In the Name of Love

A philosopher looks at our deepest emotions

“Can men feel how much I want to have an affair?”

On emotional contagion

"One can find women who have never had one love affair, but it is rare indeed to find any who have had only one.” Francois de La Rochefoucauld

“Nothing makes a woman more beautiful than the belief that she is beautiful.” Sophia Loren

Recognizing the other’s emotions is a significant aspect of emotional intelligence. In romantic love this ability is considerably enhanced when you are ready to fall in love or are sexually aroused. Other people can sense your readiness or eagerness for romance, which in turn increases their attraction toward you. Can this happen after 30 years of faithful marriage? Here is the true story of Tania.

The story of Tania

Tania is an attractive and intelligent married woman in her mid-fifties. She has been married to her first boyfriend for over 30 years. During this period she was faithful to him, until she met her first lover. Tania never intended to leave her husband and three daughters, but she is not happy in her marriage, and the affair enabled her to cope with her dull and sometimes even annoying marriage. Her married lover was kind and loving. After two years the affair ended, after which Tania began another affair with a married man. While involved in these affairs, Tania became aware that other men were more attracted to her and tried to initiate an affair with her. She was intrigued by the fact that for 30 years no man had shown sexual interest in her, but now that she had a lover, several men seem interested in her. She told herself ironically that this could be due to a deterioration in men's morality and to their readiness to lower their expectations, so that they were even hitting on her. She feels the need to be with a lover now in a way she never felt before.

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Tania is now confronting the problem of a plethora of riches, which means having to choose from several highly seductive options. She is curious but careful about such options, as she knows that many of these options are superficial and have nothing to do with the profound love for which she yearns. Tania is not yet certain whether despite her reservations, she will be tempted to enter into another affair.

The interesting issue in Tania’s story is why no man (beside her husband) approached her in the last 30 years, and why she is now suddenly finding herself the object of male attraction.

Emotional contagion

Emotional intelligence is a kind of sensitivity to certain types of higher-level stimuli. It consists of recognizing and regulating our own emotions and those of others in an optimal manner. Recognizing the emotions of others is easier when their emotions resonate with our own. This is particularly evident in romantic love. It is easier for people who are yearning for love and sex to detect others who experience this yearning. When the yearning is directed at each other, its intensity and the willingness to satisfy the yearning become much stronger. This is a kind of emotional contagion.

Emotional contagion is a situation in which an emotion spreads from one person to another when one is in close proximity to this person. As Louis Armstrong rightly notes, "When you are smiling, the whole world smiles with you." And when we see a sad person crying, many of us become sad as well. Equally, courage and cowardice are contagious—the courageous or cowardly behavior of one person can easily affect the behavior of others. Romantic love is contagious as well. Reciprocity—that is, the knowledge that you are loved by your beloved—increases love and is a most highly valued characteristic in a partner. Lack of love from the partner usually leads to a decrease in the intensity of one's love.

Love at first sight involves the realization that the other side is available for love as well. People describe their meetings (especially their first one) with their beloved as feeling that some kind of spell surrounds them. In the words of John Paul Young,

 “Love is in the air

Everywhere I look around

Love is in the air

Every sight and every sound…

And it's there when I look in your eyes”

In the same vein, a man described his first meeting with his lover as follows: “The moment she entered my office, I was stunned by her beauty and told her so. Then when we talked, we immediately felt in love with each other while realizing the great mutual attraction (despite both of us being married).” This is true also concerning love at first chat. People often say that, although they met online, “they hit it off right away.” As another man writes: “She was funny and sexy and cute, and I was immediately attracted to her personality.” Likewise, Lady M. indicates: “We both knew that we would be inseparable from the first time we met (in the chat room).” (Love Online: Emotions on the Internet)

So Tania's readiness to fall in love, her emotional need for an affair, all sent out signals that were picked up by the men around her, sparking off responses and interest from them. These signals are likely to have been missing during the 30 years of her marriage when she was not thinking about or ready to embark on an affair. However, another explanation for the sexual attention that Tania suddenly began to feel from men might be that previously, because she wasn't open to sexual attention from other men, she did not understand or even notice these signals from men and so they neither affected nor infected her. Only after her own desire for an affair had been aroused and her awareness of flirting and sexual signals have developed can she notice, respond, and become infected by flirtatious or suggestive attitudes from the men around her—attitudes that have now become contagious for her.

The above claims illustrate the possibility of us being aware of other people’s emotional states, in particular whether they love and desire us and whether they have fallen in love with us or are ready to do so. As saying goes, “When a ship is sailing everyone wants to get on board; when the ship is in the harbor no one wants to get on board.” Tania has begun to sail in the sea of love, and several men want to get on board. She has become like a light that attracts many butterflies or a flower that attracts many bees. And she enjoys her new role of being contagious to many men. This role further confirms her self-image as attractive and sexy. Tania admits that she may have a very large need for self-validation, but this does not mean that she will sleep with anyone who validates her self-image.

We may also speak here about a self-contagious experience. A self-contagious experience, or in some extreme cases, obsession and addiction, is the situation of wishing to have more and more of a good experience. The mechanism here is somewhat similar to that of external contagion, but the agent is both the one who spreads the desire and the one who is infected by this contagion, which in turn increases his or her desire. Like other capacities, such as playing the piano and swimming, love is enhanced by using it. This is in line with the notion of “use it or lose it.” Indeed, sometimes the more you love, the more you feel better about it and the more you want more of it (see here). Similarly, it has been said that “No man in the world has more courage than the man who can stop after eating one peanut.” Being in love and eating peanuts are indeed very difficult to stop.

Conclusion

In the same way that difficulties are said to come in bundles, positive experiences such as loving may also come in bundles. It seems that difficulties and successes are contagious; this can partly explained by the fact that people either perceive you as weak and do not hesitate to hurt you, or they perceive you as powerful and attractive and wish to bask in your company. In the former case, the real character of others is clearly revealed; in the latter case, you should be aware that you do not see the real character but merely a superficial aspect of it.

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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