Is Following Your Heart Worse Than Not Following It?

Comparing extramarital affairs with romantic compromises

Posted Jul 17, 2012

“When we are in love, we no longer love anyone else.” Marcel Proust

“What is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after.” Ernest Hemingway

“Emotions have taught mankind to reason.” Marquis de Vauvenargues

Romantic compromises and extramarital affairs are typically criticized on the grounds that they deviate from prevailing values and indicate difficulties in the marriage. Romantic compromises are censured for disobeying one’s heart and for allowing nonromantic considerations to outweigh those of romance. Extramarital affairs receive the opposite criticism; here the charge is that the agent follows his heart and ignores nonromantic considerations. Traditionally, following one’s heart incurs more severe criticism. Is it justified?

Promoting and preventing behavior

The promotion (nurturing) mode of behavior focuses on nurturing ongoing loving behavior, which develops one's potential. The preventing (controlling) mode focuses on obviating one's potential negative behavior, such as adultery. Fostering learning and encouraging caring are examples of a promoting mode of loving behavior. Controlling the places to which someone can go and prohibiting extramarital sex are examples of the preventing mode.

Promoting behavior is a matter of degree, and therefore is more difficult to characterize; there are various degrees and forms of romantic behavior and there is no activity that embodies the essence of such behavior. Preventing behavior typically refers to a specific activity, such as the prohibition against sex with a minor, and is easier to define and detect, as it typically has clear boundaries—in this case, the age of the partner.

Romantic relationships involve both ideals and boundaries, and so they require both types of behavior. Whereas the promoting mode seems closer to the essence of genuine love, an inappropriate emphasis has traditionally been given to the preventing mode. The exercise of romantic bonds involves a fine balance between promoting and preventing.

Romantic compromises and extramarital affairs

In romantic compromises people violate the ideal of romantic love; in extramarital affairs they violate the rule against nonexclusive sexual relationships. The two types of behavior are often connected in the sense that when there are romantic compromises, the likelihood of extramarital affairs is greater.

Both romantic compromises and extramarital affairs express a gap between what people desire and what they have. Extramarital affairs attempt to reduce the gap by enabling people to follow their heart with someone else. Romantic compromises try to reduce the gap by sacrificing one’s romantic impulse. In both cases, a certain gap still remains. In extramarital affairs the heart gets what it desires, but it does so in a limited manner—limited in the time and the types of behavior available to the partners. In romantic compromises a gap also remains since despite the behavioral and social approval of the compromise, the agent's heart is not satisfied and does not really accept it.

In Aristotle’s view, such a gap is absent in virtuous people whose desires are in harmony with their values. The actor Dustin Hoffman may be considered to be such a virtuous person, since he claims that after meeting his wife, he stopped being sexually interested in other women. There is no gap between the behavior and heart of such a true lover, since his emotions and values are not in conflict. Most other people are less fortunate, and overcoming such a conflict is a major step toward abolishing the feeling of being romantically compromised and the desire to have an affair.

Moral and psychological considerations

In romantic compromises the greatest harm is to oneself, while the greater benefit is to the people around the agent. In extramarital affairs, the opposite is the case: the greatest benefit is to the agent and the greatest harm is to the people around the agent.

These generalizations should be qualified. There is also harm to the partner and family members of the compromising person, as if this person feels unhappy in her current situation she will not function well with her partner and family. On the other hand, although in extramarital affairs the partner may be considered as the one who suffers the most, many people say that without the affair they would not be able to stay with their partner and that the affair makes them kinder and more considerate toward their partner.

Yael, an attractive married woman in her mid-fifties, says that she loves her husband and does not intend to leave him and live with her lover. However, her husband is not easy to live with—he is grumpy and tries to control her. Nevertheless, she argues: “My wonderful time with my lover helps me cope with the compromise I have made at home. It gives me back my self-confidence. Without my lover, I would divorce my husband immediately.”

As morality mainly deals with our behavior to others, romantic compromises are considered more valuable from a moral point of view. When viewed from the psychological perspective, the assessment is different. Following your heart puts one in a more honest and positive position, at least toward oneself, which provides an elated psychological mood]. Not following your heart may depress you and leave you with enduring and unpleasant dissonances, but it will not leave you with moral dissonance.

In comparing the violations of norms that occur in romantic compromises and extramarital affairs, we should take into account their duration: a sexual affair is usually an isolated or brief experience, while a romantic compromise is a long ongoing state. In this sense, the harm and benefits derived from sexual affairs are more limited—so the criticism as well the commendation they receive should also be more limited. The comparison becomes more complex when the affair is maintained over a long period, in which case it typically involves more profound emotional aspects as well.

Eleanor, an attractive and wise married woman in her forties, says: “An extramarital sexual affair is of less relevance to my marriage—it has little emotional involvement and does not threaten my marriage. What I worry about more is an affair (whether my husband's or mine) of the heart, where more profound emotional involvement is present; such an affair is a real threat to our marriage.” A sexual affair, which is typically more limited in its duration and in the needs that it satisfies, receives stronger moral criticism than a profound emotional affair, even though it is the emotional affair that is more psychological threatening. Moral criticism has more to do with violating boundaries than with concern for psychological well-being that ignores romantic ideals.

Romantic compromises involve various degrees of concessions. Each degree has a different impact on one’s life and on the extent of the psychological criticism against them: the great the compromise, the greater the criticism. Generally, romantic compromises seem more profound in their scope and duration than extramarital affairs.

What is better?

The criticism against following your heart expresses the traditional tendency to prefer the intellect over emotions. I believe that this tradition is very often mistaken. The optimal human behavior combines emotional and intellectual considerations and is termed “emotional intelligence.” There is no clear winner in the war between the head and the heart, but it is evident that by neglecting the heart, we run the risk of losing our personal identity and our zest for life. I would bet that when God measures a person, He usually puts His tape measure around the person’s heart rather than around the person’s head. Humans would be well advised to follow God’s way in this.

There is no doubt that the situation of virtuous people, like Dustin Hoffman, is better than that of people who have affairs or those who compromise their romantic heart. But what about the ones who are not as virtuous as Hoffman, and who failed to find the love of their life? Should they freeze their heart, sacrificing their happiness for the good of the people around them? Or should they keep searching, taking unknown roads that might lead them nowhere?

There is no clear answer to this, as much depends on the size of the gap one experiences between desires, ideals, and reality and on one’s specific circumstances. However, romantic compromises are not necessarily the only road to take.

Sarah, a nice-looking divorcee in her late-forties, summaries her view of love: “Life is complex and so are the roads toward romantic love. I do not criticize any road. I was married, had affairs with married men, and gave up love as I did not want to make compromises over the country in which I would live, nor did I want to endure living with my lover's obnoxious daughters. Although I would be happy to live with the love of my life, I will not starve myself until I meet him."

Human beings are limited creatures. A profound understanding of such limitations implies being satisfied with partial solutions while hoping for better circumstances—either with the one you are with or with another person. Sometimes satisfying your loving heart means making a change within yourself; sometimes, more radical changes are needed. You lose nothing by not having everything—no one can have everything—but you lose a great deal by neglecting your loving heart.

The above considerations can be encapsulated in the following statement that a lover might express: "Darling, I know that I am a compromise for you, but having you is so meaningful for me that I would not object to you having an affair—provided that I know nothing about it.”