What Is Love?

Well, what a tough question! Just why do we fall in love? What exactly is it that makes another person so desirable, so attractive that we fall head over heels in love with them? Building love and intimacy is certainly a major part of falling in love.

According to the therapists, we repeat the patterns of our early experience over and over again in later life. So the first person we fall in love with in our life serves as a model for every loving relationship we later have as an adult.

And the first person we fall in love with is usually the opposite sex parent or care-giver who brought us up in the period just after we were born. In other words, as an adult you fall in love with someone like your mother or dad.

Wow! To think that we spend our lives searching out people like our parents!

That is a scary thought! But of course it isn’t that simple, for there are many things that attract us to others, and the impulse to seek out individuals who relate to us like our parents did is just one aspect of human interaction.

There’s an interesting way of looking at human relationships which seems to explain a lot about how loving relationships are maintained after the initial attraction – be it chemical, physical, emotional or pure happenstance – which brings two people together. It’s based on a theory of human needs described by the world of integrative psychotherapy.

Relational needs

The basic idea, then, is that we are all born needing to interact in certain ways with other human beings.

These relational needs are normal and natural, but they are not the same as survival and physical safety needs such as our the need for food, shelter and safety.

Rather, they are needs that grow out of human interaction, and they are present in every relationship. They are not just childhood needs, either – they are present throughout life. And when they are not satisfied, we experience feelings of loneliness, longing, anger, frustration or depression.

By contrast, love is the emotion we feel when these relational needs are fulfilled by another human being. It follows that, first and foremost, people have a relationship because they can satisfy – in some way – each other’s relational needs.

Video – love and relational needs

Or, perhaps more realistically, because each person in the relationship hopes to get his or her own needs satisfied by the other.

So, what are these needs that we all have?

The first is the need for security the need to be emotionally secure, to be free from shame and humiliation, while feeling safe to be emotionally vulnerable.

The second is the need to be accepted for oneself, for what one is, regardless of what that may be in other words, we need to be seen and accepted as “normal”.

The third need is the need to be valued by another person who is significant to us: to be seen as worthwhile and valuable. After all, why would I wish to be in a relationship with someone who doesn’t care about me or has no interest in me?

The fourth need is the need to be in the presence of someone similar who can share – or at least relate to – our experience.

And while we can’t possibly expect every person we love to have exactly the same experience as we do, we can at least hope to meet someone who can imagine what it might be like to be in our skin.

Fifthly, we have a need for self-definition. This is the need to be different to “the other”, and to be valued for that difference. This need is seen in the two year old child who seeks to rebel against his parents by saying “no” at every opportunity! (This is the energising impact of the warrior archetype within us. You can read about that here.) But it remains with us all our lives: through the teenage years, through early adulthood, through the mid-life crisis, through old age, we want to be respected for our uniqueness, and allowed to express it in a way that defines us.

And although self-definition is essential for good emotional and mental health, it can only be achieved by reacting against another person, by expressing one’s own wishes: “I want…” , “I like…” , “I don’t want…” , “I don’t like…” and so on.

The sixth need we have is the need to make an impact on another person: to influence another, and to know that we have had some impact on them. Again, this is related to the energy of the warrior archetype.

The frustration experienced by one person who cannot make any impact on the other in a relationship is the most common complaint heard in couples counseling: “He/she never listens to me.” “She/he just doesn’t care.”

The seventh need is the need to have the other person initiate: to initiate contact, whether that is just talking, or proposing action, sex, fun, or sharing experience. While we may be competent adults with the ability to run our lives, we all want, sometimes, the other person to initiate.

Eighth on our list of relational needs is the need to give love: to express our appreciation, our thankfulness, our gratitude for what the other does for us. Not being able to express love denies us the chance to express ourselves, our needs and feelings, and thus denies us self-definition.

And in any case, what could be more natural than to feel love and affection for someone who cares deeply about us?

Sadly, the need to give love is present in all relationships, even abusive ones, which is one reason why people stay in relationships that are not doing them any good.

But as you look at this list, you may be struck by an apparent omission.

For where, in all that, is our obvious need to receive love? Is it not true that we all have a need to be loved?

Yes, we have, and it turns out that feeling loved is actually the sum of the first eight needs.

For when we feel secure, valued, accepted, understood, able to define ourselves, able to make an impact, know the other will initiate, and able to express our love for another, then we will feel loved.

And in proportion to the extent we have the first eight needs met, so we will feel loved.

But is it right to distill the sublime human experience of love into this bare scientific theory? Well, maybe, maybe not. But when all is said and done, people will still go on falling in love.