On Love

Mark Vernon
Feb 11th, 2021



Many stories have been told about love, exploring the way it works, the way it pains, its delight and promise. It is a confusing subject, at once a self-evidently “good thing”, perhaps the most important capacity possessed by human beings, and simultaneously a confusing feeling, which can lead people astray as well as direct them aright.

It is a matter to which developmental psychology has turned, producing ideas such as attachment theory, and I think the significance of this still relatively new understanding of love is, as yet, not fully appreciated. The new science tells the story of love as it emerges across the course of a human life. It also suggests a source of love attested to by wisdom traditions across many ages. But before coming to that, consider first the development of love in our lives.

It happens, broadly speaking, in three stages, with the possibility of a fourth discovery at the end. At each stage a different capacity for love becomes possible, one deeper and more expansive than what was previously known. However, the transition between each mode is painful because it requires letting go of the security that comes with the kind of love known at that point. A life will tend to go well, and an individual will be more likely to flourish, if they can wisely utilise and fully enjoy each kind of love. Conversely, things will tend to become stuck and troubled, perhaps seriously damaged, when movement between the loves is blocked.

The first of the loves identified by developmental psychology is self-love or, to give it its seemingly darker, more technical name, narcissism. Across the course of a life, this will be the first love that is experienced too, as the evidence is that it is the kind of love with which we are born. On the whole, this early narcissism serves us well because it ensures we survive. It selfishly demands the nourishment and security, both physical and psychological, that a newborn child needs. However, it has a downside. It has little or no appreciation that other human beings exist as separate entities in the world. So if it is not transcended by becoming the basis for other types of love, it leaves us lonely and isolated, worried by others and untrusting. Put it like this: we must love ourselves so that we can get over ourselves, to be comfortable in our own skin and feel basically secure in life. Then we can see there is more to life apart from ourselves.

That makes the second type of love possible, the love that discovers there is at least one other person in the world, and that this person is both lovely and returns love.

Typically, such a realisation begins to dawn on the young child that it has a mother, father, or a primary carer, who is devoted to it. The infant is encouraged to explore the little intimacies that this other person longs to share and, in time, the youngster develops the capacity for a healthy attachment to this other. The warmth of their twosome nurtures it in the wonderful experience of not being alone. The child grows in love, develops a stronger sense of itself through this relationship and, all being well, lays down capacities that will serve it well when, as a young adult, it falls in love and discovers once more that there is another person who might love them, and moreover, whom they might love.

It is a cozy state of affairs, and one that might be thought of as the pinnacle of love, when it is experienced as the love we call romantic love. But, in fact, a crucial stress in the developmental account of love is that romantic love is not the end of love. In fact, left in that phase, love becomes as limited and limiting as the first type of love, narcissism. What can happen if a couple believe that they must fully satisfy each other is that they become isolated in their relationship, struggling to find fulfilment in each other, when in truth, fulfilment for human beings requires more than just loving one other person alone.

In terms of the development of the child, this expansion takes place with another transition beyond the love shared with a primary carer, which again is difficult. However, if once more a child navigates the shift well enough, a third even more tremendous experience of love comes into view. It is the love that can welcome a third dimension into its embrace. This is love is expansive and open and, with it, the individual can throw themself wholeheartedly into life.

The first experience of this third love is likely to occur when the young child realises that their parent has other interests and loves. It might be a partner, or work, or personal passions. It can come as a shock for the child to sense it is not the only object of its parent’s attention, hence the difficulty of making the transition. However, if the child can sense that, say, Mum loves Dad, they may also sense that Dad loves them as well as Mum. Love triangulates, you might say, which enables all kinds of experiences that were inconceivable before.

One of the most astonishing is that the individual becomes able to notice that it can observe two others as it watches on, which leads to the sense that it too can be lovingly watched.

This is the basis for self-awareness and self-consciousness, and the sense that the center of life is not focused on me, or in between me and another, but is dispersed throughout fields or networks of loving connection.

When this triangular experience is internalised, life can become much more promising and complex, and at times frightening, than the early infant knew. With this third love, the child – and then adult – develops the confidence and trust required to enter into mature love and so to be a friend, to pursue interests and passions: all in all to reach out into the life that it first tasted, though only in part, in the nursery.

Again, this stage brings risks. Getting the hang of it is always tricky, and on occasion there will be experiences that are setbacks. Love is always challenging, never an automatic panacea, and when it is presented as such that usually involves a regression to the first love with a return to the delusion that there is no-one in the world but me.

So there are at least three types of love by this account, and it is worth asking which one is front of mind in any discussion of love. Is it self-love, romantic love, or an open love of life? Ideally, the person will have access to all three. For example, under stress, self-love is a blessing. What works best is when there is an easy capacity to move from time of love to another, as life requires. The course of love never did run smooth, the proverb says. That is only because love can be as unexpected as the gift it offers to us, called life.

However, there is also a fourth type of love. It becomes clear when the first three are, as it were, mastered, because it opens up another dimension of existence again. In wisdom traditions this element is known as the most complete kind of love, and it is given many names, including universal compassion, the sacred, and God. It is the love that makes possible an openness that reaches not just for others, or for life, but for nothing less than the infinite.

That happens because we human beings are the creatures for whom our own existence is too small. We long for more out of life, always more. That can be found, in part, in the love of friends and the love of family, the love of science, the arts.

Though truly to give yourself to these people and things carries the peril of becoming aware of a deeper longing in you, one that may never be satisfied.

Plato realised this feature of human experience. In works like the Symposium and the Phaedrus, he provides a vivid description of the way that the fourth type of love works by addressing this seeming insatiable longing. It has the remarkable quality of revealing an experience of life that far transcends the first taste of love that awoke us to its allure. By committing to live a life in pursuit of love, Plato says, life will become far more for us than we might imagine because love carries within itself a tremendous transformative potential. The individual who loves enough – be it as a friend, a parent, a scientific or artistic explorer – is changed as they love. Love itself seems to overcome inherent limitations, often to a surprising degree, and when that change goes well, people find their capacity for loving expanding too. They know more and more of life.

That said, Plato stressed that love is a tricky path to follow, one of great toil, likely setbacks, and possible failure. Human beings find themselves in something of a bind when it comes to love because the love that spontaneously arises within the individual is inevitably limited and flawed for the reason that human beings are limited and flawed creatures. We are always, in a way, failures in love.

It is a truth that chimes with developmental psychology. There are the anxious experiences that must be born for the infant to transcend their narcissism and grant that their first carer has interests other than itself. The pattern is likely to repeat, at least in moments of crisis, right across the course of a life. However, if discovered, the fourth type of love can answer these difficulties because of an extraordinary feature it possesses.

It emerges with a kind of reversal. What happens is that the mature individual, one who has a good facility with love, comes to see that they, and their relationships, are not the source of love, but rather, they realise that love pre-exists them. It always was already flowing through life and has originated, forged and made them.

This sense can be thought of as an extension of the awakenings that occur across the development of the child. The young infant did not at first know that a carer with an independent life was there, though there was. Later, it did not know that the carer was supported by the love of others that it could share too, though that was revealed when the child awoke to the reality of love in a triangular formation.

This leads to the sense that love comes from elsewhere; when we love, we are standing on the shoulders of giants. The friend of CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien, Owen Barfield, offered an analogy that extends the insight to life itself. He suggests that to be human is to be like an Aeolian harp. These musical instruments consist of a wooden box and sounding board, over which strings are stretched across a bridge. They look a little like a violin without the neck, and are not played by a bow, but rather by the wind. Aeolian harps are placed in openings across which the wind may blow, perhaps at a window: Aeolus is the god of the wind. As the air current sweeps across the strings, so the music from the harp shifts and evolves.

Barfield suggested that we are the harp, and the wind is the love required to make the music. We have a creative part to play in the harmonies that emerge, though without the pre-existing love there could only be silence. And there is clearly not only silence, there is all the noisiness of life, which implies that there is also transcendent love – much of the noisiness stemming from human beings seeking it.

Augustine of Hippo thought a lot about love and came to the conclusion that this fourth type of love was closer to him than he was to himself, as he put it. Moreover, because it is a love that does not depend upon him in any way, it is also utterly reliable. That experience of reliability grew as he let go of his need to foster love in his life, and instead let this divine love flow into his life, like the Aeolian embracing the wind.

In short, awakening to the fourth type of love brings a sense that the most basic truth in life is not that we yearn for more when clumsily we love, though we do, but that the constant, unclouded love of God yearns for us. The journey of a life through love can reveal this truth and establish it as the one constant in life. You could put it like this: the reason human beings need love in order to live, and need to develop their perception of love in order to mature, is that love is the ground and basis of the life itself. Ultimately, love is not from us. It makes and made us. And it invites us to know that this is so.


Mark Vernon is a writer, psychotherapist and associate of Perspectiva. He is the author of several books, including his latest, out this year: A Secret History of Christianity: Jesus, the Last Inkling and the Evolution of Consciousness

These ideas are explored more fully in Mark Vernon’s book, Love: All That Matters.