In the Name of Love

A philosopher looks at our deepest emotions

Is Love Blind?

A misty-eyed view is most advantageous for enduring love

"Love is not blind-It sees more and not less, but because it sees more it is willing to see less." Will Moss

"Love is blind and marriage is the institution for the blind." James Graham.

"Many a man has fallen in love with a girl in a light so dim he would not have chosen a suit by it." Maurice Chevalier

Lovers are often blind to the beloved's negative traits and tend to create an idealized image of the beloved. We often love the idealized object rather than the real one. Are we then blind when we fall in love and when we maintain it?

In a surprising number of cases, people fall in love with their idealized vision of their lovers, or with the idea of being in love, rather than with the actual reality of their lovers. Indeed people often say that they are living out their dreams with their beloved. Positive illusions are in fact central to romantic love. Lovers do not see clearly, if at all, their beloved's negative traits and tend to create an idealized image of the beloved.

One reason for idealizing the beloved is that we tend to evaluate positively that which we desire. Our inclination toward something often leads to its positive evaluation. Idealization of the beloved may also be considered as a kind of defense mechanism, enabling us to justify our partly arbitrary choice. A similar defense mechanism is typical of people who have recently bought a new car and subsequently spend a lot of time reading its advertisements and avoid reading those for other cars they might have bought instead.

Men seem to idealize women more than women idealize men. For example, a survey of love songs has found that females were more often described as "heavenly" or "angels" than males.

Idealization of the beloved is more typical of love at first sight and the initial stages of love when a spontaneous evaluation, made on little information, has an important role. If the person fits into the schema underlying the spontaneous evaluation, then the person is evaluated positively. When more information is available, this evaluation must also take into account negative aspects. The initial ignorance of the person's characteristics, which is expressed in idealization, is later replaced with a more realistic picture based upon new and more detailed information. Many divorcees testify that they cannot understand how they could have been so blind to their partner's characteristics. The lover's blindness is not necessarily due to misperception of the beloved's traits; it may also be a matter of distorted evaluation in the sense of focusing upon positive qualities only.

Most married people are able to indicate their partner's character defects, physical defects, and bad habits. Moreover, we may love an evil person, an unintelligent person, an aesthetically unpleasant person, or an arrogant person while knowing this person to be so. The cognitive change of gaining additional negative information about the object does not necessarily lead to separation. However, if love is to be sustained, the cognitive change must be accompanied by an evaluative change compensating for the new negative information.

In light of the complexity typical of love and the fact that lovers are often unwilling to face reality, self-deception and mistakes are likely to occur. We can be wrong in identifying the beloved's attitude, since the person can easily fake or hide it. We can also be wrong in identifying our own loving attitude, one reason being that sexual desire can be confused with romantic love. This is especially true in the first stages of romantic love when sexuality plays a dominant role. According to the troubadour tradition, the love test used in order to prevent such confusion among lovers is to spend a night in his mistress' arms without any sexual consummation.

People who are in love for a prolonged period of time maintain the idealized notion of their beloved for the whole period. As Solomon, who has been happily married to his wife Ziva for the last forty years, says, "When I look at my wife now, I still see the young and beautiful Ziva I first met."

As Simon Blackburn nicely puts it, "Perhaps we prefer Cupid to have dim sight rather than to be totally blind, but it is also just as well that he is not totally clearsighted." It seems that positive illusions and a misty-eyed view, rather than either clear sightedness or complete blindness, are most favorable for enduring love. It is not always the case that "To know him is to love him." Quite often, greater knowledge reduces love (see here and here). This is in accordance with the lack of a clear, positive correlation between one's knowledge and one's happiness. As Ingrid Bergman noted, "Happiness is good health and a bad memory."

The above considerations can be encapsulated in the following statement that a lover might express: "Darling, when you look at me and are not sure about your love, please look at the larger picture and do not focus on the boring details. Those who have the best sight or the best memory are not necessarily the happiest people."

 

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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