Literature, Philosophy, Top Stories

That Elusive Feeling We Call Love

Every writer worth reading—from the good to the great to the canonical—has, at some point or other, explored the subject of love. Yet, despite some striking insights and equally striking metaphors, none of these writers has been able to answer the question of what love is. I don’t think anyone knows. I certainly don’t. But I know what love isn’t.

Getting along is not love. Being married is not love. Being married for 30 years is still not love. Raising three kids together is not love. Having common interests is not love. Warmth, affection, and tenderness are not love (praiseworthy as they are). Duty and loyalty are not love. Sexual desire is not love (although, in this line-up, it is the only essential component). All of the above combined is not love. All of the above combined and raised to the power of 10 is still not love. It’s a relationship. A good relationship, solid relationship, long-term relationship. But still a relationship. And although the difference between love and a relationship is not in degree, but in kind, we tend to use these words interchangeably. Perhaps because a relationship is all that most of us will ever experience. (More on this in a moment.)

Love is good at its own PR. Every time the word is uttered, it brings to mind a powerful and ennobling force that lifts us up and makes us kinder, braver, and generally worthier versions of ourselves. But, as Huckleberry Finn would have said, it ain’t so. Romantic love is profoundly selfish. When we love, we want something in return: to be loved back. As long as this goal is achievable, and consistent progress towards it is made, love is indeed fantastic. But if the goal remains unattainable, if our pleas are left unanswered, if the target doesn’t budge or—worse, much worse—budges in the direction of someone else, love becomes a dangerous force. It breaks us and it distorts us and it compels us to destroy.

Forget about levitating into the clouds. Instead, we sink into jealousy and obsession. Our self-control weakens, our consciousness splits, we oscillate between affection and disdain, contempt and adulation, an instinct for forgiveness and an urge to avenge. Love changes us, for sure—but not for the better. It can transform a decent man into a stalker, a sound man into a petulant hysteric, an honest man into a snoop, a cultured man into a boor, a kind man into a sadist. (Needless to say, all of this equally applies to women.) Romeo falls in love and, overnight, becomes moody and sombre and generally bad company, staggering about Verona, mumbling: “Love is a smoke made with the fume of sighs.” On the brief occasion that he regains his former spark, Mercutio is quick to comment: “Why, is not this better now than groaning for love? Now art thou sociable, now art thou Romeo.” (Translation: “For God’s sake, man, pull yourself together, we can’t take this any more.”) Over the next three days, Romeo kills two people, causes the death of two more, and finally tops himself. Ain’t love grand?

If only Romeo had waited. How different might things have been: no bloodbath, no dead friends, no double suicide. Instead, the star-crossed lover would have gone back to his carefree life, and drinking and pranks and debauchery; and Romeo and Juliet would have entered school curriculum as a light comedy. Because sexual love doesn’t last. And before you tell me that this is simply a reflection of my emotional deficiencies, here is what Shakespeare had to say:

There lives within the very flame of love
A kind of wick or snuff that will abate it.

This is Hamlet’s Claudius instructing us on the ways of the world. “Flame” is an enduring metaphor for love. I would even call it lazy, were it not so accurate. The flame of love is lit by novelty and nourished by mystery. It gutters with habit and dies with saturation. Romeo, the golden boy, young and rich and spoiled! His life is charmed, he has no care in the world—and so all the time for dreams, longings, and fantasies. How well I know his type: impulsive, exalted, he feels so strongly, loves so deeply… forgets so quickly. Six months is all I’d give him. Six months of waking up and seeing Juliet, and going to bed and seeing Juliet, and coming home and seeing Juliet, and leaving the house and hearing Juliet from the balcony: “Art thou gone so, love, lord, ay, husband, friend! I must hear from thee every day in the hour.” Soon, Romeo will develop tics and twitches and will tremble at a mere mention of his wife’s name. He will start bunking at Mercutio’s. Perhaps he’ll get a bachelor pad. He may even hook up with his former flame Rosaline. Either way, his love will go as quickly as it came.

Sexual desire is powered by imagination. The stronger the imagination, the stronger the elation of early love. And the harder the disappointment. “Her name is Dulcinea, her country El Toboso, her rank must be at least that of a princess, since she is my queen and lady, and her beauty superhuman…” So speaks Don Quixote of the fair maiden in whose name he would soon commit countless acts of heroism. In reality, Dulcinea is called Aldonza Lorenzo. She is a local peasant woman who breeds pigs and entertains gentlemen of El Toboso for money. If Don Quixote knew this, what would he do?

Who knows? Perhaps he would act sensibly. Perhaps he would give it a serious thought, then decide that he is not getting any younger, that the life of chivalrous adventures is taking its toll, and that the time is right to settle down. He would consult his loyal squire Sancho Panza. “You are no oil painting,” Sancho might posit, “so you don’t really have much choice. Aldonza is a good woman, she is shrewd and practical and skilled around the house. She will make you fresh gazpacho, she will feed and clean Rocinante, and—although this is of no importance to a gallant knight—she must be quite good in bed.” So Don Quixote would renounce love and begin a relationship. It never comes to that, of course, as the world’s most famous idealist dies without ever meeting Dulcinea, and the image of an exalted princess with superhuman beauty stays untainted in his heart. Some would say this is immature. I say it’s glorious.

I am writing from experience. I was in love, and I knew elation and despair. Unrequited love wrought havoc in my life when I failed economics finals. I tried to study, but the book stayed open on page two—“Introduction”—for three days and I never read past the sentence: “Economists use many types of data to measure the performance of an economy.” But love also made me better, gave me the courage to do things I had been afraid to do. Inspired by love—and after two years of planning, coming close, but pulling out at the last minute—I cleared out the garage. I started penning poetry, because the “eternal summer” of my subject, 19 at the time and a worthy rival to Fair Youth, deserved to be immortalised for future generations. His distinctive features were a Dragon Pro skateboard and a spectacular mane of hair that changed colour every week. These nouns rendered themselves best to trochaic tetrameter, so I tried to write like William Blake. I failed (I think).

But the best part of being in love was the thrill of the chase. That sensation, subtle yet unmistakable, like the early change of seasons, that the target is ceding, ceding, ceding more, until—oh, joy!—the fortress falls, the enemy capitulates, and your victory is final and complete. You triumph, your imagination runs riot, you dream of feverish nights, of paroxysms of pleasure. Cherish this time, because soon it will be over—and instead of trochaic tetrameter, you will be writing joint shopping lists.

What I just described is, of course, not love. Just as Romeo’s lustful neurosis is not love, or Don Quixote’s chivalrous adulation. Just as a relationship is not love. What this is instead is a range of emotions that—out of laziness or ignorance—we refer to as “love.” Love is something that most of us will never experience. I hasten to add that these are not my words—they are Simone de Beauvoir’s. “Real love is a great privilege,” Beauvoir wrote, “but it is also very rare.” And the reason that love is rare is because it is a talent. And, like any talent, it’s the domain of the few. These are also not my words, they are Ivan Turgenev’s, who tested all his protagonists through their ability to love. Hardly anyone passed the test.

“The only time in my life that I was in love was with my nanny when I was six years old.” So says one of Turgenev’s characters, a happily married middle-aged man. This short sentence offers the best explanation of love that I have ever seen. Love is irrational, intense and all-consuming—and we dream of being loved in return. But love—real love—also has no claims, no demands, and even if we know that our case is hopeless, we will always feel profoundly fortunate that this person had once been in our lives. This is how, I would imagine, a six-year old child feels about a grown-up, unattainable woman. And it is a great parable for love.

For Turgenev, love is sacrifice—but not the showy, impulsive sacrifice of Romeo. It is the clear-headed, quiet heroism of putting your comforts, needs, ambitions—and, if it comes to it, your life—on the line for another. I must add that love is when you continue loving someone long after they have stopped being what they once were. Twenty years ago, you might have married Rimbaud. Since then, he became senior brand manager. The most natural thing to do is to leave and look for another Rimbaud. Or maybe even Nietzsche. This is what I have done every time, and I have no regrets. But if you love, really love, you will still recognise in the pointless character on your sofa the glorious youth who once burned and raged and threatened the world with his dreams. And you will stay with him for love—not for pity, or duty, or because it’s the right thing to do. And this, of course, is talent.

It is also where love comes very close to another emotion. Friendship. It is my profound belief that friendship is a nobler feeling than love. Love fizzles out. Friendship—real friendship, not the friendship of shared hobbies—endures. Friendship is light. Love is heavy. When I read “Enter Mercutio,” I perk up, move closer to the page. I know it will be good. When I read “Enter Juliet,” I brace myself for sighs and oaths and all manner of excess. Friendship is simple, it needs no affectation, no embellishment, no multiple exclamation marks. “So you came? How kind.” So says Don Carlos to his childhood friend Marquis de Posa, under circumstances too poignant to repeat (do read Schiller’s Don Carlos. This play is perfection.) Compare this to Juliet’s “O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?” And, in what is one of the finest images in world literature, The Little Prince’s “Voilà…, c’est tout…” just before the snake bites him and he dies. This is all The Little Prince says to his friend Saint-Exupery. This is all you need to say to a friend.

And finally, friendship—unlike love—has no agenda. It is free. Lovers tend to stay in the same place. Friends’ paths diverge, and diverge widely: we grow up, we move countries, we pursue different passions, other people enter our lives. But, whatever happens, wherever I am, I know that my friend is there. And when I see him again—in a year, or five, or 10—we will pick up where we had left, and it will be easy. It will be easy because our tie is real, it is not based on fantasy, or fear, or desire—but on the unity of mind and spirit, unity that is selfless, and happy, and free. If, like me, you have a friend like this, you know it is the best feeling in the world.


Elena Shalneva is a London-based journalist, writing about books, film, and culture. Her work has appeared in Standpoint and City AM. She has published several short stories, and is currently completing her first collection. She is also guest lecturer at King’s College London. You can follow her on Twitter @ShalnevaE

Feature photo by Sara Darcaj on Unsplash


  1. Great. Where’s the distinction between eros & agape?

  2. Getting along is not love. Being married is not love. Being married for 30 years is still not love. Raising three kids together is not love. Having common interests is not love. Warmth, affection, and tenderness are not love (praiseworthy as they are). Duty and loyalty are not love. Sexual desire is not love (although, in this line-up, it is the only essential component). All of the above combined is not love. All of the above combined and raised to the power of 10 is still not love. It’s a relationship. A good relationship, solid relationship, long-term relationship.


    Love is not merely a feeling, it’s actions. All of those are actions (like kindness) or motivations to action (like sense of duty). To love is a verb, in the same sense as to run or to live or to work. Just as “to live” means more than merely possessing a heartbeat, so too does “to love” mean more than merely feelings.

    The authour needs to read Fromm’s Art of Loving.

    Love is something that most of us will never experience. I hasten to add that these are not my words—they are Simone de Beauvoir’s. “Real love is a great privilege,” Beauvoir wrote, “but it is also very rare.”

    Her husband was a dirty bastard who screwed around on her, so it’s unsurprising she’d write that. Love is very common.

  3. I don’t know how common love is. I do believe love is attainable. I believe love is despite someone’s faults being proud of who they are. Love is admiration. This mutual pride and admiration leads to a feeling that there is no one else with which one or the other would rather build a life. Love is also pride in the accomplishment that two have built together. Love is a feeling of loyalty and commitment. Love is not common because it is hard. Love involves sacrifice and forgiveness. Love is wanting what is best for the other. Love is knowing the other will always be there. These are my beliefs. Whether or not these beliefs are correct, common or even universal I do not know. But I do know they work for me and my spouse of 30 years.

  4. “Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same.”

    Wuthering Heights Emily Brontë

  5. ‘Love means never having to say you’re sorry’.
    Couldn’t resist it.

  6. One of the key prerequisites of love, is to love oneself first- to appreciate oneself, for all the various dimensions through which you bring value to the world and to others. In my youth, to my shame, there were several times I went through the usual cycle of infatuation and satiation, only to find myself thinking that their must be something deficit or defective in the woman, for ever being interested in me. It’s not something I’m proud of, and I only mention it to serve as a warning to others.

    Then there is balance- the requirement that two people should hold each other in equal affection, otherwise the other persons love can become a stifling encumbrance, like Sylvia Path’s ‘little smiling hooks’ in Tulips. Unrequited love is a manifestation of this, as is the friend zone, plus- the person who really wants to move in with you, when you really don’t want to give up your space.

    But the single greatest requirement for enduring love is memory. Because if you can freeze that ‘Every little thing she does is magic’ moment in your mind, and return to it through recollection when times are bad, the relationship rocky, and remembering the way you loved the way she held a glass or snorted when she laughed- then love can become an enduring ember, ready to be stoked with new kindling and tended care.

  7. Agreed completely.

    Golde: Do I love him?
    For twenty-five years, I’ve lived with him,
    Fought with him, starved with him.
    For twenty-five years, my bed is his.
    If that’s not love, what is?

    Tevye: Then you love me?
    Golde: I suppose I do.
    Tevye: And I suppose I love you, too.
    Together: It doesn’t change a thing, but even so,
    After twenty-five years, it’s nice to know

    –Fiddler on the Roof

  8. " Love is not merely a feeling , it’s actions . All of those are actions (like kindness) or motivations to action (like sense of duty). To love is a verb, in the same sense as to run or to live or to work. Just as “to live” means more than merely possessing a heartbeat, so too does “to love” mean more than merely feelings."

    Yes, this. Love doesn’t just happen. Attraction happens to one. One sees another and that surge of attraction happens. Love, however, is something one does.

    One of the best things I’ve heard is that loving someone is giving them your compassionate attention.

  9. There’s an undefinable quality shared

    I don’t know about that – I used to fall in love unilaterally at the sight of a pretty woman.

    Then I taught myself a trick: I imagined her face when she’s shouting @ me – & that killed all feelings of love.

  10. There is a serious problem in today’s society.

    It is the problem of “opening to experience”. The #metoo movement and the “women need protection” ethos (to stop rape, stop rapists from raping) have infantilized women. Women expect that all relationships will be “hearts-n-flowers”.

    But love means a trusting relationship. You must open yourself to the other person, and this means that sometimes bad things happen. The current ethos is that “bad things must never happen”. That has led to a generation of people who have sex without feelings. Partnering is down. In some places, like in Japan, there are vast numbers of young people who have not even left the house in a long time.

    Plus there are issues with the use of Tinder and other “meeting apps” which push the superficial and denigrate the inner person.

  11. I don’t think love is as rare as the author says it is. I see it all the time. My 90-year old neighbor lost her husband 15+ years ago. She still goes to the cemetery every week, has a special mass said for him every month at a church he loved, speaks of him in a way I would be so honored to be spoken of.

    The first time I experienced love, the boy told me he loved me as he would love his child, and I knew what he meant --tenderly, as if he literally held my heart in his hands.

  12. Three points. Firstly, the feelings you’ve listed are all transitory. Love, if it is anything worth the name, is lasting. The mentally healthy person does not have a lifelong anger, a lifelong lust for someone, and so on.

    Secondly, we know from experiments and experience that a feeling which is never expressed in actions eventually fades, whereas a feeling expressed in actions is amplified. For example, expressing anger does not reduce anger, but often increases it.

    Lastly, because of this second point, while other feelings can exist unrequited for some time, any lasting love will be mutual, even if it varies between individuals in degree and kind. A person may love their spouse, but if their spouse acts in a non-loving way, whether by violence or infidelity, or just mundane indifference, this love will fade. A parent may love their child, but if the child grows up to be a horrible shithead, this too may fade. When the feelings are reciprocated and demonstrated by actions, then they are more likely to persist; if my wife and I are nice to each-other, it’s more likely we’ll continue feeling love than if one of us is horrible to the other.

    Peace is not the absence of conflict, any more than health is the absence of sickness. The healthy body is not one which is never sick, but one which can fight off that sickness. The question is whether the conflicts are (at some point) resolved, and resolved in such a way as to maintain or increase the closeness of the relationship.

  13. I would like to propose a different view of love and prescribe a different application that can both provide hope and ease loss. It more than adequately explains the history of misinformation about love as we grapple with ways to discuss how we express or experience love.

    Perhaps love exists inside of you as a form of energy only. Each of us has this energy in us as it is what gives us reason to live. It animates our bodies and mind to allow us to explore existence as we know it. While infinite in capacity as the source of life, our most intrinsic notion is that we need to protect this valuable energy. With very little understanding of the world we are born into, we create buffers that protect this energy. These buffers become shells around the love we have inside of us. These shells are created by the mind to inform our actions and preserve our existence.

    As our experience in the world gets more detailed and more articulated, so do these mechanisms of self-protection. At a certain point, we stop considering the love inside of us and instead refer to the most basic set of shells we can easily remember. We define ourselves now as the mechanisms of our personality rather than vessels of this energy.

    Some of us forget that we even have love at our core. This is a highly effective mechanism once we understand concepts like stealing or hurting. Rather than let our love be stolen or hurt, we simply believe that we have no love to steal. Nobody is going to try to take the love of someone who has none, right? Consider that another shell.

    And if you consider that the love you have inside of you, by virtue of how close you are to it, it is easily the most powerful energy in existence. If you have walled it off or hidden it from yourself, it stands to reason that you would look elsewhere for it. This is enforced culturally and before long we have the belief that someone else’s love is more powerful than our own. We desire to be close to someone else’s love.

    But to do this, we have all these shells in the way. In order to get you to come closer to me, I have to trust that you aren’t going to hurt me. So I dismantle a shell or two and pull you closer. Now I think I can feel the warmth of your love.

    But the trick is that dismantling your shells gets you closer to the love inside of you. It’s all your love that you feel. You are rewarded with the feeling of your own love as you learn to trust others and dismantle your protections–literally opening yourself up to love under the guise of feeling some outside source of love. It’s all still your love.

    Which means that love is not transactional. You don’t share or give love. You do not receive love and nobody takes it from you. The only thing you can do is express the love you have or experience the love of others.

    Expressing the love inside of you, by definition involves being in touch with your love. You express love to someone and it feels great. It’s a fantasy that the feeling comes from someone else–it’s all your love. This is how people get into 1 sided relationships. One person is centered in and enriched by the love they have inside of them and the delusion that the other person feels the same encourages them to trust more and open more. The increase in the love they feel is real but it’s not coming from the other person. This doesn’t invalidate the love the one person felt, it reinforces the notion that all the love you have is your own. When you find out that the other person wasn’t dismantling their shells, your mind convinces you that you were foolish and you rush to reassemble your shells. Now you have one additional shell to prevent you from getting hurt like that again. You no longer feel the love you did when you were open and it feels like they left and took the love with them. It’s not true, you are just taking care of yourself by alienating your love to protect it next time.

    Let’s say you have a relationship with someone you “love.” They have business overseas and you drop them at the airport, kiss and say “goodbye, love you” and you head home. You feel a little sad cause you are going to miss them, but your love is still profound and rich and makes you feel wonderful.

    Imagine that they had a heart attack and passed away in the airport and nobody contacted you. When you don’t hear from them for a couple of days, did you stop loving them? No. How can this be if they are no longer giving you love? They are no longer providing you with anything and because you are unaware that they have passed, the love you have feels exactly the same as when they were alive.

    This can only be true if the love you felt for them was your love. People encourage us to strip away the barriers to our love, and they can help to increase the intensity of the love we feel inside of us, but they aren’t doing it. We are. When you suddenly feel sad and your heart feels like it is breaking, that’s your mind trying to protect this big open spot in your shells of self-protection. Pain helps to seal off your love and protect it. But it doesn’t have to be that way. You can continue to love with the same intensity of love that you felt because it’s your love.

    In short (I know, tldr;) all of the love you have, which is infinite in capacity, exists inside of you at all times. It is an effective illusion that we share love because it incentivises us to selectively learn to trust and open up. And the more you trust and open up, the closer to your own love you get.

    Any pain or any thoughts that mitigate your experience of love do so because your mind has one goal in life: protect the love you have and therefore continue your existence. I think the secret is finding the love inside of you and finding a way to share that love as openly as possible. Trust that your mind will protect you and love with all your strength.

    There is a lot more that this model can demonstrate about love and how we delude ourselves into getting closer to the love inside of us. If you disagree or have questions, please reply. If you think of other applications that this model could describe, let me know.

  14. That, but also imagining her yelling at me as an antidote to infatuation. That’s excellent advice!

  15. First, let me say that I appreciate your kind words and your willingness to consider a different point of view. It shows a profound strength of character to publicly disclose intimate details about your private life as you did. It’s so refreshing to be able to share an idea without the other person feeling attacked or defensive. Thank you.

    I also wanted to apologize for the delayed response. I tried to reply half a dozen times and every time I take a breath, I realize that I have written 20 pages. LOL Totally uncalled for and self-possessed if you think about it. LOL

    I hope you get the chance to evaluate the details of your experience using my model. I will be available if you have any questions or if you find any problems with my model or how it’s context applies to your life.

    If you had some free time and perhaps had some feedback on the model or if you wanted to , I am totally open to working with others to refine the details.

    Best wishes, Jase

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