Bell Hooks on What Love Is & What Love Is Not

The definitions of love are many.  For poetess and prototypical feminist Sylvia Plath, love is a Venn diagram of two independent but intersecting identities.  For fellow feminist Edna St. Vincent Millay, love might not be “all,” but “many a man is making friends with death for lack of love alone.”  Perhaps the best definition is no definition at all; as poet and naturalist Diane Ackerman writes, “love is the great intangible.”

In her revelatory All About Love, scholar, feminist and cultural critic bell hooks aims to clarify this all about loveindefinite emotion.  Though at first love seems beyond definition, too elusive to be captured in a semantic net of description, hooks attempts to define love because “our confusion about what we mean when we use the word “love” is the source of our difficulty in loving.  If our society had a commonly held understanding of the meaning of love, the act of loving would not be so mystifying.”  After all, we can only love (and be loved) if we know what love is.  As Rebecca Solnit once so elegantly expressed, calling things by their true names “isn’t all there is to changing the world, but it’s a key step.”

Our cultural conception of love is often unrealistic.  Hollywood movies portray happy couples prancing off into the sunset, the moment of a couple’s romantic reunion at the airport or tender first kiss— never tense dinners in silence or squabbles over dirty dishes.  We usually only see the idealized initial stages of love but what happens after the end credits?  Had Jack not froze to death at the end of Titanic, would him and Rose have made it?  Would they have rode horses along the beach like they had imagined?  Would they be happily married or would Rose resent having to relinquish the material comforts of her aristocratic existence?  Would she eventually regret leaving the millionaire steel tycoon for the starving artist?

Most romantic movies end before the couple has to grapple with the difficulties of being in a long-term relationship.  Pretty in Pink, Sixteen Candles: all end with the beginning of a relationship: a first kiss, a grand declaration of love and reconciliation.  Because we only witness love in its intoxicating early stages, we have unrealistic standards for our real-life romances.  We equate love with uncontrollable passion, Gone With the Wind kisses and bouquets of roses.  If our partner is truly destined for us, we believe, things should be easy: we should finish each other’s sentences, always want to have sex, and never quarrel.  Our partner should know that we hate the volume too loud on the TV without us having to say so.

Despite these prevailing myths, love is often difficult.  In All About Love’s opening chapter “Clarity: Give Love Words,” hooks argues love isn’t a noun, it’s a verb.  In other words, loving is a choice we make day after day, it’s something we do.  It’s easy to choose love in the beginning of a relationship, when our beloved is a distant crush we’ve barely uttered “hello” to.  It’s far more difficult to choose love— to compromise, to sacrifice, to hold our tongue, to listen attentively, to express gratitude— the longer we’ve been with someone.

In the first dizzy days of love, we think our beloved is an idol, a god.  But this is a chimera.  When we obtain the object of our desire, when the crush we admired from afar finally becomes our significant other, we realize they’re just as flawed as we are: they’re occasionally petty, often jealous, insufferable after a long day of work and grouchy when tired.  To love any one for any length of time requires we forgive these frailties and foibles. 

According to M. Scott Peck, love is “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.”  Though we usually imagine love is accepting someone for who they are, hooks maintains—much like charmingly cynical philosopher and unlikely love guru Alain de Botton— that love is a form of education.  Our significant others are instructors in the school of life, coaches who challenge us to build upon our strengths and remedy our weaknesses.

While it’s true your partner shouldn’t try to shape you into something you’re not, growth is the cornerstone of the greatest relationships.  Each of us— no matter how intelligent or attractive or accomplished— are flawed: we sulk when our feelings are hurt, we throw fits when we lose at trivia, we furiously honk our horns and cut people off when driving on the highway during rush hour.  A good partner will possess the qualities we lack and teach us how to express our emotions, control our road rage and stop being such a sore loser.  As hooks writes, when we commit to love, we commit to being changed by another.Ultimately, love is care, affection, recognition, respect, commitment, trust, and honest, open communication.  Love isn’t abuse, belittlement, cruelty, or humiliation.  In a moment that is as revelatory as it is painfully obvious, hooks declares “love and abuse cannot coexist.”  Though it seems self-evident that love is incompatible with mistreatment, many of us— especially those who were abused as children— struggle to accept this fact.  As any psychologist will tell you, our conception of love begins with our family of origin.  If we were physically, psychologically, or emotionally abused, if we were constantly criticized or compared to another sibling, if we were simply neglected and never listened to, we will make the logical leap that love = pain/neglect/abuse.

As adults, we replicate the same childhood scripts but find different actors to play the roles of our dysfunctional parents.  If our father beat us after one too many gin and tonics, we marry an alcoholic who’s just as short-tempered and just as violent; if our mother was a narcissist, we only find ourselves attracted to the most self-absorbed women.

Hooks contends that if we grew up in a dysfunctional home where our parents said “I love you” but also hurt us, called us names, minimized our feelings or acted as if we didn’t exist, we have to come to terms with a devastating fact: we do not know what love is.  We’ve never known love and, sadly, have spent much of our lives in a state of lovelessness.

The good news is that love is a skill: we can learn to love just as we learned the state capitals and letters of the alphabet.  Want more insight into this rare and immensely important ability?  Read Alain de Botton on love’s two stages: idealization and disillusionment, how heartbreak dispels our hubris, love as the origin of beauty, the lover as a detective obsessed with decoding symbols and discerning meaning, and dating as a form of performative playacting.  Longing for even more lessons on how to love?  Revisit French novelist Marcel Proust on how to be happy in love and philosopher, painter and poet Kahlil Gibran’s timeless meditations on love as our most demanding work.