Why love is not an emotion

February 6, 2013

Every emotion has a purpose

Emotions are extremely important aspects of your awareness, your intelligence, your social skills, and your ability to communicate — and each one has a purpose.

Cover of The Language of EmotionsEvery emotion has a specific function, a specific purpose, and a specific action for you to complete so that it can move on and make room for your next emotion, your next thought, and your next idea. As we explore emotions as distinct and separate entities that require unique responses, I thought you might like to get an empathic sense for emotions by looking at something that isn’t an emotion: Love.

When an emotion is healthy, it arises only when it’s needed, it shifts and changes in response to its environment, and it recedes willingly once it has addressed an issue. When love is healthy, it does none of these things.

If emotions repeat themselves endlessly, or appear with the same exact intensity over and over again, then something’s wrong. Yet real love is a steadfast promise that repeats itself endlessly through life and beyond death. Love does not increase or decrease in response to its environment, and it does not change with the changing winds. Love is not an emotion; it doesn’t behave the way emotions do. Real love is in a category of its own.

Those things we’ve learned to equate with love – the longing, the physical attraction, the shared hobbies, the desire, the yearning, the lust, the projections, the addictive cycles, the passions – those things move and change and fluctuate in the way emotions do, but they’re not love, because love is utterly stable and utterly unaffected by any emotion. When we love truly, we can experience all our free-flowing, mood state, and intense emotions (including fear, rage, hatred, grief, and shame) while continuing to love and honor our loved ones. Love isn’t the opposite of fear, or anger, or any other emotion. Love is much, much deeper than that.

Yet for some people, love is really just adoration, which is merely a form of bright-shadow projection (see my work on the shadow). These love-struck people find the person who best typifies their unlived shadow material – good and bad – and live in a sort of trance with them. Though I wouldn’t call that sad game love, it’s what passes for love in many relationships: You find someone who can act out your unlived material, attach yourself to them, and enter into a haunted carnival ride of moods and desires. When the projections fall, and you see your adoration target for who he or she truly is, you become disillusioned and try to reattach your projections or even seek another person to project onto.

But that’s not love, because real love doesn’t play games with other people’s souls, and it doesn’t depend upon what you can project onto your partner, or what you can get out of the relationship. Real love is a prayer and a deathless promise: an unwavering dedication to the soul of your loved one and to the soul of the world. Emotions and desires can come and go as they please, and circumstances can change in startling ways, but real love never wavers. Real love endures all emotions – and it survives trauma, betrayal, divorce, and even death.

The truth about love is this: Love is constant; only the names change. Love doesn’t just restrict itself to romantic relationships. Love is everywhere – in the hug of a child, in the concern of a friend, in the center of your family, and in the hearts of your pets. When you’re lost and you can’t seem to find love anywhere, you’re actually listening to love in human language, instead of listening to the language of love. Love is constant; it’s not an emotion.

If you want to explore love as an emotion, you’ll have to read a book by someone who wasn’t raised by animals and isn’t an empath – because I sense a visceral difference between love and emotion. I can be furious with people I love, frightened of them, and utterly disappointed in them, but the love never wavers. If my loved ones are too damaged or dissimilar for our relationship to work, I don’t stay with them (and I don’t let them keep my credit cards!), but I don’t stop loving them.

Love for me lives in a realm far deeper than the emotions, and in that deep and rich place, words don’t carry a lot of meaning. So I’ll let words about love fall into the meaningful silence all around us, and we’ll move on.

(from The Language of Emotions: What Your Feelings Are Trying to Tell You, Karla McLaren, 2010)


hadrien February 6, 2013 at 3:45 pm

wow, just WOw……

Kaitlyn February 7, 2013 at 9:14 am

I love this! For me it was the most profound part of your Soundstrue course.

Jude March 2, 2013 at 9:56 am

Thank you for this reminder of what love really is!

Susan August 31, 2013 at 5:05 pm

Hi Karla,
You write above that when we love truly we can experience all of our emotions even rage etc and still honor ppl whom we love. When I read this I notice that you are saying I can experience mine–rather than I can experience yours…I think this is an important distinction because I can love a person truly and limit my exposure to them when they are in the raging rapids of a particular emotion. Am I perceiving this as you intended it?

Karla September 1, 2013 at 8:47 pm

Hello Susan! Let me clarify; are you asking if you can still feel the love of others when they’re dealing with an intense emotion?

As to your second point; certainly. Love and self-care can co-exist, and if your loved ones are behaving in ways that are endangering to you, the loving them from afar is awesome.

Ajit Karve September 1, 2013 at 4:21 am

That was insightful. Thanks.

raviteja October 30, 2013 at 12:05 am

1. when we have true love towards our loved ones …how to handle the news of their death

2. if love is constant why we all dont experience it..i mean true love…

3. what is value or final result we get when we love some one truly.

4. U said love is constant we can find it any where ,,then what is value of loving one person truly and staying in relation for long time..

Karla October 30, 2013 at 1:27 pm

Hello raviteja,

1. The Gifts of Grief
2. Romantic love is not constant, but love itself is. Sometimes, focusing on the idea of an idealized “true” love obscures the actual, tangible love of friends, family, and animals.
3. Rumi can tell you.
4. The value is different for everyone. Some have no interest in long-term relationships; others live for them.

keith Schneider November 25, 2013 at 12:41 am

Given by the grace of God
This feeling of pain,
This feeling of grief
this chance to be human and humble.
Given by the grace of God
This awareness of fear,
this awareness we ALL feel fear.
Given by the grace of God
This ability to witness all these contractions of spirit,
Given by the grace of god
The ability to stare all of this in the face,
eye to eye- toe to toe and still by the grace of god to choose the ability
to love to reach out my hands again and again to understand ,
how to manifest love .
To use every challenge as a chance and a choice to open my heart ,
and soften my judgement .
To choose the determination to stay present and not withdraw .

TO INVITE the SPACE to open and allow something new to arise in my heart


Karla November 26, 2013 at 10:29 am

Thank you Keith for your lovely poem. As an agnostic atheist, I’m very interested in people’s experience of God or gods, and as I read through your poem, I think that if I were to attribute this intelligence to anything specific, it would be to the emotional realm itself. In The Language of Emotions, I included a poem about emotions by Rumi, because it speaks to the way I experience their wisdom.

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

— Jelaluddin Rumi,
translation by Coleman Barks

ivan robles February 23, 2014 at 7:02 pm

i LOVE this!! i have a personal acronym for love.. LeaveOutVulgarEmotions 🙂

Karla February 24, 2014 at 10:00 am

Hah Ivan! But of course, there’s no such thing as a vulgar emotion; only vulgar people not knowing how to work them!! Sometimes when I see people using emotions in creepy or mean-spirited ways, I want to say “Give me that emotion, you hoser! There’s perfectly good intelligence in there, and you’re wasting it!”

keith Schneider February 24, 2014 at 10:58 am

A Question and quest ; what is the positive intention we want to feel in ourselves but are having a hard time finding the right address for it ??
perhaps the content of vulgar would be sweeter at the right address.
And of course perhaps I am off base??

Karla February 24, 2014 at 12:04 pm

Keith! That’s like a koan. I like it.

Bobbi McIntyre February 15, 2015 at 8:40 am

I love your distinction between love and emotions. ;-). I have come to believe that love is actually a fundamental energy that is the basis for all things. The energy that binds vibration into form. Universal and omnipresent, available 100% of the time and accessible by anything and everyone. There is no need to seek for love, only quieting the noise inside, and allowing yourself to open to it. There are people who trigger something inside of you that opens you to experience that energy… We call that loving someone. But it is not the other you love. You are experiencing the energy of love that is always and abundantly available within the very cells of your body.


Karla February 15, 2015 at 11:04 am

It’s the language of love!!

Gnanasekaran February 19, 2015 at 2:55 pm

Karla, wonderful. I am very happy that I came across your site by googling up on some word.
Have you written any specific book on love? Or which of your books talks much about love?

Can we say that love is an unchanging emotion? Does emotion have to be defined as a changing one? Although not necessary, one or more emotions could fuel an act of love and an act of love could fuel one or more emotions, I think.

Without a motion or a change, that is if it is so still, how can one perceive if its there?
Do the changing or moving elements of this world or conscience have anything to do with Love?
But love has to act and participate in the changing world in an unchanging way?
What is the sight of love? What and how does it see? Why does it act when it acts?
Does Love have to act in order to be Love?
Questions go on…
I am going to stop.
Good wishes

Karla February 22, 2015 at 10:58 am

Thank you for your good wishes! The chapter on love is in The Language of Emotions, and I lead with it so that we can speak about emotions with precision. Love is in a category of its own!

Nicholas September 1, 2015 at 10:06 am

Fascinating and truly insightful words! What is behind that feeling of unfulfillable longing when you feel you love someone (or desire them) even when you know they aren’t ready or interested or unresponsive?

Karla September 1, 2015 at 2:01 pm

Hello Nicholas — I think those feelings would be in the area of infatuation and longing, which are different from the stable love I’m writing about.

In this more stable version of love, it would be okay if the loved person wasn’t ready or interested — the love would remain, and instead of breaking the heart, it would perhaps break it open, allowing more love to pour through.

Nicholas September 1, 2015 at 2:28 pm

How to make a distinction between the two? I feel that some people I’ve fallen for — whom have moved to a quieter place in my heart through time — I still have a twinkle of them in my heart. Regardless how they interacted with me positively or negatively whether their actions evoked jealousy or insecurity I still feel strongly about them. How can I discern what is stable love or just some misplaced sense of it (infatuation)? I am reading your book ‘TLOE’ by the way.

Karla September 2, 2015 at 12:58 pm

Hi Nicholas. I’m thinking about the book We by Robert Johnson. I think that he makes a good distinction between the two, between the sparkly in-love infatuation and longing — and what he calls the calmer and more stable “stirring the oatmeal” love that people get to if they let the wild horse of infatuation run its course.

I notice that some people don’t know what to do when the wild horse finally settles down, when all the projections and romantic idealizations and illusions fall away. This calmer and more stable state doesn’t feel like love to them any longer, so they leave the first person and go on a wild search for the next one.

Something that comes to mind is attachment styles theory, and it’s something that may speak to your questions better than I can. This online test is very good; I took the short one, and it was very accurate, but you might like the longer one in more detail. Attachment Styles Quiz

Nicholas October 3, 2016 at 6:18 pm

Hi Karla,

Didn’t get to the book you referenced yet but did check out attachment styles link.

My current relationship appears to have ended. She went off to grad school and does not want to continue the relationship and long distance. She needs her independence as she says and wants to be by herself for a while. I think I put all my eggs in one basket. I read somewhere this, “Be careful who you date, some people are looking for love, others are looking for help.” I’m worried I fall into the second category. Despite her continuous assurance that we would eventually end I persisted in believing I could change her mind. After a year of immense energy spent I finally lost her.

Rereading this love is not an emotion has become more clear. But I’m curious if I’ve ever felt this constant love for anyone. Its hard, at this point, for me to distinguish the true love for a true need or dependency.

Karla October 3, 2016 at 8:06 pm

Hi Nicholas. A good writer on love is Harville Hendrix. He writes a lot of books on love. There’s also a book about love languages that people I know have found useful. It’s by Gary Chapman. Those might be helpful at this time.

Monique Lusse January 21, 2016 at 9:49 am

You crack me up, Karla. Another being “raised by animals.” I didn’t exit this planet when I was 10 because of my dog.

I ran across your work only yesterday from an interview you did with Tami Simon and am so grateful for your work, your love in action. One of the gifts of anxiety is that it brought me to you. Thank you.

Karla January 21, 2016 at 11:15 am

Thank you Monique, and welcome!

And thanks to your dog for helping you stay around. Blessings!

Lou Martin June 21, 2016 at 8:28 am

Karla McLaren…I LOVE you…how you have developed yourself…bravo!

Karla June 21, 2016 at 1:45 pm

Hah, Lou! Thanks!!

George Affleck September 19, 2016 at 7:56 pm


Came across this article doing research.
Absolutely spot on and extremely well presented.

But I need to put my compliment in perspective.
I am a Bible-believing, born-again, holier-than-thou, pulpit-pounding, humanist-hating, fundamental Christian and even I thought it was really, really good!

Seriously though, I can give a hearty “Amen” to it all.
Well done Karla!! Agree totally.

Karla September 20, 2016 at 5:32 pm

Amen, George!

George Affleck September 23, 2016 at 8:34 pm

Mind if I add something to the mix?

My wife of 41 years, Diane, was killed instantly in an automobile accident just 5 weeks ago. This experience has taught me many things, not the least of which is; how strong is my faith when push comes to shove?

But what I have really learned is that love, like faith and hope, is a real, abiding thing with purpose and power. Likely more real than any of the tangible, physical things we are familiar with. It comes from God and returns to Him in victory when its purpose is fulfilled, providing those who handle it respect it and know where it came from.

Love lives at our house! With 2 grown children and their spouses, and 7 grandchildren, love abounds with us in many different shapes and forms. All because Diane and I were blessed enough to recognize what love was when it showed up for us.

We have always had one 3-part rule. Always hug, always say “I love you”, and always wave goodbye.

Karla October 3, 2016 at 5:38 pm

Thanks George, and sorry that this was in the queue for so long — it got caught in the spam filter!

I’m sorry to hear about the sudden loss of your wife, and glad that you feel the love continuing. Many blessings to you and your family!

Barbara February 16, 2017 at 5:24 am

You are so spot on, what a fantastic article! I was looking for an explanation because it’s something I’ve felt inside but I couldn’t quite put it into words and you did it perfectly. Thank you.

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