“Love,” like happiness, freedom, truth, art, etc. are words we toss about as if we or the listener possibly knew what we meant. I have a curiosity when I know couples to ask them what the word, “love” means when I get them alone … and it’s intriguing to me how often the definitions do not match up, as if they had never asked their partner what they meant by the word they use to stand in for all of the emotions, affections, and intentions in the relationship. I need to define words … for myself. So, here is my theory of love.

Virgin Mary

Disclaimer: I am no expert on love. Hell, my past is so littered with chunks of heart (my own and others) that to look backward is to see something akin to a trail of chum behind a shark boat. Romantic image, no? Yeah, so I’m no good at this thing. Have never been. But perhaps that’s why I think about these sorts of things. Still, I know that I am no expert … no need to remind me.

The Need for Definition: When we use words carelessly, we create false communication. At least between two parties, the listener should have access to the speaker’s working definition. Otherwise, what are we doing? I have a friend who swears he will never use that word. I disagreed with him, but when I asked him why, he said it was because it was so meaningless. That’s hard to argue with. Still, romance is a thing and alcohol is a thing, and I have a sneaking suspicion that at some point, he’ll let it slip out.

Caveat: I am making a pitch here about intimacy. I want to make clear that many times people have unearned feelings and attachment, and that attachment is often to the idea of a person. This is false intimacy, which is also known as infatuation. Just want to make that clear to begin.

The Theory: So, on to the theory. It is this: I believe that all relationships, whether they be work buddies, chums, friends, brothers, cousins, lovers, spouses, etc. all follow the exact same trajectory. Now, that might seem ridiculous, but hear me out. I believe that love, at its very core, is the act of vulnerability and the trust in the response back. So, at a basic level, it means to be seen, heard, understood, and valued for every single part of who you are (good, bad, and ugly) and to endanger oneself to another through time and trust by exposing those things.

Think about Han Solo. I know, it’s ridiculous. But we could do this with pretty much any character. We don’t love and admire him for just the good things he does. No, we also love that he is a scoundrel, a rogue, a criminal at some level. We are programmed to distrust people that are angels because we know that among people, there are no angels. At some level, we are all Walter Whites.

So, I believe that love could be measured on a graph that shows an accelerating curve. On one side, time/trust would be measured, and on the other, vulnerability. And this vulnerability could be as simple as sharing your favorite movie with your co-worker (little vulnerability = little risk), and this vulnerability could be sharing a disturbing situation from your past with someone that you share a bed with (great vulnerability = great risk). So, that, at some level, is the measure of love … how much could that person hurt you?

Where, then, does this accelerating curve end? Well, I am not religious, but from a philosophical standpoint, the curve dead ends at God or the idea of God. Is it any wonder that the Bible says in I John 4:8, “He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love.” It’s not that God, or, again, the idea of God, loves, but rather, he is the definition, the measuring stick of love. But how does that apply to humans?

Well, I think working backward, the ultimate form of love among humans is between a mother and child. Think about the risk. Think about the vulnerability that I, as a man, will never be able to understand. Tracking further back, to me, the next highest form of love is that love between a man and a woman in a monogamous relationship that would yield, as a natural product, the greatest act we can ever achieve: passing on our genes with someone we deem worthy. I think that it is impossible for friends, and I know some will disagree with this, to compete with the compounding vulnerability (if it is honest) in a sexual relationship. So, there is, to me, the highest forms of love that a man and a woman can achieve in a heterosexual relationship. God is that unreachable love. The Greek word “agape” for God’s love in the Bible … well, I don’t think we are capable of it, and I do not think we are meant to attain it.

What’s with the Virgin Mary then? Well, I do not believe in certain interpretations of the Virgin Mary … Hell, I don’t really believe in her at all, but what’s important here is not the factual basis, but rather, what lesson has history and myth and philosophy preserved that we ought to be paying attention to? See, Mary isn’t even a woman. She is an icon. She is more than human, yet, in some ways, less. She is that impossible figure that represents what we should strive for in love. And what is that? She represents a perfect (virgin, which can be read as innocent or unmarked) woman impregnated by the ideal lover: God. And from that comes the ideal man: Jesus. You see, in the moment, love is measured by risk. In the end, love is measured by its product.

It doesn’t matter if you believe in God or Mary or Melchizedek, but I think it’s important that we have something that stands in our culture as a benchmark, even if it something we can never achieve. Perhaps, that is ideal.

Still, as I pointed out earlier, I am no expert in this field. Hell, I’m just a man throwing darts in the dark, so if I am wrong, I would be glad to learn where I am wrong.

But … if this post made you think, when was the last time you asked your partner what exactly they mean when they say so tenderly, “I love you?”

Thanks for reading!