Human happiness seems to be strongly tied to having close and satisfying relationships with friends, family, and, of course, a partner. The desire for a partner is so powerful in human beings that one writer suggested the basic unit of human life is not the individual, but the couple.
Love is basically a matter of caring about someone else's well-being as much or more than you care about your own. If they feel pain or sadness, you suffer with them. If they find happiness, you feel happy for them. Strong love even involves sacrificing your own happiness -- and even sometimes your own life -- for the other person.
There have been many suggestions as to various types of love. For example, some have differentiated between romantic love, which is based on passion, companionate love, which is based on companionship and commitment, and consummate love, which has both.
Another way to classify love is in terms of the people involved. Parental love, subdivided into maternal and paternal love, is the love a parent feels for his or her children. Filial love is in turn the love a child has for his or her parents. Friendship is, of course, the love good friends feel for each other. And another form of love is compassion, which isn't tied to any one person but rather is felt towards all people and sometimes even all life. The love we feel for that "special someone" is no doubt the most complex, involving as it does, intimacy, passion, and commitment. We traditionally think of it as heterosexual, but the exact same feelings occur in homosexual relationships.
Love between parent and child very clearly has some biological roots. There is a similarity between the attachment between parent and child and the instinctual behaviors of animals that makes that obvious. However, human beings never seem to be totally determined by instincts, and we have countless cases of people who treat their children or their parents very badly.
Love between friends seems to begin with commonalities: We are attracted to people who are similar to us. Because we share certain qualities, being with others like us validates us, gives us a sense of worth. After all, they like us, and we like them, so we must be okay. Of course, things are rarely simple with people: Sometimes we are attracted to people precisely because of our differences. In some cases, it's a matter of wishing you were more like the other person. In other cases, you feel a strong sense of comradery, not because you are similar, but because both of you are so different from everyone else around you!
When it comes to the love between partners, it usually begins with some degree of sexual attraction, along with the kinds of things that attract one to potential friends. It is likely that some of this love is instinctual, in the same way that the love between parents and children is partially instinctual. After all, many animals seem to bond in the same way. The biological purpose of the bonding may be reproduction, but that bond may extend far beyond.
Over time, the love between partners is likely to become somewhat less sexual and more companionate, but the long-term intimacy has a special warmth of its own. We all know people who don't even seem to get along, and yet love each other very much! On the other hand, contrary to what young people often assume, many couples retain a degree of passion in their relationship well into old age!
Love is a tough subject to do research on: How do you measure it? How can you do experiments on it? Many have found that it is more fruitful to take a phenomenological approach, which means carefully describing aspects of the experience of love in all its forms. The following three essays came out of the work of many students in my Qualitative Methods classes. They are merely "sketches" and are biased in many ways -- most particularly by the population who produced them (college students in central PA). But they certainly are a step in the right direction. They are descriptions of romance, sexual desire, and falling in love. Which do you think is most closely related to love