There are so many different kinds of love. We really only have one word in English to address a wide variety of feelings. I’ve seen this play out in a number of different, problematic ways. I ran into a situation last summer where the L word got me into trouble, where what was more of a friendly love was taken as something far more serious. It seems a cruel joke that I can say “I love my husband” and “I love shoes” and mean such drastically different things.
Although I am really into shoes.
Anyway, it’s an awful lot of work for one little word to do. Poor thing needs backup.
C’mon English. You can do better.
Let’s turn to another language.
The Greeks had separate words for different kinds of love.
This is particularly exciting here in Poly.Land since the word polyamory itself is a compound of poly, the Greek prefix for “many,” and amory, the Latin suffix for “love.” So even though it’s a mutt word, it literally means “many loves.” And it’s half-Greek!
Eros, Sexytime Love
People like to diminish erotic connection’s importance. “That’s not love, it’s lust!”
Hogwash. It’s a kind of love. It’s just not necessarily one that endures — although it can. It can also come and go over a course of a longer relationship. It’s meant to be intense.
A lot of times it is responsible for the “love at first sight” feeling, as your body says in an instant, “Gee, that person would be good to reproduce with.” Even if you can’t even reproduce with them for biological reasons.
Philia, That’s What Friends Are For (Literally)
Philia is literally brotherly love. “I love you, bro.” Philia is super bromantic feels, for her, for him, for them. It’s cool.
But yeah, it’s the love you feel for friends. The “I love you guys!” blurted out when you’re drunk in a roomful of friends.
Ludus, Playing Around
This one is lesser known. It’s the way that small kids play. So flirtatiousness, getting up to shenanigans with someone. Having weird little adventures.
Also erotic role-playing, while involving a fair amount of eros, sexual love, also involves the playfulness of ludus. Kinksters and BDSM practitioners, you are all over this one.
One of the most difficult things for people new to the kink scene to understand is how BDSM and kink aren’t even sexual for some kinksters — but it’s pretty straightforward. Their BDSM play is about ludus, playful love energy, and not linked to erotic energy.
Granted, eros and ludus mix for a lot of kinksters. They do for me. But not everyone.
(Technically ludus is actually a Latin word, but the Greeks read Roman poets.)
Agape, Selfless Love
This is the big universal, transcendant love. Depending on your religious and/or spiritual bent, it can be love of God or love of the universe or love of humankind as a whole or whatever.
Big love. Pure love.
Compersion, the opposite of jealousy, is linked to agape and a cousin Sanskrit word in mudita (means “unselfish joy”). Compersion is basically a very specific form of empathy and can be built upon in similar ways — more on that in a later post.
Pragma, Mature Love
We poly folks call this Old Relationship Energy. New Relationship Energy (typically eros + ludus) tends to get all the buzz out here in Poly.Land, but ORE kicks some serious booty. Psychologist Sternberg has referred to this as “companionate love.” It involves working through things, developing mutual understanding, and trust. It is a seriously beautiful thing. Building a lasting love and growing old together.
Loving yourself is kind of a special case. The nice thing about this is that it operates completely independently from the other forms of love. In spite of what any cheesy Facebook meme or Hallmark card says, you don’t have to love yourself to love anybody else. The research actually suggests that you love yourself when you are loved and have good self-esteem when you achieve, not the other way around. Correlation and causation waaaaay backward.
In fact, of all the different kinds of love, this is the one you can go way too far with and end up a narcissist. So a little self-love is cool, just don’t go crazy with it.
This is by no means an exhaustive list and is based on the framework in Krnaric’s How Should We Live? Great Ideas from the Past for Everyday Life.
I’ve seen people arguing for as few as 4 and as many as 8 different kinds of love in Greek. The other 2 you sometimes see discussed are storge, love for relatives, and mania, obsessive love.
Any way you want to slice it, just remember that there’s a reason that one word seems so insufficient.