"Two roads diverged in a wood and I — / I took the one less traveled by / And that has made all the difference.” —Robert Frost, “The Road Not Taken”
In the most widely read American poem of the past century, “The Road Not Taken,” Robert Frost uses two related notions, “the road less traveled” and “the road not taken.” Are the two notions identical? And how does this distinction relate to the romantic realm?
The Road Not Taken
“One always wonders about roads not taken.” —Warren Christopher
The road not taken is a general term referring to a possible option that we did not take. We could have traveled this road, but we made an alternative choice. There are several kinds of roads not taken, two major ones being the road never taken, and the road less traveled.
A crucial element in emotions is the imagined condition of "it could have been otherwise." Accordingly, "almost” situations or “near misses” come to have intense emotional effects, as it is easy to imagine having achieved the alternative. These days, when “love is in the air,” people are living in constant “almost” romantic situations. Since many people are perceived to be attractive, available, willing, and possible romantic partners, the romantic environment has become very enticing. Ignoring such alluring romantic options generates regret about the romantic roads not taken.
The Ideal Road Never Taken
“Most of us don’t regret what we have done so much as what we haven’t.… I’m sorry there aren’t more of me to marry some of the men I’ve cared about. And there are cities I wanted to live in but haven’t, and babies I didn’t have, and careers I would have liked to explore.” —a woman, Glamour
People have countless ideals and dreams, most of which are not fulfilled. We dream about the perfect prince or princess on a white horse and about a soulmate who is meant only for us, but we have to be satisfied with less. Ideals have an important function in our life — they inspire us to improve and approach a standard that we esteem. Ideals provide hope of a better situation. The loss of hope, which is the loss of the capacity to imagine that things can be better, is perhaps the most tragic loss.
Our romantic ideals serve as a beacon that guides and lights our love and life. The typical optimal ideal is the one that is somewhat beyond most people’s reach, but they can move toward it and feel that they are improving themselves and fulfilling their ideal, at least partially. It seems then that although the ideal road we never took can leave us somewhat regretful, we typically accommodate ourselves to its absence.
The Romantic Road Less Traveled, and the One Traveled Too Much
“I knew that I was choosing the road less traveled but I'm not walking it alone.” —Jason Collins
The road less traveled usually refers to the road most people travel less. The main aspect here is that of making choices that are different to those made by other people and, in particular, not following accepted rules and norms. Acting against accepted rules and norms in the romantic realm, when opting for a road less traveled, can refer, for example, to polyamory, open marriages, living apart together, or just the refusal to be committed.
Here, I focus on another related meaning of the romantic road less traveled: The road on which the person herself has traveled less than other romantic roads she has taken, some of which she might have traveled too much. The different roads in this case refer to the type and length of the romantic relationships that the individual has heretofore conducted. Thus, the short-term affair that the lover is now involved in is, for her, a road less traveled, compared with the road she has traveled with her long-time partners.
The road less traveled is more bumpy than the road traveled (too) much; however, it is often much harder to forget.
The Incomplete and Complete Nature of the Different Roads
“A man in love is incomplete until he has married. Then he's finished.” —Zsa Zsa Gabor
“I feel a huge responsibility to anyone who's younger than me, in helping them take the road less traveled, or finding no road at all and blazing a new trail.” —Sandra Bullock
The romantic road less traveled is by nature briefer; accordingly, it is less familiar and more difficult than the romantic highway that has been traveled so much.
A typical feature of the road less traveled is its incomplete nature, as it is a kind of unfinished business. We are usually excited by anything that is incomplete, unfinished, unfulfilled, unsettled, unexplained, or uncertain. Hence, the romantic road less traveled is emotionally more intense. On the romantic road much traveled, the lover can be complete and happy, or “finished” and miserable. (See here.)
The road less traveled is an actual, specific, and exciting road that the lover was unable to travel enough — either time was too short or external circumstances were too complex and costly. It is usually the case that the romantic road less traveled was abandoned, not because the lover really wanted to stop traveling on this road, but because the path was too steep and too difficult to navigate. If the decision to give up the road less traveled was in the lover’s hands, this is likely to enhance the pain when contemplating it.
The distinction between romantic intensity and profundity is relevant here. Romantic intensity is a snapshot of an emotional peak at a given moment; it refers to a momentary degree of passionate, often sexual, desire. Romantic profundity goes beyond mere romantic intensity in that it includes the temporal dimension. External change is highly significant in generating romantic intensity; in romantic depth, familiarity and stability are of greater import. While romantic novelty is useful in preventing boredom, romantic familiarity is valuable in promoting flourishing. The briefer period of exploring the road less traveled make it more likely to be less profound, as a necessary (though not sufficient) condition for romantic profundity is time and how long a relationship endures (Ben-Ze’ev, 2017; Ben-Ze’ev & Krebs, 2017).
Taking the road less traveled does not ensure the greatest happiness. The initial excitement derived from the road less traveled might be due to its brief duration. A longer journey on that road often turns it into a less exciting path. As Oscar Wilde notes, the most painful tragedies in life are not due to not getting what you do not have, but getting what you want and being disappointed in it.
Which Road Should We Choose?
“But in the end, I suppose, we only have one life to lead, and the roads not taken will always outnumber and outshine the roads we end up taking day by day, without plan.” —Davy Rothbart
“I would love to go back and travel the road not taken, if I knew at the end of it I'd find the same set of grandkids.” —Robert Breault
Yearning for the possible is characteristic of all cases in which an alluring romantic road is not taken. Accordingly, David Orr’s (2015) claim that “‘The Road Not Taken’ is routinely misidentified as ‘The Road Less Traveled,’” is not entirely correct. The two roads are indeed different, but the road less traveled is a type of the road not taken, the one that generates the greatest emotional upheaval. It can be in the form of frustration for not having spent enough time traveling on that road, or for realizing that at the end of the day it is not so different to a romantic road much traveled. (Indeed, Frost admits that the two roads are “really about the same.”) The road less traveled can also generate happiness if the excitement of the initial journey turns into profound satisfaction as we advance along this road. This duality is expressed in the fact that in the final lines of the poem, “I took the one less traveled by / And that has made all the difference,” the poet does not tell us the type of difference it has made, nor whether it proved to be better or worse.
Frost’s dilemma in choosing the best road is highly relevant to our current romantic environment: We do not know which romantic road to take, since many are alluring. We do know, however, that even if we can travel on two romantic roads at the same time, as is the case in polyamory, we cannot travel on many such roads simultaneously.
The road less traveled is usually the more enticing road. Will it also prove to be the more profound, from the perspectives of romance and our well-being? We cannot predict this. Certainly, if we wish to achieve romantic profundity, we need to spend a great deal of time traveling the same road, as this enables partners to deepen their mutual knowledge and bring out the best in each other. With time, a road less traveled can gain romantic profundity; however, by then it will no longer be a road less traveled, but rather a road on which one has traveled for a long time.
Ben-Ze’ev, A. (2017). Does loving longer mean loving more? On the nature of enduring affective attitudes. Philosophia, 45.
Ben-Ze’ev, A. & Krebs, A. (2017). Love and time: Is love best when it is fresh? In C. Grau & A. Smuts (eds.), Oxford handbook of philosophy of love. Oxford University Press.
Orr, D. (2015). The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong. Penguin.