A person is never happy except at the price of some ignorance.—Anatole France
Various traditions consider knowledge to be essential for our happiness and for love. Accordingly, romantic ignorance is constantly criticized. However, empirical evidence suggests that positive illusions are beneficial for happiness and romantic love. This raises the question of what constructive role ignorance plays in love. I believe that positive illusions, partial knowledge, and ignorance may be beneficial in some circumstances.
The Role of Knowledge in Happiness and Love
In friendship as well as love, ignorance very often contributes more to our happiness than knowledge.—Francois de La Rochefoucauld
There is a long philosophical tradition, ranging from the work of Plato and Aristotle to Spinoza and Kant, that views knowledge as a necessary aspect of moral behavior and the key to a good moral life. Accordingly, adequate knowledge is seen as essential for profound happiness. There is also a long cultural tradition that considers knowledge to be an impediment to happiness: Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden because they ate from the Tree of Knowledge. The myth of Pandora carries a similar warning: All of the world's suffering was released because she wanted to know what was inside the box that the gods gave her.
A similar dispute regards the role of knowledge in romantic love. Some popular songs indicate the close connection between them: "The more I know you, the more I love you," for example, and "To know you is to love you." A different view emphasizes the advantages of lack of knowledge, and the role of mystery in romantic love and particularly sexual desire.
These opposing traditions express the complex nature of the relationship between knowledge and love. The position that I would like to present accepts the value of knowledge in love while indicating circumstances in which positive illusions and ignorance may be more beneficial.
Knowledge and Positive Illusions
An intellectual is a person who has discovered something more interesting than sex.—Aldous Huxley
A deep knowledge of your partner is often regarded as a virtue in romantic relationships. Marriage counselors urge lovers to open up to each other. Although it clearly wouldn't be helpful to be completely ignorant about a partner, there can be circumstances in which romantic ignorance is valuable.
Positive illusions—which involve imagination combined with ignorance—express some distortion of reality. They nevertheless have beneficial functions (Taylor, 1989). One is the affective function of helping people experience positive experiences such as love and happiness in imperfect circumstances. They enable us to create a sense that the situation is somewhat better than it is, and this generates optimism that in turn creates a more positive environment. Positive illusions are a kind of idealization of the present situation. Because our experiences are inherently ambiguous, it is not so difficult to focus on the good, perhaps exaggerate it slightly, and thereby adopt a positive perspective (Gilbert, 2007). The mechanism underlying positive illusions is often to ignore or screen negative information, thereby enabling us to perceive the environment as better than it actually is.
Positive illusions are central in romantic love. Lovers are often blind to the beloved's negative traits and tend to create an idealized image of the beloved. We often love the idealized object rather than the real one. Indeed people say that they are living their dreams with their beloved. Idealization of the beloved is more typical in the initial stages of love, when spontaneous evaluations are based on relatively scant information; it is also present, however, in long-term love. Sustaining a sense of security often requires weaving an elaborate, and often fictional, story that either embellishes a partner’s virtues and ignores, or at least minimizes, the flaws. Enhancing a partner’s qualities seems critical for maintaining the belief that this partner is the “right one” and for protecting the relationship from doubt. This attitude is not that of faking, but rather of ignoring the negative aspects of reality (Ben-Ze'ev & Goussinsky, 2008).
The important role that positive illusions play in making romantic relationships more satisfying and less distressing does not imply that there is no place in such relationships for accurate knowledge of the partner’s real strengths and frailties. Illusions can easily generate disappointments, which may ruin the entire relationship. A love based on the false premise that all the partner's traits are perfect will inevitably prove to be fragile.
Romantic relationships require then a sort of combination between positive illusions and accurate knowledge. An example of such combination has been proposed by Lisa Neff and Benjamin Karney (2002, 2005), who suggest a model that combines global adoration and specific accuracy. In this view, although spouses may demonstrate a positive bias in their global perceptions of their partners, they nevertheless have a more accurate perception of their partners’ specific attributes. For instance, spouses who believe their partners to be wonderful people may be willing to perceive them as disorganized or as poor cooks. Trust in a spouse's love can be enhanced when global adoration is accompanied by specific accuracy, because spouses are thus communicating that they love their partners despite knowing their faults.
As illusions involve distorting reality, too much ignorance can be harmful. Moreover, imagination is usually effortless and works so quietly and effectively that we are insufficiently skeptical of its content. Although having an accurate knowledge of reality is important for survival purposes, having an idealized picture may sometimes be advantageous as well. However, only a moderate and balanced dose of positive illusions can be beneficial.
Virtues of Ignorance
“I know nothing about sex, because I was always married.”—Zsa Zsa Gabor
We have seen that contrary to the assumption that full adequate knowledge is essential to our happiness and romantic love, partial knowledge and illusions are beneficial as well. Does this mean that we can speak about the virtue of romantic ignorance?
Julia Driver (1989) challenges the traditional moral theories that commonly equate virtue with knowledge and argues for the presence of virtues that are based on ignorance. Her main examples are modesty and blind charity: Modesty involves ignorance about the full extent of one's own goodness, whereas blind charity involves ignorance about what is bad in other people. While Driver's account of modesty has been criticized (e.g., Ben-Ze'ev, 1993), her account of blind charity seems to highlight the romantic virtue of ignorance.
Driver argues that "a person who is in blind charity with others is a person who sees the good in them, but does not see the bad." Unlike regular charity in which we favor a person in some respect, despite their perceived defects, blind charity "is a disposition not to see the defects, and to focus on the virtues of persons." Those who conceive others as good are endowed with the virtue of blind charity. Driver rightly argues that blind charity cannot be reflective, as one is not aware of one’s reasons for being charitable. In this sense, blind charity, like other virtues of ignorance, involves a kind of involuntary intuition. Driver further claims that we may intrinsically value blind charity (and other virtues of ignorance), or value its instrumental value for our flourishing.
Beneficial Romantic Ignorance
The magic of first love is our ignorance that it can ever end.—Benjamin Disraeli
I turn now to examine the role of ignorance in the romantic realm, mapping various circumstances in which ignorance may be beneficial for lovers and in which lovers may even choose to be ignorant in order to avoid having to deal with unpleasant information.
People typically wish to know as much as possible about their beloved since this gives them a more comprehensive and profound picture of the beloved, which enhances their intimacy. Against this wish there is the need of people to create a pleasant social environment; accordingly, people choose as friends those with whom they feel good. Our need to maintain a pleasant environment also pertains to the romantic environment; hence we have an incentive to remain unaware or ignore the unpleasant or problematic aspects of the beloved.
Consider, for instance, the information about the beloved's past lovers. This information is of some importance for knowing the beloved better; however, it may make the interaction between the couple unpleasant or awkward. For many people, a detailed description of the beloved's previous sexual interactions can cast an unpleasant cloud over their sexual interactions with their partner. The social environment may be contaminated not because the beloved did something wrong, but because negative emotions such as envy or retrospective jealousy may prevail.
Similarly, a parent may not want to be fully informed about the details of her son's murder, as those details may haunt her for the rest of her life. For this reason, parents may not want their children to see them dying from cancer as they want the children to remember them not in their horrible final conditions but as they knew them all their lives. Children also wish to maintain an idealized view of their parents, and many playground fights are generated by one child insulting the parents of the child they wish to hurt, particularly if the insult is true ("Your father is old"; "Your mother is fat", etc.)
Ignorance may also be sought in cases of unfaithfulness. Some people work on the assumption that "if I don't know about it, it does not exist for me." Other people may wish to be told about such infidelity, but do not want to hear sexual specifics concerning positions, frequency, and locations.
Ignorance may also be desirable in circumstances when the beloved is, for example, on a business trip (with other possible romantic partners) and cannot maintain frequent contact with the lover, who therefore doesn't have full information about her whereabouts. In this case, although the lover may profoundly trust his beloved, he may not want to hear scant information, which can be wrongly interpreted and so generate unnecessary suspicions. The beloved herself may feel compelled to be in touch when she cannot do so or when it interferes with her work. In such temporary circumstances, some people may prefer ignorance and hardly any communication rather than scanty and easily confusing information.
A particularly intricate case is that of parallel relationships, where one or both of the lovers have a second lover or even live primarily with another partner. As lovers enjoy sharing their experiences, be it a wonderful movie they saw or a good hike they had while away from their lover, they have the urge to tell their lover all about it. Although the saying "shared joy is a double joy; shared sorrow is half a sorrow" has a measure of truth in it, it is nevertheless also true that reporting your joy can be hurtful, as it may cause jealousy at not having been part of the circumstances that elicited such happiness. Between lovers, it can make the partner sad or even insecure about the relationship.
In the above circumstances we may speak about the virtue of ignorance. To be sure, people are different in this regard and some may also want to be informed about all the unpleasant details. This indicates that romantic ignorance is valuable only in certain circumstances and only for some people.
Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.—Ernest Hemingway
The above discussion should not be taken as an endorsement of overall ignorance. In specific circumstances, ignorance may have a local value, but it cannot be recommended as a general way of life. Ignorance is not a remedy for dealing with the unpleasant aspects of romantic relationships, though sometimes it may be a kind of pain relief. The more we know about our emotional attitudes and those of the beloved, the more likely we are to find mutual satisfaction in our relationships. This does not mean that we must dwell upon the unpleasant aspects. Dwelling, talking, and ruminating about unpleasant issues that we cannot change merely increase the pain. Coping with the complexity of love is not easy: sometimes we need to open our eyes and sometimes to close them; constant sleep is not a solution—it is rather a complete surrender. Sometimes we have to remember and sometimes we need to forget. As Ingrid Bergman noted, "Happiness is good health and a bad memory."
Ignorance, which is often associated with stupidity, cannot cure the unpleasant aspects of a romantic relationship. Just as starving to death is not the optimal solution for weight problems, repressing our emotions and refusing to discover their nature do not help us to flourish. Quite the contrary: the expression and knowledge of our emotions greatly enhances our self-awareness and is likely to lead to greater emotional intelligence and greater relational satisfaction. To answer the question posed in the title: Ignorance can be, but often is not, a romantic virtue.
Ben-Ze'ev, A. (1993). The virtue of modesty. American Philosophical Quarterly, 30, 235-246.
Ben-Ze'ev, A. & Goussinsky, R. (2008). In the name of love: Romantic Ideology and its victims. Oxford University Press
Driver, J. (1989). The virtues of ignorance. The Journal of Philosophy, 86, 373-384.
Gilbert, D. (2007). Stumbling on happiness. New York: Vintage.
Neff, L. A. & Karney, B. R. (2002). Judgments of a relationship partner: Specific accuracy but global enhancement. Journal of Personality, 70, 1079–1112.
Neff, L. A. & Karney, B. R. (2005). To know you is to love you: The implications of global adoration and specific accuracy for marital relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88, 480-497.
Taylor, S. E. (1989). Positive illusions: Creative self-deception and the healthy mind. New York: Basic Books.