Are you really in love? How expanding your love lexicon can change your relationships and how you see yourself

What is love? Could those feelings you label as love be something else?

What about infatuation? Obsession? A passing fancy? Being smitten? Enthrallment? Beguilement? Lust? A crush? A squish? Platonic admiration? Why do people categorize some attachments as romantic love but not others?

Suppose Holly meets someone on vacation. They quickly become romantically and sexually intimate and seem deeply compatible. Holly is from the U.K., where the term “holiday romance” is commonly used and part of her vocabulary. Because she knows this term, she can apply its social scaffolding to this relationship. She understands that the rapid emotional intimacy and apparent compatibility she experienced likely sprang from fleeting circumstances that aren’t meant to last.

Someone from the U.S., however, where this term is rarely used, might more easily interpret this rapid intimacy as a sign of deep, significant lifelong compatibility.

Judging that you are in love can be powerful. It can affect your feelings, relationships and even your sexuality. But how do people judge whether they are in love?

This, I argue, depends on your linguistic community. That is, how the people around you talk about romance, relationships and attraction.

I am a philosopher who studies categorization schemas – how, when and why people label things such as emotions, sexuality and health. I examine the effects of those labels on how people understand themselves and on their well-being, and how alternative taxonomies and labels can make people understand and shape the world differently.

What happens when a culture instills a broader, more encompassing definition of love, or a narrower, more restrictive definition? How does having a richer vocabulary of words in the neighborhood of love change how we understand it?

The social scaffolding of words

Self-ascriptions of love depend on two things. The first are introspective judgments about your feelings: Are you attracted to the person? Energized by them? Nervous around them? And the second is what you think love is: Does love require caring about the person? Thinking about them a lot? Sexual attraction? When how you feel about a person and what you think love is match up, you self-ascribe love. That is, you judge that you are in love.

Words provide social scaffolding. That is, they create expectations and norms that steer how you behave and react to other people. And vocabularies vary by culture and era.

Categorizing an attachment as a “holiday romance” doesn’t just describe it but can also change its course. The label affects what Holly notices and values about the time she spends together with another person and whether she is inclined to pursue a long-term relationship.

Silhouette of two people sitting on a swing in the mouth of a heart-shaped cave, watching the sun set over the ocean

If ‘holiday romance’ is part of your vocabulary, you might think twice about taking your vacation fling too seriously.
Artur Debat/Moment via Getty Images

Vocabulary is empowering. Having an…

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