Four Different Kinds of Love

There are a lot of articles on the various types of love. Are there really four different kinds of love? I did a google search and found, three, four, five, six, seven, and twelve kinds of love. Either based on ancient philosopher’s reflections or modern hip psychologists, a lot of descriptive words cover every base. It seems to me that many of these articles are similar to one another. I’m not saying they lack value. But how about a fresh look, set apart from the academic, historical, or psychological approach?

From a bird’s eye perspective of human nature, here’s a different point of view. Man contains different levels of life. He has a physical life, an emotional life, a life of thought and will, and may enjoy a supernatural life too –for those who believe in such things. Each of these life-levels manifests its own corresponding way of love. So, my four different kinds of love flow from a particular consideration of human nature.

I hope a fresh insight may cultivate greater personal love. Perhaps a tweaked understanding of myself may encourage a more fulfilling way of love.

Physical Love – The Body’s Way of Love

Physical love is sexual love. It’s called love simply because it fits the generic definition. The philosophers way back defined love as “the attraction to an object of affection.” Wow. Sounds way too philosophical! In other words, physical love boils down to wanting sex and having sex.

Physical love at first may not seem like love at all. After all, it can be done in a way that’s very selfish. Nevertheless, it’s love at its lowest level of human life. Why the lowest? This kind of love is based in animal biology and aims at bodily satisfaction, rather than receiving and giving love as a person. In blunt terms, having sex may make me feel pleasure, but leave my higher desires for acceptance and inter-personal happiness unfulfilled. Physical love is an animal kind of thing.

This kind of love then can be given and taken in a detached way. My sexual energies find a release of tension and I’m temporarily, physically satisfied, but possibly still emotionally and spiritually hungry.

Here’s the thing about sexual love; it really needs some kind of regulation to protect the overall good of the person. While instinct regulates an animal’s sexual activities, reason regulates the human world. Such regulation either flows from societal law, religious law, or just plain old common sense.

How does this work? In the physical world, all physical stimulation must be limited for our own good. Think about it. I limit every physical reality for my own good; food, sunshine, activity, alcohol, work. The list keeps going. I put limits in place to promote my overall good. And so with sex too.

I suppose these ideas inevitably lead to the realm of morality. But let’s not go there. It’s enough to highlight that physical love needs the guidance of rationality to serve everybody’s best interests.

With all that said, the generic definition of physical love has a wider application too. I may love ice cream, or love my home, or love the school I attend. In every case, I’m “attracted to an object of affection.” So, physical love may refer not only to sexual love, but “object-love,” for a lack of better words. It’s all physical love, even as today’s culture emphasizes physical love as sexual love.

Emotional Love – The Soul’s Participation in Love

Emotional love is certainly another kind of love. It’s not merely an urge and release of sexual tension. Perhaps, distinguishing it from sex may clarify its nature. Emotional love may appear in the soul and never lead to sex at all. It’s the next level up from the genital world.

Regarding human relationships, emotional love plays out as a progressive internal attraction to “soul-unity.” I’m attracted to someone I like. This ignites the desire for physical nearness. I seek the other’s company and the exchange of affection. My external senses are provoked; I like the hair, the face, the sound, the touch, the way the motions or words dance. The awakening of the internal senses follow. The imagination turns on and intensifies the whole delightful experience. Then come the calls, letters, and gifts. The hand holding, hugs, flirting, and kisses follow. Truly, not the body so much, but the soul is immersed in pleasure. Welcome to world of emotional love.

Emotional love inescapably races to a true crossroad in life. By its nature emotional love wants a definitive completion. A possession, as it were. What the heck does that mean? It means that all the stirring of the heart thrusts me to a point of decision. Thee possible paths appear before me. Either I choose sex, abiding friendship, or marriage which is fundamentally sex and enduring friendship together.

Emotional love is an exhilarating and beautiful human experience. But there’s a secret about it. It’s not possible without properly developed human emotions. Sadly, it’s not unusual for a person to lack such emotional maturity and therefore lack the capacity to feel the emotion of love. But this is not to say that love is entirely absent. It may exist at a higher level within the person, even if devoid of the good feelings that should accompany it.

Volitional Love – The Best of Purely Human Love

Volitional love moves beyond physical and emotional love. How so? Physical and emotional love are essentially selfish loves. I’m not saying morally selfish as if they’re bad. Rather, by their natures these kinds of love are simply directed toward self-pleasure or self-benefit. And that’s okay. After all, human beings are created to receive pleasure. Some pleasure, more likely an awful lot of pleasure is indispensable to a happy human life.

But volitional love thrusts me into the realm of deliberately giving love –rather than grabbing whatever pleases me. I’m focused on giving what is best for another person, even if it means a loss of benefit for myself. The ancient philosophers noted this higher kind of love as a kind of “friendship-love.” I give love precisely because it’s good to do good for another person. This refinement of the soul sails way past the take whatever pleases me way of living.

Contrasting volitional love, consider an important aspect of emotional love. It’s necessary to receive emotional love to develop the human emotions. Think of the unconditional and richly sensual love a mother radiates on her newborn. This love, received through the flesh, senses, and imagination, makes a person grow up, emotionally speaking. Volitional love presumes the development of this love level. Volitional love is not so much about receiving, but about giving. Volitional love enables me to rise above self-centered interests.

Emotional development certainly helps volitional love. It enables giving with greater ease. Nonetheless, without the support of my emotions, I can always give love without feeling love. But I cannot love at the volitional level without giving.

A person gradually grows into the possible level of volitional love. Emotional love predominates Infancy and adolescence. In later years, when rationality, judgment, and moral choices emerge, volitional love becomes possible. As purely human possibilities go, volitional love is the highest development of loves.

If we break down volitional love into types their are very many, each set apart by a particular nuance. Consider: parental love, marital love, celibate love, sacrificial love, Romantic love, “tough love,” self-love, and there’s more. Think of the variety of loves coined by the ancient philosophers. But each love is essentially volitional love.

Supernatural Love – God’s Way of Perfecting Human Love

I’m going to say what I believe here. Those with faith can keep reading. Those without faith can still benefit from everything already said. I believe there’s such a thing called supernatural love.

Supernatural love is an entirely different kind of love, past all the possibilities of purely human love. I don’t earn it, grab it, build it, or grow into it. No, God simply places it into my heart as a freely given gift. He knows how much better I can love, and so grants me a godly way. Perhaps, I might imagine it as a “plugin” to human nature, or a “turbo-boost” to volitional love.

Supernatural love inclines me to love God above all things and to love everybody for the sake of God. Human love can only take me as far as purely human powers can go. But with the power of supernatural love within me, I can cherish God as my intimate friend and love other human beings much better when it approaches the impossible.

But if this kind of love is neither earned nor developed how can I receive it? Well, I start with the faith that God wants to grant it. I simply need to ask for it and welcome it. Patience. Keep asking. It will come. God showers his love in a way that’s unique to each person. Each person’s story how he or she accepts God’s grace is profoundly personal.

Seeking a Better Love

Where am I at? Where do I fit within these four different kinds of love? If I’m stuck in physical love, it’s time to focus on receiving unconditional love so that my emotional life can mature. Or, am I enjoying emotional love already, but shying away from volitional love. In that case, I should be challenging myself to give more love, especially when it’s difficult.

Or maybe everything seems okay, but it’s still not enough. I might want to reflect on doing more. Maybe I need to experience God’s love in a deeper way. That may be a scary proposition! But why not? Aren’t we made for love? My friend, keep moving forward toward the horizon of greater love.

Don’t stop at a mere academic consideration of these four different kinds of love. Evaluate your next step and keep pushing ahead to better love.

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Andrew Lee Sullivan is the pioneer and foremost educator on Affirmation Meditation. He's a national, award-winning hospice counselor and grief recovery specialist. In 2007, as a Catholic priest and cult survivor, Sullivan became a Vatican whistle-blower. Today, Andrew is happily married and enjoys a second life under the Arizona sunshine with his wife and two young boys. His memoir is entitled: Vatican Intervention.

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