In the Name of Love

A philosopher looks at our deepest emotions

The Hard Romantic Choice

‘I Never Had a One-Night Stand, But I Yearn for a Profound Extramarital Affair’

“Good things might come to those who wait, not to those who wait too late.” Bill Withers

“Who needs a heart when a heart can be broken?” Tina Turner

Humans face many choices in their lives and they take them seriously—often too seriously. Thus, there are some people who yearn to experience profound passionate love and so dismiss romantic experiences that fall short of such love. They want profound love at its best, and when they cannot get it, they would rather relinquish all other “superficial” romantic experiences. There is no “second best” in their romantic vocabulary; they want all or nothing. Monica is such a woman.

Monica is an attractive and wise professional married woman in her mid-forties. She is very sensitive and romantic issues are always on her mind. Her husband, a kind, loving person, cares a lot for her. She loves and cares for him as well, but it is more a kind of companionate love than passionate love. Nevertheless, she considers their marital relationship quite satisfactory and never intends to leave it. Monica has never had a one-night stand, but she experienced, while being married, a profound passionate love that was not consummated. She and her (would-be) lover talked and met a lot, but no sex was permitted. Her lover demanded “all-or-nothing.” Despite her profound passionate love for him, she was not ready to give him everything including not sex. Monica had to abandon the whole relationship. She still yearns for this or a similar relationship, but she does not regret what she did—or in this case, what she did not do.

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Deep down in her heart, Monica wishes to fulfill four seemingly incompatible wishes:

(a) Maintaining her marital framework (“which is very satisfactory”),

(b) Not losing her romantic sensitivity (“having the wonderful feeling of being romantically excited”),

(c) Feeling once again profound enduring passionate love (“feeling as if I am in heaven all the time”), and

(d) Not having superficial sex (“I cannot have superficial casual sex devoid of profound passionate love”).

Monica faces a hard choice in wanting to maintain all these wishes. If indeed Monica is right in believing that (a) and (b) will not change, as they are both deeply embedded in her heart and values, then she would probably have to choose between (c) and (d). Since both of them provide romantic flavor to one’s life (although quite a different flavor in each case), the choice would have to be made on the basis of their ability to maintain her marriage (a). Monica would certainly like to implement the wish for profound love (c), as she yearns not merely for romance, but for a qualitative romance. However, while a profoundly love affair would satisfy her romantic sensitivity, it is likely to threaten her marriage.

If Monica’s wish for profound love were fulfilled, it could destroy her own marriage. Monica knows this. She does not want to kill her marriage; on the contrary, she wants to enhance it. However, she still yearns to experience profound love, but her two wishes may be incompatible. As Oscar Wilde said: “Each man kills the thing he loves.”

Given Monica’s wish not to lose, and even enhance her romantic sensitivity, the hard choice she faces is between profound love and superficial casual sex. This choice will eventually be determined by the value that each has concerning its romantic nature, and its prospects of causing the least harm for her marriage. The two options, profound love and superficial casual sex have different values in each aspect.

The hard choice facing Monica is common to many women in their midlife who no longer have childbearing responsibility and begin to look at their sexuality differently. They give more weight to romance, and try to find profound love without ruining their marriage. These women (and men) are more or less settled in their work and life, but are not prepared to abandon romance. They may get sex at home, but what they really yearn for is the profound love they see every day on TV. However, profound love is hard to find and the search can be very costly. In any case, these people are not typically preoccupied with sex, as casual sex does not address their yearning for profound love; rather they are seeking love and if they can find it, they may be prepared to sacrifice their marriage.

It should be noted that yearning for profound love is incompatible with casual sex. Whether the profound love is found in marriage or outside it, it is a relationship that is built on some sort of exclusivity with someone who is "the one and only". Superficial casual sex entails having many replaceable partners. The issue that bothers most married people who yearn for profound love is not so much the risk of being exposed, but rather the risk of not being able to stay in their marriage if they cherish dearly.

The difference between profound love and superficial casual sex is also expressed in the road leading to desired relationship, and in particular the degree of commitment in these relationships. In profound love commitment is significant, whereas in superficial casual sex there is hardly any commitment.

Monica believes that romantic relationships, no matter how profound they are, should involve serious commitments. Thus, even in her nonsexual relationship with her (would-be) lover, she wanted him to be in touch with her on a regular basis and did not like the fact that he “disappeared” from time to time. She felt that lovers, even almost-lovers, should be in touch with the beloved frequently in order to satisfy their immense longing for each other. The lack of such serious commitment prevented her from expressing her intense emotions. Moreover, the presence or absence of such commitment was for her a test of her friend’s serious intentions and the fact that he would temporary disappear from her life after their close intimate talks could indicate that he would disappear after they had sex.

Monica believes that most men, if given her dilemma, would choose the more superficial experience of uncommitted sex over profound love, and the less committed road that would emerge from this choice. Nevertheless, she thinks that they pretend to feel profound love. Therefore Monica avoids any type of “light” connections—it is either everything (that is, profound passionate love) or nothing. But she is well aware that she will never have everything, and is determined never to engage in superficial casual sex. Accordingly, and given her profound commitment to her marriage, she is condemned to have her romantic sensitivity unfulfilled (assuming that it cannot grow significantly within her marriage). Hence, she understands those who may wish to give up such sensitivity all together.

Monica’s romantic attitude is a serious one that allows no compromises. Therefore it is either profound love and serious commitment or nothing. It is interesting to note that in her nonromantic behavior, Monica is a witty, lively woman who is great fun to be with. But all this disappears from view when it comes to romantic prospects. In these circumstances Monica is a normative and serious person—perhaps too serious. She is serious in the sense that everything romantic is perceived as important rather than a playful or light-hearted. She is afraid that a more relaxed, spontaneous approach could send the wrong signals to the other person about her romantic willingness, and could tempt her to take steps that contradict her values.

People might contest Monica’s emphasis on importance and seriousness in the romantic realm—spontaneity and light-heartedness are essential aspects in life and romance, but they do not imply that relationships are trivial or frivolous matters. We all need experiences that are carefree and unexacting in order to balance the stresses and strains of our lives. This is also true in the romantic realm. Thus, a vast majority of both men and women consider a sense of humor to be crucial in a dating partner (in one study, it comes second only to understanding). People, particularly men, who displayed a sense of humor were rated as more desirable for a serious relationship and marriage than were more solemn individuals (but only when the humorous individuals were physically attractive) (Lundy, Tan & Cunningham, 1998). Moreover, individuals who were more satisfied with their relationship reported the use of higher levels of positive humor. It seems clear that humor and a light-hearted attitude is an important aspect of many romantic relationships (Butzer & Kuiper, 2008; Goodwin & Tang, 1991) and when Monica regards relationships too seriously, she might actually block their romantic potential.

Humor and similar such cheerful attitudes are important not merely for marital relationships, but also for dating relationships. A non-serious romantic experience can also provide both parties with a mutually amusing and carefree interlude. One such example is nonsexual flirting.

Flirting creates a relaxing, calm, and enjoyable atmosphere. It involves curiosity, humor, imagination, and empathy. Flirting is subtle: it is typically not an explicit sexual activity, but rather an enjoyable, gentle prelude or substitute for it. Flirting has elements of intellectual teasing flavored by emotional play. During flirting, each partner’s soul is stirred, thereby enabling the two souls to respond to each other. Miss Etiquette considers flirtation “a gentle amusement,” an activity that should be harmless and not lead to anything. In a chat room entitled “Married and Flirting,” people are advised to treat flirting as pure fun, as a good way to practice social skills, and to make yourself and your targets feel good This site, whose motto is “Married Not Dead,” offers the following rules for flirting: F is for Flattery; L is for Listen; I is for Interest; R is for being Responsible; T is for Trusting yourself; S is for winning a Smile.

Nonsexual flirting is just one example of a road that Monica could take—there are other romantic (to various degrees) roads that can stir one’s romantic sensitivity, such as a light-hearted online relationship. All these allow you to “whet your appetite outside while eating at home” and can provide a means to keep the marriage intact, while not eliminating romantic sensitivity. The main difficulty in all such roads is that you can never guarantee that they will not violate normative boundaries. Thus, those having a successful online relationship typically want to upgrade it to an offline relationship. And there is some reason to believe that those who whet their appetite outside might want to eat outside as well.

Although “lighter” options have their own flaws, the main flaw of the “serious” options is that you stuck with an extreme approach that leaves little room for a variety of experiences and hence forces people to completely relinquish valuable wishes. Superficial activities are of value, sometimes of profound value. One cannot carry the whole world on one's shoulder whenever one encounters the possibility of romance.

Monica's problem is not with sex or love, but with taking her life experiences, and especially her romantic experiences, too seriously—even when such experiences are not sexual. Life is too important to constrain oneself to pursuing only serious matters.

To sum up, there are various ways in which to prevent suppressing our romantic sensitivities. Each may be useful in different circumstances. Monica's needs and wishes could be satisfied by following the saying that “if you cannot be with the one you love, then you should try harder to love the one you are with.” This is easier to implement when we settle for companionate love, the enhancement of which is to some extent more in our hands. It is more difficult in the case of passionate love. Taking life more lightly is another useful way in which to retain the spell of romance. Decreasing our sense of self-importance can open us to other roads that are closed to overly-serious and extreme 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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