I love my husband, and I love my wife.
Although we’re no longer married, I still refer to her as my wife, because she’s the only one I’ve ever had, and I doubt that I’ll ever be looking for another one. When I hear the term ex-wife, I see wife with a big red slash through it.
I also love my husband, whom I have been with now for thirty-three years. Both my wife and my husband are important parts of my life and history.
A few weeks ago, my husband and I went out to dinner with a good friend who was a classmate of mine in medical school. Early in our professional careers, he and his first wife had been friends with my wife and me, so I invited my wife to join us.
I said to the server, “This is my husband . . . and this is my wife.” At first, he looked stunned, but then his expression changed to “Oh . . . now I get it.”
I Also Love Puppies and Ice cream.
I love my kids and grandkids, my friends and family, but I also love puppies and ice cream. While no one expects me to love puppies and my husband in the same way, some do reject the idea that I can love both my husband and my wife.
Although we use the word love in all these situations, we can’t understand the nature of that love without naming what it is we love. Sanskrit has nearly 100 different words for love depending on the object of those feelings. In English, we have one word for all those possibilities.
. . .
I can love both my husband and wife as well as dill pickles.
Love is a nearly meaningless word unless we name the target of that love.
When someone says, “You couldn’t possibly have loved your wife, because you’re gay” — I’ve heard that many times — they’re flat-out wrong. They don’t understand that love is much more nuanced and ambiguous than the divisions suggest, and the divisions often blend into one another.
After I published Finally Out, I sometimes heard comments like this: You had to know you were gay before you turned forty-years-old. Your wife was just a shield to protect you.
The server at the restaurant seemed to have a better understanding. He knew that I love my husband, but that I also still love my wife. In fact, my husband and my wife love each other too.
Love is love. . . Or is it?
The Greeks had four words to describe what we call love:
1. Eros — Romantic love
2. Phileo — Friendship
3. Storge — Love and loyalty to family
4. Agape — Unconditional love
These distinct categories help us understand how I can love both my husband and wife as well as dill pickles, but one cannot easily categorize love. These categories help explain how we can love more than one person at the same time, but when categorizing love, we often arbitrarily assign it exclusively to one category.
I have loved both my wife and husband in all four categories to varying degrees and at various times in our relationships.
Love is not stagnant; it is a dynamic process that changes over time.
When I did the research for Finally Out, I interviewed my wife about our sex life. Her response resonated with me. “We thought our sex life was as good as it gets, but we were naïve and inexperienced. Now we know it wasn’t enough for either of us.”
. . .
Erotic love tingles our bodies; it merges sexual urges and lust. Although we often hope — or mistakenly believe — it will last forever, its intensity cannot sustain a relationship.
Some suggest that because this type of love is so exhausting and all-consuming, it cannot last for more than about a year. But we’re thunderstruck when it happens. And devastated when it ends.
As the erotic components of love diminish over time, other kinds of love must either replace some of those erotic elements, or the relationship dies.
But even while continuing to love the person who previously made our body tingle, as the erotic love diminishes and conflict enters the relationship, people begin to hunger for someone else who will make their toes curl again.
Some seek only erotic love, opting for serial, short-term lovers.
. . .
Phileal love, or friendship-like love, expresses our tastes, preferences, culture, and beliefs. This love is rich, emotional, and enduring.
As I reflect on my relationship with my wife, it had a great deal of phileal love, but not enough erotic love. Although early in our relationship, we both felt the exciting, toe-curling love of a more erotic variety, that love died too quickly for both of us.
We both came from small towns in Nebraska where people looked alike, thought alike, and believed alike, so we made deep connections from the beginning of our relationship. This love continues to draw us together.
. . .
Agape love is more of a parental, mature, and sacrificial kind of love. Many, if not most, parents will say that they would be willing to die for their children; I certainly feel that way about mine.
Unconditional agape love is what children hope for and expect from their parents.
A lack of agape love cuts deeply into self-esteem.
Like erotic love, agape love is idealistic and unrealistic, and it can lead to exceptional self-sacrifice at a considerable cost to the bearer. This is perhaps most easily seen in people who enable their family members with a substance used disorder by disregarding the natural consequences of their addiction.
. . .
Storge love is a love of community and family. More dutiful than emotional, this category has the power to suppress the other forms. I came to the relationship with my wife with a tightly wound set of those values.
Are you living your own life or living by someone else’s values?
Our inherited values can be a hindrance when culture and family hold back our growth, as shown in these slightly edited comments left on an earlier essay:
For this man, erotic and storge love compete with each other and are mutually exclusive.
Deconstructing Inherited Values
Maturity offers us the freedom to reexamine how we love.
We begin to understand two truths: Erotic attraction has no expiration date and can persist well into late life, but while it is exciting, it diminishes over time. While storge love gives us a sense of commitment to the values we inherited from others, these values also can bind us to a life of inauthenticity.
Parental and cultural values are a starting point for our personal values, not an endpoint.
Agape love can lead us to sacrifice too much of ourselves to meet what we believe are the expectations of others whom we love. Sacrifice and compromise are a part of all loving relationships, but sacrificing too much leads to anger and resentment.
With maturity, we learn that erotic love by itself holds the false promise that passionate love can last forever, and friendship love without erotic love can lead us to seek erotic love elsewhere.
We know that erotic love in our primary relationships will diminish over time, but with a bit of work, we can sustain some of it. We also learn that we will always be tempted by other erotic attractions.
Each of us may be drawn to erotic, phileal, agape, or storge love to the near exclusion of the other types of love. But balancing these loving forces allows me to love both my wife and husband, puppies, and ice cream.
. . .
Loren A. Olson, MD
Dr. Olson is a father, a psychiatrist, and gay. He came out after eighteen years of marriage to his wife, and he has now been with his partner/husband for thirty-three years. He is the award-winning author of Finally Out: Letting Go of Living Straight.
This post was previously published on Hello, Love and is republished here with permission from the author.
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