Types of Love

Ask any student to write a metaphor poem about love and they generate some beautiful, insightful things. But why do we use the same word to describe our feeling about our cat, our spouse, our hobby, our favourite place, and our relationship to people we don’t know?

ANNA McHUGH: On a drive from Sydney to Taree recently, I tried naming all the types of biscuits I knew. I came up with 34 before I had to really stop and think. If you Google ‘how many types of biscuit are there’, the answers run into thousands. And not only biscuits – breakfast cereal, shampoo, and yoghurts have an embarrassing variety of names and types.

And yet we only have one word for love.

Many of us know about the Inuit’s twelve (or so) different words for snow, and the Japanese have many beautiful words for describing the indescribable. But English, a language which borrows many words for things (writer James Nicholl once said that We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and riffle their pockets for new vocabulary) uses the word ‘love’ to cover things which are incredibly different – and which your students may find confusing.

Ask any student to write a metaphor poem about love and they generate some beautiful, insightful things. But why do we use the same word to describe our feeling about our cat, our spouse, our hobby, our favourite place, and our relationship to people we don’t know?

It’s important because we tend to teach things in terms of categories. That’s mostly how a student’s school day is organised. Maps and true stories go with HSIE. Shorts and lessons about washing your hands go with PDHPE. Fictional stories and handwriting go with English.

So when ‘love’ doesn’t fit into the set of neat compartments that we’re building in students’ brains, there’s a danger that they jettison it completely. Love becomes something that you only show to your mum and dad, or a romantic attachment, and that’s it. Anything else isn’t love.

Teaching other words for love is a good way of introducing many different subject areas. This includes: loan words, abstract nouns, definition exercises, value frameworks, cultural expressions of emotion, big philosophical ideas – perhaps most importantly, how we can relate to people we don’t know.

Try teaching these Greek words to students as a springboard to talking about how love can be both an intimate and personal emotion, and a public and social action:


This is probably what we think of when we hear two people say ‘I love you’ to each other. It’s romantic or sexual love, what we would think of as ‘desire’. It’s important, because it’s the mechanism by which human beings pair-bond and make more human beings. Because it’s usually the vehicle which helps us to make new people, many cultures prescribe what’s an acceptable form of romantic love very stringently. Other cultures don’t – and some languages don’t even have a word for it.

Older students or students who are talented abstract thinkers might have heard of the philosopher Plato. One of Plato’s major contributions was to imagine a realm of Ideas or Forms. This just means that everything in the real world is just a low-grade copy of things that exist in a kind of purer world of Forms. So the table you’re writing at is just a low-grade example of the Form of Table, a kind of perfect, abstract table that exists in a realm of Forms.

Plato thought that our romantic feelings were important because they connect us to the realm of Forms, where everything is perfect. The love that you feel for your girlfriend is just a low-grade example of the perfect, ideal Form of Love. The particular beauty of an individual person reminds us of true Beauty that exists in the world of Forms or Ideas.


Storge is the type of love we can feel towards our close family


Most students will recognise this form of love, since it describes the affection we feel towards our family – especially our close family. The love which children feel towards their parents isn’t like any other kind of love, and is rarely replicated – although the other types of love, especially philia, might be felt for many people throughout life. Psychologists tell us that storge is bound up with ideas of nurture and protection, cognitive development and emotional stability. Certainly, the treatment that children receive from their parents is very important in shaping their understanding and ability to love as adults.

But it also works the other way – as parents of children with autism or affect disorders will know. When a child does not show affection to a parent, the parent’s own model of love as a reciprocal process gets confused. This is why it’s important to remind students that parents were children themselves, and that even adults continue to learn and go over what they learn. Confirm with students that they want to be loved, and hope that their parents will show love – the type of love called storge – to them. And similarly, they should reassure their parents that they love them in return.


Hopefully all your students will have experienced philia in some way. This is the non-romantic love for a friend, which was extremely important in the ancient world. The Romans called this amicitia, and wrote a number of famous books about how good friendship was. We tend to think of friendship as a failed love – the infamous ‘friend-zone’ proves that. But it’s simply a different kind of love. One of the most important aspects of philia is appreciation – we appreciate our friends for what they are and what they are able to do. Appreciation means recognising something and enjoying it for its own sake, and protecting it, if necessary.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle said that things that cause friendship are:

  • doing kindnesses
  • doing them unasked
  • not proclaiming the fact when they are done.

So what kind of things do we look for in the friends we love? Aristotle said that we can most easily show friendship to:

  • people who share our temperament, or at least, understand why we are the way we are
  • people who bear no grudges
  • people seek what we do
  • and don’t go overboard one way or another
  • people who recognise justice and play by it
  • and who admire us appropriately as we admire them

It means that this kind of love, philia, can’t come from people who are quarrelsome, gossipy, aggressive, unjust, and so on. Ask your students what they think causes friendship – unselfish appreciation of each other’s qualities will definitely come into it!

Types of love

A man gives his shoes to a homeless girl in Rio de Janeiro


This term may be familiar to students from a religious background, because it’s often used to talk about a love for God or for mankind. Buddhists use the term ‘compassion’ to express a similar feeling, but they are both another way of expressing love. Agape means a love that’s charitable, selfless, altruistic, and unconditional. We associate people like Mother Teresa of Calcutta, or the Dalai Lama with this love, but everyone can practice it in their own way. When we give to charity, we are showing an agape-type of love. The feeling that we might have towards someone who’s homeless, or really sick, is agape; and for most philosophers and religious people, this is the highest form of love you can practice – it’s the closest to the ideal, or Form of Love.

Some children find it difficult to conceptualise an expression of love towards someone they don’t know. They understand love for their parents, their friends, and (theoretically) for a romantic partner. This is based on a model of reciprocity which we reinforce very strongly throughout their education. Our culture’s focus on the self means that we tend to think of everything as an extension of ourselves, or evaluate how it’s of benefit to ourselves. For students who’re strongly ingrained with this, the idea of showing love to someone you don’t know, and who can’t do anything for you, is very confusing.

There are a couple of ways to tackle this. One is to acknowledge that it’s good to receive things in return for your effort, even if they’re not physical things like gifts or hugs. By showing love for others you don’t know, you actually are receiving something – but it isn’t physical. When you play footy or go to the gym, you’re actually losing things (weight, heat, air, sweat, even dignity), but you do it to become stronger, fitter, and better at your sport. This is what agape is like; you might be giving away time or money or effort, but you’re becoming a stronger, fitter, better member of a community who is more skilled at relating in a caring way to people far and near.

Love is like salt

Love and kindness are like salt.

Another way to tackle the challenge is to explain that agape, or the belief that other people are extremely special and worth your kindness, is like salt. If you put a single grain of salt into a glass of water, you would barely taste the change. But the more you add, the saltier it gets, until the water has been absorbed by the salt. Salt was once extremely valuable – a Roman soldier’s wages were partly paid in salt – and we can’t live without it (though obviously, too much is just as bad). But salt has been used as a symbol of love for a long time. If you contribute one grain of agape to a communal pond, it’s a tiny change. But over the course of your life you’ll inspire others to do the same and the change snowballs. Before you know it, your act has created the ocean. You may never see creatures below that ocean, or on the other side of it, but you have made their life possible, and you have a beautiful ocean view!

Activities for expressing and exploring the idea of love

When you’re sure that students have understood the concepts, divide them into five groups and ask them to find a news story which illustrates this concept in action (suggest that they look for ‘romantic love’ rather than ‘eros’, which brings up unwelcome images!) and print it out. When they’ve got their news story, reconvene the class and ask a spokesperson from each group to explain the story and say why they think it’s an example of their kind of love.

If you have speakers of languages other than English in the class, ask them how they express these feelings in their language. If students are confident speakers of that language, ask them to create an A5-sized poster showing all the different words for love in that language and stick them up on the wall.

Draw a target-shaped graphic on butcher’s paper with ‘Me’ in the bullseye, and ask students to write ways in which they can show love to people close to them (rings near the bullseye), and further away from them (so the outer rings represent people they may never meet, such as students in a sister school).

Finally, print out the poster below and stick it in your window. I saw it in my local primary school’s window and it inspired me to write this post. Who knows what you’ll inspire other people to do!

Kindness Love Work Boots On_Poster



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