The Biggest Thing Men Get Wrong About Love

A look at our default settings and how we should change them.

Posted Feb 10, 2020

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Source: Pexels Free Images

The English term “love” is a small word that captures many meanings. Even limiting it to the context of loving another person, there are still many ways to love someone—from the love one feels for a brother, to the romantic love of a novel relationship. And because there are so many shades of nuance and only one term to cover them, we are bound to get confused in trying to say what we really mean. For men in particular, when it comes to the love one feels for a partner or a spouse, there is one major misunderstanding that almost every man has about what it means to love that other person.

As we all know, men tend to be more goal-oriented than women. That’s not to say that women don’t take their accomplishments seriously. Rather it’s simply that, as a rule, women tend to appreciate the journey, whereas men are all about the destination. The more technical way that a psychologist might describe this is that men care more about the “instrumental” value of an object or situation. Can it be used as a tool—as an instrument—to get what he wants and accomplish his goals? Men tend to evaluate the elements in their life in terms of whether these elements are directly able to help them get where they want to go. The higher something’s instrumental value is, the more men tend to value it overall. While this can be a useful impulse in one’s professional life, anyone who has attempted to forge a long-term bond with such a goal-oriented man knows that it can become a problem in one’s personal life. 

The problem is that love isn’t a goal-directed process. There is no way to win. There is no finish line, no highest number of points scored. And this is simply something that most men have trouble fitting into their standard conceptual frameworks for understanding the world. The point of love is that it is. There is nothing that it will become in the future that will transcend its present state. If you can’t appreciate the now of it, then you probably won’t appreciate the later either.

Love is all about the journey. And that’s something men have a hard time wrapping their heads around.

The misunderstanding this leads to is that men tend to practice what we might call “instrumental love.” They love something—in this case, their partner or spouse—because of what he or she can do for them. It may not be obvious that this is occurring. For example, a man’s love might derive from the fact that his partner is ideally suited to help him with the project of starting a family, or is similarly ambitious and so can be a source of mutual support as their careers progress. This is not to say that this is the only inspiration that men have for loving someone. But you can easily imagine a conversation in which a woman asks her husband why he loves her and he gives an answer along the lines of the examples above—in other words, she is helping him to accomplish some goals or tasks that he feels it is important to pursue. This the signature of instrumental love. It depends on the role the other person plays in his life. 

And that’s why instrumental love cannot be the full picture of a successful romantic relationship: when the situation changes, so do the roles. And when roles change, then the other person’s utility toward accomplishing the original set of goals changes as well. Instrumental love, in this sense, is not tied to the person. It is tied to the situation.

But there’s another kind of love, which can appear as foreign cargo to the male brain. It is based not on what the other person can do, but simply who they are. We might call it “intrinsic love,” because it only depends on the continued existence of the intrinsic properties of the other person. The reason that a man has a hard time answering the question about “why” he loves someone—indeed, why no man has ever given a correct answer to this question—is that when a man looks for an answer to why something is in his life, he looks for instrumental value. He describes its function as a useful tool. And this, he eventually discovers, is not the way his wife was hoping to be described. The paradox of the question is that if you have a good answer to give, chances are you misunderstood the question. From the perspective of intrinsic love, the answer doesn’t have explanatory power or even requires an especially strong command of English vocabulary: “I love you because you’re you.”

There is a bit of a risk here of mythologizing love into some unattainable story-book fantasy in which a man’s love is totally unfettered by the complications of everyday life and his entire attention is focused on the object of his affection. That’s unfair to expect from a man, and it’s not what we’re going for here. Rather, the point is to appreciate the somewhat uncontroversial idea that men’s brains tend to fixate on getting things done, and that over the long course of a relationship (or, let’s face it, even a conversation) he can get lost in the desire to reach his goals. The consequence is that the full breadth of his potential love becomes reduced to a thin, instrumental version of the real thing. 

One of the most difficult aspects of this is that there’s no guarantee that a man must eventually realize that love works (or doesn’t work) this way. In my own estimation, I think a large number of men go through their entire lives without really understanding this distinction—whether at an explicit or intuitive level. They simply don’t see that their goal-directed instrumental love as missing something. Or perhaps they do intuitively grasp that something’s off, but can’t put their finger on exactly what. (The kind of man who is susceptible to over-reliance on instrumental love doesn’t like it when he can’t explain things, and so he deals with the problem by ignoring it.) 

This failure happens, in part, because we don’t do a good job of training our young men to appreciate this sort of nuance in how to develop strong romantic relationships. Then, as we become entrenched in our ways, it becomes very difficult to figure out on our own. Certainly, it’s not the case that every man is like this, or even that one hundred percent of any single man has to be goal-oriented all the time. But if you find yourself with a man who thinks and loves like this, the distinction between instrumental and intrinsic love can be a useful way to at least get on the same page in terms of what’s missing—because just describing it as “love” and trying to get to the bottom of where it comes from simply isn’t enough.