They say you never forget your first love—and for most of us, this might be true. But there are many of us who wonder, Who really was my first love? Or, Why did the end of my third serious relationship hit me so much harder than the first? Or maybe even, Is my love for my best friend the same as my love for my husband?
While there isn’t necessarily a clear-cut answer to any of those questions, the problem lies in the fact that though there are countless ways to care about and love someone, the English language only really has one word for it… love.
And how useless is that?
If you look back to Ancient Greek texts, you’ll find that they didn’t have one way to describe love like we do today—they had anywhere from three to seven, depending on who you ask.
And it makes sense, doesn’t it? After all, the love we feel for our family is definitely not the same love we feel (er, or felt) for our first serious romantic partner, or the love we feel for our pet—or even the love we feel for Chipotle burritos.
Some scholars argue that by being so preoccupied with what can be defined as “romantic love” in Western culture (you know, the kind we see in Hollywood movies), we actually miss out on some of the more fulfilling and stable types of love.
Oh crap, you might be thinking. Is that why I couldn’t bring myself to become romantically involved with my best friend of the opposite sex, but I pine over people who give me unsustainable butterflies?
To help get a better understanding for how different types of love work, let’s explore the three types of love defined by the Ancient Greeks.
Eros is the type of love that most closely resembles what Western cultures now view as romantic love. The word stems from the Greek word erotas, which translates to “intimate love.”
Some scholars believe that eros also represented sexual chemistry and desire, but others claim that the word “intimate” didn’t have the same connotation in Ancient Greece as it does today.
Either way, eros wasn’t necessarily viewed in a positive light. (Much like we view infatuation or lust today.) Many Greeks viewed eros as dangerous due to the loss of control that occurs when someone is struck by this kind of love. And yes, I said struck because Eros is found in Greek Mythology as being brought on by cupid’s arrow. For example, Paris falling in love with Helen and leading to the downfall of Troy.
Plato, on the other hand, looked at eros more abstractly, believing it to be our natural desire to seek true beauty. He wrote that, “He who loves the beautiful is called a lover because he partakes of it.”
While many Greeks viewed eros as dangerous, they viewed philia as the ideal love. Philia, in today’s terms, would resemble something like “brotherly love.” It was about showing loyalty, giving sacrifice, showing appreciation, and other more “noble” forms of love not involving sex.
According to Aristotle, a person can feel philia towards someone for one of three reasons: their utility, their pleasantness, and their goodness. Aristotle also theorized that one must feel love for themselves before being able to feel love for others—something I think we’ve all heard from well-meaning friends when asking them for relationship advice.
Plato’s theory was that the best kind of philia is the philia that blossoms out of eros, which isn’t all that different from the many people today who consider their spouse to be their best friend.
There is also another type of love that sort of falls into Philia, depending on how you look at it, called storge. Storge is the love that is inherent, for example the love between parents and their children.
Agape is a bit more abstract than the other two types of love, but stay with me. Agape is sometimes referred to in modern times as universal love, charity, or even altruism. Essentially, it’s the love inside us that we give freely to others—regardless of our relationship to them. The whole idea of agape love is that we don’t need to even have met the other person before, but we still want to help them, cooperate with them, or do good deeds towards them. While we may not expect anything in return for our selfless good deeds, studies show that they can actually benefit us—negating the effects of stress and having an overall positive affect on our mental health.
There’s no right or wrong way to love, but there is a beauty and a fullness when you fill your life with multiple types of love. Sometimes it seems that the reason we may feel unfulfilled with our love life is because we’re putting so much into our romantic relationships that we’ve neglected our friendships and sometimes even our family members. Similarly, it’s important to remember not to become so enamored with romantic love that you stop feeling the beauty of more platonic love (philia) and the love of strangers (agape).
It can be pretty powerful to give love and expect nothing in return, don’t you think?