Hot love: Being and having

A good friend recently asked me what I think about hot love: that intense in-love feeling. What does it mean when we feel that, and what should we do about it?

The wider cultural sense of it seems to be that it’s one of the best experiences we can possibly have. Perhaps the best experience. The thing to do with it is to build a whole relationship upon it: clearly the person we have such feelings for must be our true love or The One and this means they’re also the person who should become our best friend and the person we have sex with, live with, commit to more than anybody else, and build a life and family with. It’s also important to keep the hot love alive in that relationship over time: the passionate, in-love, erotic and romantic feelings. Struggling to do this is seen as some kind of failure. Even some communities that question the cultural norms of romantic love – like polyamous and sex positive communities – seem to accept that the thing to do with hot love is obviously to go for that relationship.

I’ve written a fair bit in Rewriting the Rules and elsewhere about the issues with putting that much pressure on any one relationship. I’ve also explored Esther Perel’s theory that we can’t get warm love and hot love in the same place over time, so that idea of keeping hot love alive sets us up to fail (but ensures that the sex and relationship therapy and advice industries do rather well!) I’ve also written before about New Relationship Energy and what that might open up and close down, which is a similar idea to hot love.

But what of hot love? Where does it come from and what might we do with it?

Having and being love

I recently read an excellent book by Erich Fromm called To Have or to Be? which is helpful on many things, not least on what we need to do in order to avoid the destruction of humanity (the fact he was writing all this back in the 1970s though makes for some painful reading). 

Basically Fromm talks about how we can do pretty much everything in ‘having’ mode or ‘being’ mode. Having mode is when we’re trying to get something for ourselves, and being mode is when we’re present and open to the experience. Of course the capitalist culture which we’re embedded in is all about having mode – trying to get more and more of what we want, and none of what we don’t want. Fromm’s sense of what we need to do is to move – individually and culturally – towards being mode, and he offers a combined Marxist, Buddhist, and Psychodynamic path for how we might do that.

What has that got to do with hot love? I think when we experience hot love it’s often a combination of a having kind of love and a being kind of love: like two interwoven threads through the hot love experience.

Having love

We all have our childhood – and later – wounds, attachment issues, traumas, patterns – whatever you want to call them. Hot love often seems to come when there’s some kind of fit between our’s and the other person’s that we recognise on some – perhaps unconscious – level. Maybe it seems that we’re finally getting the kind of love that we lost as a child. Perhaps it feels like there’s a promise or potential to play out our early patterns differently. All of this occurs within a wider intense cultural promise that romantic/erotic love will save us. So we’re drawn to hot love: to immersing ourselves in it and to escalating it to make it a main relationship. 

Of course our bodily responses come into all of this as well, making the hot love experience yet more overwhelming. Our nervous systems and neural pathways seem to recognise these familiar dynamics, drawing us in. The experience of strong erotic desire – and/or of nurturing and being nurtured – results in various hormonal reactions that intensify the experience.

However, chances are high that our patterns will play out in similar ways to the past if we’re not aware of them, and perhaps even if we are. It’s particularly risky if – on some level – we’re looking outside ourselves for somebody else to fix that stuff. It’s easy to approach the relationship in a having kind of way – wanting all of that promise and none of the toughness that will inevitably come with being confronted with our old patterns, habits, and pain again.

Being love

We all have the capacity for the more being kind of love. In fact Fromm – like bell hooks – questions whether the having kind of love should even be called love. He says that love isn’t a thing we can fall into, or a feeling we can have. It’s an action that we do when we’re acting in a loving way towards someone or something. The having kind of love is not really very loving at all.

Being love is real kindness and care for the self and others: being alongside each other, accepting and loving all that they are and all that we are. Hot love can give us a glimpse of this kind of love, as if we just tapped into the source. Perhaps hot love is one of the main experiences in life when we really feel that capacity for being love: our connectedness to ourselves and the other person, a sense of knowing that we are okay (because we feel so loved) and they are okay (because we feel so loving towards them).

But it’s so easy to drop from being to having mode with this kind of love because we want so much to keep hold of it. Quite quickly we may try to alter the very relationship which enabled this being love experience to happen because we want to get more of this feeling. This actually risks us getting less and less of it.

So what do we do about hot love?

If the having and being kinds of love are intertwined in the hot love experience should we run a mile from it, or embrace it? Or both? Or something else entirely?

Personally I think it is worth being cautious, recognising that the force behind hot love is often this very consuming yearning that comes from needs and desires that haven’t been met in our lives, whipped up by chemical reactions and cultural stories which encourage us to look to erotic and romantic love in particular to meet these yearnings.

Generally when we feel hot love we don’t know the person well, and we have no idea whether we’d be compatible in various ways, or enrich each other’s lives. We’re going on a feeling which is likely in large part projection of our stuff onto them and the hope of what they might be for us (the having kind of love).

The popular idea is that we only feel hot love for certain people, so those are the relationships that we should go for. There’s an argument that the opposite is true. While such relationships definitely give us the opportunity to see where we’re stuck and what our yearnings and patterns are, the old dynamics and intense feelings can make them hard places indeed to see clearly and to separate off enough to work on that stuff in ourselves.

I think it’s worth disentangling the people we feel hot love for from all other aspects of relating, like who we spend time with, have sex with, build family with, cohabit with, work with, etc. If we can see all of these as different strands then we can intentionally decide which relationships are compatible in the best ways to do these things: in ways that enhance, enrich and expand the experience of all the people involved. 

Then we can see hot love as hot love: separate to all that other stuff, and decide if and how we want to engage with it. If we do engage with it I’d suggest doing so with our eyes open: recognising it for what it probably is and slowly and creatively engaging. Ideally we’d have no expectations or assumptions about the shape it would take, and a lot of space to keep reflecting on what it brings up for us.

What about hot love showing us our capacity for being/doing love?

But if hot love is one of the – perhaps few – places in life where we can realise our capacity for that other kind of love – the being kind – shouldn’t we go for it in order to experience and enhance our ability to do that? Surely we should be all about expanding our ability to love others and ourselves in ways that see all of them, offering kindness and care, and not treating each other as objects (like having love does)? As Fromm points out – this is essential given the current state of the planet and the way we mostly all treat one another: on the individual level of interpersonal conflict and abuse, and on the cultural level of valuing some lives, bodies, and labour way more highly than others.

Personally I think it’s more about nurturing that capacity for being love in all of our relationships, including our relationship with ourself. Maybe it is partly because our culture is so stuck in having mode that we only experience being love so fleetingly, and only at certain times like when we fall in love, or share an intense experience in a crowd, or perhaps when we feel love for a child or companion animal.

Perhaps we can see those kinds of experiences as giving us a useful sense of what being love can be like, so that we can start the slower, longer process of cultivating that capacity in ourself and bringing it to all of our relationships and projects. It’s a bit like being helicoptered up to the top of the mountain to see the view, and then back down to the bottom to start the climb.

Another metaphor that occurred to me is being given a candle with a flickering flame. In having love we’re so grateful for that flame, and so frightened of losing it again, that we hide it away in a dark room and huddle around it with another person to get the small amount of heat and light that it gives off. But an alternative would be that we could use that flame to light a whole bunch of sticks and create a fire. We could keep feeding and nurturing this with others so that the fire keeps going, and keeps way more people warm.

One thing we know for sure about hot love is that – like the candle – it will eventually, inevitably, flicker out. Either the relationship will turn into a different kind of relationship (like a warm, companionable, kind) or it’ll end. And if we go more and more into having love then either we’ll have to break up or remain in something much more challenging, recognising our old issues of rejection, abandonment, feeling trapped or unsafe, for example. I recently read someone suggest that whether a relationship breaks up or remains together, the things that the people in it will be confronted with – and the work that they’ll be called upon to do if they’re up for it – is pretty much the same.

But if hot love brings us up against our stuff isn’t that a good, useful thing?

In a way it is. I think it’s always useful to see where we’re stuck or hooked. It gives us the opportunity to work on that stuff in ways that free us up, leave us more real and humble, and more able to love and be loved in that being mode. But given the ways we tend to engage with hot love – and the cultural promises that are attached to it – it’s really hard to see what it reveals to us as any kind of gift, or to engage with these hard hard lessons. 

When we’re in the having mode of love the initial wonder, joy and pleasure at finally having our yearnings met (being seen, approved of, or desired, finding safety, etc.) are the flip side of eventually not having them met because we’ve put them all on this one relationship and asked too much of it. That can be extremely painful as it treads a familiar path of loss, hurt and rejection which we were likely trying so hard to avoid when we grabbed hold of the hot love in the first place.

We can do our work alone, in a couple, in a family, with friends, in a community. Whatever our life is like these things will come up and we can choose to face them or to run away. Is a hot love relationship the best place to do our work? It may well bring everything up very intensely and starkly, but we can also get so caught in the dynamics that it’s extremely hard to see clearly. Also in focusing on a couple relationship, we can become separated from the kind of support systems that we need to do the work.

So again I’d be very cautious. Hot love can be the basis for a later, warm, relationship if it is flexible over time. But I’m not convinced that it has any more going for it than forging and nurturing multiple connections and building intentional relationships based on shared values, ways of living, etc. In hot love we’re often building a relationship on the foundations of that intense emotional experience, without taking our time to get really informed about the other person, the dynamic between us, and what we each want before building anything together. It’s kind of like forming a relationship while we’re high and hoping it’ll still be good when we sober up.

Hot love has a high risk of falling purely into having mode. This is not to say that other kinds of relationships escape from having mode, or the kinds of unconscious processes and unhelpful habits that I’ve covered here, of course. But they can be less intense, more spacious, and more supportive of us doing this work if we share these kinds of understandings.

And that’s my hot take on hot love!


Meg-John Barker is the author of a number of popular books on sex, gender, and relationships, including Queer: A Graphic History, How To Understand Your Gender, Enjoy Sex (How, When, and IF You Want To), Rewriting the Rules, The Psychology of Sex, and The Secrets of Enduring Love. They have also written a number of books for scholars and counsellors on these topics, drawing on their own research and therapeutic practice.

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  1. Kamran

    19 September

    I miss Fromm’s insights on love and human relationships. Great to see you taking up Erich Fromm with recognition of its 1970s limitations.

    • Meg-John Barker

      19 September

      Thanks it’s such a helpful perspective – I’m so glad I kept going reading it past the bit where he justifies using ‘he’ and ‘man’ as universal terms!

  2. Jamie

    19 September

    Do you think, for some people that they need to learn to breathe? To be able to learn just to be in the world again? Not about intense love whether erotic or autoerotic (Narcissistic Love), but leaning to just be in the world again. Like the helicopter idea but reversed, learning that you might be able to walk and eventually hold others’ hands as friends and support some time too? Hot love can be or feel like hot hate., passion, desire or rage, or even deep love? Any real relationship is with at least two people…? But learning to understand who we are helps us to relate? I’m also thinking of the support dog. S/he can be a companion and there can be deep love, but it does lack something? It’s never the same as the love we feel for other people, or romantic love (not necessarily hot- but warm and total acceptance of who they are). This does not mean liking the bad bits or putting up with bad behaviour, but a conversation to understand each other. If we look analytically we may miss the being bit? Analysis can help those who are able to analyse emotion: their own as well as others in the exact same way-rationally or deep empathy? Empathy exists in different ways and even on some spectrums? I’m thinking a bit like PDA? I love the warm love notion and the candle, but maybe starting with a log burner, a dog, and inviting others who want to share the warmth, from the fire and then each other as all friends do. If we see the fire as ourselves or others we surely miss the warmth? I’m not saying that we can not be warm to others of course, or feel their warmth. I think trauma can work in lots of ways and part of loving is accepting that we are all different but have the same need to share love? Like bhuddism, not judging each other until we can truly understand each other without either rejecting in warm, hot, cold, freezing, tepid or even raging passion, or disgust or hate? Starting with just being in the same room and sharing lots of candles, maybe with a few dogs for extra warmth? Be nice to understand enough. I’m learning its best for me to try not to analyse myself or others but just try to be in that room with another human again.

    • Meg-John Barker

      19 September

      Yes! I love all of these thoughts, thankyou so much for the comment. Learning to breathe, to be alongside, to share the warmth. Also very much liking the idea of lots of dogs 🙂

  3. Juliana García

    18 November

    okay, you just summed up my whole year relationship wise. It has been quite wrenching at times, but alas, trying really hard to focus on the being kind of love now. Thanks for this!!!

  4. Meg-John Barker

    19 November

    Sorry to hear you’ve had a wrenching one too. I’m glad this connected with you.

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