“I can't break away I must have you every day/As regularly as coffee or tea/You've got me in your clutches and I can't get free/You're getting to be a habit with me”—Frank Sinatra
The tendencies both to adapt to a stable, average level of happiness and to feel dissatisfied are central in the romantic realm. Such tendencies underlie romantic compromises and they enable people to live at an average (and above) degree of romantic intensity, and to maintain their love while their circumstances of life are (at least) reasonable. So why are these tendencies so often subject to criticism?
Two built-in tendencies
“What happens when perfection isn't good enough?”—Scott Westerfeld, Pretties
Two major human tendencies that are central in the romantic realm are hedonic adaptation and feeling dissatisfied. Hedonic adaptation expresses our tendency to return to a relatively stable level of happiness after major positive or negative events have passed. The tendency to feel dissatisfied is expressed, for example, in desiring things that we don't like once we get them. These two built-in tendencies help us to avoid difficult emotional circumstances. Hedonic adaptation prevents us from repeated exposure to extreme romantic upheaval in which we cannot function, and the tendency to be dissatisfied prevents us from remaining in harmful circumstances. The two tendencies seem to be opposite: while in hedonic adaptation we maintain our habits and stability, the tendency to be dissatisfied makes us restless in our search for a better alternative. Should we then choose to let our partner become a habit, or should we prefer to be dissatisfied while searching for the best partner on earth? Optimal circumstances are those in which the two tendencies are combined. The question is whether such a combination is possible in romantic love. I believe it is.
“It is a miracle of harmony, of the adaptation of the free inner life to the outward necessity of things"—John Crowe Ransom
Emotions typically occur when we perceive positive or negative significant changes in our personal situation, or in the situation of those related to us. A major positive or negative change significantly improves or interrupts a stable situation relevant to our concerns. Like burglar alarms going off when an intruder appears, emotions signal that something needs attention. When no attention is needed, the signaling system can be switched off. We respond to the unusual by paying attention to it. 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 (Ben-Ze’ev, 2000).
From an evolutionary point of view, it is advantageous for us to focus our attention and resources on changes rather than on stationary stimuli. Changes indicate that our situation is unstable, and awareness of this is important for survival. Once we have accustomed to the change, mental activity decreases as there is no sense in wasting time and energy on something to which we have already adapted. When we are already familiar with certain items, their mere repetition yields no new information and we can ignore them.
In light of the crucial role of change in our emotional life, humans have a built-in tendency to return to a relatively stable level of happiness after major positive or negative events. Such hedonic adaptation enables the joys of new loves and new triumphs, and the sorrows for new losses to fade with time (Lyubomirsky, 2013). Hedonic adaptation limits the impact of emotional change to a brief duration and enables the system to return to its normal functioning, irrespective of whether the level is higher or lower than its previous level.
“Joni Mitchell seems destined to remain in a state of permanent dissatisfaction—always knowing what she would like to do, always more depressed when it's done"—Jon Landau
Another major human tendency is feeling dissatisfied. William Irvine (2006) argues that the process of evolution dictates that we feel dissatisfied with any stable circumstances, whatever it may be. The urge for more and better has of great evolutionary benefit. One expression of this tendency is what Daniel Gilbert and Timothy Wilson (2000) characterize as the tendency "to miswant": to desire things that we won’t like once we get them. This tendency is a consequence of our limited information about which of our desires are compatible with what we really want.
The tendency to feel dissatisfied is compatible with the tendency toward hedonic adaptation, at least when we adapt to positive experiences. It prevents us from complacently relaxing into a given situation and encourages us to search to improve our situation. However, the hedonic adaptation to negative circumstances seems counter to the tendency to feel dissatisfied, as it encourages us to feel satisfied with an apparently bad situation.
Should then we act in accordance with the tendency toward hedonic adaptation or in accordance with our tendency to feel dissatisfied? Let us examine this issue as it pertains to the romantic realm.
Romantic hedonic adaptation and romantic compromises
"Wedded bliss has but a limited shelf life"—Sonja Lyubomirsky
Romantic compromises are currently among the most common and painful syndromes in love relationships. In romantic compromises, we give up a romantic value, such as romantic freedom and intense passionate love, in exchange for a nonromantic value, like living comfortably without financial concerns. Nevertheless, in our hearts we keep yearning for the possible, for the road not taken—the one with greater romantic freedom and another romantic partner.
Romantic compromises involve a combination of both the above two tendencies. Hedonic adaptation is expressed in our inability to maintain a high level of excitement in long-term romantic relationships. Accordingly, people have to compromise on a relationship that is (or seems) inferior to a previous relationship or to one of which they still dream of finding. In a romantic compromise, people might accept their current romantic situation, but they remain dissatisfied since they yearn for a better, or at least a different, romantic situation (Ben-Ze'ev & Goussinsky, 2008).
Understanding the impact of these conflicting tendencies requires us to analyze the different aspects in romantic love that are most susceptible to each tendency. In this regard, I use the distinction between romantic intensity and romantic profundity.
Romantic intensity is like a snapshot of a given moment; in romantic profundity the temporal dimension of love comes in. Romantic intensity expresses the momentary measure of passionate, often sexual, desire. Romantic profundity embodies frequent acute occurrences of intense love over long periods of time along with life and romantic experiences that meaningfully resonate in all dimensions, helping the individuals flourish and thrive. Profundity is achieved by greater familiarity with each other and more shared activities, many of them are intrinsic activities.
Hedonic adaptation is most clearly present in romantic intensity. Indeed, sexual response to a familiar partner is less intense than to a novel partner. Thus, 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 of marriage, and declining more gradually thereafter. This decline also occurs in cohabiting, heterosexual relationships and in gay and lesbian ones. The decline in romantic intensity often generates dissatisfaction, which in turn generates the need to make romantic compromises.
The profundity aspect of romantic love is not subject to hedonic adaptation as it is not an aspect that is of brief duration, nor does its value depend on change and novelty. Romantic profundity is created through an ongoing process involving mutual intrinsic activities whose value typically increases with familiarity and constant use. Profound love involves shared intrinsic activities, which fulfill essential needs that are constitutive of the flourishing of each lover and of the couple's long-term flourishing.
The circumstances that generate dissatisfied desires are the outcome of a kind of mismatch between what we really want to experience in the long run and the nature of the desired experience. In order to lessen disappointment, then, it would seem that we need to seek greater compatibility between our personal nature and that of the desired experiences. We can find such compatibility, and even harmony, while performing intrinsic, meaningful activities that are constitutive of our personal flourishing. The way to reduce disappointments and compromises would therefore be to increase the percentage of such activities in our lives in general and in romantic relationships in particular.
Intrinsic activities, in which the value of the activity is in the activity itself and not in an external goal, are less susceptible to the factors that make us dissatisfied with our desires. Our intrinsically valuable activities are usually compatible with our basic personality, which remains more or less stable. In profound, complex, intrinsic activities, the process of hedonic adaptation does not take place. We cannot say that we have become adapted to intrinsic activities, such as intellectual thinking, dancing, or listening to music, so that it has been rendered worthless for us now. In this type of activity, we have a tendency to be satisfied and fulfilled as long as the activity is meaningful for us.
“Are these things really better than the things I already have? Or am I just trained to be dissatisfied with what I have now?”—Chuck Palahniuk, Lullaby
Hedonic adaptation and feeling dissatisfied are beneficial tendencies that help us to cope with reality. The two seem different as the first reduces emotional intensity—both positive and negative—while the second increases negative romantic intensity. In the romantic realm, the reduction of romantic intensity, associated with hedonic adaptation, enables one to settle down in one's current situation. However, the increase in negative romantic intensity prevents one from being happy with one's current lot. This generates romantic compromise in which people accept, with varying levels of reluctance, their current romantic situation. The acceptance is due to a recognition that almost any other romantic relationship will end up with reduced romantic intensity, so there is no reason not to accept the current one. The reluctance is due to the fact that dissatisfaction and yearning for a better alternative still remain.
The tendencies of hedonic adaptation and feeling dissatisfied have a significant evolutionary value in different circumstances. Hedonic adaptation is of value regarding romantic intensity, which cannot maintain its initial peak, but it is not relevant for romantic profundity, which deepens as the romantic relationship develops. The dissatisfaction tendency is valuable especially when the given romantic compromise concerns profound issues related to one’s flourishing.
Regarding your partner as a habit can be wonderful when this habit is meaningful and fulfilling. In such cases, dissatisfaction is rare; instead, a sense of comfort and security replace the need for novelty and change.
Ben-Ze'ev, A. (2000). The subtlety of emotions. Cambridge, Ma.: MIT Press.
Ben-Ze'ev, A. & Goussinsky, R. (2008). In the name of love: Romantic Ideology and its victims. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Gilbert, D. T., & Wilson, T. D. (2000). Miswanting: Some problems in the forecasting of future affective states. In J. Forgas (Ed.), Thinking and feeling: The role of affect in social cognition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Irvine, W. B. (2006). On desire: Why we want what we want. New York: Oxford University Press.
Lyubomirsky, S. (2013). The myths of happiness. New York: Penguin.