In the Name of Love

A philosopher looks at our deepest emotions

Darling, Do You Want Me To Be Stable or Unstable?

Do we want romantic stability?

"I feel the earth move under my feet,
I feel the sky tumbling down,
I feel my heart start to trembling,
Whenever you're around." Carole King

People want their romantic relationships to be stable; they want their profound love to remain constant at its initial profound level. However, people would also like their romantic love to be wild and unstable in the sense of unpredictable. They do not want to take each other for granted, like something inanimate that remains the same all the time; they want love to be wild and exciting. This may be termed "The paradox of stability." So do we want romantic stability or not?

The paradox of stability can be considered by referring to two different meanings of stability: (a) enduring and firm; and (b) free from change or dynamic factors. The problem I want to discuss here is whether love can be stable in the first sense, and yet unstable in the second. In other words, can long-term romantic relationships be exhilarating and dynamic, or are such relationships doomed to be dull and stagnant?

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In light of the crucial role that changes play in generating emotions, instability of the mental (as well as the physiological) system is a basic characteristic of emotions. Emotions indicate a transition in which the preceding context has changed, but no new context has yet stabilized. Emotions are like a storm: as unstable states which signify some agitation, they are intense, occasional, and of limited duration. Another popular metaphor compares emotions to a fire. The instability associated with intense emotions is revealed by their interference with activities requiring a high degree of coordination or control. One cannot easily thread a needle while trembling with fear or seething with anger.

Romantic love is inherently unstable in two major situations: (a) when two passionate lovers are together or think about each other, and (b) when the love is unattainable or thwarted.

The first situation is so vividly described in the above song of Carol King. When we are in the grip of a strong emotion such as romantic love, our intellectual faculties no longer function normally, with the result that we "lose our heads" and act erratically. This type of circumstance is not likely to remain for very long-after a while, people get accustomed to the change and behave in their usual manner. The lack of change in long-term relationships is a major difficulty in many (though not all) such relationships and is particularly problematic in terms of sexual desire.

The opposite of being emotional is being indifferent, namely, being apathetic. Contrary to emotional people, indifferent people are unresponsive to and detached from changes in their situation; they remain stable in the face of such changes. The life of people low in emotional intensity is characterized by endurance, evenness, and lack of fluctuation. The life of people high in emotional intensity is characterized by abruptness, changeableness, and volatility.

Emotional instability is applicable not only to the personal domain, but also to the sociological arena: emotions are more intense in unstable societies where, for example, the regime can rapidly change or people's personal status is subject to fluctuations. In stable, or static, societies, the availability of alternatives hardly exists, and hence emotional intensity is reduced. Envy, for instance, is less intense in such a society.

In analyzing typical characteristics of emotions and moods, the two basic continuums typical of the feeling dimension, namely, the arousal continuum and the pleasantness continuum, seem to be most relevant. Robert Thayer suggests dividing the arousal continuum into two types: one that ranges from energy to tiredness and one from tense to calm. Hence, we have four basic moods states: calm-energy, calm-tiredness, tense-energy, and tense-tiredness. Each of these states can be associated with a certain point on the pleasantness continuum. Thayer considers the state of calm-energy to be the most pleasant state, whereas tense-tiredness is the most unpleasant one.

Thayer indicates that many people fail to distinguish between calm-energy and tense-energy since they believe that whenever they are energetic, there is a certain degree of tension in their situation. Thayer claims that the idea of calm-energy is foreign to many Westerners, but not to people from other cultures. He provides the following citation from the Zen master Shunryu Suzuki: "Calmness of mind does not mean you should stop your activity. Real calmness should be found in the activity itself. It is easy to have calmness in inactivity, but calmness in activity is true calmness."

The idea of calmness in action is related to the Aristotelian idea of intrinsically valuable activity in which our interest is focused upon the activity itself, not on its results (see here and here). We can find calmness in an intrinsically valuable activity because we experience profound satisfaction in such activities and that creates a sense of fulfillment and calm-we are not seeking something external in order to be satisfied.

It seems that sexual desire, which is a major element in romantic love, cannot be stable-by its very nature it is unstable. Sexual desire can be stable in the sense that it repeats itself over a long time. The other aspects of romantic love-that of friendship, happiness, and positively praising the beloved's characteristics-can remain more or less stable over time.

We should also distinguish emotional calm from indifference. Whereas the first refers to the absence of arousal, the second denotes the absence of the pleasantness continuum. Emotions are the opposite of being indifferent. Love is a good example in this regard. Love implies caring, being sensitive to the other, and not being indifferent. Lovers prefer their beloveds to be angry with them rather than to be indifferent toward them, as anger, however negative, denotes involvement and engagement with the other. Studies show that children can cope with their parents's anger much more than their parents indifference; such anger may be frightening, but indifference or being ignored is so much worse as it is indicative of lack of interest and neglect.

To sum up, the presence of calm-energy situations indicates that a stable relationship should not inevitably be associated with dullness and lack of excitement. In enduring relationships, stability does not necessarily imply a lack of dynamic or stimulating features. On the contrary, the only way in which romantic love can endure for a long time is for it to preserve its intrinsic value, by which I mean those activities that further enhance personal flourishing of each partner.

The above considerations can be encapsulated in the following statement that a lover might express: "Darling, I love the stability of our relationship, but please, when you look at me first thing in the morning, could you be less stable and a little more excited?"

 

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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