In general, what does it feel like to be loved?
June 18, 2013 4:42 AM   Subscribe

In general, what does it feel like to be loved?

I am an autistic man trying to build better mental models for emotional states. I'm using functional models because I can still understand them when I can't relate them to my own experience, which is rather a lot of the time. I may appreciate other kinds of models as well, supposing I can understand those.

My model for love is that it's what motivates people to improve one another's lives. Precisely what that means depends on what you think a good life is--when you love someone, you'll try to make their life more that way. It's better if you and your loved-one agree on what a good life is, and to that effect, healthy loving relationships require negotiation on how to define good life.

In symmetric loving relationships--those where the power is distributed more or less equally, created and maintained by the consent of those involved--loving and being-loved could well be one and the same, but a lot of loving relationships aren't like that. In particular, parent-child relations are hardly ever symmetric like that.

So there's some other emotion, often also called "love," which doesn't particularly motivate anything, which is the result of being loved by someone else. I've heard it described in terms similar to those for safety, security, and contentment. Most of the time, when my parents try to help me improve my life, I feel utterly terrified.

They are not abusive! They are sincere in their desire to help me live in whatever way makes me happy, and are patient in trying to understand what way that is, which is good because I don't understand it so well myself. I have to trust them to guess right about what I need.

They've earned that, I think, but trusting anyone with something so important is so unpleasant for me that I can't conceive of what would make a person want it. I need it, so I can understand why people seek love out, but there is also some kind of emotional appeal to the experience that seems not to exist for me.

So my functional model for the emotion, "being loved," is that it's what motivates people to stay in loving relationships longer than they need to, longer than they feel obliged to, and not because they would feel bad about leaving the relationship--that sounds more like fear to me.

For most other emotions I've encountered, I've been able to find something or other in my own experience that motivated me in a roughly similar way. I've acted out of love for someone else before. But I don't think I have ever acted out of a desire to be loved.

So what's it like?
posted by LogicalDash to Religion & Philosophy (21 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
I think your model takes a wrong turn at "what motivates people to improve one another's lives." I can understand that being off-putting, because adults prefer being in charge of themselves. Sure, when you love someone, you want them to be content and cared for, but you generally have to let them find their own path and provide support when you can. It's more of a "I've got your back" feeling.
posted by Metroid Baby at 5:08 AM on June 18, 2013 [4 favorites]

Bertrand Russell wrote an essay about love; I think it is in his collection 'Why I am not a Christian'. He suggests that love has two components, which may exist in varying ratios: wishing well (so, what you've been talking about) and delight in contemplation. Parents want good things for their infants, but they also feel very happy when looking at or thinking about them. In general, the more helpless the person, the more the well-wishing aspect predominates.

The feeling of being loved, then, might be modelled as a feeling that someone is looking out for your wellbeing, and also a feeling that someone appreciates you and regards you as good. People tend to act as if there were an objective or at least socially real (like eg money) quality of 'goodness' in them that determines how valuable a person they are. If people feel worthless they are miserable. Being loved is like the opposite of that, although if people are depressed or have low self-esteem they may be unable to feel that they are really lovable.

This is certainly more powerful and positive than mere well-wishing; when people are being helped by someone, but they do not feel that the person regards them as delightful and valuable, they tend to respond negatively. This happens, for example, when people are helped only by professionals like social workers; they are sometimes made even more unhappy because they never get to interact with someone who regards them as valuable in particular, rather than simply because they are a human being. Infants whose carers meet their physical needs but do not smile at them or cuddle them can become ill.

By contrast, feeling that someone thinks you are so wonderful that they would do anything for you can be quite intoxicating. It can make people more likely to take risks in social situations, because there is a 'cushion' of love that means they won't be reduced to social worthlessness if the gamble doesn't pay off.

You might want to read more analytic philosophy discussing emotions; I don't personally think it is very good at achieving its stated aims, but it is quite good at translating emotional language into functional terms.
posted by Acheman at 5:09 AM on June 18, 2013 [31 favorites]

I don't think it is the same for everyone. I'm sure its not the same feeling or mental construct for a given individual over the course of being loved by someone. It varies by type of relationship as well.

It can involve knowing that you are special or appreciated. It can tie into self esteem. It can involve feeling secure.

Have you ever seen something on TV that was beyond cool to you and then you someday actually got to do it? It can be exciting like that.

It can involve a feeling of responsibility to reciprocate.

There are situations where one discovers they are another's beloved and its uncomfortable because reciprocation isn't going to be of the same kind or intensity.

When you know someone loves you and its reciprocal there is a felling of specialness about the situation because you know you have an open channel with someone; an open channel that involves emotions, the sharing of things that happen, good, bad and trivial. Solitary existence has a weight or burdensome quality to it. So does being involved with people but they are of a different character. Connectedness often has a sense of relief to it, especially at first.

As love persists over time it changes character. It develops a richness- both the realizing that you are loved and the loving.

I think being loved and loving are so intertwined that it is hard to abstract the being loved part out of the mix.
posted by logonym at 5:10 AM on June 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've acted out of love for someone else before.

So, that's what it like for someone else to act out of love for you.

As I've sure you've read, love makes people not a little bit nutty. They will do fucking ANYTHING for you, if they love you. Listen to music you hate? Move to a place you've sworn you'd never move to? Consider robbing a bank? No problem, because the feeling of love makes that person bond to you like nothing else.
posted by Melismata at 5:10 AM on June 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

posted by 1970s Antihero at 5:10 AM on June 18, 2013 [3 favorites]

For love between two unrelated people, I think it's more of a desire to be with each other and having fun together. It's about a feeling that you can discuss anything with each other and feel safe and secure with that person. The beloved won't judge you or think ill of you, but will understand you. For me it's being understood, for all my folly and vanity and selfishness and still knowing that my beloved admires me and loves me, flaws and all.

I love Husbunny because he makes me laugh, and allows me to do and be my best self. He indulges my little freaks and will tell me when I'm being an asshole. Not to be mean, but to allow me to decide if that's what I really want to be.

When you love someone you want the best for them. Sometimes you don't know what that is, and sometimes you think you do and you become frustrated with your beloved because dang it I WANT this for you, even if you don't. But, when you love someone, you let them make their own decisions, and if they fail, you help them up, and support them as they right their course.

Non-autistic people have problems understanding love, just read all the posts here. So many people confuse desire for love. Or they think that because they have a strong attraction and a real wish to love and be loved, they try and contort an imperfect relationship to fit their needs. Some people go their whole lives from one fucked up relationship to the next because they're lonely, or they want to save someone or they've never seen a healthy relationship and they only know what they know.

So you're asking the right questions, and for you, Love is going to be different than for someone not on the autistic spectrum. That's okay though.

If you find someone you want to spend time with and whose company you really enjoy, a good way to broach this subject with them is to say, "I'm not sure I'm ever going to really understand love, but what do you need to see from me to feel loved."

There's no one right answer to that question. Everyone needs something different.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:31 AM on June 18, 2013 [10 favorites]

I have two autistic sons. One is very low affect, in other words he does not feel things like "love." The other is more emotional and does say he loves me. I also have just mega baggage about "the L Word" (love) from basically abusive situations. For those and other reasons, this is a topic I have thought about a whole lot.

The word "love" is both a verb and a noun, which makes it confusing to talk about it. When most people talk about love, they mean the feeling, not the act of being good to someone. But feelings come from somewhere. In most cases, if someone feels love, it is because someone else is acting in a loving manner --i.e. taking care of them excellently well. If you can get two people taking excellent care of each other, it is symbiotic and that is probably what we mean as a culture by "true love." (Most relationships seem to have an imbalance of power, at least a little, which undermines that somewhat and gives the situation at least a hint of master-slave dynamic.)

I am very socially observant, emotionally warm, etc. I tend to inspire a lot of adoration, but it winds up being super dismissive, like I am just a cute little tribble. This annoys the fool out of me. Love is a skill. People adore me because I am very talented at figuring out how to treat them well. But most people seem uneducated about how emotion comes from somewhere. Emotion gets this sort of frivolous reputation as random and not understood and not controllable, etc. So I get treated horribly by people who want to feel good but who seem to have no idea that people feel good when they are treated right and treating them right is a form of intelligence. So I often get treated like some dumb but cutesy thing for being smart enough to know how to treat them and it makes me want to spit nails.

My oldest does not feel love for me but he does feel intense loyalty because he knows I will do right by him. I set a very high bar in that regard. He also feels huggy and affectionate towards me. Here lately, he says "cool" when I say I love him, which is the warmest he has ever been. That warmth grows out of helping him solve very difficult problems so his life can be better. It was earned. I worked for it.

A lot of people kind of suck at trying to figure out how to take care of/do right by others and their track record tends to get worse if there are special needs involved. But love is a skill you can learn -- taking care of people and doing right by them I mean -- and then, if you have the right wiring, all of that doing right leads to feeling that wonderful glowy feeling we call love. Even without that kind of wiring, it leads to feeling loyalty, affection, security, etc.

And I would think you don't understand it because you just have not experienced the really excellent level of care that inspires a response of "yes, I want and need this and can't let it go." I don't intend that as a slam on your parents. I spent years just throwing myself on my bed and crying because I felt like beating my very frustrating sons and just did not know what to do. But I eventually got answers on how to do what works with them and now we have a very positive relationship because we can meet that excellent standard of care consistently. Because love is a skill you can learn. Not everyone has the wiring to be all gushy about it, but experiencing excellent care still inspires loyalty (this is where the word "customer" comes from: if you are good to the people who buy stuff from you, they become accustomed to a certain level of quality of overall experience and become repeat business because of it).

My 2ยข.

Thank you for asking this question.
posted by Michele in California at 6:13 AM on June 18, 2013 [6 favorites]

Hmmm. I would define love very differently than you have here. For me love is an irrational emotional sensation of fondness, attraction, a desire to care take, and a desire for the other person's attention and care, in varying proportions, depending on the relationship.

When I say irrational, I mean I don't experience it arising as a cognitive process. Of course it is one, and I make rational choices now about who and how I love, but the sensation of being carried away by love that I think comes from the hormones associated with the emotion is a core part of what it is.

I don't necessarily feel love in connection with the other person improving my life, except to the extent that the pleasure of their company improves my life. Many people feel that when someone else tries to improve their lives, that someone else is being controlling, and it doesn't feel good. Hence part of why teens and young adults pull away from parents who are in the habit of making decisions for their children because they always had to up to that point.

It is common to do nice things for the person you love, and be kind to them, but I don't think that is a requirement of love.
posted by latkes at 6:34 AM on June 18, 2013

Other people do not have the terror of change that you have. They might only feel mildly nervous about the things their parents try to change. Or they might feel excited and happy about the change and not fearful at all.

Is there anything in particular that you enjoy eating? Imagine how you feel when you get that thing and there's nothing wrong with it. That is how many people feel when they are being helped. Relief and anticipation of something good.

This difference in reaction probably explains why many people like that aspect of being cared for more than you do.
posted by the young rope-rider at 6:37 AM on June 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm on the autism spectrum, but I've experienced being loved, as well as loving.

It's a difficult topic to describe briefly, because, as observed at least since the classical era, there's a difference between loving in the gooey, sticky honeymoon period of falling in love and the constancy of connection beyond that.

The constancy part is very similar to the stability of a friendship. I guess the best way to talk about that is the sensation of everything being just so, the way it's supposed to be. People talk about security, because they're talking about a system of interlocking reliability built on trust. If you look at the AskMe human relations questions, you can find break downs of this- people complaining that the exchanges that make up human relations have broken down with a particular person. For example, that two friends no longer enjoy conversations the same way, but one friend is not on the same page.

To make things easier on humans, we often have codified expectations for different sorts of friendships, and as a species we discuss these a lot- for example some subcultures expect people in friendLove to prioritize this over the pursuit of sex and romantic love.

Wanting to be loved is generally about wanting to experience this reliability and wanting to be valued by other people. If you want it to be more one sided, for example having fans, then it's more about ego and accumulation. Generally to get there, we try to offer something of value to the people being fans- for example I write blog and get chuffed when I get lots of hits.

In love with sex, we often build up a particularly strong bubble of intimacy. Falling in love is like a period of temporary insanity that encourages us to bash through walls we normally use to separate ourselves from others, and feel, at least in part, so connected to the person that it is irrational. This means that you find commonalities (you like ham? gosh, me too!) that feel more significant than if a stranger did. It's rather not a surprise that in this context we talk about destiny and fate, when it comes to love, because during it, it feels like everything was programmed by instinct. It's also powered by a hell of a lot of post hoc rationalization and this state of mind is pleasurable because you're high as balls on hormones.

On the flip side, it's easier to fall in love with people that you already have a few important commonalities, and some asexual people are not aromantic... and some people get so into their friends it's indistinguishable from romantic love other than no sex. Getting into a romantic relationship is, incidentally, the thing most likely to alter your personality, at least according to people measured on OCEAN.

Probably because of the risk of making little humans, sexual love is seen as a route to family making, which is generally associated with the highest levels of give and take. Kids, of course, tend to be all take, until they develop efficacy- that's the one sided "parental" love that also appears in care taking relationships where the best one party can reciprocate with is gratitude.

So when people talk about a sense of security, they're being correct, regardless of what kind of love it is, the mutual kind usually involves knowing there's a back-and-forth.
posted by Phalene at 6:41 AM on June 18, 2013 [7 favorites]

I'm curious, do you experience attraction, meaning a desire to be close to someone or to repeatedly spend time with the same person? How about, do you feel protective, and try to prevent harm from coming to someone you know or to a less powerful creature? Do you feel a desire for someone to think well of you? I think I can boil down my love feelings to variations of these feelings.
posted by latkes at 6:43 AM on June 18, 2013

I think the improvement aspect of love is definitely there. For me, when I love someone, I want to be my best self: I don't want to change who I am, but I want to work on the things that aren't my best qualities to make them better and I want to make my best qualities really shine.

When someone loves me (and I'm not just talking about romantic love; this is true for friend-love or familial love, too), I feel accepted - imperfections and all. The desire to work on those imperfections is heightened when I love someone and they love me, but I don't feel like their love is contingent on whether or not I change. Being loved can give me motivation to do things that I probably should do anyhow (e.g. exercise more, not dwell on negative things, not get annoyed at the person I love when they are being irritating, whatever). It's because I don't have to do them to "get" or "deserve" the love that gives me the space to actually do those things and be a better person.

So I think that love can make one a better person, but I don't think that the person who loves you should make you feel like their love is dependent on that change. That's not really love, at that point - it's something else.
posted by k8lin at 7:13 AM on June 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

In Buddhism, there are three types of love that build on each other:

1. Affectionate love - warm fuzzies you feel when looking at the person, or that spontaneous excitement you feel when you see them again after a long separation.

2. Cherishing love - feeling warm and fuzzy for a person, you will actively do things to ensure their safety and happiness. You can easily put yourself in their situation - no, you see themselves in their situation - and do all you can for them.

3. Wishing love - cherishing someone that you feel warm & fuzzy about, there are still times when you are unable to make them happy, due to the human condition. You wish and pray for them to feel love in their hearts, not just transitory happiness. You want them to be (feel) love. You may act by giving them sincere attention & interest, and kindness and tenderness, or by praying that they feel love.

Love is what ties us together during the difficult times, otherwise we'd just leave the other person as soon as things got rough, or as soon as they weren't their best selves that day. It's not fear. It's a bond. (Immature people use "love" when they mean fear.)

For me, being loved makes me feel special and cherished, and vulnerable and small and happy all in one. And it makes me want to return the feeling right back.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 7:43 AM on June 18, 2013 [5 favorites]

I think your definition of love is good-- it's the emotion that "motivates people to improve one another's lives." It's very close to one of my favorite definitions of love, from M. Scott Peck: "I define love thus: The will to extend one's self for the purpose of nurturing one's own or another's spiritual growth." And I also really like the Bertrand Russell bit above describing the components of that emotion: well-wishing and delight in contemplation are what you feel when you feel love toward someone or something.

On the other hand, I think the experience of being loved can feel like many different things, or nothing at all, depending on the situation. I think that "being loved" is actually not an emotion-- it's a thought, a perception, an opinion, a belief, a judgment, or a conclusion you reach about your current state. And that belief or judgment can cause you to feel many different things. Being loved might mean that you're the object of loving feelings, or that you're the recipient of loving acts. You can be loved without knowing it, in which case it might feel like nothing-- someone has a secret crush on you, or someone puts an extra blanket on you while you're asleep. When your parents help you, their loving acts can feel terrifying. So that's another way being loved can feel. If you know someone loves you but you don't feel love toward them, you might feel guilt or be afraid of hurting them. When you receive just the right loving act from someone when you really need it, it can feel comforting and warm and relieving, or even cathartic, making you want to cry with happiness or gratitude. And when you sense that someone toward whom you feel "well-wishing and delight in contemplation" feels the same way toward you, it can feel joyous, exciting, exhilirating, peaceful, satisfying, safe, or calming.
posted by Dixon Ticonderoga at 7:52 AM on June 18, 2013 [3 favorites]

There is a psychological theory of love called the "triangular theory" that might elucidate how it feels and why it motivates people to do the things they do. It is a triangle because love can have any subset or all three of the following components: liking, decision/commitment, and/or passion. Which points on the triangle exist determine what kind of love will be experienced/felt.

See this website for a summary of the theory.

And this website for a survey one can take to determine how you (or anyone else who might take the survey) feel(s) love-wise about a particular person.
posted by Halo in reverse at 8:26 AM on June 18, 2013

The thing is that "taking care of someone" in the way that they need is going to always be different, dependind on the people involved. So if you are someone who is frightened or upset by having people try to help you, then someone "sucessfully" loving you will probably mean that they look for workarounds to that fear and allow you a lot of independance or something. The feeling of being loved is the feeling of being accepted as you are, ultimately. That's why people talk about feeling safe and secure and stuff. Now, that's not to say that people who make you feel loved will never urge you to better yourself- but they won't make you feel inferior the way you are.

Also, people have different ways of understanding and expressing love. Check out "love languages". Maybe yours is different than what you think.
posted by windykites at 11:16 AM on June 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

One more thing- you say you've never acted out of a desire to be loved. Usually, acting strictly out of a desire to be loved is super unhealthy and immature, so maybe that isn't quite the right framework. I have to tell you though, humans have been trying to figure this stuff out forever so I don't know if you'll be able to get a comprehensive answer. I wish you all the best though.
posted by windykites at 11:23 AM on June 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

It's like having a really good friend who you have sex with sometimes.

Also you get petted a lot when they're around. Or at least I do. But then again my relationship is kinda based around me being a very pretty lizard who expresses her affection mostly by not eating the tasty mammals.
posted by egypturnash at 11:43 PM on June 18, 2013

Also, to put my prior response in context, I used to be married to (and in love with) someone with an autism spectrum disorder. Fear of change is a big deal when you are in love with someone else, because they will want you to approve of or even participate in changes that they want to make to their life. You are already doing great at realizing that even though you are afraid, your parents want the best for you. That is a wonderful step towards being able to deal with change in the future.

Good luck!
posted by the young rope-rider at 12:01 AM on June 19, 2013

It might be worth thinking about how different people express love as well. There is a book on this, which I have not read and can not recommend, but it *might* help you. It's called The 5 Languages of Love.

My husband expresses love in a totally different way than I do. He wants and expects to be pampered, babied and coddled, all the time. This, to him, is an outward expression of love. In exchange, he also does those things to me. Except I hate to be babied, and so I see it as more of an annoyance and an undermining of my own independence.

For me, love means safety. As someone else mentioned above, it's an "I got your back" kind of thing, which he provides to me 100%. Interestingly, this requires very little effort on his part. In return, I do my best to provide his style of love to him, which has taken a little compromise for me because that's just not my style. But we make it work and have been making it work for 10 years.
posted by Brittanie at 8:44 AM on June 21, 2013

Metroid Baby: "I think your model takes a wrong turn at "what motivates people to improve one another's lives." I can understand that being off-putting, because adults prefer being in charge of themselves. Sure, when you love someone, you want them to be content and cared for, but you generally have to let them find their own path and provide support when you can. It's more of a "I've got your back" feeling."

Perhaps part of my problem is that I don't understand the distinction you've drawn here.

latkes: "I'm curious, do you experience attraction, meaning a desire to be close to someone or to repeatedly spend time with the same person? How about, do you feel protective, and try to prevent harm from coming to someone you know or to a less powerful creature? Do you feel a desire for someone to think well of you? I think I can boil down my love feelings to variations of these feelings."
  1. Kind of. It seems to have little to do with actual physical proximity. Instant messaging fulfills the desire about as well, and sometimes better, because I don't get overloaded from text, whereas I do get overloaded from face-to-face interactions, even with someone I'm fond of.
  2. I think so? I've not often been in a position to prevent harm.
  3. Certainly.

posted by LogicalDash at 2:34 AM on July 8, 2013

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