“Love is in the air, everywhere I look around. Love is in the air, every sight and every sound.” —John Paul Young.
"Weirdly, I want the unpleasant situation between my husband and me to change. But then again, I would not have an excuse for a hot lover. Just being honest...." —A married woman
The love paradox in current society arises from a combination of the following two seemingly opposing claims: (a) a greater percentage of intimate relationships are based on love; (b) a greater percentage of intimate relationships involve romantic compromises. Since romantic compromises are considered to run counter to love, how can these two claims co-exist?
Love is in the air
In order to explain this apparent paradox, I begin by referring to the larger role of love in contemporary society. Romantic love is everywhere these days; wherever you look, whenever you listen, and whatever you read, the subject of love is likely to appear.
Love occupies a central place in people’s expectations and wishes, but these often remain unfulfilled. Love songs, novels, and movies have emphasized the great hopes and profound happiness associated with love, as well as the great disappointments and profound pain that love generates. Our hearts are enlarged by love, but by the same token, they can also be broken.
Modern society has witnessed an increasing discrepancy between the desire for an enduring romantic relationship and the probability of its fulfillment. Breakups, rather than marriage, are the norm in dating relationships. In addition to the fact that in many societies, about 50 percent of all marriages end in divorce, the majority of the remaining 50 percent have at some point seriously considered divorce.
A major reason for this crisis in marriages is the increased role of love in our life. In contemporary society, love is a highly significant issue; it might be called a time of its renaissance. It is no longer possible to dismiss it as a silly fantasy, and its presence is a major criterion in the decision to stay or leave a given relationship. It is perceived as both realistic and feasible—not merely by those who are in a loving relationship, but also by those who are not and who yearn for it. Nowadays, fewer people than ever before are willing to live without love.
Romantic compromises are in the air
In romantic compromises, we give up a romantic value, such as romantic freedom and intense, passionate love, in exchange for a nonromantic value, like the wish to live comfortably without financial concerns. Nevertheless, in our hearts, we keep yearning for the road not taken—the one with greater romantic freedom and a partner whom we perceive as more romantically attractive.
We may discern two major types of romantic compromises: (a) compromises on romantic freedom, which takes place when entering marriage (or other committed relationships), and (b) compromises on the choice of partner. In addition, we may discern two major perspectives of romantic compromises: (a) yearning for a better possible alternative, and (b) accepting negative aspects of the partner and the relationship.
Yearning for the possible is the dominant perspective prevailing in the first type of compromise, as giving up romantic freedom essentially means giving up alluring alternatives. Such yearning is especially intense when the negative aspects of our current relationship are significant. In compromises concerning choosing a partner, the yearning for the possible is still dominant, but the issue of the negative features of the partner gains more weight.
If the negativity of the relationship is significant, e.g., it involves domestic violence, the perspective concerning negativity becomes most dominant, and the decision to end the compromise should be taken immediately. However, if the negativity is not severe, then yearning for the possible will typically be the dominant perspective. Often the two perspectives are combined, and the feeling of romantic compromise is an outcome of both perspectives.
Consider the following candid description by a married woman:
"I didn't feel that I was compromising too much when I married my husband. Initially, the positives outweighed the negatives by quite a lot. Over time, the negatives started to increase, but it was years of this that caused my feelings of love to start to weaken. I want to improve the negatives, but I also begin to realize the value of the alternatives. I go back and forth between these two options!"
Yearning for the possible is more dominant in romantic compromises than in most other compromises. Romantic compromises are typically not characterized in absolute terms of "good" and "bad," but in relative terms of "better" and "worse." The focus of concern in compromise is typically not upon the partner's actual bad situation, but upon a possibly better alternative that the agent decides not to actively pursue because of its possible cost. Giving up the better alternative is not related to its intrinsic value, but to external circumstances that could make this alternative painful.
A person can get used to the fact that her partner is not as honest as she is; one can still love an imperfect person and even a villain. Since it is impossible to change the partner’s personality significantly, there is no choice but to accept the partner as she is and try to love her. Something that is beyond our control typically generates less emotional intensity, as there is no action that we can take that could alter the situation.
Greater romantic freedom
The new circumstances in our current society have made the issue of romantic compromises and, in particular, the perspective of yearning for the possible more central and more complex. The main reason is that greater choice among many feasible alternatives makes it more difficult to be satisfied with your own romantic lot. Since the realm of infinite romantic possibilities so overwhelms us with tempting alternatives, we are unable to reasonably consider the present situation as romantically satisfactory. The perspective of yearning for the possible becomes more and more central than the perspective concerning the quality of the person you are with.
Having the freedom to choose between many alternatives has its own cost; excessive freedom can increase people's uncertainty, insecurity, dissatisfaction, and depression. Therefore, the availability of a greater choice can be a mixed blessing. Indeed, sometimes adding options makes the task of choosing less attractive and more cumbersome; consequently, there are people who (occasionally) prefer others to make choices for them.
For example, many people in loveless marriages would be happy if their spouse decided to initiate a separation, rather than them having to raise the issue. As Barry Schwartz shows, too much freedom from constraints is a bad thing, as unconstrained freedom leads to paralysis and becomes a kind of self-defeating tyranny. He argues that due to the multiplicity of choices available at all times and on all fronts, people no longer know how to be satisfied with “just good enough.” They always seek perfection. Such freedom also undermines the notion of deep commitment and social belonging to groups and institutions, bonds that are vital to our mental health. Freedom constrained by ideals and boundaries may, in fact, be more satisfying and less dangerous than unconstrained freedom.
As there are now many available valuable alternatives around the corner, we are constantly called upon to make compromises, particularly in circumstances where opportunities are almost limitless, and success stories abound of people who refused to compromise and were able to improve their situation considerably. The prevalence of such stories makes it harder for other people to accept compromise, and they may end up remaining alone. In light of the many alluring possibilities, we may say that today, people experience more romantic compromises and romantic regrets.
The greater number of alternatives helps many people to find their true love and consequently increases the percentage of couples in committed relationships who are in love. However, the greater number of alternatives frustrates many others who stay in their existing relationship since the cost of switching is too high and has no "Satisfaction guaranteed" certificate; these people are more likely to experience romantic compromises. The increase of alternatives forces people to feel they are compromising themselves when they do not pursue these alternatives.
The above considerations indicate the complexity of lovers' situations in contemporary society. In most cases, the solution will not be a simple, one-direction advance toward happiness. More often, the solution will be to gradually revise their situation, sometimes moving back and forth between available alternatives. In most cases, it is difficult to decide whether to give preference to life or to love. Love is important, but love is not all you need in life.