When Do We Fall in Love?

Love is around the corner, but not around every corner

Posted Sep 12, 2008

"I want a man who's kind and understanding. Is that too much to ask of a millionaire?" (Zsa Zsa Gabor)

The complex experience of romantic love involves two basic evaluative patterns referring to (a) attractiveness-that is, an attraction to external appearance, and (b) praiseworthiness-that is, positively appraising personal characteristics. Falling and staying in love requires the presence of both patterns.

An attractive woman may want to be loved not merely for her beauty but also for her actions and personal traits. An unattractive woman may wish the contrary: that her beloved would value her external appearance as much as he did her kindness or wisdom. People realize that genuine romantic love requires the presence of both evaluative patterns and they want to satisfy both, even if they are at an apparent disadvantage insofar as one pattern is concerned. One would be offended if one's partner said: "You are rather ugly and I am not sexually attracted to you, but your brilliant brain compensates for everything." One would also be offended if one's partner declared: "You are rather stupid, but your attractive body compensates for everything." In Yeats' poem, "For Anne Gregory," a woman wants to be loved not for the yellow color of her hair, which stands for the element of attractiveness, but for herself alone, namely, her actions and traits. An old man tells her that "only God, my dear, could love you for yourself alone and not your yellow hair."

Quite often we hear statements such as: "you don't love me, you just love my body (or, beauty, money, kindness, humor, wisdom, etc.)." We may notice that that this statement can be voiced not only when it is concerned with features perceived as superficial, such as beauty and money, but also with regard to more profound features, such as kindness and wisdom. We may say that beauty and money are not legitimate reasons for love, whereas kindness and wisdom are more legitimate reasons-since they express characteristics more fundamental to us. Nevertheless, none of these reasons alone is perceived to be sufficient for romantic love. Such love requires the presence of both praiseworthiness and attractiveness.

Some people would like to change the relative weight of one of these patterns-not regarding the beloved's attitude toward them, but regarding their own attitude. Thus, some people wish that they could attach less weight to attraction, which may carry less value in the long run. Others may wish the opposite: that their love would be more spontaneous and less calculated; they wish they could attach more weight to attraction. The familiar unsuccessful experience of trying to love the "right" person indicates the importance of attraction in love. The familiar experience of being attracted to a handsome person, up until the moment he opens his mouth, indicates the importance of praiseworthiness in love.

The two kinds of evaluative patterns involved in romantic love are not independent: a positive appraisal of your partner's characteristics is greatly influenced by his or her attractiveness. There is much evidence suggesting that attractiveness significantly influences ratings of intelligence, sociality, and morality. A common phenomenon in romantic relationships is the "attractiveness halo," in which a person who is perceived as beautiful is assumed to have other good qualities as well.

In contrast to romantic love, where both evaluative patterns are essential, in sexual desire attraction is far more dominant. Sexual desire is a simpler attitude, based largely on spontaneous and non-deliberative evaluations, whereas romantic love often requires both spontaneous and deliberative evaluations. Sexual desire is largely based upon perception (and imagination), whereas love encompasses in a more significant manner capacities such as thinking and memory, which are important for appraising personal characteristics. Sexual desire is typically focused on limited aspects of external appearance; romantic love is more comprehensive in this sense.

The evaluative pattern of attractiveness is related to the emotional characteristic of change (as Mae West said, "Between two evils, I always pick the one I never tried before"), while the pattern of praiseworthiness is closer to familiarity ("To know you is to love you"). It is often the case that in long-term relationships, praiseworthiness may increase but attractiveness typically decreases. It is also the case that with age, people typically accord less weight to the issue of attraction.

Some differences between men and women may also be present in this respect. It has been said, for example, that men love the women they are attracted to, whereas women are attracted to the men they love. Indeed, physical attractiveness is more important in determining male love for females than female love for males. This claim is supported by cross-cultural studies indicating that, among the 37 cultures studied, there was no culture in which women cared more about the looks of their partners than men did. Another support for this claim has been found in a study on the focus of men and women's initial gaze upon first meeting. Women tend to look at men's eyes, whereas men initially look at women's bodies. While the body is of central importance for sexual attraction, the eyes are perceived as the best indicators of one's character (see The Subtlety of Emotions).

People will usually not admit or even be aware of the great weight they assign to the pattern of attractiveness. They tend to claim that they assign greater weight to the pattern of praiseworthiness. A popular old song states that "it does not matter how you cut your hair; what counts is what's inside." This song is not entirely accurate. The fact is that appearance does matter; and even if what's inside is the most important thing, the way you cut your hair determines how people evaluate what is inside your head.

Although romantic love is required to take account of both attractiveness and praiseworthiness, it is up to the lover to give the appropriate weight to each of them and to characteristics within each pattern (see In the Name of Love). Here the subjective nature of love is most evident. Hence, we may love a person who is "objectively" not the most handsome or the wisest person in the world, but nevertheless has other characteristics which are highly regarded by the lover. While love is essentially a subjective experience, it cannot completely ignore objective features of reality. Positive illusions are useful only to a certain extent. Accordingly, love maybe around the corner for everyone, but not every corner is the proper one.