Thursday, February 02, 2023

What is love?

by Bill Rutherford
| April 28, 2010 9:00 PM

I believe I know what love is. I've been deeply and passionately in love with my beautiful wife of 28 years and playfully loving and nurturing to my daughter for a quarter century. I worship every smile, giggle and tear of my two grandchildren and unconditionally love the two heroes who raised me. I love great food, the work I do, my dog and summer.

What is love? Is love a noun or verb? One might love a child, a wife, a song, a flower, a car, but what is real love and why do we love? Can one love and hate at the same time? Is love psychological or biological? Why might one search for true monogamous love while another enjoys frequent and casual love with many partners? As Mark Twain penned, "is the irresistible desire to be irresistibly desired."

I remember my almost first kiss. I was a late bloomer and at 16, a kissing virgin. Once I earned my driver's license- a right of passage into manhood - I was determined to experience my next right of passage - my first kiss. Having not been kissed previously, I wondered how to be sensitive but not eager, ruggedly manly but not cave-mannish, chivalrous while not attacking.

My victim, Charlotte, was a beautiful girl who understood kindness. She talked freely and laughed often. I was ready, Charlotte wasn't. Sitting in my Mustang at the end of our third date I was determined. With eyes closed, I moved my mouth toward hers and instead of lip I hit cheek. Charlotte must have thought me too forward and turned to offer her soft jowl instead of her intimate lips. Embarrassed at misreading her intentions I never called again - my loss.

My psychological and biological attraction equaled physical affection as I misread my friend's intention. I searched for physical interaction, a kiss, due to my biological drive while my partner's psychological need for more conversation, nonphysical intimacy and nurturing made her offer the safe cheek. I threw away a blossoming relationship because of my embarrassment and desire for physical intimacy. I didn't get it.

Love is understanding while listening and really hearing, paying attention and caring. I wasn't really listening. Love is active - a verb. We actively create love and without action love dies.

Biologically our bodies and brainstem understand one function - to make more of us and carry our genes into the future. We physically desire certain traits, which create more of us as we search for those traits in a mating partner.

Men in 37 cultures from Australia to Zambia, judge women as more attractive if they have a youthful appearance. Evolutionary psychologists say men who are drawn to healthy, fertile-appearing women - women with smooth skin and a youthful shape suggesting many childbearing years to come - stood a better chance of sending their genes into the future.

Regardless of cultural variations in ideal weight, men generally feel most attracted to women whose waists are roughly a third narrower than their hips - a sign of future fertility.

Women also feel attracted to healthy-looking men, but especially to those who seem mature, dominant, bold and affluent. Such attributes say evolutionary psychologists, connote a capacity to support and protect.

Psychological love is different. In our mind we learn who to love from our past exposure and experience. So, what has changed in my experience? As I age I change my perspective of the world. I first look into my mother's blue eyes and want to be around more people who look and act like her. She punishes me and her caring blue eyes turn into strict condemning eyes.

I laugh and play with a neighborhood girl and love looking into her brown, squinty eyes. They make me smile! I now find brown eyes kinder than blues eyes and my view of attractiveness develops.

I begin to build a schema of what I find attractive and what I find frightening or unattractive. I now like brown eyes which make me laugh instead of blue eyes which love but punish.

Now in fifth grade I begin to play with Leanne. She is a skinny girl with straight dark hair and straight little teeth. My new attractiveness revolves around skinny brown-eyed girls with small teeth and dark hair. I am psychologically creating my likes and dislikes. I learn through experience and brain maturation what makes me happy or unhappy in a partner.

I'm not just writing my future but restructuring my brain. As I age my brain is webbing. My neurons are searching for connections that create who I am and are building the cognitive adult I will become. They are deciding my likes and dislikes and connecting strongly to my likes and not connecting to my dislikes. My experiences are making me. Nurture is leading nature.

One might form poor neural connections if exposed to negative experiences. If loving parents also abuse, neural connections are made which accept punishment as pleasure and confuse abuse with love. One might accept partners who abuse, demean or disrespect if parents lay this behavioral roadmap during childhood.

My brown-eyed thin wife with straight teeth is the love of my life. Psychology and biology working in unison formed my attraction to her. She makes me laugh and think as we talk late into most nights about important and passionate life-changing family, cultural and community issues. We embrace the verb of love and keep it active.

So, what is love? "Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous, or conceited, or proud; love is not ill-mannered, or selfish, or irritable; love does not keep a record of wrongs: love is not happy with evil, but is happy with truth. Love never gives up: its faith, hope and patience never fail. Love is eternal... there are faith, hope and love, these three, but the greatest of these is love." - I Corinthians 13.

Bill Rutherford is a psychotherapist, public speaker, elementary school counselor, adjunct college psychology instructor and executive chef, and owner of Rutherford Education Group. Please e-mail him at and check out

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