In the Name of Love

A philosopher looks at our deepest emotions

Why Should We Work So Hard on Our Relationships? And How Come No One Works At Adultery?

When it comes to love, work doesn't work.
It's important to know that words don't move mountains. Work, exacting work moves mountains. (Danilo Dolci)
Work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed. (Vaclav Havel)
The chains of marriage are so heavy that it takes two to bear them, and sometimes three. (Alexandre Dumas)

Falling in love is easier than staying in love, and the process of falling out of love is a more gradual one than that of falling in love. It is claimed that preventing the latter requires hard work. The gradual deterioration of love, which expresses the problematic alliance between passionate romantic love and a committed relationship, is due-at least in part-to the crucial role of change in generating emotions: change intensifies emotions, whereas commitment is based on stability which decreases emotional intensity.

In its infatuation stage, romantic love hardly requires any work or effort. The wish to turn this stage into a lasting romantic relationship is a challenge entailing the investment of blood, sweat, and tears.

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Laura Kipnis (Against Love) sharply criticizes the demand "to work on your relationships" claiming that when it comes to love, trying is always trying too hard: work doesn't work. Working on our relationship means we are now both working a double-shift. When you are "working at it," you know it has gone wrong. Kipnis further argues that domestic life has become such a chore that staying at the office is more relaxing; hence, love has become a form of alienated labor. And in any case, she asks, "why should we work so hard? Why work when you can play?" Kipnis also mentions that no one works at adultery and adultery hardly needs endorsements; it's doing quite well on its own.

Kipnis is obviously right in assuming that no artificial respiration can keep living a dead relationship. But is working on our relationship an obvious sign of its inadequacy? In this regard we may distinguish between the loving attitudes that become routinized and those that are hopelessly stale. Whereas it seems that the latter should usually be dissolved, the former may be saved with much work and effort. In both cases, people are merely functioning and are not meaningfully living, but in one of them getting out of coma is still possible.

We may further distinguish between long-term personal relationships and acute emotions, such as romantic love and sexual desire. There are various experiences and situations in life that require constant work. Keeping in good physical shape requires constant hard-working activities. Given that we live in a dynamic environment, maintaining our current situation constant-not to mention improving it-requires various activities that involve investing in resources and sacrificing other needs. However, the generation of spontaneous short-term emotional experiences, such as anger, sexual desire, and romantic love, may not need prior work. Accordingly, adultery, which is a shorter type of relationship and whose typical feature is that of intense sexual desire, need not work. It also needs no work when it is still at the stage of infatuation. However, when adultery consists of a long-term romantic relationship, it may need work as well (so probably this will be a more pleasant work than that required in marriage).

Getting angry typically does not require work; by contrast, effort is undoubtedly required in order to decrease anger generating experiences within marriage. Even maintaining good sex does not just happen; it also requires investing effort and preparatory activities (which may be enjoyable in and of themselves). Enduring personal relationships require work for maintaining their high quality. Love does not suddenly float into our life, and maintaining it is not an effortless experience: we do search for love and we do work for its continuation. But such work and effort can be natural and enjoyable as well-they do not have to be chores (see In the Name of Love)

The work underlying an enduring personal relationship is neither a sufficient condition nor a necessary one for the emergence of love. Nevertheless, work can in many circumstances enhance love. This is evident not only in the case of maintaining the intensity of love but also in obtaining new love. We invest more effort in something which is significant for us; at the same time it is also true that something we invest more effort in becomes more significant. The saying "easy comes, easy goes" reflects situations in which something we have gained without much invested effort is of lesser significance to us and, hence, we don't mind losing it.

Stephen Mitchell (Can Love Last?) rightly points out that passionate desire may not be contrived, but nevertheless we can do a lot in constructing the contexts in which such a desire typically occurs. Working on our romantic relationship should do just that. It may not only be conducive for coping with some of its difficulties, but may augment love as well. Keeping a long-term love requires patient cultivation.

Finding the right person is not the end of the story, it is the beginning of a long (preferable enjoyable) journey demanding a lot of work and which may be seen later on as not worth the effort. The idealization of love may be a natural need or dream most people share. However, fulfilling such love, or even approaching it, is usually, but not always, neither natural nor easy, as it often requires much personal sacrifice and effort.

Aaron Ben-Zeév, Ph.D., former President of the University of Haifa, is Professor of Philosophy. His books include: In the Name of Love: Romantic Ideology and its Victims.

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