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What is love?

February 11, 2020
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It’s a deceptively simple question – what is love?

Only it isn’t simple at all, is it? There are so many different ways to define love. So many different ideas about what love is as well as what it isn’t. And so many different ways to approach the question.

And so, in honor of Valentine’s Day, we thought we might ask some extremely smart and talented people about answering that question via the lens of their personal area of expertise. There are folks from both the academic and artistic realms, people offering their thoughts regarding the oft-complicated answer to that one simple question.

There are a LOT of ways in which to respond. Little was given in the way of qualification – we simply asked the question and let them run with it. And run they did, with responses that ranged all over the map, from the ridiculous to the sublime. Thoughtful, beautiful, goofy … or all of the above. Every one of them a delight.

As it turns out, love is all a matter of perspective.


Mike Dow – morning radio show DJ, irreplaceable staff writer

During my moonlighting years as a wedding DJ, I worked with hundreds of couples, and I’d like to think they are all still happily joined in wedded bliss, but I wonder about some of them.

Each wedding was unique, from the choice of venue to the various events and songs the couples chose for the reception. Part of my job was to put all of their information together based upon their specific requests.

When I met with a couple for the first time, I would ask a lot of questions, some they anticipated and some they didn’t.

Most couples conferred with each other before delivering a response to a question they didn’t expect, such as “Would you like to go into your first dance just after being introduced at the reception or save it for the first event after the meal?” or “Are you OK with me taking requests from your guests?”

I recall one uncompromising bride to be that barely allowed her partner to speak during our initial meeting. She handed me a playlist of her favorite songs and told me in no uncertain terms that I was to play them in order and “not to deviate” from the list. It was a terminally dismal looking list of song titles without a single obvious dance tune among them.

Based upon my experience of knowing what it took to get a crowd off their feet, I told her that I would fulfill her wish but explained why I anticipated a sparsely populated dance floor. She said, “My friends will dance to these songs.”

They didn’t. When I finally located the broody bride outside, smoking a cigarette alone in the parking lot, I asked if she still wanted me to stick to the list. She did, and the reception wrapped two hours early. What a shame, her husband seemed like a nice guy.

Compromise must be a key component of love.


Dr. Amy Blackstone – professor of sociology, UMaine; author, “Childfree by Choice”

For sociologists, love doesn’t have a singular meaning. There are all kinds of love: romantic, sexual, companionate, parental, friendship, love for belongings or places, etc.

The sort of love we tend to think about at Valentine’s Day, romantic or companionate love between a couple, is relatively new, historically. Companionate love emphasizes communication and trust as the key to a couple’s bond, giving these concepts more importance than material or religious connections.

Today, institutions like marriage and family – and social policies of all kinds – are designed around the idea that the most important kind of love is that between a couple who forms a household together. Given how abstract the concept of love is – and how varied its meanings can be from person to person – it is striking how much it shapes are norms, values, institutions, economy and beliefs.

While for most of us it is a private expression, it is also a concept that shapes almost all aspects of our lives, from who we are allowed to marry to how we form our families to how we spend our money.


Kat Johnson – visual artist, performer; Senior Museum Educator & Marketing Manager, University of Maine Museum of Art

People mention passion a lot when discussing art. And although yes, passion is involved, it’s the more mature forms of love that I think of when I relate it to my practice.

The work I do is hard: on the mind, the body and the heart. It takes a great deal of time and energy to create art, and if you continue the work throughout your life, you need to find ways – much like a marriage – to grow and change with it. How to work through it when things get difficult, how to stay dedicated to it over time. My art feels simultaneously an extension of myself and a something totally removed. I love it like a child, as well as feel the love return to me as a mirror reflecting back the good parts of myself. 

An artist's relation to their art is like any other loving relationship, really - you get what you give.


Scott Misler – clinical psychologist

What is love? Such an easy question with so many answers. This question posed and still poses considerable difficulty for philosophers, writers, and scientists. Psychologists in particular put forth various theories of love. Sigmund Freud offered a theory of his own and others’ - including behaviorists, and social, evolutionary, clinical psychologists - offered and continue to offer their own theories.

Philosophers put forth the notion of earthly love and heavenly love. Earthly love is the feeling that comes from the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors we share with others while trying to make them feel special. Heavenly love on the other hand speaks to that human connection we all share for each other. Writers often write about obsessive, romantic and family love.  They also pull us in with depictions of infatuation. Shakespeare told the story of star-crossed lovers who surmounted the most difficult of obstacles. He also depicted whimsical love or love gone horribly wrong because of jealousy.

Sigmund Freud, the father of psychology, talked about desires and drives. Remember, he’s the guy who came up with the pleasure principle and defense mechanisms. When explaining love, he related it to uncomfortable or forbidden urges or sexual drives. Struggling for expression, people express their sexual drives in ways that are socially acceptable, sometimes in loving ways. 

Behaviorists describe love as attraction that is reinforced over time and results in positive outcomes. People spend time with each other and realize that they experience more positive outcomes by behaving in certain ways that result in rewards. After enough of these positive outcomes, they find themselves in a relationship committed to more positive outcomes and shared goals. While simple, that feels a bit stale to me.

Social and evolutionary psychologists argue that love is one aspect of a relationship that brings people together to have children and continue the species. Enough said.

Robert Sternberg proposed a more modern theory, labelling it “the triangular theory of love.” He identified four different types of love that involve different levels of passion, intimacy and commitment. Infatuation involves passion but little intimacy and commitment - a Tinder hookup. Affectionate love is felt in a relationship that is intimate and committed but may lack passion - an enduring but platonic relationship. Fatuous love involves passion and commitment but lacks intimacy – infatuation and/or obsession with a rock star or an athlete. Consummate love involves passion, intimacy and commitment - the committed couple whose relationship is rich and enduring.

Several characteristics of love seem common whether you’re a philosopher, writer or scientist. This is how I think about love. Love starts with a spark. We are in some way attracted to someone else.  We then see potential in that person as someone who can put forth the best looking, smartest or most artistic children. That spark leads to shared experiences and a more substantive and meaningful relationship. We continue along a path with that person enjoying ourselves, finding meaning in our lives and committing to future goals. We care for and support the other person. We commit to this over a period of time. By this point, we typically dedicate our energy, time and resources to loved ones in ways that exclude others.  We are willing to put our loved one’s needs before our own. We feel fulfilled in these loving relationships and grieve a substantial loss should they end.


Jen Shepard – improviser, actor; co-owner, ImprovAcadia

It’s our job to make people laugh. We do this through taking suggestions from the audience and then making stuff up. It’s challenging but we have a secret - love is funnier than hate. 

At ImprovAcadia, we bring total strangers together from all over the country to create improvisational ensembles. These strangers come together, and we ask them to remember that what really ties all of us together are the things we can recognize in each other. 

We tell them to remember that love is always funnier than hate. People love to see love. They love to hear love stories.  Not just romantic love, all kinds of love. We always tell our students and performers to find the love - the love for yourself, for each other, for any idea even the most far-fetched.  

Love is what we recognize in each other and that’s why it produces the best kind of laughter - the laugher of delighted recognition of shared experience.


Karen Pelletreau – Director of Faculty Educational Development, Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning and Adjunct Biology Faculty, UMaine

Love is a fairly complex and still debated concept that can be collectively explained via aspects of biology, neurobiology, psychology, sociology, evolution and other disciplines. But even within a discipline, if you were to ask biologists to define love, each would likely provide a different explanation. For example, neurobiologists might focus on the brain chemistry while endocrinologists might focus on the role that sex hormones play.

Around Valentine’s Day, the word love is often associated with romantic love – sexual attraction. It’s important to understand that, for humans and other mammals, romantic love is only one type of love. Pair-bonding, parental love and social/communal love are equally important in human development and in driving human behavior, and all are thought to have been involved with the evolution of love in the human species. 

At its core, it is believed that what we perceive as love is driven by brain chemicals and hormones – Oxytocin, for example. Oxytocin plays an important role in physical attraction, with higher doses of Oxytocin in the bloodstream after orgasm and higher amounts of Oxytocin in newly formed couples.  But it's not that simple, because Oxytocin also plays a key role in social bonding, parent-offspring bonding and the development of certain social behaviors.

In fact, there are a suite of other brain chemicals that play equally complex roles in how attractive we might find someone, the intensity of our attachment and/or our sexual responses. From a biological perspective, love starts at the molecular level of chemicals and extends to ourselves, our partners, our offspring and our communities. 


Lucas Richman – Music Director & Conductor, Bangor Symphony Orchestra

We all think we know what love is but, when forced to define it, one quickly realizes that love is a feeling which is, in all practicalities, indescribable. As such, visual and performing artists are, perhaps, at an advantage in having an additional medium beyond words by which to convey those intangible vibrations of heightened interpersonal connection. Love does not exist in isolation; love is about making a connection to someone or something. In my capacity as a conductor, I feel very fortunate to be able to bring that connection to life from the notes on the printed page.

In terms of romantic love (in light of the upcoming Valentine’s Day celebrations), many composers have used their music to convey messages of love. Cécile Chaminade’s Flute Concertino and the Adagietto from Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 were both conceived as musical love letters. Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique and Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde could be considered as ultimate expressions of romantic passion.

What is love? Hard to say … but when Bizet’s Carmen sings of “L’amour,” we can all certainly feel what it is!


Todd Parker – semi-retired advice columnist, notable jerk

Look, I totally could go into the typical navel gaze-y crap that comes with this sort of esoteric question – I mean, you want me to wax extemporaneously about the moon and the stars and all that junk, I can give you that. But is it an answer? Nah.

I’ll tell you what, though – I will treat this question seriously. I’ve spent a good chunk of time over the years talking people through the trials and tribulations of relationships. In those years, I’ve learned a couple of things.

Love is difficult to define under the best of circumstances – and those circumstances rarely come along. Love between people is flawed almost by definition – people are imperfect, and so the relationships between them must in turn be imperfect as well. There’s no such thing as “pure” love – love is messy and chaotic and not always easy to maintain. It doesn’t exist in a vacuum; the choices we make impact our love in ways we can’t always anticipate. People are idiots; people in love doubly so. The fact that any of us can ever make it work at all is a damned miracle.

What is love? Who the hell knows? It’s something different for everyone, but I will say this – I may not be able to define it, but I know it when I see it.


Danny Williams – executive director, Collins Center for the Arts; director, Black Bear Men’s Chorus

I don’t just like yellow mustard. I love it. When people ask me about my favorite food, I tell them that my favorite food is not a food, it’s a condiment. I don’t put it on everything, but I could. Some of my favorites are eggs, pancakes, french fries, potato chips and cottage cheese. Do I love all kinds of mustard? No. The spicy stuff is overwhelming. But, deli-style? Yes please, especially on rye. Honey-mustard? With chicken, you bet. Dijon? But of course. That said, next to a Sharpie, I don’t think there is a substance on the planet that is more difficult to remove from clothing than yellow mustard. I have lost many a favorite shirt to the dreaded mustard blob. And yet, I pour, squeeze and slather ahead with reckless abandon. The things we do for love.

(Oh yeah, and I love singing too).


Julie Lisnet – actor, director, producer; adjunct theatre professor, UMaine

Being tasked by my dear friend and fellow actor Allen Adams to write an artistic perspective built around the question “What is love?” my first thoughts jumped to the love-themed plays I’ve either acted in or directed and then it hit me - write about the love the audience never directly sees, but is enriched by without knowing it.

What happens offstage. 

I’ve been doing theatre for 40-plus years. What I love most about it is how a cast and crew of strangers comes together and in getting to the heart of a character get to know the hearts of one another far more quickly and deeply than in the real world. Maybe it’s the boot camp atmosphere of long hours, exhaustion, frustration with learning and retaining lines, etc., but somehow you come out on the other side as friends. 

I’m privileged to teach acting at UMaine where I studied theatre. Seeing that same magic happening today amongst a young cast and crew, knowing that most of them are forging friendships for life … it truly brings tears of joy.

It’s that closeness and camaraderie that translates to trust and excellence on stage. Sharing that with an audience is pure love.


Bruce Pratt – novelist, poet, musician; adjunct literature professor, UMaine

(For his answer, Bruce submitted these two poems. The first, “In this winter of stingy snow and illnesses,” is previously unpublished. The second, “I Know Why a Man,” is included in his chapbook “Forms and Shades” from Clare Songbird Publishing.)

In this winter of stingy snow and illnesses

In this winter of stingy snow and illnesses,

we have nursed each other as we may in old age,

not by necessity but of love, the kind,

which born in us, does not wither like

the dirtied banks beside the muddied road,

sun struck and singing in the ditches,

nor dissipate like the grey clouds flattening

Katahdin’s distant white summits, 

but endures like granite beneath the ridge.

I Know Why a Man.

For Janet on her Birthday

October 2011

I know why a man yearns to wander land of his own,

to amble among kindred orchard, field, maple grove,

marking his and another’s not by fence, wall, or gate,

but the stream’s bend, the intersection of abandoned roads.

I know why a man seeks solace in singing spring fields,

wades amid the waving waist-high hay of waning summer,

lies down as colors riot to know the earth’s last warmth,

rambles with gun and dog in rasping grasses of November.

And I know why a man takes a woman to be his lover,

to wake with to the antiphonal airs of May warblers,

to tangle with in the damp heat of moonstruck July covers,

to cleave to when rising Orion girds his belted cynosure,

to calm in the bleak, storm-sung rage of dark December,

and to cobble the stubborn griefs of their sorrows together.

Last modified on Tuesday, 11 February 2020 14:31

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