The Basic Shape of Love

May 21, 2017 — 3 minute read

Have you ever wondered how to describe love? Love is perhaps the most highly sought after value—even something we aspire to become, and as such, it deserves our reflection. Here, I explore its basic structure and meaning to help focus our vision on what it means to be a loving person. Then, I offer two insights into why it is difficult to love others at a fundamental level. The Greeks identified various kinds of love related to friendship (philía), family (storgē), romance (erós), charity (agápe) and so on—and I’m setting these kinds of love aside for the moment to explore the mere nature of love.

Recall a time when you received something you didn’t deserve or expect, like having a bunch of friends show up for a surprise birthday. On the flip side, think of a time when you gave something to someone without expecting anything back—perhaps you threw a birthday party for someone. What is worth noting here is that love begins with a relationship between giver and receiver.

Consider the surprise birthday example. Let’s take it in slow motion play-by-play to break down its basic form. I’ll call the person throwing the birthday the “lover” and the person for whom the birthday is thrown, the “beloved.” First, the lover holds the beloved as someone who is valuable. This appreciation of the beloved is the starting place of love—it ignites the desire to give. From the beloved’s perspective, the gift is received and he is being overwhelmed with gratitude. And, as a result, a bond of unity is formed between the lover and the beloved.

So, the basic structure of love is: the gift satisfying the need. The lover holding the beloved as valuable (in and of themselves) and gives on this basis. The beloved receives the gift with gratitude for the lover. Like two parts of a whole, gift and need come together and produce a harmonious relationship. What would this basic structure of love look like in more practical terms? To put this in practical terms, the person who embodies this basic structure of love would have a readiness to will what is good for others. It is all about meeting the needs of others.

In practice, there are two fundamental challenges built into the nature of love, which make it challenging for us to love.

The knowledge challenge

Firstly, often we don’t know what the beloved needs. This is a problem if you truly want to give the gift someone needs. It’s a knowledge problem. In fact, sometimes we don’t know our own needs and have a difficult time loving ourselves.

In the case of the birthday example, the “need for belonging” might be the focus—a basic need identified by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.1 Given this observation about love, consider asking: how can I better understand the needs of people in my life?

The resource challenge

Secondly, even with understanding into the needs of those around us, in many cases, we lack the means to satisfy them. This is a problem of lacking resources. For instance, if someone is deeply depressed there are a limited number of things we can do to help. Certainly, a psychiatrist, psychologist, pastor, or friend could help, but there may be times when what they need appears to be greater than what human resources can give. In response to this observation, consider asking: Who can I partner with in helping others?

In summary, the basic structure of love is that of gift satisfying need. Our lack of understanding of people’s needs and our lack of resources should make us more mindful of others needs and more creative in how we can work together in giving to others.


1 I left the meaning of “human need” undefined but wanted to touch on it briefly. The presumption I begin with is that love helps people become more fully human, and for this reason, I used the “need for belonging” from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as a familiar example. A couple other significant presumptions also include a) the reality of human nature and 2) the reality of an ideal human nature. For now, suffice to say, a few things about the concept of nature and what it means for humans. The nature of a towel is to dry; the nature of a pencil is to make marks; the nature of a hammer is to drive nails. In the same way, humans have something they are meant to be.