"Love is something far more than desire for sexual intercourse; it is the principal means of escape from the loneliness which afflicts most men and women throughout the greater part of their lives." (Bertrand Russell)
People are often painfully aware that they are making romantic compromises. The most common of these involves giving up passionate love in exchange for companionate love. But how can we measure the two types of love? Can a relationship that was once regarded as a romantic compromise later become a profound love? The following true story provides a surprising answer.
The story of Mildred
Mildred is a pleasant-looking widow in her mid-sixties, whose husband passed away after 31 years of marriage. They dated non-exclusively for five years before their marriage. This is how she described their relationship:
"My husband was not the most romantic of my loves as a young woman. I had quite a few tempestuous relationships with men much more desirable in superficial ways (e.g., athleticism) than Bruce was. I first knew him as a friend, and then fell in love with him because I realized he was a much more compassionate human being than the men with whom I had previously had relationships and who were much more outwardly exciting or adventurous. So what began as a non-romantic relationship became a romance born out of my compromising on my physical ideal in a mate, and it became a loving, companionate, enduring relationship that was fulfilling in every way for both of us.
I have always appreciated what I perceive as masculine beauty. Bruce was not jealous, and neither am I; so taking pleasure in seeing a beautiful woman in Bruce's case, or a handsome man in mine, was never a source of discord. (I used to say "I got married, I didn't go blind!") When Bruce and I moved from being friends to lovers, I came to see great beauty in Bruce, although it was never his physique, but the beauty of his complexion, the gracefulness of his hands, his wonderful sense of humor, etc. that I loved.
Bruce was faithful to me throughout our marriage, while I was twice unfaithful shortly after we married, at a time when he had to go away to work in a different place and we only met on the weekends. I felt abandoned at that time. That feeling led me into a brief fling with a co-worker, and later on, into an infatuation with a younger man, who fortunately, did not take the initial flirting beyond a stolen kiss one night. I was terrifically guilt-ridden over both of my transgressions. I confessed everything to Bruce, who took it all in his stride, as I cried my eyes out. There was never any recurrence of my behavior. Bruce's own self-confidence and love for me perhaps made my lapse forgivable in his eyes. I, after receiving his forgiveness, was even more deeply bound to him by his imperturbability in the face of my lapse.
Now, three years after Bruce's death, I am constantly astonished by the fullness of my feelings for him. I am grateful for them as they continue to live in me, even though he is no longer in the physical plane."
Did Mildred compromise?
Mildred's love story began with a friendship, turned into a romantic compromise and developed to become a profound and loving relationship. This process, in which love slowly grows, is not accidental; in fact, there is ample proof that it is a frequent and natural occurrence.
Mildred's initial (or rather eventual) choice of Bruce involved a romantic compromise in the sense that she had been experienced other relationships in which passionate love was more intense, but chose to marry someone who had been her (nonromantic) friend for several years. She rightly considered the other relationships to be superficial, as passion in and of itself is superficial and generally does not retain the same measure of intensity for long. This compromise explains the non-exclusive relationship they had before they got married. Unlike passion, the qualities involved in their friendship, such as caring, loyalty, and a sense of humor, carry greater weight in the long term.
I have suggested that romantic compromises usually involve giving up a romantic value in exchange for a nonromantic value. But how can we measure a romantic value? If you measure the "amount" of love during the infatuation stage, passion carries a considerable weight. However, if you take into consideration the length that love lasts and depth of that love, then the aspects that constitute companionate love contribute more to the quantity and quality of love.
Thus, although at start of Mildred's relationship with Bruce the "amount" of love (as measured in the intensity of passion) was less than in her previous relationships, the amount of love that was generated in the many years that they spent in a loving relationship adds up to a great deal more than the fast-burning, short-term passion she experienced with previous lovers. That passion with her "athletic" partners, "who were much more outwardly exciting or adventurous," would probably have decreased over time (as this is the nature of passion); but with Bruce, her love grew.
Despite that fact that she has "always appreciated masculine beauty" and continued to take "pleasure in seeing a handsome man", she chose to a life-partner who had other attributes, and it seems from her own account that she never regretted that choice. Each allowed the other the pleasure of enjoying beauty in other people. This might have generated the temptation not only to see, but to touch as well. We have seen that this did in fact occur with Mildred, but only for a brief time, shortly after her marriage, perhaps because she had not yet fully accepted that her tempestuous romantic experiences would now be limited to one person who, in her words, "was not the most romantic of my loves as a young woman." This feeling of giving up tempting options is central in romantic compromises. Bruce's wise and caring reaction to her brief adventures clarified to her that even if she had to relinquish tempestuous opportunities, she had gained so much more in her profound loving relationship with him. Her fling became a small amount of poison that immunized and enhanced their relationship.
Francois de La Rochefoucauld said, "One can find women who have never had one love affair, but it is rare indeed to find any who have had only one.” Mildred's case illustrates that such rare events do occur.
Mildred's story also shows that an initial romantic compromise may have a happy end. What was considered at the beginning to be a romantic compromise (not having the passionate relationship she had experienced with others), grew into a most profound love, the love of her life. It seems that if Mildred had turned her back on the love and caring that Bruce offered her and had instead married one of her former "athletic" boyfriends, she would have made a profound romantic compromise, sacrificing a long-term love for a momentary passion.
Mildred's story should not be taken as an encouragement to make romantic compromises. On the contrary, most cases of romantic compromises lead to low quality marital relationships and to divorce. It seems that half of married couples are unable to accept the romantic compromises they have to make and eventually get divorced; and among those who do remain married, many feel that they have compromised themselves. Thus, Justin Lavner and his colleagues found that premarital doubts are common but not benign. Women with premarital doubts went on to divorce at rates that were approximately 2.5 times higher than women without premarital doubts, and these women had less satisfied marital trajectories if they did remain married. Men had even more premarital doubts than women did, but their impact upon marital outcomes was less significant.
Mildred's story illustrates, however, that sometimes romantic compromises can generate profound love, as the couple grow to understand, value, and adapt to each other. Mildred's compromise was a positive one that ultimately enhanced her flourishing. Her story indicates the complexity and flexibility of the heart and the fact that in our search for long-term love, we should take into consideration both short-term aspects, such as the intensity of passion, and long-term considerations, like caring, sensitivity, and reciprocity. Romantic compromises are unpleasant, but they are not lethal; sometimes, they may even generate profound love.