What is love? Could those feelings you label as love be something else?
What about infatuation? Obsession? A passing fancy? Being smitten? Enthrallment? Beguilement? Lust? A crush? A squish? Platonic admiration? Why do people categorize some attachments as romantic love but not others?
Suppose Holly meets someone on vacation. They quickly become romantically and sexually intimate and seem deeply compatible. Holly is from the U.K., where the term “holiday romance” is commonly used and part of her vocabulary. Because she knows this term, she can apply its social scaffolding to this relationship. She understands that the rapid emotional intimacy and apparent compatibility she experienced likely sprang from fleeting circumstances that aren’t meant to last.
Someone from the U.S., however, where this term is rarely used, might more easily interpret this rapid intimacy as a sign of deep, significant lifelong compatibility.
Judging that you are in love can be powerful. It can affect your feelings, relationships and even your sexuality. But how do people judge whether they are in love?
This, I argue, depends on your linguistic community. That is, how the people around you talk about romance, relationships and attraction.
I am a philosopher who studies categorization schemas – how, when and why people label things such as emotions, sexuality and health. I examine the effects of those labels on how people understand themselves and on their well-being, and how alternative taxonomies and labels can make people understand and shape the world differently.
What happens when a culture instills a broader, more encompassing definition of love, or a narrower, more restrictive definition? How does having a richer vocabulary of words in the neighborhood of love change how we understand it?
The social scaffolding of words
Self-ascriptions of love depend on two things. The first are introspective judgments about your feelings: Are you attracted to the person? Energized by them? Nervous around them? And the second is what you think love is: Does love require caring about the person? Thinking about them a lot? Sexual attraction? When how you feel about a person and what you think love is match up, you self-ascribe love. That is, you judge that you are in love.
Words provide social scaffolding. That is, they create expectations and norms that steer how you behave and react to other people. And vocabularies vary by culture and era.
Categorizing an attachment as a “holiday romance” doesn’t just describe it but can also change its course. The label affects what Holly notices and values about the time she spends together with another person and whether she is inclined to pursue a long-term relationship.
Vocabulary is empowering. Having an even more expansive vocabulary would allow Holly to experiment with different labels, and these could shape her relationships in different ways.
For example, the term “eintagsliebe,” based on the German word for “mayfly” and translating to “one day’s love,” refers to an intense and brief relationship. “Comet lovers” have a deep romantic bond but see each other only intermittently, living far apart the rest of the time without much contact. A “holibae” is a perennial date that happens only when you’re visiting home for the holidays. See also “zipcoding” – dating someone only when you’re both in the same ZIP code.
The dictionary of polyamory
An “anchor partner” is a central figure in your romantic life. A “nesting partner” is a partner you live with. And a “satellite partner” has emotional and physical distance from your home. Vocabularies sculpted by traditional monogamous relationships might not distinguish between these types of attachments because they see non-cohabitating partnerships only as temporary transition phases that end by breaking up or become serious by moving in.
By rejecting the mainstream social scaffolding about relationships, polyamory creates the need for more terms to describe innovative relationship structures. And those words in turn create more possibilities for how polyamorous people interpret and structure their attachments.