In the Name of Love

A philosopher looks at our deepest emotions

Darling, Do You Need Greater Freedom of Choice?

Boundaries and their violation are essential aspects of human life

"Love does not claim possession, but gives freedom." Rabindranath Tagore

"A loving relationship is one in which the loved one is free to be himself-to laugh with me, but never at me; to cry with me, but never because of me; to love life, to love himself, to love being loved. Such a relationship is based upon freedom and can never grow in a jealous heart." Leo Buscaglia

Nowadays, there is greater freedom of choice. More than at any other time in human history, we can choose what we want to do and whom we want to love. The freedom to choose the beloved is regarded as the hallmark of romantic love. There is certainly a plethora of love stories about lovers who refuse to accept a partner they have not freely chosen and instead choose to follow their heart. The ideal of free romantic choice is not without difficulties-and the main difficulty is that excessive romantic freedom may lead to abandoning some of our significant values, and most of all our romantic commitment. Can we speak then about an optimal freedom?

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The nature of our romantic choices is complex. Why do we choose the way we do? Is such a choice related to our personal circumstances at the time of choosing, e.g., that we are lonely (see here)? Is our choice related to temporary qualities whose value can hold only for the short term? The issue here is whether the validity of our choice is also relevant in a more comprehensive manner, related, for instance, to long-term considerations, the person's general nature, or to the overall well-being of the person. In characterizing romantic choices, we should not merely refer to external forces that coerce the person to select an option she does not want, but also to internal factors that can obstruct her profound wishes.

Modern times have highlighted another problem: the freedom to consider the choice of the beloved not as a one-time choice, but rather as an ongoing experience. Modern lovers do not simply choose a beloved and then rest passively for the rest of their lives; they are in a fluid state, which may require them to constantly make fresh choices.

One main difficulty of unlimited freedom of romantic choice is that it conflicts with another profound value of love¬¬-that of deep commitment for one's partner. A lack of commitment can increase people's sense of uncertainty and insecurity and also give rise to dissatisfaction and depression. Therefore, having perpetual freedom in our romantic choices can be a mixed blessing. Sometimes the existence of too many options makes the task of choosing less attractive; consequently, there are some people who (occasionally) prefer others to make such choices for them.

Barry Schwartz shows that too much freedom from constraints is bad, since unconstrained freedom may lead to paralysis and become a kind of self-defeating tyranny. He further argues that due to the multiplicity of choices available at all times and on all fronts, people no longer know how to be satisfied with "just good enough." They always seek perfection. Freedom constrained by ideals and boundaries may in fact be easier to bear and less dangerous than unconstrained freedom. Schwartz further argues that access to freedom may lead to the tyranny of freedom-individual freedom may impede significant cultural and moral constraints that are necessary for people to live meaningful and satisfying lives. Is this true of romantic freedom in modern society?

Through much of human history, people had scarcely any alternative and had to accommodate themselves to an unsatisfactory romantic situation within the family. When no alternative is available, the current situation is accepted and its value is likely to increase. When many alternatives are available, settling for one's lot is extremely difficult. In addition to the fact that about 50% of all marriages end in divorce, in the majority of the remaining 50% the spouses have at some point seriously considered divorce.

Today, when external constraints on marital romantic relationships hardly exist and so many tempting alternatives are available, being outside the romantic arena is harder and more frustrating. When the romantic environment offers people attractive alternatives that are constantly available right at their fingertips, it becomes harder to avoid them. More than ever before, those who have no romantic relationship find it hard to be happy with their lot.

It should be noted that although freedom of choice is an essential feature of romantic love, such love is often construed as irrational and uncontrolled. As Alexandra, a married woman in her early 50s says about her romantic relationship with a married man: "Rationally speaking, it would be better to forget it. I tried but that was impossible." According to Romantic Ideology, love is an overwhelming power and a compelling force: one does not enter into love with deliberation; rather, one is "gripped... seized and overcome" by love, for love is beyond self control, beyond free choice. Love is often explained by claims of irresistible force; as Olivia Newton John says in her song, "I am hopelessly devoted to you."

Although possessiveness, dependency, vulnerability, insecurity, and loss of freedom have all been considered to be the essence of what love is not, they are in fact all embodied in the one central desire characteristic of romantic love: the desire for each to include the other in their self. We may label it closeness and intimacy, and by so doing we load this desire with connotations of warmth and happiness; however, at the core of such a union and merging of identities is dependency, which is likely to entail some loss of freedom.

The relation between ideals and boundaries on the one hand and freedom on the other hand is complex. Ideals and boundaries imply that some things are more significant than others; in other words, ideals and boundaries determine meanings and thereby restrict freedom. Boundaries are often perceived as obstacles to an expression of what we really want, yet without such boundaries, no genuine identity or meaning can emerge. Setting boundaries restricts our freedom in the sense of preventing us from doing what we really want. However, neglecting to set boundaries actually means being enslaved to one's present desires and results in an inability to direct our life toward our ideals. The dark side of being free from constraints such as ideals and boundaries is that it leaves people at the mercy of the tyranny of irrelevant whims, which can ultimately result in chaos and paralysis.

In love, the extent to which we prize our fundamental values is exhibited in our readiness to sacrifice other values and needs that we consider to be of lesser weight. Accordingly, we should not view self-control or the adherence to boundaries as a surrender to external pressures that are at odds with our desires. It follows that some of our deepest conflicts are not at the intersection of external boundaries and our desires; rather, they are situated between some of our most profound values.

We may speak here of a self-determining freedom: I am free when my decision is based upon my values and constraints rather than upon external factors. Our autonomy is best expressed when there is no conflict between what we wish to do and what our values prescribe. In fact, it comes into play both when we behave according to our profound values, as well as when we follow transient desires that represent less entrenched values.

Boundaries are essential for human behavior. The need to prioritize implies both the establishment and the violation of boundaries. Prioritization is an expression of the rules we employ in deciding by which values we should abide and which we can ignore and even transgress. In this sense, we habitually cross boundaries that we perceive to be of lesser value; in these instances, we may encounter the pain of human choice.

The tension between stable boundaries, which secure our comfort zones and within which events are familiar and predictable, and the wish to have the freedom to experience novelty, which is typically generated by stepping beyond these boundaries, is an essential feature of human life and the experience of love. This is also the tension between the ideals of freedom and commitment.

To sum up, freedom is of great value in the romantic arena; however, it is not absolute freedom, but a kind of a bounded one-freedom within a normative framework that expresses the lover's most profound values. Optimal freedom exists but it has no golden rules, since it depends upon personal and contextual features as well.

The above considerations can be encapsulated in the following statement that a lover might express: "Darling, do you feel that you have lost something valuable by restricting your romantic freedom to me alone?"

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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