Love & Relationships: What is Love?

It was just another hot & humid July afternoon in Delhi. The whirr of water cooler filled the room. Having spent much of the afternoon in a dirty, unclean government office at Tis Hazari, Neelam and I were catching a breath at home. That’s when we got into this conversation about what love is.


Neelam: It is a big decision.
Nikhil: It is. So big that it scares me.
Neelam: Scares you?
Nikhil: Yes. Sometimes I get overcome by fear and trembling.
Neelam: What?!
Nikhil: I guess it is usual for men to get cold feet before they get married. Do you feel it too?
Neelam: It used to happen earlier. I would get all sceptical & doubtful about whether I actually love you. But I don’t have such doubts any more. Do you think you need more time to think it through?
Nikhil: No. I have thought enough. Thinking any more would be redundant. I have made my decision, and I am confident.
Neelam: I think we must still have a good long talk about it; let us work through this issue calmly and carefully before we take the final jump.
Nikhil: We have been together long enough to know each other well. What more is there to talk about?
Neelam: I don’t know. Your telling me that you are having doubts got me into wondering if we must take some more time.
Nikhil: I was just sharing my thoughts. I didn’t say what I did because I wanted us to do anything.
Neelam: Still. I think we must talk.
Nikhil: What is there to talk about?
Neelam: There is no point getting married if we don’t love each other.
Nikhil: I do love you. Don’t you love me too?
Neelam: It is not the time for pleasantries. It is one of the biggest decisions of our lives, perhaps the biggest. We are going to decide who we spend the rest of our lives with.
Nikhil: I agree.
Neelam: So let us shoot for the Truth. However sad or disappointing it might be. We often surround ourselves with deceptions. But Truth tunnels through the deception and goes far and long.
Nikhil: Cannot agree more.
Neelam: I am willing to work together. Let us take another honest look into ourselves. Let us come up with not convenient, but True answers.
Nikhil: But what answers do you need?
Neelam: I want you to tell me if you really love me.
Nikhil: I already told you I do.
Neelam: That’s hardly convincing. A moment ago you were having doubts about marriage, and now you say – in such matter-of-fact style – that you love me. I can’t say whether you are being dishonest, frivolous, or simply foolish.
Nikhil: Ok. My bad. Let me state again, with sincere conviction, that I love you, and that I commit myself to spend the rest of life with you.
Neelam: There you did it again. What’s wrong with you? You obviously don’t feel anything when you say this.
Nikhil: Perhaps. But what has love got to do with feelings?

Neelam: Love has got everything to do with feelings! Love is the name of a feeling, an emotion! To say I love you is to be consumed by a visceral sensation, an intense feeling. Love is the name of a beautiful emotion. The emotion which makes everything in the world feel pleasant. People in love feel attracted and drawn towards the other. I see none of that in you now. Maybe you don’t understand this because you are incapable of feeling that way. You are incapable of undergoing such exalted emotions.
Nikhil: I do not think love is name of a feeling or sensation. Maybe we mean different things when we use the word love. And because we both deem love to be so critical to marriage, I think we must talk about what love is. But let us not get riled up, and, as you suggested earlier, have a calm, honest discussion aimed at the Truth.
Neelam: I agree. But I am still surprised. I do not understand how any notion of love could be divorced from the feelings and the sensations that are associated with love. To love someone is to harbour fascination and feel positively towards the person you love. To love is to feel good about the enchanting traits and odd eccentricities of that person. The memory of the loved one is a source of many a pleasant moments. And if you would allow me the latitude, to love someone is to have that very biological reaction: to have that ticklish feeling in the stomach, to have your heart pounding faster and getting goose-bumps. I fail to see how you can think of love sans feelings & sensations.
Nikhil: I guess it is pretty straightforward. Feelings and sensations are fickle & transitory. Love is permanent and lasting. So love cannot be the name of some feelings or sensations.
Neelam: I agree with you in that love must be permanent and lasting. But then I do not see any reason why feelings and sensations can’t be too.
Nikhil: A simple observation will suffice to show that they can’t be. If to love someone is to have the relevant feelings or sensations then, whenever we lack those feelings we cannot be said to love. Now I doubt if you, or anyone else, keeps experiencing those feelings or sensations round the clock, say when we are sleeping or driving. Does that mean we stop loving when we sleep or drive? If we identify love with some set of feelings or sensations, we will find that it is only for a few moments in a day that we love someone.
Neelam: Interesting.
Nikhil: And it is only good that we only have short bouts of love thus understood, because if such love persisted it would become more of a pathological condition than a pleasant experience:  imagine permanently raised heartbeat, persistent goose-bumps, and a stomach which is forever ticklish!
Neelam: That’s just semantics. Why should we require that in order to say that someone is in love, that person must have the feelings and sensations associated with love all the time? What if it were enough for us to harbour the relevant feelings and sensations with a reasonable frequency for us to be in love?
Nikhil: So you are saying that when we say we love someone, what we actually mean is that we experience the kind of pleasant feelings and sensations that you say people get when they are in love with a reasonable frequency, say, once or twice in a day?
Neelam: Yes. Also, that would represent what we mean by love in our everyday life and experience more accurately.
Nikhil: But I think it is an inconsistent proposal.
Neelam: Why so?
Nikhil: Because it is not an adequate account of human relationships and affairs. Our everyday life and experience informs us that we harbour a wide spectrum of attitudes towards other people, including the people we love. You don’t have to dig deep down into your memory to recall the time when we had our last fight.
Neelam: I don’t see what you are getting at.
Nikhil: Listen, if it is apt to define love as harbouring some pleasant feelings and sensations, wont it be also be apt to define, say, jealousy as the act of harbouring some other set of unpleasant feelings and sensations, and, say, define hate or dislike as the act of harbouring yet another set of ill feelings and repugnant sensations?
Neelam: I guess you could say that.
Nikhil: Then, as we discussed, when a person is a source of certain feelings & sensations, we say we love that person. But, our mental attitudes are ever-changing. Also, human relationships are complex & multi-faceted. So it is not unusual to also have disagreements or fights with the person who we love. The very same person we love can also be a source of unpleasant feelings and sensations at some other time, and hence we may be said to dislike that person. That’s where the inconsistency comes in. How can we be said to both love and dislike the same person?
Neelam: The inconsistency you point out is only apparent. In fact, what you describe is the usual case. The people who we love are often the same people who we dislike. Not just that, the people who we love can be the target of so many other attitude of ours – say care, jealousy, indifference – depending on which feelings and sensations they invoke in us.
Nikhil: But that only complicates the problem. We are said to love someone even if we harbour pleasant feelings and sensations for a limited period of time – say, once a day. Similarly, we must admit that if we harbour unpleasant feelings and sensations, albeit for a limited period of time, then we can be said to dislike that person. And because we may get a whole spectrum of feelings towards one and the same person at some point or other, we can be said to love, hate, care for, be jealous of, or be indifferent to that person, all at the same time.
Neelam: I see the point that you are making. But I don’t see why it is problematic.
Nikhil: The reason why it is problematic is:  If for every person who we are reasonably acquainted with it is true that we love, hate, care for, be jealous of, or are indifferent towards that person, then it doesn’t anymore make sense to say that we carry any specific emotion towards any person:  for it will be obvious to the point of triviality that we do.
Neelam: What are you getting at?
Nikhil: What is the point of stating “I love you” when it is clear that in any involved relationship “I hate you”, “I am jealous of you”, “I feel responsible for you” etc. are also equally true?
Neelam: I get your argument. But I don’t find it convincing.
Nikhil: Why?
Neelam: Well, there is the obvious unwarranted, hasty generalization that you have made in the end. But before I get to that, I would like to re-examine the assumption at the heart of your argument, which I now find problematic.
Nikhil: Which assumption?
Neelam: The assumption that has to do with time:  that we love someone if that person rouses the relevant feelings and sensations in us at some times but not necessarily all the time.
Nikhil: Yes, what about that?
Neelam: What if we said instead that one person can be said to love another person only at those times at which the feelings and sensations associated with love are present in that person and not when those feelings are absent.
Nikhil: But then, given that our feelings change, it would entail that we sometimes love a person and not love that person at other times. Under this conception, love can no longer be said to be a continuous state or emotion.
Neelam: Maybe it isn’t one. Maybe we get in and out of love and never stay in it all the time. Maybe one can be said to love someone only for the duration when the feelings and sensations associated with love are present. This would also explain the oddity of saying I love you without actually feeling it.
Nikhil: Maybe. But I think there are costs associated with giving up the assumption that love is a reasonably permanent and long lasting emotion.
Neelam: For example?
Nikhil: For example, we like to think that we must marry the person who we love, and not a person who we, say, resent or are jealous of, or hate. Now, we discussed that we might harbour a range of emotions towards the same person, so if love, resentment, jealousy, hatred are to be these impermanent states which we enter and get out of, how can we make a confident decision as to whether we should marry a person or not?
Neelam: This is where I think you are generalizing quite hastily.
Nikhil: How so?
Neelam: Yes, we harbour a whole spectrum of attitudes towards the other person. But then we do not harbour all of those attitudes in equal measure or for equal duration. Some feelings are more dominant and more frequent than others. For example, you are a persistent and frequent source of fond feelings for me because I love you. I feel frustration towards you less often, and anger even less. And I do not think I ever hated you in the full sense of the word.
Nikhil: You mean to say that apart from the kind, the intensity and quantity of feelings matters too?
Neelam: Yes. So we say we love someone when the most intense and most frequent feelings that we have towards that person are the ones associated with love. It does not mean that we do not have any other kind of feelings towards that person, but only that those other feelings are not as intense or not as frequent.
Nikhil: And you would say that being jealous of someone or hating someone does not preclude feelings associated with, say appreciation towards that person. All that it means is that the dominant and most frequent feelings towards that person are those of resentment or jealousy.
Neelam: Exactly. These things are not as black and white as you portrayed them to be.
Nikhil: This makes me wonder…
Neelam: Wonder what?
Nikhil: Well. I was thinking that if we must marry only the person who we know we love, and if love is as you describe it to be, we must then find out whether we love someone and only after we have discovered that we love someone, get married to that person.
Neelam: Yes. It is true that two people in love also fight with each other and share a whole array of attitudes towards each other, but what is important is that the feelings associated with love trump the rest. To find out whether we love someone or not we need to be acutely mindful of our feelings towards that person, and evaluate whether the dominant feelings are those associated with love. To find out whether we love someone, we must, with honest intention, carefully & calmly evaluate our feelings and find out whether the feelings of love outweigh the rest.
Nikhil: You make it sound like a lot of work, as if it was a long & tough assignment in physics or statistics!
Neelam: Yes it can be tough to discover our true feelings towards another person. That is the very reason I asked you to take time off and re-examine how you feel towards me. Marriage is a big decision, and if we make the wrong decision in haste, both will suffer. Before marriage, we must be confident and sure that we have the right feelings towards each other.
Nikhil: Maybe. But I still feel that we have not done justice to the concept of love. This conception is autocratic; and it makes love look less robust than it is.
Neelam: What do you mean?
Nikhil: I do not agree with the idea of looking at love in terms of feelings.
Neelam: I understand that you disagree, but what are your reasons for disagreement?
Nikhil: First of all, feelings are something that we are not in control of. We are pretty much helpless onlookers when it comes to feelings, say, happiness or enjoyment. While the most ambitious of our efforts – say, going on an expensive vacation – may fail to make us feel happy, an everyday, mundane event – say the filling taste of a piece of chocolate – might imbue us with loads of that feeling. Feelings seem to have a will of their own:  they come and go when they want to. We have no control over them.
Neelam: So what?
Nikhil: If we think of love as the phenomena of certain feelings getting roused in us, then we will end up thinking of love not as something that we do, but rather something that is done to us. Under this conception, love looks like a creature beyond our control, it seems more like an emotion that has us, instead of an emotion we have.
Neelam: I fail to see why a fact about love should count as any objection!
Nikhil: What do you mean when you say a fact about love?
Neelam: That we are not in control over who we love and when we love has been recognized by poets and philosophers since centuries. That’s the reason they say that people ‘fall’ in love and not ‘jump’ or ‘dive’ into love. And that is the reason why they say that love is ‘blind’, because it is quite random. The whole story about the arrows of cupid making people fall in love alludes to the fact that we do not choose who we love. This should hardly be surprising!
Nikhil: I find this problematic at so many levels.
Neelam: What are your reasons?
Nikhil: To say that a proposition must be true merely because it has long been believed is, in itself, a fallacy. And then, this traditional wisdom that you present leaves no choice and no freedom for a person on such important a matter as love. Finally, facts about love, if there are any, may be the end point of our enquiry, not the point of beginning. In a conversation aimed at uncovering the facts about love you cannot simply assume a fact about love. Had we been in agreement about what the facts of love are, perhaps we wouldn’t even need a conversation on what love is.
Neelam: I understand. You see love as a matter of choice and volition, something that we are in control of. And though it seems to me that love is utterly outside our control, I would not insist on it. So we disagree here. For now, perhaps we will do well to just identify this as a feature of love that emerges from conceiving love as based on feelings:  if to love is to harbour a set of feelings, and if feelings are not in our control, then love is also not something that we are in control of.
Nikhil: Yes. Any notion of love has to make allowance for human choice and freedom:  it should allow for the fact that we choose the objects and persons who we love, and that we are free in the matters of love.
Neelam: Now I must ask you not to push it too far! That I acknowledge your position does not mean I also accept it.
Nikhil: But the reduced scope for freedom and volition is not the only problem I see with your conception of love.
Neelam: What other problems do you see?
Nikhil: Defining love in terms of feelings makes love seem much less robust than it is.
Neelam: What do you mean?
Nikhil: Love is associated with a characteristic assurance and comfort. I am not sure if defining love in terms of feelings will preserve that assurance and comfort.
Neelam: You must say more for it to make sense.
Nikhil: We tend to think of love as long-lasting if not permanent or eternal. We want our marriages to be long-lasting, and because love is supposed to long lasting, we tend to believe that marriages should be based on love. And so, if under some conception of love it comes out seeming capricious and fickle, we must be suspicious of that conception of love.
Neelam: That is one loaded argument.
Nikhil: Why do you think so?
Neelam: I do not agree with your premise about the relation between love and marriage. While I, speaking personally, will like a marriage to be based on love, I am not very sure if the concept of marriage depends on the concept of love. Marriage might be seen as fulfilling a variety of personal and societal needs, and people may get married for a variety of reasons. Love might actually play very little role in marriage. Marriage can be thought of as an institution for raising children. Some might see it as an indispensable duty of the religious or social kind. Yet others do it out of societal or familial pressure. That two people must be in love does not seem essential to their getting married.
Nikhil: I think I can agree with that. That we expect marriage to be based on love seems a rather recent phenomenon. But don’t you think that while marriages do happen despite partners not being in love with each other, they should happen only if they are? Also, don’t you think that, for whatever reasons we marry, we expect marriages to be long lasting?
Neelam: Such issues related to what marriage is, what marriage should be, and issues related to why do we get married and why should we get married are themselves too complicated to warrant a separate discussion. Let us not open that Pandora’s box right now. For now, I guess I can agree with your assumption that love is a condition for marriage, and that because marriages are supposed to be long lasting, love should too.
Nikhil: So you accept my argument, then.
Neelam: No. I disagree with your other premise. It is not obvious to me why love comes out seeming fickle and capricious when we assume that love is based on feelings. You need to say more on why you think so.
Nikhil: Okay. Remember when you said that while we harbour a spectrum of feelings towards a person, when we love a person, the dominant and most frequent feelings within that spectrum are the feelings associated with love?
Neelam: Yes. I remember
Nikhil: I do not feel comfortable with other kinds of feelings co-existing alongside the feelings of love..
Neelam: What are the reasons for your discomfort?
Nikhil: Well. I feel uncomfortable because with time, our existing feelings towards a person may reduce in intensity, and some other feelings might become dominant. When you say that you love me because your dominant & most frequent feelings towards me have been those of love, and when you also admit that you have other feelings, albeit less dominant & less frequent, towards me, it makes me wonder if, with time – feelings being as fickle and capricious as they are – your dominant feeling of love will get replaced by some other feeling which is presently present but not dominant, say, the feeling of dislike or hate.
Neelam: Hmmm.
Nikhil: Not just that, with the change in our life and circumstances, you might develop new feelings which might be antagonistic to the existing feelings of love that you presently harbour towards me. If love is thought of as being based on feelings, our love, like all love would also seem as capricious and fickle as feelings do. Such a picture of love, to me, is unacceptably flimsy, and hence the conception of love which gives rise to this picture – i.e. love is based on feelings – must be mistaken.

NIkhil Mahant Neelam Yadav Love Relationship Marriage

Neelam: Your whole argument is based on your distrust towards feelings.
Nikhil: I think my distrust is well founded.
Neelam: It is possible that such distrust emanates from a lack of familiarity with feelings. Don’t you think that if we were to engage ourselves into a diligent, rigorous, and honest exercise of self-reflection we will come to know and understand our feelings better? A better understanding and familiarity with our own feeling will help us trust them more.
Nikhil: My contention is that we can never be in control of our feelings however well we study or understand them.
Neelam: Why do you think so?
Nikhil: Many reasons. Firstly, we only possess information and experience regarding our feelings towards people and situations in the past.
Neelam: So?
Nikhil: So, even with the most rigorous exercise in self-reflection we can only learn about how we have felt towards them in the past, we can never know how we will feel towards them in the future.
Neelam: Your objection seems to rely on the thesis that the future need not resemble the past.
Nikhil: Exactly. Examine your own life history. The very same ice-cream or toy that made you feel immense joy earlier fails to do so now. How can you be sure that your present feelings towards the very same people won’t change too?
Neelam: I get your point. But then this is not a problem unique to the domain of love. It is present in almost every field of human endeavour and enquiry. Scientists routinely make predictions for future on the basis of past observations. We all do this routinely in our everyday life. When we eat food, we expect it to nourish, just as it did in the past. We do not suddenly expect food to behave differently and, say, poison us.
Nikhil: What’s your point?
Neelam: All I am saying is that if the assumption that the future need not resemble the past makes you uncomfortable when it comes to feelings, you must also feel the same discomfort in accepting scientific results or while conducting everyday activities, because they too rely on the very same assumption.
Nikhil: I am not very sure if sciences rely on this assumption, or if such strict assurances are required in everyday life. But even if the manner in which we felt about things in past was to remain invariant in future, there are other reasons for why we should be distrustful of feelings.
Neelam: What reasons?
Nikhil: The way we feel is not dependent only on us. Feelings are always caused by or directed at something else. So our feelings are not a function of us alone. They also depend on the external objects and situations that are part of our environment.
Neelam: What do you mean?
Nikhil: What I mean is that when I feel something, I feel so about something. While we harbour feelings in ourselves, they are not solely dependent on us; they are also dependent on situations, circumstances, objects, and other people; all of which are situated outside us. We don’t just feel bad, we feel bad about being judged by others, we don’t just feel happy or jealous, we feel happy about being selected for a fellowship or feel jealous about someone else being better than we are.
Neelam: I understand. But what’s the problem with that?
Nikhil: The problem becomes obvious when we figure in the fact that situations, circumstances, objects, and other people change constantly. Further, there is always that possibility of us discovering more information about something.
Neelam: Still not obvious to me.
Nikhil: See, our feelings are always directed at situations, objects, other people etc. and these situations, objects, and or people change continuously in no predictable fashion. So, even after a diligent exercise in self-reflection, though I might very well know how I feel about something now, I might still not know how I will feel about that thing after that thing has undergone change. For example, I used to feel a certain way about my parents when I was a kid and when they were younger. Now that they have grown old and I feel very differently towards them.
Neelam: Ok. I see what you are getting at.
Nikhil: There is more. How we feel about a thing depends on what we know about that thing. But our knowledge is limited, and we constantly acquire new information. When we come to acquire more knowledge, and discover further facts about that thing, our feelings might undergo a change. For example, you like mangoes and may feel tempted to eat a mango that looks perfectly good on the outside, but the moment you find out that the same fruit is actually infested with worms, you will start feeling very differently about it.
Neelam: Yes.
Nikhil: That is what I’ve been trying to say. In fact, if we think of our love as being based on feelings, we are running a personal risk too. With time, you and I will change. Our personalities, our habits, and our bodies will change. And with that the way we feel towards each other will change too. Not just that, we will always keep learning new things about each other. For example, either may come to discover that genetic makeup predisposes the other to certain illnesses, say, a mental illness or a disposition to be aggressive, which may alter the way we feel towards the other. Or we may come to discover a new fact about each other, say a fact about familial history of which we were ourselves hitherto unaware, and it may change the way we feel towards each other. No amount of self-knowledge will give us knowledge of how you will actually feel in the future because our feelings depend on the greater environment that we are part of.
Neelam: This terrifies me. Perhaps I am digressing here, but I must admit that since the past few days I have been thinking about this issue myself. The very thought saddens me. I fear that you will change after marriage.
Nikhil: And I fear that even after marriage you won’t!
Neelam: It is an important matter, and instead of being serious, you are being frivolous.
Nikhil: I am serious! To be serious one doesn’t have to be solemn.
Neelam: I am really concerned. With time, both of us will change. And with that, the way we feel towards each other will change too.
Nikhil: True.
Neelam: I wonder what will happen of our love then. Will we still be together, or will we part ways?
Nikhil: You have reasons to be worried only if you work under the assumption that love has to be based on feelings.
Neelam: I guess your argument makes sense, if I take love to be based on feelings, I cannot have the assurance that our own relationship will last long, for feelings change.
Nikhil: Exactly. We cannot allow our love to be a function of how we feel towards each other.
Neelam: I understand your point. But I still think that something is wrong.
Nikhil: What?
Neelam: I think it will be irrational of me if I accept your argument.
Nikhil: Why?
Neelam: Nikhil, however much as I will like our love and our marriage to last, it would be a philosophical blunder for me to allow my personal preferences and biases to enter an objective, philosophical discussion on love.
Nikhil: Okay. Where do you think you have done that in our discussion?
Neelam: I will come to that. But before that, let us look at your argument again. You argue that the premise that love is based on feelings leads to two unacceptable, if not absurd, conclusions:  firstly, it leaves no room for us to make conscious, voluntary decisions about matters of love, and secondly it takes away from us the assurance that our relationships can be enduring. And I agree with you in that any conception of love which makes love seem transitory and short lived must be mistaken, because I don’t want the love which we share to have that character.
Nikhil: You summarize it perfectly. So what’s the problem?
Neelam: The problem is that when I assumed that like our love all love must be enduring I allowed my own biases and preferences to enter the discussion. Ours is an investigation into the true nature of love, and in the spirit of philosophical enquiry we must at least consider the possibility that love doesn’t last forever. And in the same spirit you must also be open to the possibility that love is a creature beyond our control.
Nikhil: Okay.
Neelam: Now, you made an argument that taking love to be based on feelings leads to unacceptable conclusions. I fear that we find these conclusions unacceptable only because we are ourselves in love; hence we prefer those conclusions to be wrong.  However, that we find them absurd or unacceptable does not mean that they are absurd and unacceptable.
Nikhil: And if those conclusions are not absurd and unacceptable, the premise which leads to such a conclusion need not be flawed; and thus it remains possible that love is merely expression of some feelings.
Neelam: True.
Nikhil: And that undermines my argument.
Neelam: I guess it does.
Nikhil: But I don’t find such radical open mindedness justified.  We need to agree over at least some basic truths about love to even begin a discussion. How can we succeed in defining love if we keep room for such wide disagreements about the basic features of love?
Neelam: I think we have arrived at the same paradox that you pointed to earlier. While facts about love ought to be the result of our enquiry, it seems that the enquiry doesn’t even get a start without first assuming some facts about love. How can we know about something without already having a consensus regarding what we are talking about?
Nikhil: Yes. That paradox is very much there. But I think we are moving too fast here. I would like to slow down for a while and re-examine the reasons why you do not find the conclusion – that love is transitory – absurd.
Neelam: Okay. What do you want to say?
Nikhil: I think you rejected it too quickly. I do agree that personal preference is not a good reason to accept the thesis that love ought to be long-lasting. However, it is no good reason to reject it either.  Our preferences about the nature and character of love are simply irrelevant to the actual nature and character of love. In fact, there might be another set of reasons which make it essential that love be permanent and long lasting.
Neelam: Yes it is possible. I wonder what those reasons could be.
Nikhil: I do think there are some very good reasons for why it must be essential for love to be long lasting and permanent. I would say that one of them is that love is the very ground of a happy marriage and we expect marriages to be long lasting. But we decided not to go down that argument path. But I think there are a set of reasons, coming from a very different direction, which lend support to the necessity of love being a long-lasting concern.
Neelam: What are those reasons?
Nikhil: Those reasons have to do with personal identity. I believe love is part of a person’s sense of identity, and for a person to have a stable sense of personal identity, it is necessary for love to be long lasting.
Neelam: You’ll have to explain it further.
Nikhil: I will. But right now I feel a bit disoriented with the welter of ideas that we are dealing with. And it is difficult to construct a clear argument in such a state. Perhaps it would be a good idea for us to begin again and have a fresh look at the question of what love is.
Neelam: Yes indeed. And I noticed that till now you have only argued for what love is not – love is not grounded in feeling – which has hardly been helpful. What don’t you take initiative now and say something substantial about what love is?

NIkhil Mahant Neelam Yadav Love Relationship Marriage

Nikhil: I do have some ideas about what love is, but those ideas are inchoate & unorganized. So I am afraid I cannot begin with a substantial definition.
Neelam: That should be alright. Maybe we can begin by discussing and evaluating the ideas you have about love, try and put them in order and, maybe, from the discussion, a definition might emerge.
Nikhil: Sounds good. But do you have any suggestions on how we should begin?
Neelam: Well. We could begin from two features of love, features which you take to be essential to love; features that you said any conception of love must explain. You said firstly, that love is a matter of choice & volition, and secondly, that love is robust, i.e. it must be long lasting and permanent.
Nikhil: That indeed is a good point to begin from. Love is a matter of choice & volition. One can choose who one loves and what one loves. Indeed, a person can make anything an object of love.
Neelam: What do you mean by anything?
Nikhil: I mean to say that a person can decide to love anything. It can be a person, or an animal, say a cat or a dog. It can be an object, say an idol, a house or a book, or it can be an abstract object say an image or a concept. It can be an event, say a birth or a betrothal ceremony, or it can be a discipline, say mathematics or literature. It can be anything! It doesn’t matter if that object is near or far. It doesn’t matter if that object is alive or dead. Love is an intensely personal matter, having nothing to do with the hows, wheres, and whens of the object one loves. A person can choose to make anything whatsoever an object of her love, and to that extent, my conception of love is not limited to romantic love alone.
Neelam: Even the earlier conception that we discussed – i.e. love based on feelings – was not limited to romantic love. One could harbour loving, fond feelings towards anything. I think you are making a strawman out of the position that we considered earlier.
Nikhil: That was not my intention. What I intend to say is that the conception of love that I have in mind seems more obviously manifest in loving relationships of non-romantic nature, say the relationship of a believer with God, or the relationship of a mother with child. Love is not the name of some feelings that one experiences upon being exposed to something else, it is name of a commitment that one makes. And the person who loves is capable of making such commitment towards anything. It is entirely a personal matter, and love is not dependent on how the lover feels towards the object she loves. Indeed, the qualities of the beloved are utterly irrelevant to love.
Neelam: You are only confusing the discussion by saying so much at the same time. I suggest we deal with these points one by one. Right now, I am still trying to come to grips with the idea that we choose to love whatever we like. Are you saying that what happens in love is that we sit one day, look around and pick whatever catches our attention, say a pencil, a key, or a computer, and fall in love with it?
Nikhil: Yes, we can choose to love anything, be it a pencil, a key, or a computer. But that we can doesn’t mean we must. The point is:  we have the freedom and ability to choose the object we love.
Neelam: Okay.
Nikhil: Also, unlike you, I won’t say that we fall in love; I’d rather say that we commit ourselves to create a specific relationship with that thing. To love is to make a commitment.
Neelam: Again, you are saying too many things too quickly. I understand that you see love as a matter of choice and volition. But because you put so much emphasis on the word commitment when you speak, I guess you take it to mean something quite different from what I take it to mean. Could you explicitly state the manner in which you are using the word?
Nikhil: I am not using it in a manner which is very different from the usual usage of the word. To make a commitment is to make a firm resolution, and to adhere to that resolution. To be committed to doing something is to make a firm decision to do that thing, and to stay faithful to that decision.
Neelam: And why is this notion of commitment relevant to our discussion?
Nikhil: You have not been listening to me carefully. Love is name of a commitment; love is a specific kind of commitment.
Neelam: What kind of commitment?
Nikhil: Love is the commitment to engage in a loving relationship with the beloved.
Neelam: That is a circular definition. While defining love, you are using the concept of a loving relationship; how can someone unacquainted with the concept of love make sense of what you are calling a loving relationship?
Nikhil: I guess you are right. But I don’t mean anything specific or technical when I use the word loving relationship. All that I mean by loving relationship is a set of actions and behaviours that one commits oneself to when one decides to love someone.
Neelam: I find these terms awkward, but I guess it is only because I am used to looking at love very differently.
Nikhil: What do you mean?
Neelam: When you said we decide to love someone, I had this feeling that something was wrong:  I thought to myself how we can decide to love someone because for me love is something that happens to us. But I understand that you look at love differently, and I do respect that difference.
Nikhil: Yes, in any philosophical discussion, intellectual humility is a must.
Neelam: Please don’t mind this digression and continue.
Nikhil: It was a digression indeed. And now I forgot what I was saying.
Neelam: You were clarifying what a loving relationship means.
Nikhil: Yes. To be in a loving relationship is to engage in a set of actions and behaviours. For example, when a person of faith loves God, that person engages in a set of behaviours:  ritual practices, chants etc. When a parent loves her child, she cares for the child, keeps it clean, feeds it etc. When a man loves a woman, he prioritizes her over others, spends time with her etc.
Neelam: So you are saying that to be in a loving relationship is to engage in a set of explicit actions and behaviours, and from your examples I glean that these actions and behaviours might be different for different people.
Nikhil: Yes. They may be different for different people. But what is important is that a loving relationship is defined by explicit actions and overt behaviours, not something internal and abstract like feelings or thoughts. In fact, I as I said before, feelings are irrelevant to love. And so are thoughts. To love someone is not to feel a particular way towards someone, nor is it to have a certain thoughts about that person; it is to engage in a loving relationship; i.e. to perform explicit actions and to engage in specific behaviours. It is what you do that matters.
Neelam: Okay. I follow you. So now do you have a definition at hand?
Nikhil: Yes. To love is to be committed to maintaining and upholding a loving relationship, come what may.
Neelam: Okay. But for clarity’s sake, I suggest we use just the word ‘relationship’ for what you are calling ‘loving relationship’.
Nikhil: Okay. Then, to love is to be committed to maintaining and upholding a relationship at any cost.  Love is the commitment to maintain and uphold a relationship, no matter what happens.
Neelam: I understand it when you say that love is a commitment and that it is a commitment to maintain a relationship; but I do not understand the part where you assert that the commitment must be maintained ‘come what may’, ‘at any cost’, and ‘no matter what happens’. Could you unpack it a bit?
Nikhil: Do you not understand what I am saying or do you not agree with it?
Neelam: I do not agree with what I think you are saying. But I might be wrong about what I think you are saying. So why don’t you explain your point in greater detail.
Nikhil: Of course. Love, for me, is a commitment. When you say you love someone, you commit yourself to create and maintain a particular kind of relationship with that person. Now, just as it is true for commitment of any other kind, it is also true for the commitment of love that the lover must stay committed to maintaining her relationship with the beloved, even if circumstances & situations turn adverse. Indeed, the very test of whether you are actually committed is in whether you stay committed when circumstances turn adverse.
Neelam: You are still talking in abstractions.
Nikhil: All that I am saying is that to love someone is to commit oneself into maintaining a particular kind of relationship with that person, come what may.
Neelam: I heard that. But it is not all that obvious to me.
Nikhil: Let me take an example. Think of how a parent loves her child. For a parent to love her child is for her to be committed to take care of the child and tend to every need of the child. Now, you would think that the parent does what she does for the child because she keeps experiencing pleasant feelings towards the child. But that is obviously mistaken. Little children are immensely irritating. They wake you up in the middle of the night, they evacuate their bowels in their pants and have to be cleaned regularly, and need I remind you of the constant fussing, crying, and shouting that you must bear. The job of a parent is not one filled with pleasures or happiness.
Neelam: Okay. But what’s your point?
Nikhil: My point is that despite all the problems, parents continue to care for their children. A parent is said to love her child precisely because of her commitment to maintain a relationship of care and concern towards her child:  cleaning them, tending to them and the like, even if the child gives little but inconvenience in return.
Neelam: You don’t mean to say that for us to love someone, it is necessary for our beloved to be a cause of difficulties and inconveniences, right?
Nikhil: Of course not! But we get to know whether we have the kind of commitment that is required in love only in times of difficulty. It is very easy to enjoy a relationship with someone when the conditions are conducive: say, when you have a reasonably good standard of living, or when you don’t suffer from any bodily or mental deficiencies, or when your dominant feelings towards the other person are pleasant. But to really love someone is to keep your relationship with that person invariant, even though every circumstance connected to you or your beloved changes.
Neelam: I think I got your point. According to you, love is a commitment, wherein you commit yourself to creating and maintaining a particular sort of relationship with another person.
Nikhil: Exactly. That’s exactly what I am saying.
Neelam: No. I guess you are not saying just this much. You are saying more. You are also saying that the commitment of love requires a person to maintain & uphold a loving relationship, no matter what happens. And it is this ‘no matter what happens’ bit that I find problematic.
Nikhil: What about it do you find problematic?
Neelam: According to you, to love someone is to maintain a loving relationship with someone, no matter what happens. And I presume this “no matter what happens” includes all those difficulties and inconveniences that you talked about earlier.
Nikhil: Yes.
Neelam: Well. I think there must be some limits and conditions on what those difficulties and inconveniences can be.
Nikhil: No. Why would you say so?
Neelam: What if those difficulties and inconveniences are not so simple and benign as having to wake up a few times in the night or potty-training? What if those difficulties and inconveniences include physical torture and abuse, violent behaviour, ridicule and debasement?
Nikhil: I do not follow.
Neelam: Suppose a woman loves a man, and suppose that at the start of their relationship the man is non-abusive and non-violent. However, suppose, over time, the husband or boyfriend turns abusive and violent. The woman might still love him, but her relationship with him must change; for physical abuse and violence are inexcusable. So even though she might still feel love towards him, she cannot be expected to care for, or spend time with him. So the requirement – that in order for a person to love, she must keep her relationship with her beloved intact no matter what happens – seems mistaken. There must be reasonable exceptions.
Nikhil: I do not agree. The situation that you cite does not constitute a counterexample.
Neelam: How so?
Nikhil: Because the woman cannot be said to love her husband or boyfriend if she changes the nature of her relationship upon a change in conditions.
Neelam: Why so?
Nikhil: You wrongly assumed that the woman continued loving him after his transformation because you wrongly assumed that love is based on feelings. The woman might feel the same way towards her husband or boyfriend later on, but the way the woman feels has nothing to do with whether she loves him. The test of love lies in whether she acts and behaves in the same affectionate and caring manner despite his transformation into a violent beast. If she changes the nature of her relationship with him, she cannot be said to love him. Loving someone requires a commitment to keep your relationship with that person invariant, no matter what happens.
Neelam: That’s counter-intuitive. And it goes against norms of what is commonly accepted as love.
Nikhil: How?
Neelam: You seem to have put too much burden on the concept of love. It is usual to say that someone got out of a relationship with someone despite being in love because circumstances and living conditions made it impossible to maintain the relationship.
Nikhil: It might be usual and common to use the word ‘love’ in this manner, but it does not mean that this is the correct meaning of love. In fact, in romantic contexts, it seems that the notion of love is used only metaphorically. Real love seems most frequently manifest in non-romantic contexts.
Neelam: What do you mean?
Nikhil: In non-romantic contexts, say in the context of a person of faith loving God, we expect the person to undergo a lot of pain in the pursuit of love. We expect that person to keep the relationship intact – say, by continuing to engage in chants or ritual practices etc – even though that person faces ridicule, loss of material possessions etc. in the practice of her faith. God does not seem to help the believer materially; it doesn’t even provide clear evidence of its existence, yet, for a believer to love God is to continue the practice of faith despite these hindrances.
Neelam: I do not follow; perhaps because you and I differ too much on matters of religion and faith. Could you take another example?
Nikhil: I think my earlier example of the parent and child would work here as well. If a parent who abandons her child because it was too much to handle contends that she loves the child, we surely will not agree with her. To love a child is to care for it despite difficulties. We expect a loving parent to make sacrifices and undergo difficulties in caring for their children. Why don’t we expect a loving partner to make sacrifices and undergo difficulties in the same manner?
Neelam: I think you are stretching the example too far. There are always limits to how far one can and must go in love. Even in the case of the parent.
Nikhil: I do not follow.
Neelam: See, even in the case of the parent, there are limits to what she would be willing to do for the child. Say, for example, if the child were a public health hazard, say, because it suffered from an untreatable and highly contagious infection, the parent would have to stop caring for the child, even if she loves it.
Nikhil: What is your point?
Neelam: My point is:  the parent in this case, quite obviously loves the child, yet, quite justifiably, would have to abandon or destroy the child.
Nikhil: I do not see in what sense the parent can be said to love the child. Maybe she can be said to love the society or the species, but not the child. She could be said to love the child if she stuck to caring for it despite the child being a danger to the society and the species.
Neelam: Okay. I got your point. I don’t agree with it, but I understand it.
Nikhil: But there is more. When you love someone, not only do you stay committed to them despite any cost to others, but also despite any personal costs. People of faith give up comforts and material happiness for the love of God. Also, if you think about it objectively, children consume so much resource:  they need considerable time, effort, and money while growing up. Long years of parents’ youth are spent tending to children, at a considerable cost to their careers and personal comfort. Quite honestly, it doesn’t make much sense to have children. Yet people do it. Why? Because they love them.
Neelam: So you are saying that in love people are willing to pay great personal costs.
Nikhil: Exactly. Such examples are all around. It is often the case that one member in a relationship suffers from a terminal, debilitating illness, and their partner has to care for them for the rest of their lives. The requirements of such care may be extreme:  if one partner falls into coma, the other has to take responsibility of feeding, cleaning and protecting. Their entire lives get consumed caring for the other; yet they do it because they love each other. They don’t do it because they feel pleasant doing it, but rather because of their commitment, because of love.
Neelam: I think you are using mawkish examples as a proxy for reasons. I expected you to give me concrete reasons why you think we must require a person who is in love to uphold the commitment no matter what the costs are.
Nikhil: I agree that these examples may be sentimental; but that is only to be expected because love is a deeply sentimental issue. But I do not see why they don’t serve as a reason. It is in these examples of supreme self sacrifice that we see instances of real love, and I have attempted to capture something that is common in all these instances of real love. And you’ll surely agree that if there is a feature common to these various instances of love, then it is possible for that feature to be an essential property of love. I do not see why you find my examples unreasonable.
Neelam: My objection to your examples is not that they fail to support your conclusion, but that I find them vastly exaggerated.
Nikhil: Why?
Neelam: Because in each of these cases, you have assumed without argument that the respective people will continue to uphold their love relationship at any costs. I contend that in each of these cases there are limits which the actors will never cross. For example, the believer might abandon his faith if those who don’t approve of his religion make his survival unbearably difficult; the parent might abandon the child if the child poses a threat to other family members; and unfortunately, it is usual for people to abandon their partners when their responsibilities become intolerable. The limits to which people are willing to go in maintaining a commitment might be different, but there are limits nevertheless. Coming back to my point, don’t you think it is possible, in each of these cases, for the respective people to break their commitment and leave the relationship?
Nikhil: I do think it is possible.
Neelam: Then your examples do not support your conclusion. Love must allow for the possibility of breaking commitments under special circumstances.
Nikhil: No. You misconstrued my argument.
Neelam: How?
Nikhil: I agree that the possibilities that you point to are real. People always have the freedom of breaking a commitment. However, if they exercise that freedom, they cannot be said to love. Love is not something that you may discover in yourself, it is an act, the act of keeping a commitment. You do not find out one fine day that you love someone; rather, love is something you create, by making and upholding a commitment. Yes it is possible for people to not honour their commitments and fail in love; but in my argument I intended to use only examples of actual love:  one in which commitment is upheld.
Neelam: I still do not agree with your examples.
Nikhil: What are your reasons for disagreement?
Neelam: Even if people keep their commitments in these cases, I think you have misjudged their motivations for doing so.
Nikhil: What do you mean?
Neelam: Apparently, religious people undergo a lot of pain in their practice of religion. But they undergo that pain in the expectation of a return:  maybe a comfortable afterlife or perhaps salvation. Similarly, it is true that parents do a lot for children, but they don’t do it wholly out of what you are calling love, they do it either because it gives them a sense of purpose and direction, or out of some unsaid expectation that their children will take care of them in their old age. And perhaps people take care of their terminally ill partners out of the fear of society treating them badly if they don’t. Also, I would say that it is only justified that these people end their relationships if the expectations that they have from their relationship remain unfulfilled.
Nikhil: I agree. But could you put your point more directly.
Neelam: Of course. I think you are mistaking an investment to be a sacrifice. Don’t you think it is possible that these people that you talk so highly of in your examples undergo such extreme acts not because of love, but rather for the sake of some other goods they have in mind?
Nikhil: I get your point. Yes it is possible that some people perform extreme sacrifices, and they do so in expectation of some return. My response to this objection is the same as my response to your earlier objection.
Neelam: Could you state it again?
Nikhil: Sure. If someone establishes and maintains a relationship in expectation of a return and not out of some sense of commitment, it is not love. Hence, my examples do not include the cases that you talk about. Love is not a utilitarian transaction; love is not conditional on some return. When I forwarded my examples, I assumed that the agents in my examples enter their respective commitments not because of an expectation of a return, but out of love.
Neelam: I think you are being too naive or too generous with your understanding of human behaviour and motivations.
Nikhil: What do you mean?
Neelam: It is impossible to find the kind of people who you talk about in your examples.
Nikhil: I don’t think this is wholly true. But even if it were, I don’t see how it bears on my argument.
Neelam: I will come to that, but before that I want to discuss a feature of human relationships that you seem to have missed. Human relationships involve investment of time, energy, & resource and are always guided by certain expectations. These expectations may be very trivial, say, expectations of making one feel good, but such expectations exist nonetheless. Now, these expectations constitute the very conditions under which the relationship survives. If those conditions obtain, the relationship continues; if they don’t, the relationship falls apart. But what is important is that every human relationship is governed by some conditions.
Nikhil: Now it is you who is talking in abstractions.
Neelam: Let me come back to the point that I was making. What I want to convey is that any relationship – be it between the parent and the child, or between the believer and God – is governed by certain expectations: the parent expects something of the child, and the believer, of God. These expectations are the very conditions for the existence of the relationship. If the child does not meet those expectations, or if the believer comes to believe that her expectations will remain unfulfilled, the relationship would end. In any relationship, there is always something that someone might do or be, which will put an end to the relationship. There are always some conditions, which, if violated, will put an end to the relationship.
Nikhil: Why don’t you quit circling around and jump directly to the argument?
Neelam: Your notion of love requires people to be committed to maintaining relationships under any conditions, at any cost. But idea of an unconditional relationship is a myth, and so is the notion of unconditional love.
Nikhil: Hmmm.
Neelam: Given that actual human relationships are such that there is always something, which, if it happens, will get the person to end the relationship, hence we cannot expect people to enter commitments of the kind which you think are necessary in love. My conclusion is that your notion of love is so lofty and idealistic that it would render the entirety of human population incapable of love.
Nikhil: Okay.
Neelam: There are no actual instances of people upholding commitments at any cost, or, as you put it no matter what happens. Even if a woman is committed to a man, the man can always do something, say, rob her of her self-worth and dignity, which lets the woman – justifiably so – end her relationship with him. Similarly, the child may turn abusive and the parent may justifiably end her relationship. And these are not isolated cases. Every relationship has this character. Every relationship is defined by some limits which must never be crossed. Your notion of love requires a model of relationship which is not bound by any conditions, and hence is beyond the reach of actual people.
Nikhil: I got your point.
Neelam: So do you think your notion of love needs revision?

Nikhil: No. I am still unconvinced.
Neelam: Why?
Nikhil: Two reasons. Firstly, I disagree with you when you deny existence of relationships which are not bound by any conditions. I think they do exist. In fact the romantic relationships that we exalt in classical literature have as their common denominator the feature that lovers keep their commitments even in the most difficult of circumstances.  Their love is not governed by the conditions of their life or the attitudes of their beloved. Also, we have the example of many religious figures, say the Christian apostles or the Sufi saints who maintained their relationship with their God despite all the odds. Nothing could deter them. There are people who have lived up to the notion of love that I talk about.
Neelam: Literature is no guide to how people actually are, for it is full of idealizations, extrapolations, and hyperbole. Such love stories can only be created in literature where the author has full control over the plot and dramatic situation. I am not sure if such characters can ever be found in real life; and even if they were, I am not sure if they will be able to maintain their heroic self in the chaotic and unpredictable circumstances of the real world. And I refrain from talking about religious figures.
Nikhil: I guess we disagree over facts here. Either people actually commit themselves into unconditional relationships or they don’t. We are not social scientists, and perhaps not suited to answer this question. I suggest we drop this point of disagreement.
Neelam: I agree. But you said you had another reason for disagreement. What is that?
Nikhil: Yes. Remember you said that the notion of love that I talked about was unrealizable and out of bounds for actual human beings?
Neelam: Yes.
Nikhil: I do not see why that constitutes an argument against my notion of love.
Neelam: I thought that it was fairly straightforward. Your notion of love results in an absurd situation, where there are no actual lovers in the world. It is idealistic if not utterly chimerical; it is a philosopher’s abstract conception of love with no occurrence in the real world.
Nikhil: Even if no actual lovers existed and my notion of love were to be a mere ideal, even that wouldn’t refute my notion of love.
Neelam: I know you hold that, but why?
Nikhil: That nobody is found who doesn’t lie doesn’t mean that the ethical ideal, that lying is wrong is false. That we cannot find an actual physical body which is not acted upon by an unbalanced force does not mean that Newton’s law – which states that a body not being acted upon by an unbalanced force, will continue its state of rest or motion – is false. Newton’s law talks about ideal objects, yet physicists and engineers find it useful. That something is ideal and not actual is no argument against it.
Neelam: I am not sure if I follow you there.
Nikhil: What I am saying is that even if the notion of love that I advocate were to be an ideal, it would still not render my notion of love vacuous.
Neelam: Why wouldn’t it? I am not sure if such an ideal notion would have any use.
Nikhil: I disagree with you here. Ideals are useful. They might not be achievable, but they help show us the right path. The ideal of a public policy might be the utterly utopian and unachievable goal of creating an efficient, secure State with complete freedom and equality amongst its citizens; but this ideal, though unachievable, may still succeed in providing a definite direction to policy making, it may motivate and encourage the citizenry. Similarly, people might not actually be able to love, but the ideal of love might still guide their efforts and allow them to achieve it, albeit partially.
Neelam: Nikhil, I accept your reasons. What you say sounds all fine. But there is the bigger question, the elephant in the room, which you must address if you want your notion of love to make any sense.
Nikhil: Which question?
Neelam: If I understand your position correctly, you are saying that to love is to commit yourself to something unconditionally. It is to stick to doing something at any costs.
Nikhil: Yes. Isn’t it scary, the sheer depth of the commitment required in love?
Neelam: It would be scary if it were correct. I have my doubts. I think your conception of love leaves behind a gap.
Nikhil: What kind of gap?
Neelam: You say that to love is to love unconditionally. But then such a characterization of love goes against the model of human relationships which I discussed a while ago. I contend that all human relationships are governed by a set of expectations. We get into love relationships because we have expectations, say, the expectation to have someone by our side in times of need, or the expectation of being able to share our happiness with someone. Similarly, even motherhood, or devotion to God are governed by such expectations.
Nikhil: I know what you said about human relationships. And I also remember having contested your account, because I believe that when we really love someone, we do not subject ourselves to such expectations: To love is to love unconditionally, without any expectation of a return. Love is not a transaction.
Neelam: Let me ask something for clarifications sake: are you saying that when we love someone, we cannot expect anything from that person?
Nikhil: Well, we might have expectations from the people we love, but that is utterly orthogonal to our love towards them.
Neelam: What do you mean?
Nikhil: I mean to say that those expectations do not bear upon our love towards them. Whether those expectations are fulfilled or not have nothing to do with our love towards them. To love someone is one thing, and to expect them to fulfil our expectations is another.
Neelam: Okay. I understand.
Nikhil: But why do you bring it up here?
Neelam: I bring it up because your account of love fails to explain why people love. Your conception of love leaves an explanatory gap which needs to be filled.
Nikhil: I still do not follow.
Neelam: Listen, when we look at love in the way I characterize relationships, it is easy to explain the reasons why people love: people love because they think it will fulfil a set of expectations that they possess. Now, you might call such characterization scandalous and use loaded words like transaction or business deal for such notion of love; but I think it is a practical, respectable, and reasonable way to think of love. People love because they seek a mutually fulfilling, reciprocal, symbiotic relationship. People love because by coming together they will both be better off.
Nikhil: Okay.
Neelam: However, your conception of love is not linked to fulfilment of any expectations, not even feeling good about the relationship; you say that to love is to keep your relationship invariant, no matter whether your expectations get fulfilled. Your conception of love makes it seem like a duty:  something which one must do even though one does not feel like doing it. But that leaves a large gap; it does not explain why people would be tempted to get into such a commitment in the first place, let alone continue such commitment. What could possibly motivate people to enter the kind of love that you talk of? Why would anyone get into the business of love?
Nikhil: Hmmm.
Neelam: Unless you answer these questions, your notion of love will remain unconvincing. You must give reasons why people enter and sustain love relationships, because your conception of love makes a lot of demands without the promise of giving anything in return.
Nikhil: I understand your objection. This certainly is an important point. But before I may respond to it, I need to ask yo something. Do you think the space of reasons must remain confined to benefits and advantages alone.
Neelam: I do not follow you.
Nikhil: Look, you are asking me to give you reasons why people commence love and continue loving. But I hope those reasons need not be confined to the benefits or advantages which one accrues when one loves. Because if those are the kinds of reasons you seek, I must admit that there is none; for I hold that we definitely do not love for the sake of benefits or advantages.
Neelam: I understand what you are saying, and I agree with you in that the reasons why we love someone need not be explicit benefits or advantages. But they must be reasons nevertheless, and you haven’t given me any yet.
Nikhil: I will talk about that. But I must first point out that our present discussion takes us back to the issue that we left unaddressed a while ago.
Neelam: Which issue?
Nikhil: Remember when I said that there might be reasons, apart from marriage, which make it essential for love to be long lasting and permanent?
Neelam: Yes.
Nikhil: And do you also remember when I said that those reasons have to do with the notion of personal identity?
Neelam: Yes. I do. That’s how we got into discussing your conception of love.
Nikhil: Exactly. My contention is that the reasons which explain why we get into and maintain commitments of love are the same reasons which explain why it must be essential for love to be long lasting. And those reasons have to do with personal identity.
Neelam: Okay.
Nikhil: I hold that the reasons why we commit ourselves to love and continue loving do not come from the space of profit and loss. They come from the space of a person’s identity. And considerations relating to one’s personal identity also explain why love must be long lasting.
Neelam: So you are saying that the notion of personal identity explains why we get into love, and it explains why love must be long lasting.
Nikhil: Exactly.
Neelam: But your thesis is still very vague. It is not clear to me what your thesis is. And need I mention that you have not given me any argument for why you hold this thesis?
Nikhil: Here’s my argument: we are not mere lumps of matter and material. We are someone’s child, someone’s sibling, someone’s neighbour, someone’s enemy, someone’s friend. A complete description of ourselves must not only include how we look and how much we weigh, but it must also include how we are related to others. Our relationships are a component of our identity.  A complete description of who we are must include a description of how we are related to others.
Neelam: Okay.
Nikhil: Insofar as our identities are constituted of our relationships and insofar as love is a particularly important relationship, our love relationships are an important part of our identity as well. Our love commitments, in part, make us what we are. Our commitments in life form an important part of how we describe ourselves as.
Neelam: I understand.
Nikhil: Here you have answer to one of your questions:  the reason why we commit ourselves to love relationships because those very commitments make us what we are, at least in part. To commit to someone is not to pick up a duty; it is to build an identity, it is to construct your personality. Love is not a convenience, but it is part of one’s identity. It is one of the things which qualify us as a human. Love is not an instrument which we use to get something else; but a condition we find ourselves in. Love is a human condition.
Neelam: You are taking too many steps too quickly. What do you mean by “human condition”?
Nikhil: I mean nothing extraordinary. All that I mean is that there is a family of conditions or requirements that every human must fulfil and only humans can fulfil. To be a human is to fulfil those conditions. We don’t do those things because we gain something from them; rather, we do those things because they are responsible for our status as human beings.
Neelam: Still too abstract for me.
Nikhil: Take, for example, literature or another of those disciplines within the humanities. We do not pursue humanities because it gives us what we want; we do it because it is an expression of our humanity. We might earn money by writing poetry but this is not why we do it. Poetry is one of those things that distinguishes from other material objects, and make us quintessentially human. And there is no dearth of examples:  music & painting. My point is that the reasons why we love come from the very fact that we are human beings, and human beings love. It is a felt need.
Neelam: So what’s your point?
Nikhil: My point is that we are what we are, in part because of love. Love is part of our personal identity. That’s why we love.
Neelam: Okay. I am not sure if I’m convinced. But now I atleast know what your thesis is.
Nikhil: Also, love is a deeply personal matter. We love something not because our beloved is of a particular kind, but because we are. We do not love because we stand to gain something from our beloved or because the beloved makes us feel in a particular way. If we are in such a relationship with someone, it would be a mistake to call that relationship love. We love because in loving someone we start looking at ourselves in a particular way, we construct our identities as such and such a person who is committed to someone so and so.  That’s why I say that love is a personal matter. In fact, the nature of the beloved, or the effect your beloved has on you has nothing to do with love. It is the fact that we love which matters, not who we love.
Neelam: If who we love doesn’t matter, it wouldn’t make a difference if we loved one thing and not another!
Nikhil: Exactly! Who we love is more a matter of contingencies: the time and place we are born, the people we meet and interact with, our upbringing etc. It has nothing to do with the nature and concept of love.
Neelam: I understand the reason you forward to explain why we love, but I am skeptical about whether they are good reasons. Your views are bold and puzzling; and I’d say confused too. You seem to be all over the place. Also, I am not sure if you have actually given me an argument. In effect, you seem to be saying that the reasons why we love is because we are what we are; and that certainly doesn’t sound very convincing. Nevertheless, I have a bigger worry. Even if the reasons you present were correct, they are insufficient.
Nikhil: Why do you say so?
Neelam: Even if I accept your argument it will only show why we commit ourselves to a love relationship. Perhaps we commit ourselves to a love relationship because, as you say, in doing so we create a self. But that doesn’t explain why we must continue to love despite  problems.
Nikhil: What do you mean?
Neelam: You hold that love commitments are upheld even in the face of problems and inconveniences. You need to explain why people uphold their commitments even in the face of such problems. Why do they continue such commitments?
Nikhil: They continue their commitments because if they discontinue or alter their commitments, they would thereby be altering their sense of identity. This is also the reason why I believe love must be long lasting. Our love commitments are a component of our identity, and any change in our love commitments would mean a shift in our sense of identity. We do continue our love commitments, and we should continue our love commitments to have a reasonably substantial sense of personal identity.
Neelam: And why do you think it is so important to keep identities stable?
Nikhil: Every shift in personal identity is like an act of violence. Violence, wherein you annihilate your earlier self and create a new self.
Neelam: You use emotive words like violence to give an appearance of an argument even though there is none. A change in personal identity is a fact. We change constantly; our bodies and our thoughts change all the time. I do not see why we should see a change in personal identity as violent. And if you hold that the only reason why we stick to dysfunctional relationship is because we wish to keep our sense of identity static, I think you have a very flimsy argument.
Nikhil: You overestimate our comfort with change. Change is disturbing. It is difficult to adapt to, and hence we tend to avoid it. Not just that, we need to keep a relatively invariant sense of self:  we want to be assured that we are the same people that we were. You wanted an argument for why we stick to our commitments in love and why love should be long lasting, and I gave you one:  it is because we want to stick to our identities.
Neelam: I know you have given me an argument. But I am saying that it is not a good argument. You have made unwarranted assumptions about identity, and their connection with love is not entirely clear. And your argument fails to accord with common sense as well. Love is not a supernatural, overpowering notion which needs to be venerated. We do not need to make ourselves slaves of love. It is human life which deserves veneration; and the point of love is to make human life beautiful, not difficult. And if, at any point, love becomes too much to handle, one would do well to give up love in favour of other, superior human values.
Nikhil: I cannot disagree with you more. The point of love is not to make life beautiful; to expect that of love would be to misunderstand the very nature of love. There indeed are many things that we do in order to make our lives comfortable; love is not one of those things. Love is among those things which give direction our lives and a sense of purpose to our existence. To give up on love would be to either lose one’s humanity or become utterly disoriented in life. Love certainly reserves its place among the highest human concerns and must be treated as such.
Neelam: Then, I believe we also disagree about the status and place of love in human life.
Nikhil: I agree. We then have reached another point where we differ too much about the fundamentals. If we disagree so much about our fundamental presuppositions regarding love, I’m afraid we cannot hope to continue our enquiry into love. I feel sad and disappointed.
Neelam: I agree that we could not come to an agreement about what love is. But why should that be an occasion for you to be sad and disappointed?
Nikhil: I feel sad because I was optimistic that our discussion might lead us to a better understanding of what love is. But we could not reach a consensus.
Neelam: That we couldn’t reach a consensus doesn’t mean we didn’t develop a better understanding of love. We realized how much we don’t know about love, and in Philosophy, that’s progress.
Nikhil: But then how can we love each other unless we know what love is?
Neelam: Just like we can speak good English without knowing the rules of English grammar!
Nikhil: Very well said. All this talk of love had made me hungry. Would you like to go eat something?
Neelam: Seems like it’s going to rain soon. Let’s go get some samosas.


One Reply to “Love & Relationships: What is Love?”

  1. I truly enjoyed reading the article. I agreed with the person Nikhil more than the person Neelam, though both made relevant points as per their own viewpoints. I’d just like to add a few pointers regarding love from my side nonetheless. I think we love because what Nikhil said, it’s a matter of our personal identity. It’s a person’s nature to love. Just because I’m not friends with someone doesn’t mean I can’t have love for her. For that matter love is for all and of the same kind. The only thing that complicates love is romance. We can love everyone and that love would be the same for all. And that love would depend on our nature. But to romance is always a separate choice, it shouldn’t be confused with love. Romance is a part of love and that depends not on our nature per se but on our choices, with whom we want to make romance to. We commit to make romance to just one person because we love that person too damn much to jeopardise the love that exists between the two of us.
    Anyway, glad I came across this piece. Good work.

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