Love is the core of human experience and central to our meaning in life and wellbeing, yet it is also a complex concept full of ambiguity and contradiction. The main purpose of this paper is fourfold: Firstly, we want to clarify questions such as “What is the meaning of love?” and “Why is meaning of love so important to us?” Secondly, we want to explain why love is both suffering and essential for our happiness and mental health. Thirdly, we identify the major types of love and clarify which types are constructive and which are destructive. We also identify the key dimensions of true love. Finally, we emphasize that love does not always mean happiness; rather, it is meant to be a school to teach us important lessons and to make us complete. Therefore, we need to embrace suffering and at the same time cultivate the constructive types of love to improve our mental health and to make the world a more compassionate place.

Keywords. Meaning of love, love is suffering, taxonomy of love, constructive love, destructive love, agape, cross-cultural differences, harmony, mental health, wellbeing

(This paper was co-authored with Dr. Claude-Hélène Mayer.)

What does it mean when someone says, “I love you.”? Misinterpreting this statement can lead to a life of misery or even tragic death. What does it mean, when someone says, “I do it for your good, because I love you.”? Many parents have ruined their children, even though their actions are motivated by love for their children. On the other hand, some of the most noble and inspiring deeds are motivated by love – someone donates their organs or lays down their lives to save others; another patiently endures all kinds of suffering in order to serve their chronically disabled or ill partner. How can we tell the difference between the destructive and the constructive types of love? How can we heal the violence, racial divides, and hatred in our society with love? How can we prevent lonely people from falling prey to love scams? How to resolve the dilemma that we cannot live without love, and yet we cannot be in love without being vulnerable to wounding? How do we know who are worth suffering for? These are some of the questions that motivated this article.

Love, when properly understood, can be the most creative and transformative force in heaven and on earth. The most noble and sublime human achievements are motivated by love. Erich Fromm (1956/2019) says that, “Love is the only sane and satisfactory answer to the problem of human existence,” because it can conquer all fears (Simpson, 2016). Unlike a candlelight, true love cannot be extinguished. Neither rejection nor insult, neither separation nor death, can put out the flame of undying love. In one form or another, true love always finds a way to bless its love objects, no matter how great the sacrifice. The greatest literature, music and religions are inspired by love.

Yet on the dark side of love, we have Cain’s killing of his brother Abel (NIV, Gen 4:8) because of anger and envy of the felt injustice of not receiving the same kind of love as Abel (Kaczor, 2018). There is also other crimes of passion; for instance, the well-known lines by William Congreve: “Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, / Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned” (Tréguer, 2017) can also be found in Asian culture (Gallep, 2016), and in real life (Clarkson, 2010). Pfeiffer and Wong’s (1989) pathological jealousy can also drive people to do all kinds of horrible things to others, just short of killing.

The present paper examines the paradoxical nature of love from interdisciplinary and intercultural perspectives (Mayer & Vanderheiden, 2021). It first explores why love is a bittersweet thing, both in its blessings and its curses from the perspective of existential positive psychology (EPP). For example, love can either motivate people to lay down their lives for others, or drive people to crimes of passion. For better or worse, love is the most powerful force in life as an emotion and as motivation. Love can either sustain us in the worst of hell, as attested by Frankl in Nazi death camps, or torments people in their private hell of unrequited love or betrayed love.  

Secondly, in terms of psychology and neuroscience (Fromm, 1956; Horstman, 2011), we are wired for relationships, and we suffer from both insecure attachment and enmeshed attachment (Ainsworth & Bowlby, 1991). From the vantage point of religion, Buddhism recognizes that life is suffering; therefore, life is suffering with its egotistic desires and attachment. Buddhism also recognizes that compassionate love is essential for survival and health. For example, the Dalai Lama says, “Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive.” Christianity teaches that God is love and we are made in God’s image. Therefore, love is also part of human nature, and part of the spiritual fruit (Galatians 5:22-23); we cannot have real joy without love.

Thirdly, this paper examines the meaning of love as one of the mature sources of meaning of life (Wong, 1998). Furthermore, from the perspective of existential positive psychology (EPP; Wong, Mayer et al., 2021; Wong et al., 2022), we feel that life is meaningful and fulfilling when we meet the Golden Triad of spiritual needs: Being attuned with our true self and life purpose, being connected with others in intimacy or communion, and achieving a sense of oneness with nature and its Creator.

Finally, our paper proposes a possible way out of the paradox of love by learning the wisdom of avoiding unnecessary suffering in matters of love and embracing the joy and suffering for a higher purpose and the greater good. We also cite empirical research to support our thesis that meaningful suffering can make us better human beings and the world a better place (Wong & Laird, in press).

Love is a major source of meaning in life and the core of human experience (D. Wong, 2012; P. Wong, 1998). Consistent with Wong’s (1998) finding, Aron and Aron (1989) also conclude that love contributes to meaning at three levels: with close friends, with community and by transcending both friends and community. These findings support our thesis that self-transcendence.

Love is so important and central to our lives, yet it is also a complex concept. It encompasses both positive and negative emotions, behaviors, and belief. Love has been defined as a universal concept with social and culture-specific meanings (Beall & Sternberg, 1995; Karandashev, 2019, Mayer & Vanderheiden, 2021); at the same time, suffering is often considered as an integrated part of the experience of love, in particular within indigenous and folk psychology (Karandashev, 2021).

We have just provided the contours and the scope of love. The reference to indigenous and folk psychology (Karandashev, 2021) is important, because it highlights that  the idea of love as suffering is universal, especially when it is not filtered through the lens of Western positive psychology.

As a complex concept, love can be either the most powerful motivator for growth or the most destructive force in your life — it all depends on the kind of love one has embraced.

Love is much more than a feeling. It is a discipline and a daily practice of patience, endurance, and forgiveness to maintain an important relationship because loving relationships, like faith and hope, is one of the essentials we need for mental health and happiness. We have to work very hard to find out what makes our relationships work (Fromm, 1956).

In reviewing Kottman’s Love as Human Freedom, Wilson (2017) comments that love involves an exercise of freedom of the will to engage in sex as an ideal of “reflecting reciprocal passionate engagement with another person and love-based commitments: social institutions and laws that assume marriage and the formation of families based on erotic love.” Along the same line, erotic love can lead to spiritual union (Chu-Cong, 1999; Culliford, 2015). Similarly, Popova (2017) points out that Rollo May’s concept of love is more than just a desire; along with the will, love is a responsible use of freedom, involving intentionality and imagination, to create a better future for self and others. She cites May (1969/2007):

“Love and will are interdependent and belong together. Both are conjunctive processes of being — a reaching out to influence others, molding, forming, creating the consciousness of the other. But this is only possible, in an inner sense, if one opens oneself at the same time to the influence of the other.”

May’s concept of love and will is similar to Wong’s (2010) motto of Meaning Therapy: “Meaning is all we need and relationship is all we have.” We can change a person through the two interrelated powerful forces in human life – the will to meaning and the commitment to loving others as oneself. To love and serve others is indeed an exercise of the will choosing not to serve the desires of the flesh but the spirit of love and joy. Wong (1998) further confirm empirically that both intimate love and love for the community are an integral part of will to meaning or will to self-transcendence. It is the reoriented from egotism to self-transcendence (Frankl, 1988; Wong, 2021a). As shown in Galatians 5:13 (NIV): “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love.”

The main purpose of this paper is threefold: Firstly, we want to explain why love is both suffering and essential for our happiness and mental health. Secondly, we identify the major types of love and clarify which types are constructive and which types are destructive. Finally, we emphasize how we can cultivate the constructive types of love to improve our mental health and make the world a more compassionate place.


Love is Both Suffering and Essential for Our Wellbeing

Cultural Differences

When love is unreachable or unattained, or when lovers are separated, usually love turns into suffering. According to De Munck and Kronenfeld (2016), individuals who experience suffering in the context of love often associate the suffering in the context of love with loneliness, helplessness, frustration, sadness, hurt, vulnerability, jealousy, and anger. Various culture-specific concepts of love refer to suffering and pain while describing love experiences to the in-depth experience of love. Karandashev (2021) highlights several cultural groups in which love is strongly connected to the concept of suffering, such as in Russian culture which emphasizes love as being an obstacle and problem in itself (Pilishvili & Koyanongo, 2016). In Turkish culture, love is associated with joy rather than suffering, however, it might also be experienced as painful (Aksan & Kantar, 2008).

Pain is – besides suffering – an important concept that is related to love across different cultures, as, for example in Polish literature (Lewandowska-Tomaszczyk & Wilson, 2021). The authors highlight that in some cultures, the concept of love is connected to the experience of sadness, which is again associated with regret, longing, and pain (Lewandowska-Tomaszczyk & Wilson, 2021). Within the pain, love can be found. Pain further can be overcome by love, compassion, empowerment and loving kindness, and humanness (Mayer, 2021). There are different culture-specific terms and concepts across cultures which refer to love, pain, and suffering.

Focusing more on romantic relationships and erotic love experiences, researchers have shown that there are differences in how love is experienced, expressed, and conducted in various cultures (Karandashev, 2021). Kutcha (2021), for example, has researched Teen Romance novels and American Teen Relational Capacity. According to the author, American teens often lack role models of in-depth, genuine, deep love relationships and therefore suffer loneliness, depression, and anxiety (Kutcha, 2021). To lose a loved person creates extreme suffering and pain within the individuals who are being left behind (Kutcha, 2021). This is the case when an individual’s love is rejected or a person is left behind (Chesnokova & van Peer, 2021), when a loved one gets a life-threatening diagnosis (van Tongeren & Showalter van Tongeren, 2020) or when a loved one dies (Kutcha, 2021).

In the German context, one extraordinary example of a suffering person within the context of love is Goethe, a scientist, philosopher, poet, and novelist. Throughout his life, he suffered personal love disappointments, emotional crisis, and an everlasting search for deep love (Holm-Hadulla & Wendt, 2021). For Goethe, love amongst his family helped him to overcome negative emotions, such as despair, melancholy, pain, and suffering. However, at the same time, suffering for Goethe was also part of love, as described in his novel “The Sufferings of Young Werther”, a novel that describes the pain and suffering of a young man and his unfulfilled love. This novel is an example of Western and European literature and its reference to love and suffering and the idea that suffering is part of love, while in-depth passionate love (agape and eros) can, both, create suffering and love and despair, pain and suffering are all integrated (Holm-Hadulla & Wendt, 2021). The idea that suffering is a central part of love is also mentioned by the philosopher Schopenhauer (1844) who mentioned that love can alleviate suffering since love is compassion by nature.

Another example of love and suffering, as dependent concepts, is found in the cultures of Northern Africa: Dragonetti (1960) explained that in Mauritania, Moorish women usually test the men when they get into a love relationship and the men is called a “sufferer” (sofridor): the men have to suffer through the steps of the evolving love. Women test the men while making them suffer through the steps of relationship building in order to test men’s ability to be patient. Fortier (2021) also describes the idea of suffering and pain in Mauritania, thereby referring to the experience that the presence and the absence of the loved one can make you feel suffering. Suffering further happens when a couple that was previously in love has to recognized that there is no love amongst them any longer and they go through a divorce process. This divorce process is often experienced as a process of suffering, a process in which love is lost or absent (Wang, 2021) or unrequited (Vanderheiden, 2021).


Love is Not Happiness, But Bittersweet

The best possible life is bitter-sweet (Cain, 2022; Wong, 2022). We can apply the same existential perspective to matters of love. We believe that the main obstacle to understanding the meaning of love is the deeply entrenched misconception of equating love with happiness as a positive emotion. At present, there is a growing trend of seeking divorce for the sole reason that the relationship no longer brings happiness, even though the spouse is as good as they can be given that no person is perfect.

The happiness craze is killing us as individuals and as a nation because it not only makes us feel unhappy but takes us away from the more important pursuits of meaning, character building, love, and harmony (Wong, 2019; Wong et al., 2022). Years ago, Hermann Hesse stated “Oh, love isn’t there to make us happy. I believe it exists to show us how much we can endure.” (Hesse & Michels, 2001). But enduring pain is not necessarily bad because he also affirmed the possibility of transformation: “I have always believed, and I still believe, that whatever good or bad fortune may come our way we can always give it meaning and transform it into something of value.”

At a deeper level, love and suffering are inextricably connected. I cannot think of a kind of love that does not include some kind of suffering either now or later. One can enjoy the thrills of sex, but there is always of the aftermath of sensual exploitation of one’s body as an object. The bitter-sweet nature of love has been emphasized by many people, from psychologists to writers:

To love means to open ourselves to the negative as well as the positive – to grief, sorrow, and disappointment as well as to joy, fulfillment, and an intensity of consciousness we did not know was possible before. – Rollo May

To love is to suffer and there can be no love otherwise. – Fyodor Dostoevsky (1864/1994)

What is hell? I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love. – Fyodor Dostoevsky (1879/2005)

To love is to suffer. To avoid suffering, one must not love. But then one suffers from not loving. Therefore, to love is to suffer, not to love is to suffer, to suffer is to suffer. – Woody Allen (1975)

In a recent CBC interview, Bob Becken (2022) spoke to Carrie Jenkins about her new book, Sad Love (Jenkins, 2022). She wants to wake us up from the fairy tale of romance and marriage. During that interview, Jenkins stated that:

A lot of us live most of our days somewhere in the middle of extremely euphoric and extremely miserable. I’m trying to liberate as many people as I can from these expectations that make a lot of us feel like we’re failing all the time. Those expectations can be about what a relationship looks like or even that you should have a romantic relationship in your life at all. Sadness is a part of life and a part of the human condition. I think sadness is something to be embraced and understood, not pushed away and tucked into dark corners where we don’t listen to it or examine it.

As Hermann Hesse notes, “Love your suffering. Do not resist it, do not flee from it. It is only your aversion to it that hurts, nothing else.”


Constructive vs. Destructive Types of Love

First of all, we need to separate love from some related concepts. Love is different from liking. For example, although we may like someone as a person with good manners or good character, we may not have the personal feeling of love. Similarly, we may be madly in love with someone, but we may not like that person’s character.

According to Rubin (1970), romantic love is made up of three elements: (1) Attachment: The need to be cared for and be with the other person. (2) Caring: Valuing the other person’s happiness and needs as much as your own. (3) Intimacy: Sharing private thoughts, feelings, and desires with the other person. But liking only involves feelings of respect and warmth (Cherry, 2022).

Similarly, sex and love are related but not the same. One can have casual sex or one-night stands without any feelings of love or one can love without sex, such as Platonic love or friendly love. Some elements of sexual attraction may be present between good friends or soulmates, but sexual consummation may ruin those relationships.

Sex is an important part of marriage (Wilson & McLaughlin, 2003) to the extent that physical intimacy is an essential part of marriage, but true love involves much more than hormones and sexual intercourse.

It is a sad commentary on today’s dating scene. According to Dr. Joan Allen (Heubeck, 2007), author of Celebrating Single and Getting Love Right: From Stalemate to Soulmate (2016), having sex too early while dating may have undesirable consequences because it takes time to learn whether the other person truly loves you and sexual attraction may prevent you from knowing the character of the person you are dating:

Especially among older people who went through the sexual revolution, with maturity they realize there are emotional consequences for getting involved in a sexual relationship.

One young man in his early to mid-20s told Dr. Allen that, “if he didn’t have sex on the first or second night, he’d move on to the next person.” This young man is looking for sex, not true love. Both men and women no longer have the same patience as the Baby Boomer generation because “the pill” allows them to have sexual enjoyment without worrying about unwanted pregnancy.


Different Types of Love

Wong (2021b) reviewed how various psychologists have attempted to differentiate different types of love. According to Tennov (1979), love is mutual, and is characterized by concern for the welfare of the beloved, whereas Limerence is passionate love with all-consuming emotional intensity. ‘Limerence is a state of infatuation or obsession with another person that involves an all-consuming passion and intrusive thoughts” (Grainger, 2022). Similarly, Peele and Brodsky (1975) differentiate between addictive love and genuine love. Love addiction or sex addition works very much like drug addiction (Katehakis, 2011). Sex addiction is a preoccupation with sexual experiences, while love addiction involves preoccupation with an idealized or fantasized relationship which is destructive.

Lee (1973) has developed the most complete taxonomy of love featuring six types of love (Grieve, 2017): (1) Eros, where the lovers search for someone with specific physical characteristics; (2) pragma, where potential love-objects are rationally considered; (3) agape, where the person loves without expectation of reciprocation; (4) ludus, where love is treated as game, free and fun, with no strings attached; (5) storage, which is similar to compassionate love, and (6) mania, which is similar to addictive love. We introduce Lee’s (1973) taxonomy of love because it represents an early attempt to describes different styles of expressing love. It does not claim to be an exhaustive taxonomy. Philia or friendship is represented by storage in Lee’s terminology. For example, it misses the philia or brotherly love, which is part of the four classic loves – Charity (Agape), Friendship (Philia), Affection (Storge), and Romantic (Eros) as identified by C. S. Lewis (1960).

Sternberg (1988) views love as a triangular structure, consisting of three components: intimacy, passion, and decision/commitment. Various combinations of these components result in eight kinds of love: (1) nonlove (absence of the three components), (2) liking (intimacy in isolation), (3) infatuation (passion), (4) empty love (decision/commitment), (5) romantic love (passion and intimacy), (6) compassionate love (intimacy and decision/commitment), (7) fatuous love (passion and decision/commitment), and (8) consummate love (which includes all three components).

Although  Sternberg’s triangular theory is influential, it is not without criticisms. For example, Hedayati (2020) proposes that there are different types of relationships and attachment styles, while Sternberg’s theory focuses on romantic relationships. The present paper goes beyond this narrow focus on romantic relationship and explores the realm of love in all its potentials for suffering and transformation.

Unrequited love (Baumeister & Wotman, 1992; Psychology, n.d.) is another rather common and painful relationship, in which one sincerely loves another person who does not reciprocate. This raises the interesting scientific question: why do people persist in this kind of hopeless love, when there is so much pain? Perhaps, unrequited love teaches us two important things about true love: (1) There is deep joy in suffering for someone you truly love, and (2) we are wired to love others and only love can satisfy our spiritual needs for loving and being loved by someone. Enduring hopeless love is no love at all because hell is like loneliness without feelings of love.

Alexandra Gustafsoniscan (2022) even considers that if unrequited love is like torture, it is the kind of torture for a noble and worthwhile cause – sacrificial true love. He actually said: “The unrequited lover need not wish so impatiently for their love to end. Instead, they might embrace their love, for however long it persists.”

Lee (1973) recognizes agape love, which is similar to the Buddhist conception of compassion, the Confucian principle of ren, and the Christian concept of love as described fully in 1 Corinthians, Chapter 13:

If I speak in the tongues[a] of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

One can readily see that the Christian conception of love is a depiction of God’s love, because “God is love” (I John 4:16). Biblical teaching clearly tells that to love is to suffer, just as God sacrifices his own son Jesus to suffer and die on the Cross for us. God’s response to our suffering is to suffer for us and with us, so that we may have a new life, according to Hans Kuug: “God’s love does not protect us from suffering. God’s love protects us in the midst of suffering.” St. Sistern Faustina Kowlsky (n.d.) articulates clearly the broad way of happiness and the narrow way of suffering as the way of true love:

”Suffering is a great grace; through suffering the soul becomes like the Savior; in suffering love becomes crystallized; the greater the suffering, the purer the love “ (Diary 57).

In view of the above, we can conclude that the transformative, constructive types of love include the following type: Agape or sacrificial love, compassionate love, companionate love, Platonic love, brotherly love; they all involve suffering, but it is meaningful suffering to add some value to others.

Potentially destructive types of relationships or attachments include love addiction, sex addiction, mania, and lunas love. Unrequited love has some value of leaning the value of patience and endurance, but in the long run, it is destructive and wasting one’s time and emotional energy without benefit self or the love object. Self-centered love can be destructive when one is completely self-absorbed, without considering how it may affect others; on the other hand, healthy self-love in terms of self-compassion (Neff, 2015) and self-care is not only healthy but foundational to loving others, as the Bible commands us to “love your neighbor as yourself” (NIV, Mk. 12:31).

We propose that transformative love can be measured by the following dimensions: selflessness, patience, kindness, forgiveness, sincerity, and truthfulness. In the long run, these virtues will overcome whatever obstacles that may stand in the way of loving relationship.


How to Make Life Better with Love

The happiness craze without any consideration of morality and undesirable consequences can do immense damage to love relationships in a digital world. Criminals and psychopaths capitalize on the anonymity of the internet by creating false identities and apps to generate illegal profits and ruin other people’s life. Just consider the romance scams (Federal Bureau of Investigation, n.d.), sexual crimes with dating apps (Lefroy, 2022) and all the broken hearts and broken lives from searching for love in all the wrong places.

Love is more than a feeling. Love is not just feeling happy but also trains us in kindness, compassion, patience, forgiveness, and the responsible use of our freedom. In short, love is meant to be a school to teach us important lessons on how to be a decent, responsible human being, capable of commitment, compassion, and the discipline of self-transcendence (Wong, Arslan et al., 2021).

In terms of romantic love, the meaning of love is to suffer for the wellbeing and happiness of others, who are worthy of our devotion; this requires the wisdom to discern the difference between fake love and genuine love. Perhaps, the simplest test of whether someone is worth loving for is whether the other person is genuine and willing to make sacrifices for you.  

We not only derive meaning and deep joy from such selfless love. More importantly, true love contributes to mental health for both the individual and society, because it can heal broken relationships and a divided nation(Wong, in press). The practice of self-less love holds us together.

We can make life better for all by remembering these two important lessons:

  1. Together with faith and hope, love is essential for mental health. We need to have the discipline to cultivate love and compassion. “True love doesn’t happen right away; it’s an ever-growing process. It develops after you’ve gone through many ups and downs, when you’ve suffered together, cried together, laughed together,” says Ricardo Montalban.
  2. Suffering is an inevitable aspect of true love. Trying to avoid or get rid of suffering would be tantamount to getting rid of love itself, “because it always demands an element of self-sacrifice, because, given temperamental differences and the drama of situations, it will always bring with it renunciation and pain.” (Pope Benedict XVI, 2022)

True love is always costly. We either pay now or later. We cannot love without paying a price. If we choose to be carefree and single or without children so that we can have all the freedom and fun that this world can offer, if we choose divorce whenever our marriage no longer gives us happiness, we will pay the price of spending our old age alone and dying alone (Garrity, 2022).

On the other hand, if we accept suffering as an essential part of true love, and if we honor our marriage vow, we pay the price now by enduring the annoyances and weaknesses of our spouse, making the necessary sacrifice to bring love to the family. We will benefit later by having good children and retire happily and healthily. Harvard’s famous longitudinal study (Mineo, 2017) shows that good relationships is the most important factor contributing to happy and healthy aging.

Yes, love is suffering, but keep loving anyway. The alternative is much worse.


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