Is Curiosity Good for Your Relationship?
... and what happens when it tempts you to explore other options?
Posted Jan 27, 2015
“I wanna know what love is, I want you to show me/
I wanna feel what love is, I know you can show me.” — Foreigner
Curiosity is usually regarded as a virtue, since it widens our horizons and develops our capacities. However, our natural romantic curiosity is contrary to the natural need to deepen a romantic connection.
Distinguishing between two types of romantic curiosity may solve this enigma.
Romantic curiosity: Knowledge is not above all
“Curiosity is one of the great secrets of happiness.” — Bryant H. McGill
Curiosity is defined as a strong desire to learn or know more about something. The desire to learn and know more is considered a very positive trait—such learning makes us wiser and improves our ability to cope with reality. There are, however, situations in which curiosity is not a virtue.
There is a long tradition which considers curiosity and knowledge to be obstacles to happiness. Adam and Eve were expelled from paradise because of their curiosity to know more about the world. And the myth of Pandora implies that all troubles were released in the world because a woman was curious to know what was inside the box given to her by the gods. Also relevant to this tradition is the story of the man who has a long beard: He is asked whether he puts it above or beneath the blanket at night, and from that moment on, he is unable to fall asleep.
Lack of curiosity, or the lack of a desire to know more, is often associated with ignorance, which is the lack of knowledge. But the two are different. Ignorance expresses the state of lack of knowledge, while lack of curiosity expresses a lack of desire to overcome it.
In the romantic realm, people typically wish to know as much as possible about their beloved since this gives them a more comprehensive and profound picture of the partner, further enhancing their intimacy. However, our inability to acquire full knowledge, together with the value of positive illusions, indicates that knowledge is not paramount.
Information about a partner's past lovers is of some importance in order to understand the person's personality, but it may cause an unpleasant interaction within the couple. For many, a detailed description of a partner's previous sexual interactions can cast a disagreeable cloud over their own sexual interactions with that person. Ignorance may also be preferable in cases of unfaithfulness. Some people feel that "if I don't know about it, it does not exist for me." Others certainly prefer to know about a partner’s affairs, but may still not want to know all the specifics of positions, frequency, and locations.
Open romantic doors
“Curiosity is the lust of the mind.” — Thomas Hobbes
A major example of romantic curiosity is the human wish not to leave any possible romantic door unexplored. Our imagination plays a crucial role in our life (and love), and we have an innate tendency to want to see and experience what is beyond our present circumstances. However, opening every romantic door that beckons can have costly ramifications.
In his book, Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely argues that people have an irrational tendency to keep their options open for too long, and so end up chasing impractical options. Given the greater freedom in modern society, he writes, people “are beset not by a lack of opportunity, but by a dizzying abundance of it.” We want to taste and experience every aspect of life, regardless of its price. In this sense, Ariely claims, “We are spreading ourselves too thin.”
Another risk of such behavior, he notes, is that some options disappear if we do not invest enough resources to keep them alive. Their disappearance may occur “too slowly for us to see them vanishing.” Ariely argues that we need to close some of our options; otherwise, the better ones may not survive. There is a price for keeping so many options alive and sometimes it is higher than the possible gain that we could derive.
Our era is the best and worst of times for lovers: There are many open romantic doors; countless available, even willing potential lovers are all around. But it is also difficult to maintain a loving, committed relationship when alternative options are so much easier to explore. The need to make romantic compromises is greater when there are so many open doors; entering each one out of curiosity may end up blocking the door to your own home. Nevertheless, making romantic compromises by increasing your commitment to a compromised relationship has become ever more difficult, as it is so easy and tempting to enter all those other open doors.
Leaving all romantic options open involves disregarding reality, since reality has its own limitations and our resources are limited. Love requires such a great investment that keeping all our romantic options alive can spread our required investment too thin. On the other hand, closing romantic doors is incompatible with the significant role that curiosity, as well as change and improvement, play in human life.
The object of romantic curiosity
“While I find that I can keep my nose out of other people's business, I do have a curiosity as to their non-business activities.” — Robert Brault
Romantic curiosity can be either be fueled by the desire for superficial external change, such as an additional sexual partner, or by a profound intrinsic development, such as the growth and interest of a single beloved.
The first type of curiosity is part of intense love; the second, of profound love. Romantic intensity is like a snapshot of a given moment, but in romantic profundity the temporal dimension of love has greater significance. Romantic intensity expresses the momentary measure of passionate, often sexual, desire. Romantic profundity embodies frequent acute occurrences of intense love over long periods of time, along with romantic experiences that meaningfully resonate in all dimensions, helping the individuals flourish and thrive in all dimensions of love.
The external change underlying intense love is a one-time, simple event expressed in an acute emotion, or at most in an emotional episode; such a change has a brief impact, since the agent quickly adapts to the change. The growth underlying profound love is continuous, the result of the agent’s ongoing complex process of development, and is expressed in a long-term enduring emotion. Since the agent is continuously growing, there is no issue of adapting to the change and eliminating its impact. Whereas the impact of external change depends to a large extent on specific good timing, intrinsic development is constituted by time. In the case of external change, the agent remains the same, and some change is needed to alleviate boredom; in the case of intrinsic development, the agent is continuously developing while interacting with somewhat similar events. Romantic curiosity of the first type is superficial and can indeed harm the development of profound love; the second type of romantic curiosity is part and parcel of profound romantic love.
The issue becomes more complex when we take into account that profound love also involves romantic intensity, and hence even the profound lover is not completely immune to curiosity of the more superficial type. There are rare cases in which romantic curiosity is completely absent, like that of Dustin Hoffman, who claimed that after meeting his wife, he felt no passion toward other women. As the song puts it, “Millions of people go by, but they all disappear from view, and I only have eyes for you.” In cases of less profound love, romantic curiosity may still exist but not be translated into actual deeds.
Active and passive romantic curiosity
“Love is three quarters curiosity.” — Giacomo Casanova
In addition to distinguishing two types of romantic curiosity in light of their object—superficial external change, and profound intrinsic development—we may also distinguish two major types of mechanisms underlying romantic curiosity. In this regard I distinguish between active curiosity, in which people actively search for other romantic options, and passive curiosity, in which people leave the door open to new options if they come along, without actively searching for them. To actively search for someone with "better" characteristics is clearly incompatible with profound love. A constant active search for the "perfect" partner is a major threat to the achievement of long-term profound love.
Since life is dynamic, and people regularly change their attitudes and wishes, achieving profound love is not a one‑time accomplishment but an ongoing process. It seems also that actively searching for the more superficial object—that is, an additional sexual partner—is also incompatible with profound love. Sometimes, however, love, and not merely sex, comes without people actively searching for it, or even despite their mental opposition to it. Love can indeed occur this way, but it is less likely to occur when a person already enjoys profound love.
The active search underlying active romantic curiosity is an expression of dissatisfaction with the current situation. Thus, lonely people are more open to actively pursuing a new romantic option. However, it seems that many people leave their hearts open, in the manner of passive romantic curiosity, even if their relationships are fine—and this passive curiosity is an outcome of the natural desire to improve one's circumstances or to satisfy one's natural curiosity to experience something novel. Although curiosity can be exercised merely for its own intrinsic value (knowing more), romantic curiosity is typically associated with the practical attitude of experiencing love. Usually, people do not only want to theoretically understand what love and sex are about; they also want to experience them.
”The greatest virtue of man is perhaps curiosity.” — Anatole France
”What stars do in their off-hours is a never-ending source of diddling curiosity to the tabloid sensibility.” — James Wolcott
The chains of romantic curiosity can be particularly heavy. They may prevent people from being comfortable with their present lot, and they are often harder to bear than the difficulty of not experiencing everything. This is especially true concerning active curiosity. Trying to increase your romantic knowledge by exploring every open romantic door puts you at risk of losing the relationship you are presently in. It is the issue of quantity versus quality. Alexander Pope warns against the risk of distorted curiosity, arguing that one “who is too curious in observing the labor of bees, will often be stung for his curiosity.” Foreigner’s wish—“I want to know what love is”—reflects a valuable profound curiosity; however, being haunted by never-ending curiosity about other romantic options is indeed "diddling curiosity."
Closing some open doors limits our curiosity and often leads to the feeling of being romantically compromised; this is indeed difficult but necessary in a world of limited resources and conflicting values. Curiosity is a valuable capacity in the development of human beings, but like other capacities, should also be handled with care.
The fundamental human capacity for curiosity is a two-edged romantic sword: It is a gift that can bite. On the one hand, it enables us to be aware of various romantic possibilities and to develop ourselves accordingly. But on the other hand, romantic curiosity may prevent us from enjoying our own romantic lot. A major dilemma in romantic life is which of these possibilities to actively pursue and which to relinquish to compromise on what you have.
It is not easy to determine which romantic doors to leave open and which to close; each has its own cost and benefits. In the long term, you might regret closing doors; in the short term, you might risk losing what you have if you enter into each one.
In any case, unlike in other realms, in the romantic realm we cannot let our curiosity wander unleashed.