“Moderation in temper is always a virtue; but moderation in principle is always a vice.” —Thomas Paine
Ideal love is typically depicted as a very passionate experience involving constant, intense desire. While such infatuation has value, it is doubtful whether it should constitute our ideal of ongoing, long-term romantic love. In most realms of life, moderation, rather than excessiveness, is highly commended. However, romantic ideology sees no place for moderation in romance and considers it an offense in love. Is mild love such a sin that we cannot admit it to our partner, or is something wrong with our ideology, or how we have formulated the issue?
The Difficulties of Expressing Mild, Romantic Love
“When it comes to my romantic life, I do want excess. Give me more of this emotional intensity. I would willingly pay the high-priced ticket to the next ride on this emotional roller-coaster. Will you accept my future sleepless nights and breathless days as a means of payment? Words such as compromise and moderation stink of the loss of hope, giving up on oneself. Like the end of life.” —A married woman involved in an affair
Mild is defined as not very strong, not extreme. In many realms, mild has positive connotations: Mild weather is warm and pleasant; mildness is considered a favorable attribute in a person. When you are extreme, you do not take into account the people around you; accordingly, moderate, mild behavior is often praised. However, moderation might be viewed as contrary to being emotional, which is often associated with great intensity. Low emotional intensity frequently expresses neutral or indifferent states. In the emotional domain there is no such thing as a minor concern—if the concern is perceived as minor, it is not emotional. A typical characteristic of emotions is their magnifying nature: Everything looms larger when we are emotional. The fact that a colleague earns 2 percent more than we do is not a minor issue in the eyes of the envious person. It is perceived to reflect the person’s undeserved inferior position. Similarly, the slightly smaller size of a woman’s breasts is not considered a minor imperfection by the many women who choose to get breast implants.
Although emotions have value, they are not our only behavioral guide. In Aristotle’s view, a person is bad by virtue of pursuing excess, not by virtue of pursuing necessary pleasures such as dainty foods, exotic wines, or sexual intercourse. The excess typically associated with intense emotions can be harmful to our survival and our moral concerns. In Aristotle's view, emotional excess is harmful, and a deficit of emotions is harmful as well. The ideal situation is one of emotional balance. In moderation, as in when we compromise, we consult reason in order to balance our emotions. For example, we are advised to count to 10 before expressing our anger. In these 10 seconds, reason should, if necessary, control our emotional reactions.
Moderation and compromise, however, play no part in romantic ideology. Indeed, we do not tell our partners that we love them mildly or that they are some kind of compromise for us: Such statements would be insulting. Mild romantic intensity is usually perceived as an expression of inadequate love. Just as you cannot be a little bit pregnant, you cannot (so this view assumes) be a little bit in love. When I asked my students about mild love, most of them confessed the presence of such love; when I asked them whether they had admitted this to their partners, none said yes. Indeed, lovers tend to emphasize their extreme romantic attitudes. The common view of romantic love typically does not consider mild love to be romantic; prevailing descriptions in art and the media focus upon intensity rather than profundity.
In reality, love comes in degrees and entails moderation. One reason for the negative attitude toward moderate, or mild, love, is the assumption that in the conflict between love and life, love is always expected to triumph; true lovers would never surrender to half-measures when it comes to romance. As it is vividly expressed in Dido’s song: “There will be no white flag above my door, I'm in love and always will be.”
So is mild love a virtue or a sin? In order to examine the value of mild love, I briefly discuss the related issue of mild happiness.
The Importance of Mild Happiness
“Let me recommend the best medicine in the world: a long journey, at a mild season, through a pleasant country, in easy stages.” —James Madison
Ed Diener and colleagues (2015) argue that evolution does not suggest that people’s moods ought always to be intensely positive (and of course, not always intensely negative). Although intensely positive moods might be valuable on some occasions, they can have negative effects. For example, intensely aroused, positive moods might be detrimental to health and survival. Moreover, people with the highest levels of happiness tend to do somewhat less well in the work domain than moderately happy people. Diener and colleagues further claim that intensely positive moods cut a person off from the potential reward value of other mildly good events. As with most beneficial traits, there is likely to be an optimum level beyond which further increases would be harmful.
Diener and colleagues maintain that positive emotions exist at a mild level most of the time, even with very weak positive or neutral input. They refer to this as “positive mood offset,” i.e., the tendency to feel good in the absence of significant negative events. They argue that humans have evolved to react to positive or negative events with intense affective attitudes, but at the same time they are hardwired to be in a mildly positive mood when they are either in positive or neutral circumstances. The fact that most people feel happy most of the time does not mean that most people are intensely happy or always happy, but that they experience some mild positive affect almost all the time.
Happy people perform better than unhappy people (and, needless to say, they enjoy their life more). However, moderately happy people often perform better than super-happy people. Accordingly, we should not be ashamed to say that we are moderately happy. On the contrary, saying that you are super-happy often involves negative connotations. When a journalist asked General Charles De Gaulle if he was happy, he replied, “What do you take me for, an idiot?”
Why then are we ashamed to admit that we are mildly in love?
Is Mild Love Better Than Intense Love?
In light of the great affinity between love and happiness, it is plausible to assume that there is also some similarity between the mechanisms that sustain long-term happiness and long-term romantic love.
Love is a major factor in our happiness. Marital quality, an expression of a romantic value, is among the most important social factors linked to happiness, as well as mental and physical health. Those who report that their marriage is “very happy” are among the happiest of people—57 percent of such couples declared life as a whole to be very happy (compared with 10 percent of those whose marriage is “pretty happy” and 3 percent of those with a “not-too-happy” marriage) (Myers, 2000).
Is mild love crucial for long-term romantic love, just as mild happiness is for long-term happiness? I believe it is.
Profound happiness does not involve the complete elimination of super-happy experiences in our life. Instead, it includes the constant presence of mild happiness, and the absence of continuous intense peaks of super-happy or very unhappy experiences. Similarly, profound love does not involve the complete elimination of passionate experiences in our life, but rather the constant presence of mild love, and the absence of continuous intense peaks of super-passionate or dispassionate experiences.
Other aspects central to the romantic value of mild love are the given baseline of mild love, and the frequency of the intense, passionate peaks. These differences in degrees can determine whether a specific instance of mild love is regarded as profound, romantic love or as too low to be considered romantic love. When partners are dissatisfied with their mutual love, it is often the case that they experience a very low initial baseline of mild love and low frequency of intense peaks. This does not dismiss the general value of mild love, it only indicates the very low value of their specific mild love.
Types of Love
The above considerations support the distinction between romantic intensity and romantic profundity (Ben-Ze’ev, 2014). Romantic intensity is a snapshot of an emotional peak at a given moment; it refers to the momentary degree of passionate, often sexual, desire. Romantic profundity goes beyond mere romantic intensity to include the temporal dimension. In the same way that intense momentary experiences are not the cornerstone of profound happiness, intense romantic (often sexual) experiences are not the cornerstone of profound love. Like long-term profound happiness, long-term profound love is focused on ongoing, meaningful, joint, and intrinsic experiences. In such profound love, romantic and personal flourishing are most likely to emerge. Indeed, the value of excitement declines with age, while the value of characteristics such as calmness, caring, kindness, loyalty, and wisdom increase with age and with the length of the relationship.
The distinction between romantic intensity and profundity is consistent with the distinction between passionate and companionate love. Elaine Hatfield and colleagues (e.g., Hatfield & Rapson, 1996; Kim & Hatfield, 2004) argue that passionate love is strongly associated with strong positive and negative emotions, whereas companionate love is more strongly associated with life satisfaction. Passionate love, or infatuation, is a hot, intense emotion characterized as a state of powerful longing for union with another. It is a heightened emotional state in which people experience a continual interplay between elation and despair, excitement and terror. Hatfield and colleagues note that companionate love is less intense, but it is a warm feeling of affection and tenderness that people feel toward those whose lives are deeply connected with their own. This type of love develops over a long time span and it is accompanied by an increasing level of emotional trust.
Being at the Top of the World, or Enjoying a Steady Diet of Simple Pleasures?
“You're the nearest thing to heaven that I've seen…Your love's put me at the top of the world.” —The Carpenters
“A steady diet of simple pleasures will keep you above your set point. Find the small things that you know give you a little high—a good meal, working in the garden, time with friends—and sprinkle your life with them. In the long run, that will leave you happier than some grand achievement that gives you a big lift for a while.” —David Lykken
The advantages of long-term, profound love are clear, so the ideal of “endless love” has significant value and is worth pursuing. We have seen that this ideal does not imply being at the top of the world all the time, but is more a matter of enjoying "a steady diet of simple pleasures."
People might think that the dilemma here is whether it is better to pursue a brief but high-quality romantic life, or opt for a longer but lower-quality one. Such a dilemma can occur in medical situations: For example, some people choose not to undergo treatments such as chemotherapy because although it might prolong their lives, it can considerably reduce the quality of their lives. The romantic dilemma we are discussing is different, because it concerns choosing between a long-lasting, more profound love with fewer peaks of excitement, and a briefer, more superficial love with higher peaks of excitement.
Despite the significant role that passionate experiences play in romantic love, such love can endure for many years even when passion has waned. Profound love, which involves a process of meaningful development over time, cannot be generated at first sight—it requires, among other things, time and joint activities. When love is fresh, it is very intense; however, with time the lovers might achieve profundity. The taste of love (and eggs) is marvelous when they are fresh; however, love can become more nutritious with time. As with food, both taste and nutrition are important, but if you wish to live longer, or to have a longer romantic relationship, the value of romantic nutrition cannot be ignored.
Concluding Remarks: Our Love is Here to Stay
“It's very clear, our love is here to stay, not for a year but ever and a day...Together we're going a long, long way.” —Nat King Cole (performing a song written by George and Ira Gershwin)
The value of mild love is clear: Although ideal romantic love is characterized by unique acts of sacrifice or intensity, it is the little, mild things that mean so much to us. As Anton Chekhov says, “Any idiot can face a crisis; it is this day-to-day living that wears you out.” The day-to-day loving is what counts most. Elvis Presley’s assertion that “One night with you/would make my dreams come true” is as exciting as the saying “See Naples and die,” but neither are suitable for describing long-term, profound love, which can endure for a lifetime, not just one day or night.
When discussing this issue with your partner, you might want to present your mild loving attitude in a positive manner. Although mild love mainly consists of tempered positive attitudes that lack frequent tempestuous peaks, it is stable and here to stay, not for a night, a day, or a year, but forever.
Ben-Ze’ev, A. (2014). Ain't Love Nothing But Sex Misspelled? In C. Maurer, T. Milligan, and K. Pacovská (Eds.), Love and its Objects. Palgrave Macmillan, 2014, 25-40.
Diener, E., Kanazawa, S., Suh, E. M., & Oishi, S. (2015). Why people are in a generally good mood. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 19, 235-256.
Hatfield, E., & Rapson, R. L. (1996). Love and sex: Cross-cultural perspectives. Allyn & Bacon.
Kim, J., & Hatfield, E. (2004). Love types and subjective well-being: A cross-cultural study. Social Behavior and Personality, 32, 173-182.
Myers, D. G. (2000). The funds, friends, and faith of happy people. American Psychologist, 55, 56–67.