Love Is An Interpretation


As suggested by sex is near, love is far, it seems that we don’t directly feel romantic love. Instead, we rather abstractly interpret our feelings as being love or not, depending on whether we think our relation fits our abstract ideal of love:

When adult women were asked about love and how they have experienced love in their own lives, … many women found it difficult to talk about their feelings generally and love in particular. There was an absence of falling in love stories and rather, women explained that they ‘drifted’ into relationships, or they ‘just happened’. …

Love continues to be used as the legitimating ideology for family, relationships and marriage. Moreover, the representation of love in society is omnipresent; it is depicted in blockbuster films, on daytime television, in novels, in music and in numerous other cultural formats. This ‘commercialization’ of love has commonly captured a specific form of love: one which promises salvation for both sexes, although perhaps more so for women. …

Love was mentioned often by the 23 young, mostly heterosexual (one woman identified as bisexual), adult women with whom this paper is concerned. Yet, the context in which love was mentioned was almost always in relation to abstract discussions about relationships and marriage. Romantic discourses were shunned in favour of pragmatic, objective assessments of emotion. When I asked them to tell me about their own relationships they often seemed to struggle to put their feelings into words and there was a distinct absence of falling in love stories. These women did not openly desire love and many accounts of relationships were based on ‘drifting’ into relationships with friends or finding that love ‘just happened’. …

Eleanor commented, ‘about a month ago I suddenly woke up and I just thought I’m in love with you. And I thought I was before that point but I just woke up and I just knew’. … The absence of love stories is documented in participants’ use of cover stories, metaphors and a ‘drift’ discourse. Yet when asked directly about love, respondents did not shy away from talking about their feelings. …

Narratives of whirlwind romances were rare but the significance and meaning of love, as well as the romantic image of ‘the one true love’, led the respondents to define love in a very specific way. Thus it was common for them to denounce the love they felt in past relationships in the form of ‘I thought it was love . . .’. Michelle was a good example of this: ‘I thought I was in love with him and in hindsight it was quite an inappropriate [relationship]’. Michelle later ‘realizes’ that it was not love at all. (Carter, 2013; ungated)

That is, these women don’t see love in the details of how their relations started or grew. At some point they just decide they are in love. Later, if they change how they think about the relation, they may change their mind about if they were in love. So if they feel love, it is a feeling attached to and drawn mostly from an abstract interpretation of a situation, rather than from particular concrete details. Love is far indeed.

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  • It would be nice to hear from some men on this. My small sample of personal anecdotes and conversations over beers would suggest that they act a bit differently here.

    • Melissa

      I guess I’m outside the norm of the studied women, though I never realized this until now. My impression was that love was a romantic emotion towards another person. But for men I have been in relationships with, it seems a lot them conceive it more similarly to the women studied here: as kind of an abstract thing that perhaps indicates serious commitment on their part.

      • This is just speculation on my part, but, I have the sneaky suspicion that men and women both do a lot of mental gymnastics to justify their behavior with the wrong partner, and this ends up looking like a lot of confusing, contradictory, inexplicable behavior.

        It was true for me, at least, until I met the right partner. I guess the question is – did my decision to behave more rationally improve my ability to construct a meaningful relationship? Or, did my meaningful relationship inspire me to behave more rationally?

      • My impression was that love was a romantic emotion towards another person.

        The key question is whether there is any specific romantic emotion (other than sexual attraction, which isn’t in itself termed romantic).

        Love obviously involves emotions, but is it the emotion type that you experience the same for others?

        Love seems to consist of sexual attraction plus strong affection, but the affection component differs in its qualitative nature between individuals.

        As everyone knows, folks (particularly male folks) can think they feel affection when they really feel only sexual attraction, but there seems less need these days.

      • Kim

        It’s also worth noting that some people are asexual (as in, do not desire sex), but do have romances. And there are other people who form platonic couples. I don’t think anyone can operationalize what the difference is. (I’ve never seen an explanation I could use to figure out which relationships are in which category, that is.)

    • Yes. The women in this study, as do most women, have storgic and pragmatic styles of love. Men, more erotic and ludic. (For the styles discerned by social psychologists, see ; also see the wikipedia article at )

      • oldoddjobs

        More fake analysis of fake subjects. Yay.

      • Can you be more specific?


    It’s not that “love” is an artificial construct, it’s that people have been conditioned into ideas about “the one true love” and so on…, just like the piece describes. This causes people to be embarassed about admitting love is a feeling that’s not really rational and causes people to say in hindsight that a failed relationship wasn’t really love, while it definitely was, just not strong enough, at least for one half of the couple. Also, movies DO show love “just happening”, they just make it seem like the conditions/compatibility have to be much more finetuned than they have to be in reality.

    P.S. there are of course a lot of people (especially when the relationship started when they were quite young) who just settle really quickly and indeed have relationships similar to an arranged marriage where the human mind tries to maintain its sanity by interpreting practical considerations as love.

  • efalken

    There’s a type prairie vole that’s monogamous, and one that’s not. The difference is one has oxytocin active in promoting pair bonds; when they blocked this chemical the voles didn’t form pair bonds, just like the other voles that don’t have this chemical in their brain.

    So, there’s commonly a hard-wired emotional feeling between potential mates, and it feels like love.Oxytocin acts like dopamine, generating the same thing as a drug addiction. It’s rare among mammals, but it’s part of the human condition.

    • Humans have many emotions associated with mating, and some of them promote long term bonds. But we don’t use the word “love” to refer to any of those specific emotions. We instead reserve the use of the word “love” for a relation that well enough fits our complex ideal of a relation.

      • efalken

        So you think our concept of love is independent of that strong, chemical-based emotion that potential mates feel? I think that’s its essence.

      • Logically, but not statistically, independent.

      • That trivializes your claim. Here, logical independence is only semantic independence.

        If there’s a single emotion that potential mates feel, we might as well call it love; the interviews reported in that women-studies dissertation would then consist of rationalizations that miss the point. The “myth of love” seems to be, in fact, just that there is one such emotion that potential mates feel. The interviews, if they can be credited, go to show that there is no such one essential affect underlying love, which isn’t an affect but rather an ideal.

        If we’re like the prairie voles in this respect, then love’s no myth. But the evidence showing that people’s experience of love differs rather radically, one person from another, suggests that we’re not like prairie voles: mating doesn’t essentially depend on a single affect but recruits various affects in different people.

      • Dermot Harnett

        A somewhat more depressing interpretation is that there is a feeling called love, but that many people simply never experience it. Of course no one can afford to admit this socially, and so the unfortunate ones are stuck referring to love in far mode.

      • IMASBA


        No, love does not need a good romantic relationship or any romantic relationship at all. It is entirely possible to love someone who does not love you back or to love someone who is married with someone else and is having an affair with you (and vice versa), it’s even possible to love someone who abuses you.


        Oxytocin is definitely only a small part because oxytocin also plays a role in affection between parents and children and between friends, the body has sophisticated ways of distinguishing those types of love from romantic love. It may be true that removing enough oxytocin from the body may leave one feeling uninterested in romantic love but oxytocin alone certainly does not create romantic love (I bet the non-monogamous voles don’t become monogamous when injected with oxytocin).

      • No, love does not need a good romantic relationship or any romantic relationship at all.

        No, you’re mistaking his meaning or misquoting him: he said “relation” not “relationship.” Logically, love is a relation to an object, but this doesn’t entail that relation being what we call a (romantic) “relationship.”

      • Michael Wengler

        There are more than enough doomed love and loving the bad-boy and loving the guy in prison you only know through letters stories to realize that it is not a rational “complex ideal of a relation.” If its not rational, what is it? Has to be a set of feelings doesn’t it?

        We are mammals with an emotional system that predates and lies below our rational systems. We have insight in to what our emotions are and how they interact with each other and with other parts of the world, but that insight is not one of our rational mind KNOWING what our emotions are and what they are doing, but one of our rational mind observing our emotional selves at almost as much remove as we would examine other external phenomena.

        I think this explanation fits the observation that women speak in a confused way about love: love is a phenomenon of the emotional brain and women are as hard pressed as anybody else to deduce and describe a rational model for how those emotions work.

      • Just because you don’t think loving a guy from prison fits with your ideals of love doesn’t mean the women who love such guys don’t decide that based on their differing ideals of love. Such ideals are complex, as I said.

      • Such ideals are complex, as I said.

        And they are also largely unconscious. (cf Freud’s unconscious super-ego.)

        But this issue reminds me of the controversies concerning Schachter and Singer’s 1962 experiment on emotion ( ), which tested their two-factor theory of emotion. (See also ) According to the two-factor theory, emotion consists of interpreted general arousal: in CLT terms, arousal is near and emotion is far.

        The two-factor theory was once enormously popular among social psychologists, The theory has become less popular due to the work of Tomkins, Izard, and Eckman, who find human-wide facial expressions corresponding to given emotions.

        Still, it might be said emotion is farther than general arousal (or that love is farther than sexual attraction).

  • Don Joe

    Silly humans still thinking of themselves as “individuals” completely separate from their environment and of human relations as direct “individual”-to-“individual” links that don’t need a surrounding medium in which to manifest themselves. 🙂

    • oldoddjobs

      Pffffft words words words

      Silly humans still thinking of themselves as “part of their environment” and as but one “drop in the ocean” of our collective humanity. No, we are each separate souls.

      See? I can waffle too

      • Don Joe

        Of course anything you find uncomfortable is “just words”, no matter how well supported by the evidence. And of course all you have in response is mockery.

      • Yadal

        Define what you mean by this, please. What do you mean by saying humans are not individuals?

      • Don Joe

        I mean to say that the physical manifestations that define “who you are” are produced in comparable measure both by what’s inside your bag of skin (the stuff we typically call the “individual human” and consider to be 100% of what the “individual human” is) and by what’s outside your bag of skin (typically called “the environment”).

        “You” are not that unique individual that was going to throw a fit of anger yesterday at 12:47 no matter what, just because “you” (the particular contents of that bag of skin) are who “you” are and not someone else. No, “you” threw that fit of anger yesterday at 12:47 both because of the way the contents of your bag of skin function AND because that schmuck cut you off in traffic at that exact time. So your manifestation (i.e. the only tangible kind of thing that defines who “you” are) was a co-product of what’s inside and what’s outside your bag of skin.

        Identity doesn’t end at your skin, it’s fuzzy and it’s spread out over a larger, irregular and dynamic portion of physical reality. And, naturally then, so are the relationships between such identities – fuzzy and spread out and dependent on a lot of things beyond the two particular bags of skin in question.

  • Robert Koslover

    For a bit more perspective, talk with any elderly couple who have been happily married (with an emphasis on the “happily”) since they first “fell” in love more than (for example) 60 years ago. Watch them as they walk together, holding hands. Yes, true love is “far.” It is also real.

  • JW Ogden

    We need more words for love. Here is a start:

    Storge – affection[edit]

    Affection, fondness through familiarity (a brotherly love), especially between family members or people who have otherwise found themselves together by chance.

    People you enjoy being around.

    Philia – friendship[edit] is the love between friends.

    People you enjoy being around and have enough history with to have a tacit agreements to help each other.

    Eros – romance[edit] passion based on sexual desire.

    Agape – Charity putting others ahead of you as a way to fullfill a religious commitment. The only gain is to be rewarded by God.

    • Evan Gaensbauer

      I realized around the age of sixteen that love didn’t exist as an archetype as it is displayed in Western culture, e.g., in blockbuster films. I don’t know if this was a precocious realization on my part, but if it was it might be because I was a thoughtful child raised by atypical parents who got divorced when I was young, and thus I wasn’t raised in an environment where the ideal of love is as strongly reinforced. After I learned more about human psychology and physiology, I decided I would interpret ‘love’ to mean the name people assign to the collection of the above feelings they feel for another person, as is represented in their personal biochemistry and how they’d been conditioned. Even if love is ‘far’, I believe it still exists. The only novel information I’ve gleaned from this post is that it might be most accurate to identify the process by which people label the collection of strong positive emotion, sexual or otherwise, they feel in relation to another as a rationalization towards an ideal they’d been raised to accept. Perhaps to realize that one had wasted so much effort throughout life into constructing an ideal romantic relationship, when really coincidental factors and ad-hoc choices are what result in such happiness, or at least the illusion of happiness, would be too painful, and thus the need for such a rationalization.

      • Peter David Jones

        Limerance is pretty unmistakable if you feel it. It looks like a lot of people don’t.

  • Lord

    Often you don’t realize how much you will miss someone until they are gone. Far indeed.

  • Martin-2

    “I thought I was in love with him…”

    Maybe this could be a section of a post called “Knowledge is an Interpretation” (maybe rephrased so as not to offend the Bayesian crowd). It’s easy to treat all knowledge this way, behaving as if actually knowing something is a different internal state than thinking you know something.

  • Kim

    Reading about this confused me. I do tend to think of myself as being in love with people. (I am also female, like the interview subjects.) But now that I think about it more, some of my female friends tend not to use that language.

    This could be a difference in vocabulary, or a difference in the actual feelings. Maybe people avoid describing their experiences as falling in love because they think it makes them sound too sentimental, or something like that. Or they may interpret what “falling in love” means differently than I do. My experience with relationships/love/attraction/etc. has been unusual in a few ways, though, so it could just be that. (The difference that seems most relevant is that I always fall for people who either don’t want to be in a relationship with me, or can’t start a relationship /yet/.)

    Love not being an atomic emotion makes sense, though. My mental model is that it’s a state, for which certain clusters of emotions are evidence that you’re in it. I’ve never thought too hard about how accurate this is, though.

  • Creutzer

    I think the archetype of romantic love – limerence – is a clearly circumscribed complex mental state, which is qualitatively different from other kinds of favorable dispositions towards people.

    However, it’s my impression – I haven’t seen much research about this, if anyone knows of some, I’d be very interested to hear about it! – that many people don’t experience limerence, so what they call “love” may well be only quantitatively distinguished, and then it will have borderline cases, people may cross the “border” without noticing, and will generally have to do some reasoning and experience confusion about whether they should say that this is or isn’t love.

    • You may be correct, but you can find research purporting otherwise at . The “colors of love” concept is that there are really six distinct archetypes of romantic love.

      • Creutzer

        I find it very hard to believe that these six things should be categorically distinct, as opposed to different regions in a space with a number of continuous dimensions.

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