In the Name of Love

A philosopher looks at our deepest emotions

The Comeback of Love

"Life without love is one dead end street." Carole King

"Life without love is one dead end street." Carole King
"The book of life is brief, and once a page is read, all but love is dead." Don McLean

Modern times are difficult for lovers (see my post here)-perhaps more so than in most previous eras. These difficulties stem from the nature of our emotional system and the prevailing norms in modern society. Since emotions are generated when we perceive a significant change in our situation, emotional intensity decreases as familiarity increases.

This difficulty is amplified in light of two major developments in modern society: (a) the lifting of most of the constraints that once prevented long-term committed relationships from dissolving, and (b) the apparent presence of so many attractive alternatives that offer the promise of replacing any given committed romantic relationship. Nowadays, getting out of a committed relationship and getting into a new one is much easier. Staying within a committed relationship has become a choice that requires us to constantly reexamine its value in light of, among other issues, the presence of romantic love.

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New circumstances such as these make the lives of modern lovers more complex. They face not only constant doubts about which road to take, but also constant regret about the many roads not taken. The abundance of alternatives and the perpetual possibility of getting something "better" undermine commitment. The gap between the present and the potentially possible can never be bridged, even if it seems easy to do so. In this manner, the realm of infinite possibilities becomes a tyrannical force, keeping one from enjoying the present. When many alternatives are available, settling for one's lot is extremely difficult.

Modern society has witnessed an increasing discrepancy between the desire for enduring romantic relationship and the probability of its fulfillment. Breakup, rather than marriage, is the norm in dating relationships. In addition to the fact that in many societies about 50% of all marriages end in divorce, the majority of the remaining 50% have at some point seriously considered divorce.

These circumstances, in particular the availability of love outside marriage, have forced people to give love a more significant place in their concepts of marriage. The "sweetness" of a marriage, and in particular love itself, becomes the focus of intense scrutiny. Since both partners have now perpetual choice, they must invest more and more resources in maintaining the romantic relationship and in calculating the probability of its demise by the partner's withdrawal. The greater burden of maintaining the relationship may in some cases decrease its attractiveness and make it more ambiguous, and often more distressing to the partners, as they are constantly vulnerable to anxieties, distrust, and insecurity.

Borrowing Charles Dickens' saying about the French Revolution to the romantic realm, we may say that these are indeed, "The best of times, the worst of times." These are indeed hard times for lovers: Many romantic relationships do not last for long and many others are crumbling; lovers are constantly perplexed about their current relationship and possible tempting alternatives.

However, despite the difficulties of maintaining long-term romantic relationships in modern times, this is also a flourishing time for love, even a time of its renaissance. Love is on the mind of a greater number of people and its presence is a major criterion for more relationships. Love cannot be dismissed anymore as silly fantasy; it is perceived as realistic and feasible for many more people. Love has made an impressive comeback. And rightly so.

The above view concerning the comeback of love in modern society can be encapsulated in the following declaration that a lover might express: "Darling, although the chances of you remaining my lover are lower than in previous eras, the chances of us staying together while still being in love are greater. And I would not exchange this era with any of the previous ones. Security is good, but a loving relationship is even better."

Adapted from In the Name of Love

 

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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