What is true love?

Attempts to define genuine love are as old as mankind. There probably is no single universal definition of what love is. But I feel there are many components of true, genuine love.

One criterion is non-possessiveness.

Only love which does not seek to possess its object is true love. The term ‘possess’ has several denotations



to make an owner or holder of, to have dominion over, possessing oneself of another carnally

Reflection helps us to see the fallacy of possessive love.

There are only two things we can possess. One is objects, the other that which is within. We can have or possess a sense of inner calm, serenity, tranquility. We can be master of our attitudes, feelings and emotions . The choice is ours.

We can possess objects too such as land, houses, clothes.

In their case however possession is only temporary. We do not have absolute control over them. Time corrodes them and death strips us of them.

In actuality we are but stewards, not owners, of all we possess.

What is true of things is even more so of persons.

No one can possess another, even in the name of love, except at the sacrifice of the other’s dignity and worth.

To own, be master of, have control over another is a denial of the freedom, integrity and selfhood of the other.

Genuine love involves an attitude of non-possessiveness, of stewardship, not ownership. It consists of a deep care and concern for the fullest possible growth and development of others rather than seeking to control, dominate and have them for one’s own.

A second criterion of love is non­-coercion.

Love cannot be coerced. A person cannot force another to love him or her. Love cannot be compelled or com­manded. It must be given voluntarily or it is not love.

True love exists only when one gives oneself to another freely and not fearfully.

Love is the result of a mutual relationship; otherwise it is not love.

Often we hear it asked, “How can I make him, her or them love me?” The answer is that we can’t.

There is only one ‘thing’ we  can make, or remake, and that is ourselves.

Our love will be returned only if we are worthy or try to make ourselves worthy of the love of others. Such a truth is strikingly simple but often overlooked.

We are loved only if and when we try to make ourselves worthy of love. Can we expect others to love us if we do not make such an attempt?

Obligation and Responsibility

To be loved is not an inalienable right, as many seem to think. Rather, it is an obligation, on the human level at least.

It involves the duty or responsibility of making ourselves lovable.

No one can expect another to love him or her on the sole basis that he or she exists.

One can hope to be loved only if he or she tries to make himself worthy of an­other’s love and if he or she does those things which may evoke a response of love from another.

There are other elements in the criterion of non-coercion.

Coercive love seeks to impose restrictions on the object of love while its opposite does not.

In a coercive relationship the lover attempts to impose his or her norms, standards, or terms upon the loved. Coercive love thus becomes self-demanding, not self­ giving.

On the other hand, genuine love exists as one attempts not to shape the other one into one’s own image but to help the other become his or her best or highest self.

Finally, real love rejects coercion as a means to an end or goal. No matter how good one may believe the end to be, using coercion to attain that end will make it both impure and impossible of attaining.

The third criterion of love is un­conditionality.

Genuine love is love which is given unconditionally, that is, without prior conditions or insistence upon return.

The term conditional has several implications: made or granted on certain terms, something agreed on as a requisite to the doing or taking effect of something else, a circumstance essential to the appearance or occur­rence of something else.

It comes from the Latin conditio meaning compact or agreement. A conditional agreement is one which will be carried through only if there is an assurance or guarantee that certain conditions will be met. ‘I will do this if and only if you do that.’

This is contrary to the nature and spirit of love.


No strings attached

Genuine love is given without strings attached. It is what certain philosophers have called ‘disinterested’ love, or in saint Paul’s words “love which seeketh not its own”.

It is love given for its own sake, unmotivated by result or re­ward. When reciprocity is insisted on, when prior conditions are set up, love is reduced to a commodity, a thing to be traded and bargained for.

But genuine love cannot be bought and sold.

This is because, to use philosophical terms, it falls in the category of the ontological and not the empirical. Of course there is much joy and rejoicing when love is reciprocated or returned, but it is not insisted on as a prior condition.

We may note further that genuine love is constant. It continues to be given, even when its opposite is re­turned. It “keeps no score of wrongs” as Verrier Elwin wrote in his book, A Philosophy of Love.

Also true love consists in the taking of the first step of reconciliation for example, even if this involves risks or laying oneself open. Where there is genuine love, there is a willingness to make the first overture even if one cannot be sure of how it will be responded to.

This is because unconditional love is based on faith, not fear.

It is grounded in the faith that one’s love will be reciprocated, if not immediately, then ultimately. Because love will transform and purify the person who is the object of such love. And that love spreads.

Selfish or conditional love does not have such a power; only un­conditional, disinterested, or unselfish love has the capacity to do so.

Inclusive Love

Finally, genuine love is inclusive love. As with romantic relationships, such love includes but goes beyond the physical.

The physical is not outlawed but is a prelude or stepping-stone to a deeper mental and spiritual union.

In actuality, the three cannot be separated. For a physical union to be truly satisfactory, there must firstly be mental and spiritual mutual­ity.

In genuine love the physical and spiritual are intertwined and reinforce each other. They make up a totality which cannot be separated into self-contained components.

Inclusive love rejects any distinctions with regard to the objects of love. Such love refutes differences of race, nationality and religion, viewing them as artificial boundaries to be superseded.

One loves another person re­gardless of race, religion or nationality.

From a philosophical standpoint,  love falls into the category of the universal. It is unlimited in amount. Some may view love as a lake with an outlet but no inlet –  the more love they give to others the less they have for themselves.

Others however view love as a lake with both an outlet and an inlet. The more love that goes out, the more that will come in. Love does not diminish by loving; instead it increases.

Love can have a multitude of meanings.

But no matter what our definition is,  love should unite us – not divide us. Love should heal, inspire and motivate us to do better and be better.

Love is one of the most powerful driving forces of the universe.  For truly, there is no greater feeling than to love and be loved.


Adaptation of ‘Characteristics of Genuine Love’ by Donald H. Bishop, Rosicrucian Digest 1970.

One thought on “What is true love?

  1. I’m sorry but for me, unconditional love seems a fraud.
    Put it in practice terms, in examples.
    How to love unconditionally a criminal who wants to kill you?
    Or how to put it in practice in the face of war conscription?
    How to put in practice in the face of an abusive partner?


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