In the Name of Love

A philosopher looks at our deepest emotions

“I Loved Him Too Much To Be With Him”

When love means letting go of the beloved

“If I should stay,

I would only be in your way

So I’ll go, but I know

I’ll think of you every step of the way

And I will always love you.” Dolly Parton  (and later Whitney Houston)

“If you didn't love him, this never would have happened. But you did. And accepting that love and everything that followed it is part of letting it go.” Sarah Dessen

Love is characterized by the profound wish to be with the beloved, and lovers invest whatever they can to fulfill this wish. There are, however, cases in which the lover decides, out of profound love, to leave the beloved as the lover thinks that staying with the beloved will make the beloved miserable in the long term. This is the true story of Scarlet.

The story of Scarlet

Scarlet is a married, successful lawyer in her mid-fifties. She has two children and a comfortable marriage, but one that has no great passion. She met Rafael, a married professional in his early forties, on a trip abroad. He has three children and his marriage had been loveless and passionless. Scarlet and Rafael fell in love at first sight and felt that this was the love of their life. Their meetings were frequent but profound. They believed that they were meant to be with each other and they desired this greatly. Rafael wanted to divorce and marry his beloved Scarlet, and Scarlet wanted to do the same.

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After one year of their relationship, Scarlet told Rafael that she couldn't marry him because she loved him too much. She said that if they were to marry, he would have to leave his family, country, and career and this will be very harmful and painful for him. Moreover, she thought that their age differences would become much more difficult for him in the future. Hurting her own family was another significant consideration in her decision. Rafael could not understand her reasoning and did not want to be in touch with her anymore. He loved her too much to endure not being able to marry her and just continuing to meet her from time to time.

Both Scarlet and Rafael made a romantic compromise in not being together in either the short or long term, since they loved each other too much to do so. Scarlet could not marry Rafael because she thought it would hurt him in the long term, and his future happiness was very important to her. Rafael refused to keep meeting Scarlet for brief meetings; he loved her too much to have to part with her after each meeting and then to survive the time between meetings, knowing that sometimes she might be in the arms of her husband.

"Do I want my love to be happy more than I want him to be with me?"

Stanton Peele and Archie Brodsky consider a positive answer to the above question as a significant indicator of profound love: in love, they believe, the happiness of the beloved is more important than being with the beloved.

Peele and Brodsky’s position is close to Aristotle’s view in which love includes a wish for good things to happen to another person, with no benefit for the one who loves. The lover wishes the other's benefit for its own sake, without calculating whether there is any personal benefit to be drawn. This is precisely what Scarlet did out of love for Rafael. It is interesting to note that the song cited above, “I will always love you,” which is regarded by many people as the best love song of all time, actually describes what Scarlet did. Despite the protagonist’s great love for her beloved, she knows that she will be in his way and therefore she decides to leave him. Nevertheless, she is certain that she will think of him every step of her way, and will always love him. Aristotle, Stanton Peele, Archie Brodsky, Dolly Parton (and Whitney Houston) would probably approve of Scarlet’s decision.

The positive answer to the question posed by Peele and Broksky is obviously true concerning parental love; however, it is more complex in the case of romantic love. Thus, Pablo Picasso expressed the extreme opposite view when he commented that “I would prefer to see a woman dead than see her happy with another man.” Although romantic love encompasses genuine care for the beloved, it does not always include a general concern for the beloved's happiness.

Like other emotions, romantic love is experienced from a very personal (and even egoistic), narrow perspective. The lover usually desires the beloved's happiness only insofar as the lover is either a part or the cause of this happiness. The spouse can be an extension of our self only in a conditional manner: this condition is being connected to us. In particular, lovers do not want their beloveds to be sexually happy with another person. When the wish to have the beloved all to oneself is not fulfilled, lovers may prefer to walk away rather than to suffer the agony of not having the beloved entirely to themselves. And this is precisely what Rafael did out of his profound love for Scarlet.

Love that seeks the partner’s flourishing

The presence of a personal (or even egoistic) aspect in romantic love undermines the lover’s ability to merely seek the beloved’s own good. Regardless of this conflict, there is another complexity in the lover’s attitude toward the beloved: the question of what is good for the beloved in the long term. Here the conflict is not between my egoistic need to have the beloved all to myself and the beloved’s own good or wish, but a conflict between my two altruistic stands: what is good for the beloved in the short term and in the long term. The difficulty in Scarlet and Rafael's relationship is precisely this. It is not the egoistic concern referring to another lover who may come between them and interrupt their harmony. It is rather an altruistic concern referring to the beloved's well-being and flourishing in the long term.

Profound love consists not merely of the heart’s tendencies, but also of the head’s short- and long-term considerations. Profound love involves wanting the optimal development of the partner’s capacities and potential flourishing in the future. Love is not merely a crush, but also the wish to be together with a flourishing partner for many years.

It is true that long-term considerations are more typical of parental rather than romantic love, as parents are typically in a better position to consider long-term advantages and errors. The case of romantic love, which involves two adults, is different as neither of them is clearly in a better position to make the optimal judgment, and hence deciding what is good for the other is less acceptable. However, also in romantic love, when people are extremely close to and highly knowledgeable about each other, each may have a fuller perspective that could enable them to anticipate what is better for the other.

Similar hesitations to those concerning different aspects of the well-being of the beloved (e.g., those of the short term or long term) can be applied to the lover as well. Thus, when someone hesitates between two lovers, it is not necessarily the case that she hesitates between nonromantic material benefits and romantic benefits; she may hesitate between different romantic aspects, such as between great passion and profound care. Her hesitations are not limited to those between the one who has the money and the other who has the honey, but between the one who has the honey and the one who may provide a more nourishing meal. Feeling that someone is fun to be with and feeling that a relationship with him helps you to flourish are both essential aspects of romantic love.

Romantic compromises made out of love

We may classify the various possible romantic and nonromantic compromises in the following manner:

  • (a) Nonromantic compromises made for nonromantic reasons;
  • (b) Nonromantic compromises made for romantic reasons;
  • (c) Romantic compromises made for nonromantic reasons;
  • (d) Romantic compromises made for romantic reasons.

The first three groups are familiar and do not require much explanation. There are many examples of nonromantic compromises made for nonromantic reasons, such as deciding to postpone going to a university in order to save more money. An example of nonromantic compromises done for romantic reasons is leaving a comfortable marriage to pursue a profound love in an uncomfortable relational framework. In typical romantic compromises one gives up one romantic value, such as marrying your beloved, for nonromantic reasons, such as marrying someone rich or staying in a convenient marriage.

The fourth group is more unusual and complex. An example of a romantic compromise made for romantic reasons is when someone gives up the love of their life because she loves him so much.

Our discussion indicates that this type of romantic compromise is possible and is particularly prevalent in cases of profound love when two people wish to embark on a long-term relationship in which each is profoundly happy and flourishing. In such circumstances, a lover may believe that continuing and even enhancing their loving relationship will do the beloved no good in the long term. Romantic love is important, very important to life, but the two are not identical. Taking this into account may sometimes lead to romantic compromises made out of profound love. This is probably the saddest compromise of all and it is the one that Scarlet and Rafael felt compelled to make.

Scarlet trusted Rafael’s love for her and hers for him, but she thought she was in a better position to judge his future well-being and flourishing. Likewise, Rafael trusted Scarlet’s love for him and his for her, but his love for her was too profound to have a partial relationship with her, which was ultimately likely to ruin their deep love. They both loved each other very much, but out of their love they decided that they should not be together. Their story began as a happy one, but ended in sacrifice and sadness.

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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