Reciprocity and Turn Taking in Love

It’s a common saying that there are many different kinds of love. Just because someone else’s idea of love is not the same as your own does not mean that it is not love. In a way, that is true, simply because people are using the same word to mean very different things. This is a linguistic issue, not an objective question of anyone’s feelings. It is possible that the word love covers a wide variety of more specific emotions, feelings that we could name, if we tried.

Here are some of the kinds of love that we may encounter:

1) Nurturing, committed and parental love that revolves around caring for someone who is not your equal. It can be a baby, a dog or cat, or even an elder in his dotage. Whoever it is may be a source of joy to you, but the relationship is unequal because of the power differential. The inequality may be temporary, as in a child who will grow up and become self-sufficient or it may be permanent, as in a pet who will always be your dependent.

I wrote about my experiences with this kind of love here:

Love and Commitment and Chimpanzees

2) Nurturing and committed love for someone who is ostensibly your equal, but to whom you have formed a close attachment.  This would be like the love that husbands and wives have for one another, whether or not they  have a strong sexual connection and whether or not they admire each other. It’s that thing that sets in to cement a relationship for the long term, when all the excitement and glitter have worn off. But it’s not just for husbands and wives. It is also something that siblings or close friends can feel for one another or parents and adult children can experience, if they are working together or living together in a way that allows for a close bond.

3) Limerent love — A love whose main component is admiration and rapt worship of the Love Object (LO), though not necessarily any desire to take care of them or use them sexually. Limerent Love is the love we have for those we feel are far above us, and it may include gods as well as men.

4) Sexual Attraction — This is the earliest form of love and we share it with all forms of life that reproduce sexually.

I wrote in more detail about limerence here:

Love and Limerence

From a biological standpoint, (1) and (2) on my list above are actually the same emotion with the same biological markers: attachment and bonding. It is designed to keep families together long enough for the children to be cared for.  Therefore, even if they are equals, pair bonded couples may each feel a parental-like desire to nurture one another, each regarding the other a little bit like a dependent.

Because they cannot both be the parent at the same time, this mutual nurturing can sometimes lead to turn taking when it comes to playing the nurturing role or the dependent recipient role.

What I have noticed, though, is that many, many people across the world associate “true” or “pure” love with selflessness, so much so that they sometimes feel compelled to play the role of the selfless parent-like provider in the pair bond.

To me, this way of conceptualizing love is troubling, because all forms of love are ultimately selfish, and because this privileges the role of nurturer as the “good” lover and the role of recipient as the “bad” lover. Turn-taking then becomes about who gets to be  “good” at the moment.


I used to teach a composition course in Taiwan, and among the assigned topics was to write about the perfect love. One of my students wrote that a perfect love is selfless, and she thought if someone really loved her he would give her a fortune and then leave her alone to lead her own life, without bothering her anymore. (She conceptualized this perfect love as coming from a rich uncle.)

While I found this composition amusing, I was never able to quite wrap my mind around the concept. It is only through this trick of requiring love to be selfless that any person could conclude that complete detachment and non-involvement would be a sign of true love. By her reckoning, receiving pure love would be like winning the lottery.

All forms of love, from the highest to the lowest, are biologically based. All are directly connected to the reward center of the brain. Mothers are rewarded for caring for their young by the joyous feeling that their involvement brings them. Lovers are enraptured by their contact with each other, and the truer the love, the less it requires turn-taking to experience it. Even when a passion is unearthly, as in worshiping a hero or a god, the reward is immediate if the love is genuine. Love is not something you give to someone else. It is something you experience yourself.

In all my books, whether the love is reciprocated, as in Theodosia and the Pirates, or one-sided as in Our Lady of Kaifeng, I make that point. Love is not a contract or an arrangement or a relationship. It is not a policy, and it does not require work. It is a feeling, and it is its own reward!



Theodosia and the Pirates: The Battle Against Britain Review


About Aya Katz

Aya Katz is the administrator of Pubwages. When she is not busy administering, she sometimes also writes posts like a regular user.

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2 Responses to Reciprocity and Turn Taking in Love

  1. Sweetbearies says:

    I agree that real love does not take a lot of work. I always thought it was odd when people made a concerted effort to date and try and find the one because it always seemed like the people who found real love did it at work or school, and not on the mad dash dating scene.

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