In the Name of Love

A philosopher looks at our deepest emotions

Does Knowing Me, Darling, Make You Love Me More?

Does knowing him indeed mean loving him more?
To know him is to love him
Just to see him smile
Make my life worthwhile. (The Teddy Bears)

A friend is one who knows us, but loves us anyway. (Fr. Jerome Cummings)

Love at first sight, which is often regarded as the ideal of genuine love, is a love that lacks a vast amount of information about the beloved. What happens when lovers acquire such information as they get to know each other? The general information that they had about their beloved becomes (a) less novel, and (b) more specific and more accurate. How do these changes influence the intensity of love? Does knowing him indeed mean loving him more?

(a) The information becomes less novel. In a study on the role of familiarity in liking music, Gaver and Mandler suggest that frequency of listening to a certain kind of music may increase the preference for this kind. We like what is closest to a relevant evaluative schema. We tend to like music that is typical of its kind. The continuous activation of an evaluative pattern increases familiarity and hence liking. However, too much familiarity produces boredom. Accordingly, we may not like a particular music style anymore, due to the fact that we hear it more. With increased exposure, simple music is liked less while a complex piece is liked more. Gaver and Mandler argue that the interaction of familiarity and complexity causes us to dislike the incomprehensible, enjoy the newly understood, and be bored by music that is well known.

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As in the case of music, the complexity of the object is an important factor in determining whether love will be more or less intense as a result of greater familiarity: a simple psychological object is liked less with exposure, while a complex object is liked more. Indeed, Nina, a married woman, described the time she spends with her lover in the following manner: "I truly believe that even if we would spend together every minute of the day and the night for the rest of our lives we would tell each other new things -also about each other- all the time. I think that even if the familiar part becomes bigger, which is inevitable, the new part will always be endless and hence even greater than the familiar one." (cited in In the Name of Love)

Romantic love refers to a complex psychological personality, with numerous aspects, whereas sexual desire refers to a few, mainly external, aspects. Accordingly, sexual desire is considerably increased by novelty, while increasing the intensity of love often involves increasing familiarity with the other person. Replacing the object is frequently a temporary and elusive remedy for love. An indication of this is that very few people who leave their marriage for a lover, eventually remain with that lover. Enhancing excitement in romantic love does not necessarily mean replacing the object; indeed, knowing the object better can make for heightened excitement.

(b) The information becomes more specific and accurate. Lisa Neff and Benjamin Karney propose a model of global adoration and specific accuracy in love, whereby spouses demonstrate a positive bias in global perception of their partners, such as being "wonderful," yet are able to display greater accuracy in their perception of their partners' specific attributes, such as being punctual. In this model, spousal love may be conceived as hierarchically organized experience giving different weight to the global characteristic in comparison with the specific ones. Spouses appear to rate their positive perceptions as more important for the relationship than their negative perceptions. In this manner, an accurate perception of a partner's specific traits and abilities would not interfere with the global belief that one's partner is a wonderful person.

The psychological mechanism underlying love (and other emotions) does not merely evaluate the object's characteristics as good or bad, but also gives each characteristic a relative weight expressing the significance we attribute to each characteristic. Hence, a woman may say that she perceives her partner to be as handsome as she did when she first fell in love with him, but this no longer matters to her since the weight of his other (negative) characteristics has become so great that she no longer loves him. Similarly, she can love him while being aware of his bad characteristics, to which she gives little weight.

Romantic relationships require then a sort of combination between positive illusions and accurate knowledge. In Neff's and Karney's model although spouses may be demonstrate a positive bias in their global perceptions of their partners, which serves to protect their own sense of satisfaction, they nevertheless may have a more accurate perception of their partners' specific attributes. For instance, spouses who believe their partners to be wonderful people may be willing to perceive their partners as unorganized or as poor cooks. Given that there are fewer clear and objective standards for evaluating global attributes than for evaluating specific attributes, spouses have the latitude to place their partners in a more positive light. Whereas spouses may find it easy to support the claim that their partners are wonderful, they may find it more difficult to support the belief that their partners are well organized.

Positive illusions or enhancement of certain qualities are not necessarily an outright denial of reality but rather are likely to expand on a kernel of truth. Trust in a spouse's love may be particularly high when global adoration is accompanied by specific accuracy, because spouses are thus communicating that they love their partners despite being able to recognize their faults. Love grounded in specific accuracy appears to be more resilient than love lacking in such accuracy.

The above changes in the nature of the information about the beloved have a complex impact upon the intensity of love. Michael Norton and his associates argue that although we tend to prefer the company of individuals we know, often learning more about a specific individual leads, on the average, to like him or her less. There is a positive correlation between liking and information across individuals but the opposite correlation regarding any given individual. We may speak here about the lure of ambiguity: reducing ambiguity, by having more information about each other, usually leads to less liking. The study shows that additional information about the other reduces the initially thought shared similarities and hence reduces liking.

There are, of course, cases in which the above correlations do not hold, and the more we know a person the more we like her. When further acquaintance deepens our initial impressions, the intensity of love will increase. But those appear to be in the minority. As Barbara said about her lover:"I find that I love him more the more I know him. And this came as great surprise to me, as I was not sure beforehand that this would happen, perhaps because of my previous experiences."

To sum up, the impact of further information upon the intensity of love is multi-directional. When the beloved is perceived to be complex, the interaction with him grows ever more exciting and in a sense becomes even more novel. The closeness gained by knowing the other person better may in some cases override the loss of excitement due to reduced novelty. It is sad that in so many circumstances, this does not happen and that knowing him better often leads to loving him less.

Adapted from The Subtlety of Emotions.

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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