What Would Aristotle Do?

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How Do You Know If You Have Fallen Out of Love?

You may only think you have fallen out of love

There is much written on falling in love, but very little about falling out of love. Indeed, it is simply assumed that when someone falls out of love, even after years of marriage, it is easy to know that this has happened. But is it really that easy?

The answer is that it really isn’t always that easy because there are attitudes that may be confused with falling out of love, which are actually consistent with still being in love.

One such attitude is that of anger or resentment. In many cases a couple may go through a period (even many years) of constant conflict and express the deepest distain for one another. In such cases it is easy enough to conclude, “We have fallen out of love” or “We no longer love each other.” But notice that there is a difference between resenting and even hating the other, on the one hand, and not loving him or her, on the other hand. So, Henrietta may claim to despise Horatio for being so hard to live with; and she may feel like “strangling him,” even though she may still love him. Well, how could that be? How could you hate someone so much, yet still love him?

The answer lies in the concept of anger itself. When you are angry at (hate or resent) another, you are disposed to strongly negatively rating the other, or something the other has done, or tends to do. For example, Mary may think John is a horrible person; or that his not showing “any” attention to her is the most despicable thing anyone could possibly do to her.

In such cases of angrily disposed couples, this negative evaluation or rating is typically a result of something the other persistently does, such as not being affectionate, working long hours, or not keeping promises. Here, there is an underlying desire that the partner be different. Thus Mary may want John to pay more attention to her and not be so occupied with other things. As such, Mary may think she no longer loves John, precisely because she hates him, but it may be quite the contrary. She may want John to be different because she still loves him; so that what she really hates is not John, but, instead, his lack of attentiveness toward her. In sticking to damning the deed rather than the doer Mary can therefore avoid the misconception that she hates him, and therefore does not still love him.

In contrast, cases where people fall out of love are typically cases where there are no longer any strong feelings, positive or negative. Thus Bob may wish Sally well, and even hope she finds someone else whom she loves, yet not really be in love with Sally any more. Bob may not even be able to point to something about Sally that he dislikes. There may still be caring for the other, no harsh evaluation, but simply a desire to move on in life and perhaps find someone new. In such cases, it really doesn’t matter whether Sally is different, because there is nothing that Bob cares for her to change. He may simply want someone else, or prefer to be on his own, even though he may have been deeply in love with her at one time. Here, the proverbially flame has died. There is no contentious relationship; no attempt to change the other person; no strong passion pro or con. Instead, there is an emotional flatness, a cerebral affirmation but an emotional detachment.

This is not to say that there are not other explanations for why people become so emotionally detached. For example, depression can also lead to such emotional detachment. But in the absence of depression, change in personality due to a brain lesion, or other special explanation, it is not unreasonable to conclude that the person has fallen out of love.

Indeed, being able to distinguish between such true cases of falling out of love and ones in which you really want the other to be different, can be very helpful because the confusion can lead to separation, divorce, and deep regrets for having acted precipitously.

Elliot D. Cohen, Ph.D., is President of the Institute of Critical Thinking and one of the principal founders of philosophical counseling in the United States.

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