Love is one of those sneaky, slippery concepts. Most people would tell you they know what it is, but ask someone to define it and things get a lot more complicated.
Case in point: I would have said I have a pretty good handle on what love is – after all, I’ve been in love with the same person for twelve years. And yet in my world, love and sex have nothing to do with each other. It’s still maddeningly strange to me to realise that some people think them inseparable.
What does it even mean to love, or to be in love? How can we be so confused about this?
“But what makes you more than just friends?”
It’s one of the commonest questions I get when people find out I’m asexual and in a relationship.
Until they’re confronted with asexuality or aromanticism, most allosexuals don’t really stop to think about what love is. It’s easy to assume you know the answer when your personal desires follow the script society says they should. Love = romance + sex looks really simple, unless you’re someone who doesn’t desire one or both of romance + sex.
Once you actually look behind the curtain, love is way more complicated than that.
In my last post I alluded to the many possible, optional components of love; here I want to explore some of those options in more detail. If you’re someone who is struggling with questions about love yourself, I hope what follows might help you find new ways to think about it; if you’re not, I hope you find it interesting and perhaps enlightening anyway.
I want you… – attraction beyond the sexual
In response to questions like “So what makes you two not just friends?”, there has been much conversation within the asexual community about different ways to feel attraction – desire – towards another person, and numerous distinctions described. The most commonly-used ones are:
Sexual attraction – wanting to have sex or other forms of arousing genital contact with someone.
Aesthetic attraction – appreciating the look of someone’s face or body or, say, the sound of their voice. Wanting to look at or listen to them all day, to take in every detail.
Sensual attraction – wanting to get physical with someone in ways that don’t involve sex or genitals. Kissing, cuddling, holding hands, touching feet under the table – any form of physical contact short of actually rubbing your sexy bits together.
Intellectual attraction – wanting to engage mentally with someone. The desire to think and talk together about interesting subjects, bounce ideas off each other, or otherwise form a strong intellectual connection.
Emotional attraction – feeling drawn to someone based purely on their personality. Wanting to engage with them on an emotional level. May involve long talks about feelings at 2am.
Romantic attraction – wanting to have a romantic relationship with someone, whatever that means to you. Going to the movies, long walks on the beach holding hands, talking all night, kissing, sharing a bed – you do you.
Platonic attraction – wanting to be friends with someone. That feeling of, “I’ve just met you, but I can already tell you’re awesome and I want to get to know you like whoa.” This one can be especially important to aromantic folk. Important/adorable site-note on ace terminology: the object of one’s intense but not-yet-admitted desire to be friends is not a crush, but a squish. *muffled squeeing noises*
It’s worth nothing this isn’t a set of boxes – it’s a Venn diagram. Romantic attraction can include wanting sensual things like kisses and cuddles. Sexual attraction can certainly include sensual and aesthetic desire. Intellectual and/or emotional attraction can feature heavily in both platonic and romantic attraction.
The point of these descriptions isn’t to set them apart from one another, but to give people a broader vocabulary for describing how they feel outside of the twin paradigms of romance and sex.
Speaking of which…
Let me count the ways
Whether you’re asexual or allosexual, being in a relationship with someone isn’t only about desire. It’s also about how you express your love with one another.
When it came to love, the ancient Greeks had a whole ’nother thing going on, a fact that has lead to vaguely suspect articles like The Ancient Greeks’ 6 Words for Love (And Why Knowing Them Can Change Your Life). Even without being a Greek scholar, I’m pretty sure the linguistic and cultural complexities of seventeen centuries of ancient civilisation can’t be so easily boiled down into a pithy article – but the modern interpretations of these concepts can still help us explore different ways to share your love.
Ludus, or “playful love” describes the kind of shared silliness that can be seen in flirting, in established relationships, and between friends. One of the bedrocks of Ben’s and my relationship is a kind of affectionate immaturity: we boop each other’s noses and chew on each other when we’re hungry; we entertain ourselves and each other with linguistic silliness (“Would you like your leftovers hotted or colded?”), winking self-mockery, and never-gets-old repetition of familiar jokes; and sometimes we find ourselves helpless with laughter over a surprise pun or moment of innuendo. Other couples I know engage in affectionate teasing and poking, and full-on tickle-fights.
Philia refers to friendship as love. Love between friends is more than just hanging out together: it’s built on a deep trust and loyalty. The article linked above describes it as the love developed “between brothers in arms who had fought side by side on the battlefield” (but maybe I guess female/NB people get to have it too?). In modern terms it’s the love that leads to those 2am D&Ms, to dropping everything to be with someone because they’re in need, to trusting another person enough to let go of your masks and just be yourself with them, warts and all. I count myself lucky to have a good half-dozen friends who fit that description – and Ben is first among them.
Pragma or “pragmatic love” is shared by a couple who’ve been together long enough for the rose-tinted glasses to come off. Pragma is built on compromises, on recognising that you have different needs and different flaws, and putting the work in to maintain your relationship in the face of your differences. It’s recognising that your loved one isn’t perfect, and loving them anyway. After twelve years, you’d better believe Ben and I know how to pragma.
Oh yeah, and then there’s eros, or sexual passion. Sure, eros is powerful and potent (that article takes it as far as “loss of control”, but let’s not [link CW: sexual assault]). Still, there are plenty of other ways to love another human being.
If you’ve been paying attention, you might have noticed that all these types of love can occur between friends, not just in a romantic relationship. Even pragma describes a love that has mellowed into something more like friendship.
But you don’t have to be asexual to understand that a healthy relationship contains a strong component of friendship – just as a healthy friendship contains a strong component of love.
For some people (including, but not exclusive to, those who identify as aromantic), having deep and caring friendships is all the love they desire. As for everyone else – if your relationship doesn’t include a high percentage of friendship, I’d argue it isn’t love, or at least not a healthy kind.
Making sense of it all
Personally, I’ve found these concepts really helpful in describing the attraction I feel towards Ben and how it makes us “more than just friends”.
When it comes to my close friends, the levels of ludos and philia we share are pretty close to what Ben and I have. Intellectual and emotional attraction tend to feature heavily in both cases too. But none of my friends make me want to drink in the shape of their face, or be in some form of physical contact anytime we’re in the same room, or live together for the rest of our lives.
I love my friends. But the way I love Ben is different – even without sex.
The important thing to remember is there’s no “right” way to feel attraction or to express shared love. Like the term “asexual” itself, these descriptions are only as useful as they can help you understand your own experiences and desires.
Hopefully this has given some of you food for thought regarding the kinds of love you share, or the kinds of love you want to find. If so, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.