am romantically attracted to a person to the extent that they match up with this model.

I think this is similar to the friend process I described above, but even more arbitrary. The qualities that make someone a candidate for friendship are qualities that, if not necessary to a person being worthwhile, we still see as somehow specifically valuable, usually for reasons we are capable of explaining if we are asked. But the qualities that make us romantically attracted to a person are often incredibly random, things that there is no real compelling reason to value that we could explain--we just do, we can't really help it, and we may not even be fully aware of what, exactly, those qualities are.

This is not to completely denigrate romantic love. I think that, as flawed humans who have extreme difficulty seeing in each person we meet the person that God created them to be, we are able to come the closest to this, or at least to most closely experience the depth of love that this process would allow us to feel for each person, in the experience of romantic love. I brought up this idea of romantic attraction with pretty much the wisest, most spiritually mature woman I know, expecting her to say something like, "well, yes, it's helpful at first, but eventually you grow to the point where you don't need something so silly and arbitrary as that sort of attraction." Instead, she insisted avidly that this feeling of romantic attraction was an invaluably necessary factor in getting through the struggles and conflicts and misunderstandings of a romantic relationship, especially one of lifelong commitment.

The unmitigated support of someone whose opinion I so implicitly trust really made me examine this kind of romantic attraction and its importance in a new light. I can see her point, that this chemical attraction helps smooth over the inevitable difficulties of intimate interaction between two ultimately flawed, selfish, sinful individuals. It's probably true that a serious attempt at a committed relationship in its absence would be folly. At the same time, it is still incredibly arbitrary. Which means that whether or not a person is romantically attracted to you is not an indication about any really important aspects of your worth as an individual. It's just a relatively random matter of whether or not you happen to fit the pattern wired into their brain and body through whatever accidents of genetics and personal history have placed it there.

As you go back through the love levels described above, you reach more and more centrally important aspects of self and value. Friendship love is sparked by slightly more meaningful but still somewhat arbitrary details of character and preference. Respect for external actions or intentions, for the person you are striving to be, is a mark of far deeper and more important lovable qualities. And it is a love for the person deep inside of us, the person God has created us to be and is gradually, as we allow Him, guiding us to become, that is ultimately meaningful. This is the kind of love God has for us, and in truth, God's love for this part of us is all we really need.

But our society has got it all backwards. Somehow, we have twisted our view of reality until the ultimate mark of a person's validity is whether or not they are in a romantic relationship. A story does not end "happily ever after" unless the prince and princess end up married. Pick ten movies, or ten books, at random off a shelf, and tell me how many of their satisfying conclusions do not include a consummated romance. In fact, tell me how many do not include a desperate pursuit of a romantic relationship for the implied if not explicitly stated purpose of proving one's worth to oneself or others. This is particularly the case with movies and books oriented towards a female audience, and its effects are apparent in the countless conversations I have had with women struggling painfully with the fact that they are not in a romantic relationship, and desperately desire to be, because otherwise they do not feel valuable or lovable. When in fact all they should need to do is recognize the fact that God loves them for the person they truly are, deep down, and that is so incomparably incredible and meaningful that nothing else, certainly not the romantic affection of some random human individual, could possibly compare.

Anyway, those are my thoughts as they currently stand. Once again, I welcome any criticism, questions, comments, clarifications, etc. that anybody has to offer. And I will point out that anybody who is reading this is doing so because, whether or not I am capable of truly seeing you for who God intends you to be and loving you in your true form, I love you and respect you deeply for the person you act as and are trying to be, and value you as a friend with whom I share many meaningful things. And although even that fact pales into insignificance in the face of the unalterable fact of God’s amazing love for you, I desire to give you the knowledge of it as a gift that, because of my love for you, I hope will bring you happiness and peace to the extent that you need it and of which it is capable, while not becoming a substitute for embracing the divine love we have been graciously created to dwell deeply and joyfully amidst.


Blogger cubobo103 said...

I can't disagree with your ideas. My only issue would be with whether or not that romantic attraction is ultimately necessary for the fullest kind of contentment. You and I have often disagreed, in the friendliest of ways, over the how much either evolution/nature and culture/nurture influence our actions. I would agree that the way our society approaches romance is largely unhealthy and influenced by our larger surroundings. However, I do think that there is a part of us as humans that are hard-wired for a long-term, monogamous relationship. As far as I can tell, this instince (which could be called love or romance) is there to encourage us to reproduce effectively. As such, I've always felt that while there are many people who go their entire lives without that sort of relationship and are just fine with it, most of us need it on some level.

On another note, I've always thought it was interesting that the word "love" covers so many different things in our culture. Depending on the relationship, it is often relatively easy to figure out the meaning through context (my saying I love my brother is obviously different then my saying I love a girlfriend or wife). However, it gets more complicated whenever the relationship involves a man and a woman who aren't related. If I wrote you an email saying only that I loved you, it would be confusing for you. I would actually mean the word in either the platonic or familial sense, but because of our difference in gender you wouldn't know that for sure without further explanation. And beyond that, there is the issue of "growing" love. Romantic love is often used to mean the sort of love that leads to marriage, but what if two people are involved romantically but are not ready to make a long-term commitment to each other. They clearly think of each other in terms different then straight friendship, otherwise they wouldn't be dating each other. But what's the word for that?

8:35 PM  

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