Q: Have you ever considered writing an article on the topics of love and affection? That is, teasing out the differences between love and affection, are there any real differences? Has our culture lost the ability to understand the difference between affection and love? I think about this issue more and more, actually trying to understand why I am thinking about it and how the difference is helping me understand some of my relationships.
A: As a general rule, I try to steer clear of distinguishing between similar ideas. These kinds of conversations can devolve into semantics or “true” meaning very quickly and are too often resolved with a dismissive, “We’re saying the same thing essentially.” However, all that being said, I’m curious where the difference exists for you. Everyone has an idea or a concept of “Love.” It’s like Fascism – hard to explain and define, but you know it when you see it.
That you pose this question assuming there is a divide is something worth writing about. I share your need to make a distinction between the two. Not everyone does, and that’s okay, but the more people I talk to, the more I notice that people who have lived longer and experienced more want to make a distinction between these two experiences. I imagine that is because the longer we live and meet people, enter and exit relationships, the more refined our desires for a relationship become. I mean this now, no longer that.
For me, I want to always be growing in love, loving in new and unique ways that never stagnate but feel fresh and life giving. I’ve seen enough failed attempts at love to know how important these experiences are and how different “love” and “affection” really are. I trust the same is true for your own experience – you want to grow and better understand your relationships instead of allowing them drift into a comfortable, if immobilized awareness of one another. That is, I can be kind towards someone, care for them, express concern, and even be “affectionate” but that doesn’t mean I necessarily “love” them. Or that I am even expressing a kind of “love” towards them, the kind of love they need. Showing affection towards someone, even expressing affection, is not the same as treating them with love, loving them, or causing them to feel loved. I don’t want to get too hung up on semantics here, but indulge me a bit?
I wonder if you remember the film As Good As It Gets from 1997. In it, Jack Nicholson is a writer who is abrasive and openly hostile to his neighbors. Later, he will see the humanity of a waitress and realize he is very gifted as an author. He has fans. People know his name. But he doesn’t have love in his life and, over time, has begun to lose his humanity. Predictably, he falls in love with the waitress but that’s where the film begins to take a turn. The waitress – having experienced the full brunt of his anger and frustration with life – points out to him that she’s unconvinced he even knows what love is, what it means. She says he only wants to be loved on his own terms. It’s an echo of the primary theme in Citizen Kane (1941). Take these scenes from the classic film together:
Susan: Oh sure, you give me things. But that don’t mean anything to you.
Charles: You’re in a tent, darling. You aren’t at home. I can hear you very well if you speak in a normal tone of voice.
Susan: What’s the difference between giving me a bracelet or giving somebody else a hundred thousand dollars for a statue you’re gonna keep crated up and never even look at? It’s just money, it doesn’t mean anything! You never really give me anything that belongs to you, that you care about!
Charles: Susan, I want you to stop this.
Susan: I’m not gonna stop it.
Charles: Right now!
Susan: You never gave me anything in your whole life. You just tried to bribe me into giving you something.
In the other scene, Charles Kane’s best friend Jedediah Leland frames it precisely.
Jedediah: You don’t care about anything except you. You just want to persuade people that you love ’em so much that they ought to love you back. Only you want love on your own terms. Something to be played your way, according to your rules.
Keep these scenes in the back of your mind for a moment.
When I was very little, I remember being taught in church that there are different kinds of love. In Greek, “love” is understood in three ways with three unique words for these difference. One kind is sexual – eros. Eros tends to be more passionate, where we get the idea of the erotic. Over time, we’ve added new meaning to the origins and have made eros something that, culturally speaking, is dirty or profane. I disagree with that idea. The next is phileo, and a good example is the city of Philadelphia or the “city of brotherly love.” Phileo is more about friendship, comradeship, solidarity, a veritable “I got your back” for those close to you. The third meaning is agape, which is an all-encompassing, dispassionate love that goes beyond just the small circle or those people we share common traits with. Agape is, in Christian belief, the kind of love God has for humanity. It understands that sure, you might do bad things sometimes, but those bad qualities are seen together with your good qualities.
I think Christians have a very skewed idea of love, privileging agape as the “best” kind of love. What is love, really, without passion and understanding? Without the long haul of time and experience? I’ve seen many Christian relationships slide from passion to just existing together because they think “love” means putting up with someone, not living into a new reality with them. Sure, they know each other’s secrets, and they might even understand one another. But, geez. No more drama. No more passion. They just endure one another. I’m not convinced that’s really love at all, and because of this, I find myself feeling saddened by many of the Christian marriages I attend because I can see their future – they’re going to burn through all that passion and settle on just enduring one another.. If you’re not excited about this person, if there’s not something that goes beyond the general affection, that creates new realities together, then what is there? This is not love. This is not love, this is affection. Strong affection, but sadly not love. This affection has more limits than love does because it keeps a distance between the parties involved under the pretense of love, romance, and sharing life together. Even friendship and sexual expression involves more love than the emotionally vacant plus-and-minus game of the idolized agape.
Now, one more thing before I launch in with my own thoughts. The writer and amateur theologian C.S. Lewis wrote a good bit about these “degrees of love” from a theoretical perspective. In his radio addresses from 1940, titled Mere Christianity, Lewis says
Being in love is a good thing, but it is not the best thing. There are many things below it, but there are also many things above it. You cannot make it the basis of a whole life. It is a noble feeling, but it is still a feeling. Now no feeling can be relied on to last in its full intensity, or even to last at all. Knowledge can last, principles can last, habits can last; but feelings come and go. And in fact, whatever people say, the state called “being in love” usually does not last. If the old fairy-tale ending “They lived happily ever after” is taken to mean “They felt for the next fifty years exactly as they felt the day before they were married,” then it says what probably was never was or ever could be true, and would be highly undesirable if it were. Who could bear to live in that excitement for even five years? What would become of your work, your appetite, your sleep, your friendships? But, of course, ceasing to be “in love” need not mean ceasing to love. Love in this second sense — love as distinct from “being in love” is not merely a feeling. It is a deep unity, maintained by the will and deliberately strengthened by habit; reinforced by (in Christian marriages) the grace which both partners ask, and receive, from God. They can have this love for each other even at those moments when they do not like each other; as you love yourself even when you do not like yourself. They can retain this love even when each would easily, if they allowed themselves, be “in love” with someone else. “Being in love” first moved them to promise fidelity: this quieter love enables them to keep the promise. It is on this love that the engine of marriage is run: being in love was the explosion that started it.
Many Christians use Lewis’ statements on the Greek meanings of love and, I think, they forget some of his later writings after the loss of his wife. A decade after his radio addresses, Mere Christianity, he goes on to pen these words in the book The Four Loves (1958):
To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.
Emerson said, Do you love me? means Do you see the same truth? Or at least, “Do you care about the same truth?”
Affection is responsible for nine-tenths of whatever solid and durable happiness there is in our natural lives.
That last statement, for me, encompasses a great deal. I might have affection for someone, but that doesn’t mean I love them. When I show affection, or goodness, towards someone, it is because I believe in the Jewish idea of tikkun olam, or “repairing the world.” There are so many things that happen each day that can, and will, tear us down and ultimately tear us apart. Any act of generosity, of kindness or goodness, any word that helps someone withstand the onslaught of life is – in my estimation – affection. It is charity. It is a good thing. And it hopefully takes up a large space in our life. By no means am I flippantly dismissing this kind of affection! It is wonderful. But love, real love, the kind of love that can -and often does – break us is special. It is reserved for particular instances. It is consuming, and because it consumes specifically and intentionally, it also excludes the majority of life that is not immediately relevant to this special dynamic. This is why friends will often complain they have “lost” a friend to love – because, even despite our best efforts, love demands that we choose one and let go of another, that we forsake all others and become tied with this special person.
Sometimes, I’m not sure I know what love is anymore – not the kind that possesses risk and the potential for spoilage, the kind that is vulnerable and could break me. There are reasons for this. I have been hurt by many people who were close to me and one or two who I was “in love” with. When I love someone, I love deeply and fully. I love like a young man, withholding nothing, even to my own detriment. It’s not that I’m “wounded” or “hung up” – it’s that, with maturity, I recognize that I should not love every person who comes along. The circle of people I “love” is a very small one. I love the people in this small circle because, as Lewis writes of Emerson, we share common eyes on Truth and, having had similar childhoods, care about some of the same things. More than most, these individuals are like sisters to me and I would unflinchingly trust them with my darkest secrets. When I show affection towards one of them, it is – with them – really love because of the significance, the emotional weight, and the shared experience that makes those acts and words especially meaningful for them. Even though the behavior is the same, directed towards them, it takes on special meaning and consumes even as it privileges and, at times, rejects that which is not them. I might make cookies, for example, and then give them to a room of strangers. But, having made those same cookies, when I offer those same cookies to a member in this small circle, it is an act of love – for her and towards her, specifically – over and above whatever else I might do for someone else. It is, however, the same batch of cookies and there is no guarantee she will even like them. But the point is not whether she will “like” them and approve of them, whether she will thank me and congratulate me; where I might seek this from someone who I am affectionate towards, the stranger who I anticipate will thank me, I expect nothing in return from these “sisters” of mine. In fact, I might discourage her from thanking me since – in the end – that was never the point in giving her the treat at all.
Perhaps you might detect a few differences? Love requires no response. It is hopefully shared and reciprocal, though what you can get, or whatever points you can gain, are secondary even at times antagonistic to the nature of love. Another example would be my little brother. My brother has Autism and, in many ways, exhibits behaviors and manners outside typical of individuals his age. In the recent holiday season, I lavished a bit on him and I took a great amount of joy in that. At no time did I think, “I wonder what he will buy me?” as though we would be equal come New Years, as though I buy him a certain value of things, he buys me a value of things, and we’re even. For me, the gift was being able to get him things that he would enjoy. I took satisfaction in the knowledge that he enjoyed the gifts I got him. And, for him, I knew he loved me not because of what I could do for him, not because we were “even”, not because I owed anything or that he owed me, but because the love between us requires no response. Many times, when I visit him, we will sit in the same room in silence and I know I am loved. How do I know this, and how do I distinguish it from affection? Again, because love can be expressed in a variety of ways, because love is unique from “what can be done” or some kind of social stabilizer, because love does need to be “equal” or paid forward – it is about the nature of the relationship, not the stagecraft and pageantry of the expression.
Love is so transient, so impermanent, that when someone says they love me, it registers as “What does that mean exactly? For you?” but of course I don’t say that because it would diminish the affection between us – they would feel their statement was questioned, or challenged, when what I mean by the question is, “What might I expect of that, and how might I respond accordingly to secure this relationship?”
I think this is often lost in “our culture,” as you note. Sometimes, it’s terribly confusing that those individuals who treat people without affection or love are celebrated, even rewarded. More often, we excuse the absence of love in the life of a celebrity or politician with an act of affection. If a banker who exploits hundreds works at a charity, then they must not be so terrible on their part – because, again, it benefits us. It is not about the emptiness of love but the just scales of “right” or “even.” If a professor expresses horrifying views in the classroom but give you a chance to earn a little extra credit, then they’re not as awful as we originally thought. If a family member withholds love to manipulate and control, is negligent, isn’t there for important moments, or is verbally, mentally, and emotionally abusive but works hard for medical and dental insurance, pays the bills, and tucks away money for a collegiate nest egg, we say he “loves his kids” despite evidence to the contrary. We excuse this because it, though it is vacant of love, the pricetag impressed us. You rightly challenge such a materialistic effort’s subversion of love. For me, love has nothing to do with what you can do for me and everything to do with who we are when we are together. What is our relationship? Who are we and how do we treat each other? Can we trust one another with both the best and worst versions of who we are? Is the relationship between us strong enough to endure silence, or must we fill the void with something?
Granted, I may be a bit strange. I’m willing to accept that about myself if it is true. But one of the things I enjoy most about my closest friendships is that we can pick up where we left off at any time. Today, a friend texted me. We have not seen each other in over a year, but we love one another. Another one of my friends has been in Jordan for several months – her absence does not diminish the love I have for her. But there are other people in my orbit who I do not love, but who are nevertheless important to me and who I care for but, again, do not love. We do not know each other in that way. To come back to Lewis, we might have sex. I might even wish them well, or have a vague sense of kindness that forgives mistakes and believes the best of them, but it is not love because we do not have an established relationship beyond those activities. Again, for me, love is about something deeper and more complex than the composite of actions and words. It is an ethereal and transcendent connection containing affection, or those elements we think of as affection, and directing them in a unique, individualized, and intentional way to a particular person. It is tailored and infused with significance only because of the individuals involved.
This is, I think, where our cultural lexicon is limited. Yes, we might have different names and titles for what we mean, be they the Greek categories of love or socially defined positions like “side-boo”, FWB, boyfriend, even spouse. But all of these fail to encapsulate the individuality of unique relationships. Not all friends are equal in the same way that a spouse might say, after an affair, that their lover helped them love their partner more (to the emotional detriment of the lover). Open, polyamorous, or cuckolding relationships often say that it was only when they went out the acceptable (re: socially defined) parameters of a relationship and compared their lover with their partner that they realized how much they loved the partner and not the lover.
Then again, sometimes after an affair (where one partner “cheats” and the other partner is certainly not on board with the extra-relational dynamic), you will sometimes hear that the “offended” party forgives or even confronts the lover. They will say something like, “You’re having sex with my [spouse] but I know them and they’ll come back to me because I love them.” And, before long, that’s what happens. They understand, even forgive their partner because the love between them is stronger than the things that drove them apart. I don’t think these experiences are really accounted for when we talk about love. That whether someone gets hurt or not, there is a bond between people that goes beyond care, even overlooks a lack of care, for something more permanent and stable between them. The love is so strong that the relationship, survives and sometimes even thrives because they come to love one another more, trust one another more, depend on one another more. It defies description, really. Or at least goes against conventional cultural understanding that supposes we “owe” something to our partner, and that the evidence of our “love” has a pricetag by which this “love” can be measured. Which is to say, while love is individualized, to be love at all requires that the object of love be compared with “others” or those who are not loved. To borrow a term from art, the juxtaposition of two objects highlights the unique qualities of both – the eye will gravitate toward differences. Or even the idea of chiaroscuro – that we know the parameters of an object only when it is contrasted, light with dark or one location of a color spectrum set together with a conflicting color. The same is not true of affection, which is so diffused and nebulous, so homogenized that it hardly means anything at all.
Still, I’m interested to hear more of your thoughts on this and if the distinction I’ve outlined here is even worth making. In the end, I think love is very simple. It’s either there or it isn’t, and if you doubt the presence of love, chances are it’s not there. For it to be love is for it to be a constant and abiding presence and without those qualities, it can hardly be called love at all.