What Happens When Your Lover Is Real?

Why are half-naked women so exciting?

Posted Oct 04, 2008

"I love Mickey Mouse more than any woman I have ever known." Walt Disney.

Emotional intensity depends on the way in which we evaluate the significance of events. Although emotions arise from an immediate eliciting event, their intensity depends on broader sets of circumstances that circumscribe our sensitivity to such an event. The various intensity variables may be divided into two major groups, one referring to the perceived impact of the event eliciting the emotional state and the other to background circumstances of the agents involved in the emotional state. The major variables constituting the first group are the strength, reality, and relevance of the event; the major variables constituting the second group are accountability, readiness, and deservingness (see The Subtlety of Emotions).

Here I discuss the variable of reality and argue that the more we believe the situation to be real, the more intense the emotion. The importance of the degree of reality in inducing powerful emotions is illustrated by the fact that a very strong event, which may be quite relevant to our well-being, may not provoke emotional excitement if we succeed in considering it as fantasy. Thus, despite the horrifying impact of a potential nuclear holocaust, many people do not allow this to upset them, since they do not consider the event to be a real possibility. On the other hand, events in a fictional movie may generate intense emotions as we choose to believe in the possible reality of the events in the movie.

In analyzing the notion of "emotional reality" two major senses should be discerned: actual existence and vividness. Referring to the first sense, we may say that emotions aroused by imaginary objects are less intense than those elicited by actually existing objects. When we know that the danger actually exists, we are more frightened than when we suspect that the danger is illusory. The second sense of emotional reality, that is, the object's vividness, relates to the fact that we receive information from various sources and with varying degrees of vividness. Pictures are most vivid due to the vast amount of information supplied by vision; hence, their importance in our everyday life. A film-clip of one wounded child has usually more emotional impact than reports about thousands killed. A picture is worth a thousand words. This vividness may account for the weakness of reason when opposed to the strength of emotions. Intellectual deliberations typically refer to something remote while emotions refer to what is present in the here and now.

In light of the crucial role imagination plays in emotions, the importance of the degree of reality in the existential sense may be questioned. Thus, although works of art are understood to describe imaginary characters, they easily induce intense emotions. Art may in fact quite often induce more intense emotions than those we have toward real people. Many people are sadder when their favorite star, or even a cartoon character, gets hurt in a movie than when they read about a few hundred people killed in a remote place in the world.

The above difficulty can be overcome when taking account of the vividness sense of reality. Works of art are obviously real in this sense. They provide us with more vivid information than that reported about actual existing events. The detailed and concrete description we have of the life of a fictional character in a movie makes this character more vivid and closer to us than an actual existing person reported in a newspaper. In perceiving artistic objects, we "put in brackets" their imaginary existence.

One may further argue that an imaginative object is sometimes more exciting than an actual existing one even when there is no difference in their vividness. Consider, for example, the case in which while having sex many people fantasize about a different person than their current partner and the case in which a half-naked woman may be more exciting than a fully-dressed or a stark-naked woman. Explaining these cases should refer to the fact that both of them actually involve two different, rather than identical, objects where the imaginary one is more exciting. The fantasized person and the half-naked woman are imagined to have other properties-which are more attractive-than those of the real ones.

Cyberspace is less real in the existential sense, but it can facilitate vivid fantasies. A 52-year-old married man writes: "Each time I had cybersex, I was really acting out some of my more common fantasies. With the help of some unknown and unseen people on the Internet, these experiences were very rewarding." Indeed, some people testify that their online lovers are more real to them than their offline spouses are. Thus, a woman may feel that even when her husband is at home, he is less real to her than her unseen online friend is. In addition, the freedom to behave more openly can make an individual feel more of a real person while in cyberspace (see Love Online).

Your partner then is not a real lover when he merely physically exists around you. He may become more real when his loving attitudes are more vivid-even if those are merely expressed in a somewhat virtual environment. Having a physically existing partner whose loving attitudes are profoundly vivid involves the highest degree of reality. Achieving this most rewarding experience is not easy for many people; accordingly, too many of them settle for the vivid lover or worse the mere existential one (see In the Name of Love). In any case, some (partly) virtual loving attitudes are more real than those expressed by physically existing partners.