In the Name of Love

A philosopher looks at our deepest emotions

Can Romantic "Noises" Enhance Romantic Relationships?

Love is sometimes noise.

“I am happier in my marriage when I am dating other married men. Sad but true.” An anonymous woman.

"Love is noise, love is pain, love is these blues that I'm singing again." The Verve

Noises are characterized as a disturbance that interferes with the optimal operation of a system. There are, however, cases in which a disruptive noise is beneficial for the system. When such "noises" are interjected into the romantic system, do they improve or disrupt the romantic relationship?

Positive noises

Noises are disturbances to the system and hence from the viewpoint of the system they are negative. However, there are noises that may disturb a certain activity of the system, but are generally beneficial to the overall functioning of the system. We can term such noises "positive noises."

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The term "white noise" also carries a positive meaning: it refers to an electronically generated sound used to help someone fall asleep. The term "white lie" similarly implies something positive. Although it refers to the typically negative act of lying, the word "white" adds a positive modifier to this act, and recognizes that in specific circumstances lying is beneficial—such as when it protects others from being upset by the truth.

When we encounter a problem in the functioning of a system, we usually try to fix the problem by fixing the system. There are, however, cases in which the introduction of additional internal or external noises can actually improve the system.

A stochastic resonance in physics is a phenomenon of a complex system where a low-level noise is amplified, thereby improving the system performance by improving the signal-to-noise ratio. A second type of such noise is that in which the system's improvement is not done by amplifying a given weak noise, but by introducing a new external noise, which can be substantial in its intensity. Only specific types and intensity of noise can improve the system's performance.

There are people who have difficulty concentrating on their work, yet when they add background music, which is a kind of noise given their attempt to focus upon their work, the noise improves their performance. Cheerful music may make them feel more positive, high tempo music might give them energy, and gentler music could make them calmer. All these states can enhance their performance.

Post-traumatic growth is an example of a positive noise. Such growth involves a profound positive psychological change experienced as a result of highly negative events, such as life-threatening disease, war, abuse, immigration or the death of loved ones. Like other positive noises, post-traumatic growth is not merely a return to regular baseline performance (before the trauma), but a considerable improvement over the initial circumstances.

Positive romantic noises

Positive noises can also be found in romantic relationships. The expression "positive romantic noise" may be understood in its literal sense referring to sounds people make when they are having sexual intercourse. Such screams may, in other circumstances, be perceived as noise that disrupts normal behavior. Actual acoustic noises may have a positive impact upon sexual satisfaction.

My discussion mainly concerns non-acoustic positive romantic "noises", such as playing hard to get, provoking jealousy in the partner, the Romeo and Juliet effect, and taking a lover while being in a committed relationship.

A typical romantic system includes a romantic relationship between two people. The main manner for enhancing the quality of the relationship is that of strengthening the loving attitude of each partner toward the other. Behaving in a caring, sensitive and reciprocal manner can do a lot to improve the relationship. A complementary manner of improving the relationship is that of eliminating various noises.

Another way to enhance positive romantic attitudes involves the use of noises, either by strengthening an existing internal noise or introducing a new external noise.

A common example of strengthening an internal noise is the tactic of playing hard to get. Romantic love involves a profound evaluation of the partner as a person who deserves one's investment of time and other resources. In playing hard to get, a noise in the form of an impediment to being intimate with the partner is introduced in order to increase the partner's interest and attraction to the agent. The noise is intended to encourage the partner to make further efforts to get closer or achieve some level of intimacy with the agent. "Playing hard to get" can indeed be a most effective strategy for attracting a partner, in the spirit of “By keeping men off, you keep them on.” However, like other types of noise, it needs to be used in a balanced manner. Thus, when the required effort is too immense and the probability of its success is low, the partner might give up and stop investing more effort.

Similarly, there are cases in which a person who is in a committed relationship purposefully begins to show an interest in another person while letting her partner know about it. Consequently, the partner's jealousy is provoked, and this can encourage him to work harder to win her back, which means he will need to improve his loving attitude toward her. Here, too, one should be careful about not overdoing it. As one married woman said, "Once my husband saw how interested I was in my (nonromantic) male friend, he started putting more effort into our relationship and took me on more dates. Although the negative side was that he started brooding about it too."

The above examples are of internal positive noises involving temporary superficial activities in the form of play or make believe activities that are intended to intensify the partner's romantic attitude. A more profound type of romantic noise is the presence of a significant external noise. An obvious example of this sort is the Romeo and Juliet effect: if real impediments (noises) exist, such as a family feud or marriage to another person, love and sexual desire are likely to intensify. Here is a typical but true story of a woman who recalls the relationship with her first boyfriend: "My mother forbade me to see him because of his drug use, but I couldn’t end it because I needed the companionship. However, my mom’s attempts to break us up only kept the relationship going longer than it would have done otherwise. The shared goal of staying together in the face of adversity (my mother) made our bond stronger since we were jointly working against a common foe."

A most profound romantic noise is that of taking a lover while being in a committed relationship. In this kind of noise, the agent creates a noise not in order to strengthen the partner's attitude toward her, as is the case of playing hard to get and invoking the partner's jealousy, but in order to improve her own positive mood so as to enable her to cope better with difficulties in the relationship with her primary partner. Consider the following true story.

Yael is an attractive married woman in her early fifties who has three children. She has been married for about thirty years and was fully loyal to her husband until she met a married man in his late sixties. They have a romantic encounter every few months. Yael says that she loves both her husband and her lover and does not intend to leave her husband. She feels that being with her lover gives her the energy to cope with the problematic relationship with her husband and even to improve it. At one point, she was quite worn down by her husband, but her lover has rebuilt her confidence and enables her to better cope with the whims of her husband.

In Yael's case, which is quite common, the improvement in the relationship comes from introducing an external noise, which is usually very harmful to the system, that is, the loving relationship between the spouses. However, this noise considerably improves the agent's general mood enabling her to improve her marriage and her attitude toward her husband.

Conclusions

Noises are basically disturbances in the smooth, optimal operation of a system. This is also true of romantic relationships, which encounter many negative noises during a long-term romantic relationship. A major such noise in our society is the presence of many available tempting alternatives. Such alternatives prevent people from being satisfied with their own lot, and thus can have a destructive impact upon long-term committed relationships.

Nevertheless, as is the case in other systems, there are circumstances in which certain noises are beneficial for the romantic relationship. Examples of such positive romantic noises are playing hard to get, invoking jealousy in the other, the Romeo and Juliet effect, and taking a lover while being in a committed relationship. Introducing romantic noises is risky and it can ruin the whole relationship. Not every kind or measure of romantic noise will improve the relationship. Introducing such noise requires a fine balance that is suitable to the specific individuals and circumstances.

Should you deliberately create positive noises? In certain circumstances, you certainly should.

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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