In the 2012 movie The Vow, a brutal car accident renders Paige (played by Rachel McAdams) unable to remember her life as an artist in downtown Chicago, where she is married to recording-studio owner Leo (played by Channing Tatum) and enjoys a circle of close friends. Instead, her memories stop at a point five years earlier, when she was still living in the suburbs with her patrician parents and sister, attending law school, and engaged to Jeremy (now a successful lawyer). Leo fights her parents to keep Paige with him in hopes of jogging her memory, following her doctor’s advice of re-acclimating to her routine. He’s frustrated, however, that she seems more comfortable in her “old” life—she dresses and wears her hair as she did back then and falls back in with her old friends (including Jeremy). Leo tries to remind her of the life and love they shared before the accident, but eventually relents as she appears to cling to her former life.

Paige apparently changed quite a bit between her older life with her parents and her newer life with Leo, and by all accounts she “reverted” to her former self after the car accident. A philosopher may ask: is Paige the same person she was before the accident—the same Paige with whom Leo fell in love?

There are many philosophical theories of what makes up a self (or personal identity). One theory locates the self in memory: a person is nothing but the sum total of her memories, and if she loses her memories (or a large block of them, as Paige did), she literally becomes a different person. Of course, we all lose old memories and gain new ones constantly, and we all change gradually, a distinctly human version of this aphorism widely attributed to Heraclitus: “you cannot step twice into the same river.” But Paige’s accident caused such a sudden and radical change in her stock of memories as to suggest that she woke up from her induced coma a different person.

But many philosophers today are skeptical of this idea, believing that selfhood—to the extent it exists at all—goes much deeper than our memories. In my book Kantian Ethics and Economics, I argue that a person’s self or identity is grounded in her faculties of judgment and willpower, which together comprise a person’s character and are reflected in her behavior. After all, one can lose a substantial amount of memory and still behave like the person her family and friends knew. This is the more troubling part of Paige’s transformation—she no longer acts like the woman Leo knew and loved. Some of this may attributable to the unimaginable state in which she found herself after the accident, of course, and some may be a direct result of her impression that she is in the world of five years ago. Whatever accounts for her behavioral changes, however, they are real—and they suggest that she is a different person than the one Leo married, a different person than the one Leo loved, and a different person than the one that loved him back.

* * * * *

As I watched this movie, I thought of how relationships end in much more ordinary circumstances. Some end with a bang, as a result of some cataclysmic event such as adultery, while others simply burn out, victims of an initial intensity which the partners find difficult to sustain. But many relationships end with a whimper as love fades, differences grow, and alternatives appear. Alain de Botton writes eloquently of the end of a relationship in his book Essays in Love, which chronicles a relationship from glorious beginning to devastating end, with his unique brand of philosophical musing illuminating the way. In the following  passage he describes the heartache of realizing your partner no longer loves you and the futility of doing anything about it:

Once a partner has begun to lose interest, there is apparently little the other can do to arrest the process. Like seduction, withdrawal suffers under a blanket of reticence. The very breakdown of communication is hard to discuss, unless both parties have a  desire to see it restored. This leaves the lover in a desperate situation. Honest dialogue seems to produce only irritation and smothers love in the attempt to revive it. Desperate to woo the partner back at any cost, the lover might at this point be tempted to turn to romantic terrorism, the product of irredeemable situations, a gamut of tricks (sulking, jealousy, guilt) that attempt to force the partner to return love, by blowing up (in fits of tears, rage or otherwise) in front of the loved one. The terroristic partner knows he cannot realistically hope to see his love reciprocated, but the futility of something is not always (in love or in politics) a sufficient argument against it. Certain things are said not because they will be heard, but because it is important to speak. (p. 156)

(The entire book is this good—it puts what I try to do in these posts to shame.) Anyone who has been dumped has surely resorted to some desperate means to win back the heart of their beloved—mine was singing one of “our songs” into her voice mail—but it rarely works. The ship has sailed and, with it, any hope of rekindling the love that was lost. As de Botton later writes, “I was left alone with my desire… Love me! And for what reason? I had only the usual paltry, insufficient excuse: Because I love you...” (p. 176).

Why do partners lose interest in each other? One way to think about this—though certainly not the only one—is that people change, not usually as drastically as Paige, but often just as substantially over time. Perhaps the most important way in which a partner can change is that he or she simply no longer loves the other. Even if Paige had not lost her memory, even if she had not behaved differently, eventually she may no longer have felt love for Leo. To his credit, Leo never resorts to romantic terrorism of the kind de Botton describes; he takes the high road, recreating their first date in hopes of reigniting their old spark, but declining to tell her facts about her parents that could have driven her away from them. Eventually he accepts the situation and lets her go, agreeing to a divorce and moving on with his life. Clearly he realizes that Paige no longer loves him and it would be self-defeating to force the issue, but hopefully he also realizes that she may no longer be the Paige he loved.

By the end of the movie, Paige regains her later personality (but not her memories), moving back to the city and resuming her art studies. Most gratifying for the viewer, she and Leo reconnect by chance, achieving a renewal of their relationship organically rather than through effort. (It also serves as a magnificent affirmation of wei wu wei in the form of the saying “if you love something, set it free; if it comes back it's yours, and if it doesn't, it never was.”)

* * * * *

It is easy to say that we should love our partners for who they are inside, regardless of how much they may change on the outside. But we must also remember that who they are inside may change, in terms of both their feelings for us as well as what motivated our feelings for them. When one person tells another, “I will love you forever,” implicit in that statement is the hope that “you” will be the same “you” forever. The ending of The Vow suggests that, deep down, Paige remains the person whom Leo loves and who loves Leo in return, and apparently this is true for the real life couple whose story inspired the movie (who are now remarried and have two children). But this may not be the case with every couple, even in less traumatic circumstances than Leo and Paige or their real-life inspirations.

Love that overcomes all obstacles may be the ideal; however, it cannot be forced. As I wrote in another post, a relationship that ends is not necessarily a failure and does not make you a failure. People change, sometimes in way that reinforce their bond and other times in ways that no relationship can endure—no matter how sincere the vows were made when it began.


For a select list of my previous Psychology Today posts on relationships and other topics, see here.

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