Methods for Metaphorizing Erotic Love in Heterosexual Men and Women

Julita Czernecka and Katarzyna Kalinowska

In life, as in scientific arguments, there is no singular view of what love is. Definitions of love involve the interpretation of intimate relationships, and build upon cultural resources and shared understandings of experiences. It is difficult to express such complex intimate experiences precisely and clearly, which is why any linguistic attempt to describe love appears almost exclusively as a metaphorical phenomenon, but is deeply rooted in social perceptions of the world.

The theoretical inspiration for this analysis is the cognitive theory of metaphor formulated by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (Metaphors We Live By). Metaphors reflect the processes of perception, sensation and understanding, and emerge from physical and cultural experiences. They are shaped both by the perception of the material world and the world of ideas.  

Lakoff and Johnson divided metaphors into different categories. Orientational metaphors are built with reference to the original human experience of perceiving the direction of one’s own body, attitudes, body positions or movement.  Ontological metaphors are based on the fact that – in the linguistic sphere – abstract phenomena are attributed to the characteristics of material beings: objects, people, animals, elements of the natural world. Structural metaphors attribute features of one cultural phenomenon to another phenomenon, in describing one area of life by references to another, which is often metaphorised in itself.

Our analysis of metaphors relating to being in a relationship, covered the statements of cisheterosexual women and men, who took part in 8 focus group interviews, conducted separately with women and men, in the following age ranges: 19-25, 26-37, 38-55 and over 55. The respondents were in long-term, permanent partnerships or marriages (the duration of the relationship was proportional to the age of participants and ranged from 2 to 40 years).

Orientational metaphors: horizontal and vertical feelings

The first metaphorical pattern we noticed was in a large range of spatial metaphors for love, in which love was understood to mean being close to someone. Love was articulated as something that pulls us together, through which emotional and physical distance is lessened or collapsed.

Similarly, we tracked metaphors that are volumetric, and involved the depth of feelings. For example, love involves emotional increases and/or drecreases; it grows, and was rarely expressed as a flat or consistent “structure”.  

The love biographies that people shared with us most often consisted of both positive and negative experiences of relationships. The language describing this was spatial too, with phrases used such as: a higher level of love, ups and downs, love is the basis, [love] pushes on me, shoulder the responsibility.

The ambivalencis of oriental metaphors appearing in relationship narratives reflects the diversity of people’s love experiences.

Ontological metaphors: materiality and vitality of love

We noticed that participants frequently constructed metaphors drawing on the elements of air, fire, water and earth. These love comparisons are a stable cultural and linguistic feature. Our participants developed these metaphors, speaking of love as weather: as like thunder from the  sky,  a storm or hurricaine, turbulent; as fire: it felt like an outburst of emotion, hot love as fire; as well as water: love as a wave, tsunami, love is like a tide; and earth: love is like avalanche.

Research participants attributed human and animal characteristics to love as well, for example giving love a body, or locating it as an extension of their own, as in: love is blind, animal attraction, a feeling is born, a heartbeat, love sick, love is evolving. 

Animations and personifications were used more in positive descriptions of love than where participants drew on the elements to construct their metaphors.  

Structural metaphors: in the social mirror

“Emotional relations are shaped by the logic of economic exchange, there is a “commodification” of feelings and people, every gesture has its price”

(Eve Illouz, Why Love Hurts: A Sociological Explanation, 2011).

Many of the participants metaphorised love as a type of work, which was generally described as hard, difficult, and demanding sacrifice. In this category the men in the study frequently generated metaphors for the labour of love using language associated with the physical labour of construction. Some of the men spoke of rebuild[ing] relationships, repair[ing] a relationship; build[ing] a family on these fundamentals, cement[ing] a relationship. We were interested in the link between this gendered pattern in arcticulation with traditional models of masculinity in which the construction industry would be seen as ‘manly’ work. The metaphors for the labour of love more commonly created by the women used language of education and therapeutic or healing practices.

Final reflections

A sense of complexity, instability and fragility were among the basic features of the participants’ metaphorical articulations of love. This created a sense that being in a relationship requires constant care on the part of partners – as if love were a living being, reflected too in the language choosing to personify it – treating it as if it had feelings, and as it it could be lost or destroyed. These linguistic representations of love practices suggested our participants felt a relationship today is not “once and for all” thing, or a given. This reflects the societal shift; perhoad love used to be less fragile when marriages were for life, with fewer exceptions to this rule.

Some ways of metaphorizing love were equally applicable to the men and women, who referred just as frequently to the natural world, orientation in space, and everyday life in the form of work, consumption, and entertainment. This may be evidence of the egalitarianization of certain areas of life experience, or the universal nature of certain cultural messages that impose a similar framework on heterosexual men and women to interpret intimate experiences.

On the other hand, we have identified specific, significant gender differences in the use of love metaphors. The women’s love definitions turned out to be broader and more open to various forms of experiencing feelings than the men’s. For the women, love was expressed through a wider variety of metaphors; they associated love with work, learning and playing, fighting and sickness, traveling, but also waiting, calculating, giving, and sharing. Women more often saw relationships as an area of domination and subjection, or as a battlefield, which perhaps correlates with traditional societal gender dynamics and inequalities.

The men were less likely to compare the experience of love to certain areas of life; they did not associate love with illness or therapy, and they rarely talked about a relationship as if it were a treasure, a gift of fate or a field of negotiation. The work of love for men meant either physical work, building or project work.

To conclude, traditional models of femininity and masculinity can be traced through this research in the ways these heterosexual men and women chose metaphors to describe their experienced of love. These gendered traditions still seemed to strongly influence the language of the love imagination, consciousness, and intimate practices of our participants.  On the other hand, the fragility and temperamental nature of many of the love metaphors clearly suggested its undergoing transformations and shifts in our society, and the decrease in the sense of love as a stable, constant state.

Julita Czernecka, PhD – she works as assistant professor at the Department of Sociology of Social Structure and Social Change of the University of Lodz, Poland. She conducts research in the areas of ​​love relationships, social circumstances of being singles, femininity and masculinity in various areas of social life, the role of aesthetic capital in private and professional life. Author and coauthor of books: “Single and The City” (2014), ”Gender, Age, and Gendered Age in Relation to Attitudes to One’s Own Appearance and Health” (2017). Email:

Katarzyna Kalinowska – PhD in sociology. She works as an adjunct in Educational Research Institute in Warsaw, where she is a researcher in “Path2Integrity” project (Horizon 2020). Her main fields of scientific interest are sociology of emotion and love, youth research and research ethics. Email:

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