In the Name of Love

A philosopher looks at our deepest emotions

"Come Live In My Heart, and Pay No Rent"

The obligations of being a tenant in one’s heart

“You are the tenant of my heart, Often times behind in the rent, But impossible to evict.” From the movie, Playing by Heart

“I've got you so deep in my heart, that you're really a part of me.” Frank Sinatra

“My heart is too big for just one guy.” Edith Piaf

The offer of “come live in my heart, and pay no rent” seems very tempting, but is often contrary to the nature of love, which is based upon a reciprocal relationship. Being a tenant in someone’s heart has obligations that cannot be ignored.

We know that the brain, rather than the heart, underlies mental phenomena. However, in everyday usages the heart is still perceived to underlie emotional phenomena in general and love in particular. The above quotations illustrate this perception.

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Samuel Lover's words, “Come live in my heart and pay no rent,” takes the heart metaphor further and formulates it in real-estate terms. What does it mean to allow a tenant to live rent-free in your heart?

It might mean that “your love for me will not cost you anything”; it is a love without obligations. Does such love exist? There is a saying: “That which costs nothing is worth nothing.” If there are no free lunches, can there be free love? Love is a profound attitude and it seems that someone should pay for it. If the beloved does not pay his share, who does?

A profound love starts with the intention not to charge any rent—except maybe for an emotional one (which may not be high if you assume that “He will learn to love me.”) When you are deeply in love, you feel that you would do anything for your beloved without asking anything in return. But in reality, we do need something in return—in particular, we need our profound love to be reciprocated. To sustain a long-lasting loving relationship we need reciprocal interactions of giving and receiving love, caring, respect, and sex, for example.

One can understand the proposal to live rent-free in someone's heart as a kind of seductive offer based on the following rationale: “Although I do incur expenses for letting you live in my heart, I enjoy your company so much that I am ready to cover the full cost of your stay. The pleasure of being with you is more valuable to me than return that I would get from rent.”

Although this reasoning seems romantic, it runs against the foundations of profound love. As to whether it is appropriate to accept such an offer, this depends on whether the beloved can afford to pay the rent. If he can, he should gladly do so.

Jon Elster argues: “To want to be immoral is to be immoral. A person willing to take a guilt-erasing pill would not need it.” Similarly, profound love is reciprocal: to love is to be ready to give and receive. Anyone who is prepared to accept your love without wishing to give anything in return does not love you. Love involves the wish to give and sacrifice, not the wish to merely receive and benefit. Love does not involve the search for a good cheap deal. Not paying rent for the use of someone's heart is like a deal in which you pay for one (the one in which you do invest and give) and get another one free. Such a deal is contrary to profound love, in which you are happy to pay an even higher rent than is requested.

It might be appropriate to accept the offer of living in someone's heart rent-free if one was unable to pay the rent. For example, let us suppose your beloved is married and the highest rent she can pay is being with you for only two hours a week. If your limited time together is very meaningful for both of you, you would not demand the full rent of being with her all the time. You might refrain from taking rent if you know that your beloved wants to pay, but just cannot do so in the given circumstances.

There are also cases of "hostile occupation" in which either the lover or the beloved does not want to stay in that heart. In hostile occupation, we do not want our heart to be busy thinking about people who have hurt us; they would somehow have to pay not merely for doing us wrong, but also for occupying our heart with emotions that are caused by their damaging behavior.

Another type of hostile occupation comes from the opposite direction: you gladly let the other person occupy your heart, but she does not want to do so as she is afraid of losing her privacy or because she fears that she might feel violated by your yearning for her. A friend of mine told me that one of his colleagues criticized him for sexually fantasizing about her as she felt that this violated her privacy. In this situation, it is not merely that she does not pay rent for being in my friend’s heart (or somewhere around it), but she might be entitled to some royalties for his fantasies.

The following passage comes from the Jewish Ethics of the Fathers: “Whenever love depends upon something [external to love], and then this thing passes, then the love passes away too. But if love does not depend upon something like this, then love will never pass away.” The issue with free rent is somewhat similar: If a person is prepared to be in your heart as long as he doesn't have to pay rent, and if his readiness disappears the moment he is faced with the request for rent—that is, the request for reciprocity—why would you allow him rent-free occupation in the first place?

"Playing hard to get," which is a most effective strategy for attracting a partner, takes the opposite attitude to free rent. It forces the other person to make significant investments, to pay even a higher rent than is usual, and thereby ensures that this person is indeed ready to make a commitment to an enduring relationship. Indeed, romantic literature and films depict profound love as a culmination of a difficult journey; love in this sense must be "earned" and "proved." Just as the will to sacrifice is portrayed as an expression of profound love, so is the will to fight against all odds. Obstacles are only tests one must endure and successfully pass; for love is proven by defying external forces and constraints, which are merely attempts to shatter it.

Great sensitivity is needed in determining the amount of rent to be paid. It might be reduced or even waived if someone cannot pay the full rent. In other circumstances, it is better to demand the full rate and sometimes even to raise it. As a married woman said, “I am now in a nonreciprocal relationship. But I make my choice on values other than love and support. I am not totally without it; I just think my rent is a bit unfair, although I am not complaining to the landlord even if I perhaps should.”

Love is like a picnic: you bring what you can and share it with your loved one. If you bring more, it is not important, since you know that your beloved will try to provide more at another time. If the love is not profound, there will be questions about the cheap wine, stale bread, and perhaps lack of cheese. If you are in love, you will be happy to eat stale bread while gazing into your beloved's eyes.

The sugar daddy phenomenon is the opposite of the rent free offer. A sugar daddy is a man who offers money or gifts to a younger person in return for companionship or sexual favors. In this case, the young person does not merely live free in the heart of the sugar daddy, but even gets paid for it. Unlike prostitution, in which you get paid for a specific short-term act, here you get paid for a whole relationship.

The above considerations can be encapsulated in the following statement that a lover might express: "Darling, I want you so much and I am ready to be generous and let you be a rent-free tenant in my heart, but I do need some signs of your love (and depositing a million dollars in a Swiss bank account in my name could be such a sign).”

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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