In the Name of Love

A philosopher looks at our deepest emotions

Who Is the Perfect Partner?

The perfect partner is not the perfect person you dream about.

"We waste time looking for the perfect lover, instead of creating the perfect love." Tom Robbins

"We are, each of us, angels with only one wing; and we can only fly by embracing one another." Luciano de Crescenzo

The search for the perfect partner typically focuses upon looking for the perfect person with the ideal desirable traits. The major flaw in such a search is that it fails to take account of whether there is harmony between the would-be couple.

The futility of such a search is clearly illustrated in Graeme Simsion's wonderful book, The Rosie Project. In this book, Don Tillman, a university professor, is looking for a wife and prepares a detailed list of the characteristics he desires in the perfect woman, such as intelligence, a good cook, always being on time, a non-smoker, a non-drinker, with a high level of fitness. He ruled out many women till he met Rosie, a bartender who smokes, drinks, and does not meet most of his criteria for a suitable romantic partner. Together they search for Rosie's biological father and, in the process, Don falls in love with Rosie. It is not her individual characteristics that generate his love but the harmony he discovers with her that makes the difference.

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Profound loving relationships are those involving harmonious relationships in which both partners feel that they are personally flourishing within the relationship. Each of them is involved in personal intrinsic activities and they perceive most of their activities together as intrinsic activities. Functional harmony is determined by the suitability of each partner to the other, and not by whether their isolated qualities are the best in town. In such cases, romantic compromises are eliminated, or at least considerably reduced.

Functional Harmony

I distinguish between harmony and compatibility, which are often taken to indicate two systems (or parts) that are able to work together. I take compatibility to essentially describe the absence of features that may prevent the systems being together, whereas harmony also expresses the normative aspect of being a pleasant and valued arrangement; harmony also implies an internal calm, a kind of tranquility. The compatibility between people's characteristics typically prevents their marriages from having fierce hostile disputes; when the marriage is harmonious, it actively promotes their individual flourishing.

Functional harmony is not a mythical term. Although predicting its presence is difficult, it is not impossible. Such harmony involves more than merely comparable levels of both attraction and praiseworthiness; it entails profound interest in those activities of the partner that underlie the partner's flourishing

Leon Seltzer, in his excellent post, "How Rational Are 'Rational' Marriages?", argues that "a good omen of long-term compatibility is whether the couple is uncannily adept at completing each other’s sentences. There’s a certain harmonious affinity, or simpatico, that—besides the much more obvious physical attraction—fuels their desire to be together." These couples feel that they are lucky and were made for each other. In such relationships people feel that their partners "can almost effortlessly relate to you in ways that makes you feel comfortable… They can appreciate and be sympathetic to not only your strengths but also your weaknesses and special sensitivities." These people are "prepared to alter their preconceptions of what—objectively—they needed in a relationship because this relationship just felt so right to them." In this case, the "fundamental need to live your life with someone who truly grasps who you are may supersede virtually every other relational 'requirement' you might imagine."

We may speak here about a dynamic functional harmony. This harmony does not merely prevent the burden of having to live with the significant negativity typical of romantic compromises, but also with the other aspect of such compromises: yearning for a better option. It prevents this by promoting an intrinsically valuable system involving ongoing activities that have their own value. By promoting the profound intrinsic activities of each partner, the harmonious marital system also enables the partners' activities together to acquire such a valuable nature.

The main characteristic of harmonious marriages (and other committed relationships) is not that they merely prevent your misery or the feeling of romantic compromises, but that they are constructive to the personal flourishing of each partner, thereby maintaining profound personal satisfaction. This can occur when the partners are involved in profound intrinsic activities and many of their activities together are of this nature. In functional harmony, which is created by the interaction between the two lovers, the importance of the individual features in themselves is reduced. The weight is shifted from the overall "objective" value of the partner—e.g., how attractive or wise she is—to how she is in accord with my personality, and in particular what her contribution is to creating and maintaining this harmony. The emphasis here is not on observable characteristics such as attractiveness, wealth, or social status, but on the ability to create this harmony together. In this sense, a beautiful rich actress would not be an alluring partner, as because of our unequal status, she would feel that she deserves a lot more than I can give and would not be instrumental in contributing to this harmony.

The crucial aspect of profound love is the way in which various characteristics of each person are in accord with those of the other in fulfilling the partner's essential needs and enhancing both partners' personal flourishing as well as enabling their partnership to flourish. Love is wonderful, but if love obstructs personal flourishing, the relationship will not last long. Romantic profundity is not just a subjective pleasant feeling or a matter of intellectual admiration; rather, it is a profound satisfaction that comes from the increasing flourishing of the partners, both separately and together. A functional harmony involves a high quality of shared and individual intrinsic activities.

The lack of functional harmony over time is the reason why marriages that at the beginning seem so promising from the perspective of the heart, as they involve intense passion, or from the perspective of the head, as on paper the list of the praiseworthy characteristics is impressive, or even from both perspectives, may fail the test of time. Romantic profundity does not merely consist of the right balance between the various characteristics of each person, but also of the functional harmony between the two lovers.

Suitability in Amsterdam’s Red Light District

People who consider themselves superior to you are very likely to believe that they are entitled to invest less in creating the functional harmony and that they deserve a bigger share of such a supposed "harmony." These people will be less valuable partners for you. The value of your partner is measured here not by her isolated virtues, but by how suitable she is for you and to what extent each of you believe you deserve each other. In this sense, familiarity, rather than change, is an advantage.

When I once walked (with my partner) in Amsterdam’s Red Light District, I noticed that one average-looking woman was attracting more customers than her extremely beautiful neighbor. I explained this in light of the suitability and deservingness aspects. The beautiful woman, like other beautiful people, believes that she deserves more from those she is with. Hence, she is likely to invest less in the relationship, believing that her partner should compensate her for being with an inferior person. Indeed, the men I observed in Amsterdam chose the less beautiful woman as they assumed that she would invest more effort in pleasing them. It is said that Marilyn Monroe once complained to a friend that Kennedy’s love-making was always very brief and hurried. (The friend replied that since he had to run the country, he probably had no time for foreplay.) Powerful men like Kennedy may not invest much effort in love-making as they think they deserve good treatment without giving much back. Kennedy was not a good romantic partner, as functional harmony was never on his mind during his affairs.

Concluding remarks

The moral of these considerations is that the perfect partner may not be the perfect person about whom you are dreaming; rather, it is someone who is comparable to you and is ready to invest in creating functional harmony with you. Accordingly, your partner can be your best possible mate not if he is beautiful or famous, but if he is suited to you and you can create this functional harmony together. The need to make romantic compromises is eliminated or at least considerably reduced in these circumstances. Your main concern is not focused on compromising (after having compared him to other people), but on cooperating (with your partner).

 

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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