“Only dead fish swim with the stream.” Malcolm Muggeridge
“We can do no great things; only small things with great love.” Mother Teresa
“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
The decision to get married or to get divorced is such a significant one that it clearly should be taken after profound deliberations. Apparently, this is sometimes not the case and people can find themselves drifting into a certain situation without having thought deeply about it. Is drifting a proper manner in which to make important romantic decisions?
Drifting can be characterized as moving from one situation to another with the agent not having complete control over the process or a full awareness of it. I suggest distinguishing between slow and gradual drifting and fast and instantaneous drifting.
Slow and fast drifting
In its prevailing linguistic usage, drifting can be characterized as a slow and gradual shift from one situation to another without complete control over it or full awareness of it (for an excellent discussion on this, see Ullmann-Margalit, 2006). Slow drifting occurs in cases where people have been together for a while and although their love is not intense, they feel comfortable with each other so without thinking too much they find themselves agreeing to take the next natural step and get married. Similarly, slow drifting takes place when a married couple becomes increasingly less passionate toward each other and has less interest in the life of the other, and so takes the next natural step of getting a divorce.
Fast drifting, the typical example of is love at first sight, is not gradual but instantaneous. Like slow drifting, it does not involve complete control over the process and there is also no full awareness of any process; there is no process as the experience is instantaneous. In both slow and fast drifting, the agent’s attitude is mainly based upon emotional reasoning rather than intellectual deliberations.
The literal definition of drifting in English denotes a slow drifting and what I refer here as fast drifting could be termed "being carried away." In other languages, such as German and Hebrew, the word for drifting is used to denote both slow and fast drifting. A piece of log in the water can drift slow or fast depending on the speed of the current.
Fast and slow drifting can occur when falling in love and when falling out love. Love at first sight involves fast drifting; it does not follow a process of slowly learning to love someone while acquiring further knowledge about him. In love, such fast drifting gives significant weight to the attraction element in romantic love, while slow drifting gives greater weight to knowing the agent’s personal characteristics. Similarly, fast and slow drifting can also occur when falling out of love. Fast drifting might be triggered by a major dishonest deed, such as having an affair or neglecting a partner when she needs the agent most. Slow drifting in falling out of love frequently occurs in situations when the couple comes to know each other better and they gradually realize that they have nothing in common.
There are certain differences between drifting into marriage and drifting into divorce. Drifting is more natural in the case of marriage, as conventional norms tend to urge couples towards getting married and they are congratulated and even admired for entering into marriage; hence it is easier to accommodate oneself to these norms and receive the applause of others, without spending too much time on profound soul-searching. In the case of divorce, the process of drifting apart occurs as the initial love diminishes and as each person develops different realms of interest. However, once the two realize that they have drifted apart, actually splitting their lives and the lives of their children through a formal divorce is harder, as divorce has various negative emotional and financial implications that go beyond the individual agents. So unlike the situation of marriage, the final decision in divorce is typically made through a conscious process of intellectual deliberation.
The stories of Sandra and Carla Bruni
The story of Sandra, a beautiful and wise woman, illustrates slow and gradual drifting. Sandra drifted gradually into her marriage and then drifted gradually into her divorce. She was not particularly in love with her partner, but after a year of infrequent dating, in which they did not live together and hardly had sex (as she was from a conservative family), it was natural for them to keep drifting and move their non-passionate romantic relationship one small step forward—into marriage. Within the first two years, Sandra felt that they were drifting apart and he was not what she had thought him to be. She quickly developed her own career and each of them began living a separate life. The decision to divorce a few years later was a natural outcome of this drifting.
The story of Carla Bruni, the wife of the former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, illustrates fast drifting. She claims that it was love at first sight between her and Sarkozy: what happened "between Nicolas and me was not quick, it was instant. So for us, [the wedding] was actually very slow." Similarly, a married woman said about her married lover, "I loved him at first sight. And the very first time in my life I ever felt passionate was the moment I saw him. It was a feeling so loving, so tender, so wild, so overwhelming and breath-taking, and all-involving, a feeling I did not know before."
Fast and slow emotional reasoning
Daniel Kahneman, in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, has suggested differentiating between two systems of processing, fast and slow; he calls them intuition and reasoning respectively. Intuition (System 1) is a fast system based upon emotional reasoning; reasoning (System 2) is a slow system based upon intellectual reasoning. The two types of logic are not entirely contradictory and have certain common principles.
My discussion of the two types of drifting refers only to System 1, which uses instantaneous intuitive processing. I argue that this type of processing can be done in one significant occurrence or in an incremental, stepwise process of gradual drifting. In both cases System 2, involving intellectual deliberations, plays an insignificant part, if any at all.
The two types of drifting involve a significant change from one situation to another with the agent having no complete control over it, not being fully aware of it, and using emotional reasoning rather than intellectual deliberations. The difference between the two types of drifting merely concerns the pace at which it occurs—whether it is slow or fast—and whether the information processing is instantaneous or gradual .
Drifting might appear to be a reasonless, choice-less, action-less process of which we are unaware, but this is not entirely true. It is not reasonless—it is just that we do not use the more familiar, more conscious intellectual reasoning. As Blaise Pascal rightly argues, “The heart has its reasons which reason does not understand.” Drifting is also not entirely choice-less. Although it does not involve rational choice in which all the options are considered by the agent, the agent does in fact make some choices and is not physically or mentally forced to make his decision. Although we are less aware of the drifting process than we are of our intellectual deliberations, we may be partially aware of various aspects of the process. Thus, people who are drifting away from their partner may be aware of their marital difficulties but may not be fully aware that they are gradually becoming worse. Drifting is also not entirely action-less. Although the agent who is drifting seems to swim with the stream (as a dead fish does), there is always an alternative that she can take, but she typically does not do so, either because that alternative appears to have little value, or because it is risky, unpleasant, or embarrassing. The case of runaway brides illustrates occasions when the agent decides at the last minute to abandon the drifting process (see here).
Romantic drifting often leads to romantic compromises. Such a compromise can often occur when a relationship between a couple has lasted for a while and though they do not feel intense love, they feel comfortable with each other. Their decision to marry seems just another small step along the road and therefore they drift into marriage without feeling the need for any profound deliberation. Only when the wedding approaches, and especially on the wedding day, one of them may realize that she actually has made a very significant decision with far-reaching and irrevocable consequences for her life, and she may begin to feel that she has inadvertently made a profound romantic compromise. In some extreme cases, she might cancel the wedding and even run away on the wedding day.
The normative issue: Which road to take?
So far I have described the nature of romantic drifting. I would like now to briefly discuss the value of such drifting. I will first consider the value of drifting in comparison to intellectual decision making, after which I will examine the value of slow compared to fast romantic drifting.
At the basis of drifting is emotional reasoning. Such reasoning is valuable in many circumstances, especially those requiring immediate personal decisions. Undoubtedly, both emotional and intellectual reasoning are valuable, as there are circumstances in which one type of reasoning should take precedence over the other. Generally, we should not neglect either type of reasoning, but in romantic matters of the heart, we may want to give extra weight to emotional rather than to intellectual reasoning.
Even if in many romantic circumstances we prefer to follow emotional reasoning, it is still unclear which type of drifting, the slow or the fast ones, is more appropriate. Both types can be positive (in the sense of enhancing love) and negative (decreasing love).
I will illustrate the various considerations in this regard by referring to love at first sight (fast drifting) and falling in love through learning the other person (slow drifting), as well as to falling out of love through fast and slow drifting.
A major advantage of love at first sight is that it adequately expresses the genuine nature of the heart. In slow drifting, other considerations, such as a comfortable life, may enter the picture, blurring the clarity of the heart’s response. A major disadvantage of love at first sight is that it reflects partial, momentary circumstances, which may change over time. Slow drifting, expressed in falling in love through learning each other, takes into account broader circumstances and may be able to accommodate them all.
I have described the complex experience of romantic love as involving two basic evaluative patterns referring to (a) attractiveness—that is, an attraction to external appearance, and (b) praiseworthiness—that is, a positive appraisal of personal characteristics. Love at first sight gives greater weight to attractiveness, while the process of learning to love someone gives greater weight to the personal characteristics, especially those which cannot be seen at first sight.
An absence or even a lower degree of attractiveness may ruin the whole relationship—hence, its importance in generating intense love and maintaining it. However, the attractiveness element is has lesser weight in longer relationships and in older age. Attractive evaluations also tend to move toward the average as time goes by: thus, over time a beautiful person will be perceived as less beautiful and an ugly person as less ugly.
In short, two major risks in love at first sight are: (a) the characteristics given to the beloved at first sight may be found to be baseless, and (b) the great weight given to attractiveness will naturally decrease and may ruin the future relationship. The two major risks in learning to love are: (a) the lower degree of attractiveness may not be sufficient for sustaining long-term romantic love, and (b) the accommodation process may increase the likelihood of romantic compromises.
Drifting is a common manner of making decisions in general and romantic ones in particular. I have suggested distinguishing between fast, instantaneous drifting, like that of love at first sight, and slow, gradual drifting, like the one that occurs when a couple is drifting apart from each other.
We often fail to base our big rational decisions upon many different considerations. All too frequently, a situation develops from a minor issue and we just drift along with the given circumstances. Such drifting can easily turn into a romantic compromise, but it can also enhance love as it ebable us to be happy with our lot—something that is quite difficult to achieve in this restless world.
A twice-married woman summarized her attitude toward drifting in the following manner: “I think drifting describes so many people in this world, especially with so much external pressure and stimulation hitting us constantly. We deal with it all by not dealing with it all. It certainly expresses what I do about so much that is difficult to face in my life.”
The above considerations can be encapsulated in the following statement that a lover might express: "Darling, you know that I do not love you madly, but since we both drifted into this marriage together, let us try to make the best of it and not drown ourselves in sadness because we are not profoundly in love.”