In the Name of Love

A philosopher looks at our deepest emotions

How Do You See Your Romantic Future?

Short-term passion and long-term commitment each have pros and cons.

"Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we shall die."—Isaiah 22:13

"Forever and a day, that's how long I'll be loving you."—Kelly Rowland

The role of time in our sense of our romantic futures typically consists of two opposing possible attitudes: Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die; or "always and forever." The first is a short-term attitude compatible with intense romantic passion that lacks any substantive temporal dimension—and that rejects postponing one's desires. The second sees the value of time in romantic love and values the length of time spent together with one's beloved.

Making Merry, at Least Tonight

"Let's forget about tomorrow for tomorrow never comes, Let's live for now and anyhow who needs tomorrow?"—Frank Sinatra

A disregard of the future is compatible with the view that romantic passionate intensity is our main concern. This intensity calls for immediate actions that will increase the peak of the flame; long temporal duration is of no concern here. The attitude is associated with the assumption that life is relatively insignificant because of its brief and temporary nature—and it may involve indifference, expressed by retreat from profound activities which require time.

Taking the hedonistic attitude of "eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die," may satisfy some immediate sexual desires, but will not make a person profoundly happy. People who have internalized the temporary nature of life focus upon presently enjoyable activities. If indeed life is so short, they believe, we had better enjoy the brief time left to us by focusing upon superficial pleasurable activities.

The Mind Races, and We Don't Settle Down

Limiting ourselves to the immediate romantic present, and disregarding the future, however, is impossible. We live not merely within our immediate romantic present, but in a world full of possible future romantic opportunities. It is impossible to act without considering the infinite possibilities. Our imaginative capacity forces us to be concerned not only with the present, but also with past and future circumstance—what may be and what might have been.

Indeed, people think about the future more than about the past or the present, and certainly many potential events are more pleasurable to imagine than to experience. Accordingly, in the presence of so many alluring alternate possibilities, love in modern times becomes a rather fluid concept—and accordingly, romantic bonds tend to be frailer than they were in the past, preventing us from enjoying profound long-term romantic experiences.

A major problem these days, then, is not focusing only on the present but the opposite—becoming slaves to superficial future possibilities, which can spoil the appreciation of a profound present. Since the realm of future possibilities so overwhelms us with tempting alternatives, we are not able to appreciate the deeper present experience. We tend to bow to the lure of immediate and ever-changing superficial possibilities, and neglect the more stable and profound aspects of the present and the long-term future. We compromise on the possibility of profound, long-term connection in order to experience more and more intense, short-term superficial encounters.

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Always and Forever?

"I'm keeping you, forever and for always, We will be together all of our days, Wanna wake up every morning to your sweet face—always."—Shania Twain

Time is an important factor in love. Indeed, many lovers express their wish to be with their beloved for eternity. In the wedding vow, a couple promises each other to remain together "until death do us part." Love songs hail "my endless love."

In the movie "Elegy," based on Phillip Roth's The Dying Animal, a young woman asks her older lover, "Have you ever imagined a future with me?" This question encapsulates the constitutive role of time in love. The way we perceive a future with our partner is a genuine expression of our romantic profundity. Indeed, in light of the importance of the future, many people may live the future in the present and experience an anticipated loss as actual. Just imagining the loss of love brings on sadness. Similarly, though, the anticipation of future pleasure may generate immediate pleasure.

Forever and Always Are Not the Same Thing

The time dimension in love has two main aspects: duration and frequency. The lover’s wish to be with the beloved forever or alway expresses both aspects—wanting to be with the beloved for the rest of one’s life; and wanting to be with the beloved every day as much as possible.

These two wishes are not identical: Fro example, someone might wish to be with her partner forever, but would prefer doing so only on weekends! She might wish to be with her partner for the rest of her life because he is a good-enough partner, constituting the most optimal alternative in her present situation. But this does not necessarily mean that her time with him is always fulfilling. On the contrary, it could be that some distance, both temporal and physical, would enable her to stay with him for many years.

Indeed, distant relationships are typically characterized by higher levels of relationship quality on several indices, including love for the partner, fun with the partner, and conversational quality, as well as superior communication compared to those in close-proximity relationships. The commitment level among distant couples is in fact similar to that of geographically close couples. And accordingly, distant relationships may enjoy a higher rate of survival.

The wish to be with another person for the rest of one’s life, then, does not necessarily express a profound love—it could merely imply a desire to share a comfortable life.

Loving Profoundly and Living Comfortably

“If I could save time in a bottle, The first thing that I'd like to do, Is to save every day till eternity passes away, just to spend them with you.”— Jim Croce

Living conveniently and comfortably with a person for many years depends on many factors unrelated to love. Moreover, as many of our fulfilling activities are conducted on our own, a person who is not with us all the time might even prove to be a more suitable person with whom to live over many years. Living conveniently and comfortably with such a partner for many years does not necessarily imply profound romantic love—but wishing to be with someone every day and as much as possible does. Profound love involves the wish to be with the beloved constantly, though not necessarily in the literal sense of spending each minute together. In this case, togetherness itself, expressed in various shared activities, is of intrinsic value.

The wish to be with the lover all the time is one of the most profound expressions of love. It persists even when the lovers are clearly enjoying activities with other people as well; our lives are full of various types of intrinsically valuable activities and it is unreasonable to expect one person to fulfill all our needs. (Certain needs, such as intellectual ones, by definition must be fulfilled by many people.)

Research indicates, though, that time is destructive to romantic intensity. Helen Fisher (2010) notes a period of between one to three years during which intense love typically lasts, and after which divorce is more likely. The reason love fades over time is that emotions typically occur when we perceive significant changes in our personal situation, such as the decline of passion. Like burglar alarms going off when an intruder appears, emotions signal that something needs attention (Ben-Ze’ev, 2000).

A change cannot persist for a very long time; after a while, the system construes the change as a normal state and it excites us no more—indeed, sexual response to a familiar partner is less intense than to a novel partner. Over successive occasions, we adapt to the event and the experience yields less pleasure. In fact, the frequency of sexual activity with one's partner declines steadily as the relationship lengthens, reaching roughly half the frequency after one year of marriage compared to the first month, and declining more gradually thereafter. Decline has also been found in cohabiting heterosexual couples as well as in gay and lesbian couples (Buss 1994; Metts et al. 1998).

Love Takes Time

"Waste your money and you're only out of money, but waste your time and you've lost a part of your life."—Michael LeBoeuf

The role of time in love is ambiguous. Some consider it to be crucial. Some believe that it is destructive, in that it kills romantic intensity. We may say that time is destructive to intense love, which is a one-time achievement that people desire to experience again and again, as when they aim for having orgasms. But time is a positive and constitutive aspect of profound love. It is crucial for generating and maintaining profound love, as this kind of love is expressed in shared activities over a significant period of time.

Romantic profundity is an ongoing process that combines both intensity and meaningful shared activities over time.

 

References

Ben-Ze'ev, A. (2000). The subtlety of emotions. Cambridge, Ma.: MIT Press.

Buss, D. M. (1994). The evolution of desire: Strategies of human mating. New York: Basic Books.

Fisher, H. (2010).Why him? Why her? How to find and keep lasting love. New York: Henry Holt.

Metts, S., Sprecher, S. & Regan, P. C. (1998). Communication and sexual drive. In P. A. Andersen & L. K.Guerrero (eds.), Handbook of communication and emotion. San Diego: Academic Press.

Picture from Dreamstime

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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