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The Opposite of Love

“The opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference”. This quote has been widely attributed and the concept dates back to the 19th century. We can understand this by considering two dimensions to a relationship: valence and intensity.


By valence, we mean if the relationship is positive or negative, and we add to this a second dimension of intensity that represents how strong our feelings are. This is illustrated in the diagram: a positive valence with high intensity is love. As the intensity reduces, love reduces to like, and hate to dislike, but as the intensity reduces even further, the relationship devolves to indifference.

This differs from typical 2×2 models – the shape is a triangle rather than a square. This is because as intensity gets lower, valence becomes less important. In the extreme, the relationship is reduced to “I don’t care”, which can be a far more difficult relationship to mend.

When the intensity is high, even if it’s negative, there is something to work with because the person cares enough to express their negativity. It is possible to engage and deal with those negative feelings and address them.

By their nature, relationships involve at least two parties. That means we need to consider the valence and intensity of each party and not assume they are the same. If A feels love and B is indifferent, then not only are they far apart (so bringing B back from indifference is an important step), but A is also experiencing a lack of reciprocity to their love.

When it comes to family relationships, things are more complicated. There may be more than two parties in conflict, and sometimes conflict can coalesce around groups within a family when family members take sides which can lead them to become amplifiers of the conflict of others, rather than seeking to limit the conflict to the protagonists. When we add a family enterprise into the mix, things become more complicated still. In addition to the family relationships, there may be business and ownership relationships. A family member can simultaneously feel love for another yet despise them for the way they act in the family business context (and vice versa).

This state of mixed emotions – known as ambivalence – can itself exact an emotional toll. It can help to acknowledge that they come from different contexts within a broader family situation, rather than seeking to net off one emotion against the other. That can allow the specific issues to be addressed in relative isolation.

Another attribute of family relationships is their longevity, and they endure much longer than people think. Only a small class of serious relationships can truly end, allowing the parties to completely walk away, such as when a couple divorce and have no children. In almost all other cases, they remain tethered in some way: divorced couples with children, estranged family members, and similar. While people may say “our relationship is over” or “we have no relationship”, a more accurate characterisation would be “we have an awful or dysfunctional relationship”.

Relationships within a family enterprise are, by their nature, complex. It behoves us to acknowledge and work within the complexity rather than seek to brush over and simplify matters.

Conversation Starters: In the broadest context of your family enterprise, how many different relationships do you have with other family members? To what extent do those relationships affect each other?

Further reading:

Here is more reading on Family Conflict Resolution.

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