In the Name of Love

A philosopher looks at our deepest emotions

Darling, Do You Take Your Love Seriously?

“Angels can fly since they take themselves lightly.”

"I feel like Zsa Zsa Gabor's eighth husband on her wedding night: I know what I'm supposed to do...I just have to figure out a way to make it interesting."

A few months after the start of his relationship with his girlfriend, a man told her, "I love you, darling," to which she replied, "That is a very serious statement; you should think it over." He responded, "My love is certainly serious, but I do not have to think about it, because it feels so natural to me." Is love a serious emotion? And if so, how should it be expressed?

The dictionary gives various definitions of what is meant by 'being serious.' It offers meanings such as important, substantial, extreme, deeply interested, earnest, without humor, thoughtful, and uncompromising. In many of these related senses, love is indeed a serious matter. Lovers perceive their love as important and substantial in its scope and are deeply interested in their beloved. Love is undertaken and pursued in an earnest and sincere manner. Love is often perceived as extreme, sometimes even excessive, in its quality and extent. Sometimes it is perceived to be so extreme that certain people never even dare to declare their love; others delay until it is too late.

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Love is not necessarily serious in the sense of being thoughtful, since it can be a spontaneous attitude that does not require thought-provoking discussions. It is not entirely clear whether love is serious in being uncompromising. The substantial and extreme attitudes in love indicates that love is often uncompromising; but living with another person raises the need for compromises that in some instances can indicate that we take ourselves or our wishes lightly, it that we do not hold fast to them and are prepared to give them up for the sake of the relationship (see here).

I will discuss here whether love is serious in that it is without humor. It seems that love expresses our profound happiness and involves a lot of play and humor; sometimes love allows us to take things lightheartedly. Are these characteristics compatible with the seriousness of love?

Emotions are partial in two basic senses: they are focused on a narrow target, such as on one person or a very few people; and they express a personal and interested perspective. Emotions direct and color our attention by selecting what attracts and holds our attention; they make us preoccupied with some things and oblivious to others. The partial nature of emotions makes them serious in the sense of being substantial and intense, but not in the sense of being comprehensive. The partial aspect of emotions prevents them from being closely associated with humor.

At the basis of humor is the ability to encompass several perspectives at the same time. In jokes, for example, we are led in a certain direction and then the punch line takes us in another, unexpected direction. The ability to hold these opposing perspectives simultaneously makes us laugh. Emotions also involve incongruity as they are generated by changes, but in emotions the simultaneous presence of incongruent perspectives is problematic and requires immediate practical action; in humor the incongruity is enjoyable and requires no action. The action required in the emotional situation is intended to eliminate the incongruity-in the case of negative events to return the situation to its original state, and in the case of positive events to maintain the new improved situation.

In contrast to the practical orientation of emotions, humor involves a more abstract and less purposeful activity. We often use humor in order to block emotions such as fear, anger, or sorrow, or to resolve tensions. Humor is not a joke for nature. Its survival value consists, at least in part, in its functioning as a counterweight to the strong influence exerted by emotions and moods on our behavior.

A sense of humor is thus often incompatible with extreme emotional states. The ability to entertain several perspectives simultaneously is typical of humor and moderate positions and is contrary to the partial nature of emotions. The ability to entertain several alternatives is also a sign of mental health. For example, a person who suffers from paranoia cannot see that there are available alternatives to the situation in which he finds himself. Indeed, people often describe their emotionality as a state in which they are unable to think clearly and, in particular, are unable to appreciate others' points of view.

Despite its seriousness in other aspects, romantic love involves a sense of humor and the enjoyable process of playing that are typical of flirting. Like flirting, humor involves opposite aspects. A sense of humor indicates that we feel good about ourselves, but also that we do not attach too much importance to ourselves. The use of humor and flirting in romantic relationships is not accidental-it reflects the ongoing nature of such a relationship. Greater excitement and extra joy is brought into the relationship by introducing the playfulness and humor that are essential parts of flirting. Those games are not intended to change the type of a romantic relationship, but merely to provide a lighthearted and pleasurable aspect.

Romantic compromises also express a sense of taking oneself not too serious. One is ready in compromise to give up some of one's values and attitudes for the greater value of being with other people. Hence, one does not attach to one's attitude such a serious importance. This can sometimes have some advantages. As someone said, "Angels can fly since they take themselves lightly." Accordingly, Julia, a married woman, said: "As I think more profoundly about life and love is that we take it all too serious. Life should be taken sincerely and wholeheartedly, but sometimes we are just too full of it and ourselves." From another perspective, however, if compromising results from the fact that we do not take our stands seriously, it might prove to be one of our most serious (in the sense of profound) actions.

The above considerations can be encapsulated in the following statement that a lover might express: "Darling, my love for you is serious, because I regard it as important, earnest, substantial, and caring. However, my serious love also includes our most enjoyable and humorous times together. I think that we should not take ourselves too seriously; we should leave some time for humor and playful activities that are exciting and provide a taste of life. And another thing, darling: if love is not humorous, why is having sex euphemistically referred to as ‘having fun'?"

 

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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