The 5 Levels of Love
Why do people say they love you and then leave you?
I think this is a fundamental question that every human being has asked at one point or another. As a therapist, this question frequents the counseling room almost daily it seems. Broken relationships, fractured friendships, decimated family bonds and devastated marriages all get in line with this same question. Admittedly, this is a tough question to answer on a personal basis as it is often difficult to explain or understand the motivations behind someone’s choice to abandon a relationship once treasured. Betrayal tends to be a leading cause; but sometimes the offenses seem much more minor, if any can be identified at all, making it even more difficult to make sense of. So many people have asked me why their partner left them without cause… after all the love they had shown and after consistently being told they were loved. Abandonment without a knowable or justifiable cause creates a heartbreaking and painful reality for those left behind as questions of personal value, self-worth and lovableness can consequently follow one indefinitely. The problem with this core belief of being fatally flawed and unloveable is that it can then cause one to erect and maintain impenetrable walls of defense for self-protection and preservation, which may lead to an unspoken “one foot in, one foot out” mentality in all human connections moving forward. Fear and pain are the beasts that drive this mentality; and while it often shocks the unsuspecting when they suddenly pull out of a relationship, the greatest loss is in the one who could never achieve complete vulnerability… could never let down their walls enough to trust and exist as they are in authentic relationship…. with anyone.
So while many people say “I love you,” it might be helpful to clarify that not all love is created equal. Many people define love differently and incorrectly assume that what they are feeling is love when it might not be. I like to view love more as a developmental progression of stages that consistently requires growth and change in pursuit of maturation. Some relationships never surpass level 1 or 2. Most reside in the realm of level 3. The highest level is not achievable by sheer human will power alone. So heads-up on that one as my explanation will dip into the supernatural love of God. The challenge as you read these stages is to question what level you are on within your own relationships; and also to recognize that while you may experience love for another person on one of the higher levels, their level may not match yours. The ultimate question upon discovering you are on a higher level than someone you love- is what will you do about it?
Level 1: Liking
This is a pretty easy level to achieve and maintain as we frequently find common bonds with others of likemindedness and even of similar attraction. According to research in social Psychology, proximity, repeated exposure to someone, sharing similar social status and having things in common often attract us to others (friends included) and cause us to like them.
Level 2: Affection & Emotion
After spending significant time with someone and continuing to bond and connect, affection and fondness will naturally develop. The emotion can quickly escalate and feel intense. Due to the nature of the feelings, some may even make declarations of love in this level. However when it comes to the science of human emotion, it is very important to highlight the fact that feelings are fickle and can change like the wind. So while many believe that the existence of strong emotion indicates the presence of love, I am challenging that assertion in this blog;). In intimate relationships, I often equate the strong emotion with infatuation; in tween best friendships that change weekly, I also see the intensity as linked to emotional highs and not with love.
Level 3: Conditional Commitment
This level is exactly as it sounds. Residing in the realm of the “if,” commitment is determined “if you are good to me I will be good to you.” “If you meet all the criteria that makes me happy, I will keep you around.” Now granted, it isn’t wise to commit to someone who will abuse you or despitefully use you. However, this is a natural first level of commitment because trust is something earned over time from demonstrably consistent positive behavior. Ideally this is the purpose of a dating relationship: to determine whether someone is trustworthy enough to make an eternal vow to love. But while this stage is a part of the natural progression of love, many people stay on this level and never graduate. Friendships, marriage, even family relationships sometimes get trapped on this level and never mature. The problem of stagnation on this level is that individuals in relationship feel as though they are constantly trying to prove their value and lovableness. It is a perpetual feeling of trying to earn love, but never quite earning it; and the problem with living this way is that security, comfort and stability are rarely achieved. Fear dominates this level and tends to produce the opposite effect; in fear of rejection, people hold back full transparency, become defensive, and sometimes change who they are in hopes of acceptance. Relationships that stay on this level, may eventually die on this level.
Level 4: Unconditional Commitment
This is the level of healing. This is where love becomes powerful. No longer is it “I will love you if…”. Rather, it is simply “I will love you.” Period. No matter what. On this level, love is free, not earned. This is when you are totally and completely accepted in worth as a human being. This is when you are loved for who you are, and not what you can give back. Your past is known; and you are still loved. Your mistakes are acknowledged; and you are still loved. Your wounds and your baggage is admitted; and you are still loved. You are given room for human error and still loved.
For those who achieve this level, it is a glorious experience. Many attempt to get there; many promise “for better or for worse,” but still never fully reach this level upon learning what “for worse” actually looks like. This often comes natural for a parent to a child, and sometimes in lifelong friendships. But for most relationships, this level requires tons and tons of hard work and an essential determination to NEVER GIVE UP on each other. It requires breaking the enormous barrier of level 3. Because at some point, a decision must be made. A decision must be made to “PUT both feet in” and then to “KEEP both feet in.” One person may need to cross into level 4 before the other. One person may need to choose to love the other no matter what and to keep loving no matter what. It can be a lonely place…standing in level 4 while the person you love stays in level 3. But the beauty and power of level 4 is that it does hold the power to pull the other person up with you.
“A perfect marriage is just two imperfect people who refuse to give up on each other.” -unknown
Level 5: Sacrificial Love
If you follow unconditional love to its end, this level is what you will achieve. Now while you may be thinking I am referring to the kind of love that would enable a willingness to die for someone (and I am on some level), this level goes even further than that! This is because most often the person we are willing to die for is someone who loves us back… likely someone who already loves us at a level 4. But the sacrificial love I am talking about involves loving someone who may never love you back. Clearly, the riskiest and potentially most painful type of love that essentially requires the sacrifice of one’s very own needs. Of course you may be thinking, why in the world would I ever want to do that?!
If you are at all familiar with the teachings of Jesus Christ, he consistently spoke about this highest form of love: loving your enemies, speaking blessing on those who curse you, being kind and doing good to those who hate you and use you, praying for those who mistreat you, and “turning the other cheek”; which means if someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other side… and if someone steals your coat, give them your shirt too. This level of love is not something the typical person desires to give, nor is it naturally inherent in human nature to give it. But there is actually an unbelievable amount of power in this love- if you are the one receiving it. I must add that its purpose is not to promote passivity or accept abuse of any kind; but rather, this highest form of love is designed with the intention and the power to overcome hate. And this is the kind of love that Jesus requires of his followers.
”Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” -Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
While many people have differing views on Jesus Christ, this truth is certain: he is the most well-documented historical figure of all time. While the Bible is the primary source chronicling his life, more than 15 other well-known and respected, reputable non-Christian historians also documented his existence, his teachings, and the miraculous circumstances surrounding his tortured death and mysterious resurrection. Thousands of people were eye-witnesses to this story, which is likely why it was so well-documented during that time period. So if anything, this story is worth noting.
Now upon teaching this higher level of love as mentioned, Jesus did go on to demonstrate it in an extraordinary, unbelievable fashion. In the face of a betrayal by one of his closest friends who gave away his location for money, in spite of another close friend’s determination to pretend he didn’t know Jesus shortly after his arrest, regardless of the brutal lashings with a leather whip and then with a cat of 9 tails, Jesus loved. He did not complain, curse or disparage his abusers. He silently sat as they pressed down a crown of thorns upon his head…as they mocked him, cursed him, spit on him, stole his clothes…and as they forced him to carry his own instrument of death up a large hill, naked, and beaten to the point that all historical records indicate he was “unrecognizable”. Even after nails were driven into his hands and feet in one of the most gruesome and humiliating forms of capitol punishment, Jesus loved. And then… after zero attempts at retaliation, no fighting back and actually staying silent through most of it, with his final few breaths, Jesus actually went a step further and asked God to forgive the very people who beat him and nailed him to the cross!
Even if you don’t believe that Jesus came to die for the sins of mankind, allowing a bridge of reconciliation between us and God- this act and the love that he showed that day is not explainable by natural means. Ordinary human will power is not strong enough… just consider your natural reaction to betrayal; your emotion to hearing someone curse you and mock you; your instinctual reaction to someone stealing your stuff, or spitting at you, or giving you the finger… All of these things were experienced by Jesus- but he didn’t react the way that we do. No, this is an other-worldly, supernatural type love. And as such, I must note that while Jesus followers are told to love like this, they are unable to do so without plugging into an other-worldly, supernatural force: The Living God. 1 John 4 actually states that God IS love. Not just that God made love or God is the source of love; but He actually IS the embodiment OF love. This is a wild concept because Christians believe that the primary goal in life is to have a relationship with God; in essence, to have a relationship with LOVE itself. Jesus requires his followers to be filled with this love, and then to love with this love. The beauty and power of allowing God to fill one up with His level 5 love, is that it really and truly blows everything else out of the water; and this love is so powerful, so intoxicating and so fulfilling, that it naturally pulls Christ-followers up onto level 5 too. It frees His followers to love without expecting a return because a return is no longer needed for personal fulfillment. This love is healing and freeing, bringing otherworldly peace and insane levels of joy, and causes the love within the heart of the Christian to so completely overflow, even their enemies can feel it.
“God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them.” -1 John 4:16
Personally, I believe love is the most powerful force on the planet. True, authentic, real love heals, and makes broken things whole again. The love of friends and the intimate love bond on level 4 can produce a wholeness and healing not found on the other levels. But as mentioned, level 5 love makes all previous levels look like dust and ash. The unfortunate downside of loving humans is that you will always run the risk of loving someone from a higher level than they love you. Your love may be able to pull them up to you, but this is not always guaranteed. However if you plug into LOVE itself in relationship with God, you will never be alone at the top. You will never be left loving and giving to someone with zero return… because you will already be receiving level 5 love yourself. If you are interested in exploring and understanding more about level 5 love, I want to encourage you to reach out to an authentic Christ-follower. I must add that not all people who call themselves a Christian have actually connected with level 5 love; and not all who have connected with level 5 continue to connect on a regular basis. But the ones who have, you will know. They glow.
***To those who have experienced devastating heartbreak in your lifetime and consequently struggle to believe in the 5th level of love, I want to say something specifically to you.
When people you have trusted prove themselves untrustworthy…
When people you thought were good and kind become mean and vindictive…
When the very people who are supposed to love you more than any other living being fails to do so….
This is the message: It makes complete sense why you struggle to trust in God who you cannot see and touch when those you CAN see and touch have so severely let you down. But here is the truth:
When people prove themselves untrustworthy, God remains faithful.
When people are mean and unkind, God remains compassionate, gracious and good.
When people stop loving you, God’s love NEVER fails.
You see, God is not human. He doesn’t fail the way that humans do. So in actuality, His love is the only love you can fully and wholly trust. And this is exactly the point.
God often gets blamed for the pain and hurt that people experience; however my faith aside, from a purely psychological and clinical viewpoint, I can assure you that most pain in existence today is the direct result of poor choices and unhealthy behavior. Whether they are someone else’s or your own, negative choices and behavior are almost always tied to negative outcomes. God has granted every human the freedom and the right to choose. We have a will, and everyone makes choices according to their own will. God forces no one to make right choices; he forces no one to love Him either. So he allows us and everyone the freedom of choice, rendering us responsible for our own negative situations or victims of the choices of others. So while He does not cause the pain, He is the solution to it. His love is the antidote and the cure to the pain and sin of the world. And as you read, there is nothing that can separate you from His love. If he can love the ones who betrayed, tortured and murdered Him, there is nothing you or I can do that would cancel His love. He accepts all who are willing. And He loved us first. While we were still sinners. So you don’t need to “clean up” your life in order to come to Him. Just talk to Him. He will respond. And your life will never be the same again.