Three Paradoxical Ways for Coping With Romantic Abundance
Love Is in the Air, But the Air is Too Dense
Posted Aug 03, 2015
“Love is in the air, Everywhere I look around, Love is in the air,
Every sight and every sound.” John Paul Young
Romantic love is often characterized as involving a great deal of sensitivity, excitement, and closeness. However, our current cyber society often provides an overabundance of these features. Accordingly, a few opposite (seemingly paradoxical) principles are proposed: (a) Indifference is the new romantic sensitivity; (b) Calmness is the new romantic excitement; and (c) Distance is the new romantic closeness.
The problem: Too much of a good thing
“Too much of a good thing can be wonderful.” Mae West
Contemporary cyber society offers many enticing romantic experiences that have changed the nature of traditional romantic relationships. The difficulty in this society is not that of finding love, as love is always in the air: everywhere you look around, every sight and every sound indicates that love is all around. The main difficulty is that the air is too dense to enable the development of long-term profound love. As another popular song points out, “In a restless world like this is, love is ended before it's begun.”
In order to cope with this problem, I examine three major features of romantic love: great sensitivity, intense excitement, and significant closeness. I do not underestimate the value of these features in romantic love, but I believe that the novel nature of romantic circumstances in our cyberspace society, and in particular the abundance of romantic options, requires certain revisions in these aspects. The main problem in our era is not lack of sensitivity, excitement, and closeness; on the contrary, we have a plethora of these good things. What we need is moderating their quantity and increasing their quality and the way we structure them. I argue that whereas there is no such thing as too much profound love, there are circumstances in which there is a superfluity of sensitivity, excitement and closeness.
Indifference is the new romantic sensitivity
“Mind your own biscuits and life will be gravy.” Kacey Musgraves
Sensitivity is often considered to be one of the most important pillars of a good romantic relationship. While this is indeed the case, too much romantic sensitivity can overburden a relationship (see here). In this regard, a limited amount of indifference can be a valuable kind of romantic sensitivity. This limited indifference is of greater value when coping with the abundance of enticing romantic options. Too much romantic sensitivity can be harmful in two major ways: (a) an excess of sensitivity about other romantic options will prevent you from being satisfied with your own romantic lot, and (b) an excess of sensitivity toward your own partner may generate in the partner a sense of captivity and lack of trust on your behalf.
Great sensitivity to available romantic options can lead you into a constant search for a better romantic option. Such a search, which is often futile, makes you dissatisfied with your own romantic lot and accordingly impedes the development of long-term profound love. In these circumstances, the chains of unpursued past romantic possibilities are particularly heavy and are often harder to bear than the chains of the present. Human curiosity tempts us to enter every open door and not to miss any enticing option. Trying to enjoy all options runs the risk of losing the relationship you are presently in. Closing some open doors, which requires some kind of indifference toward these doors, is difficult but necessary in a world of limited resources and conflicting values. Love requires great investment; being sensitive to all romantic options can spread the required investment too thin.
The abundance of romantic options necessitates that people develop some level of limited indifference to their partner’s behavior. As John Stevenson said, "It takes a loose rein to keep a marriage tight." The main issue here is that of mutual trust. If you trust your beloved, why should you ruminate about some of her seemingly insignificant flaws or inappropriate deeds? Trust implies a limited amount of deep indifference—being certain that the other’s deeds are done out of love and good intentions. Without doubt, trust has to be gained, but it ought not to be constantly inspected and evaluated. We should not be blind, or at least not completely blind, to minor flaws, but we should also be less sensitive to them by according them minor weight. We cannot conduct our lives properly if we treat everything as equally important; we must have some order of priority. We must learn to be insensitive to some issues and more sensitive to others. Otherwise, our mental system will become occupied with unimportant issues and will be overwhelmed. Being in love involves being sensitive to the beloved. However, too much sensitivity can ruin love; indiscriminate sensitivity, like indiscriminate freedom, disrupts our order of priorities, which is structured according to our personality and values.
Romantic sensitivity functions best when it is within limits. Like emotions in general, discrimination should be exercised in romantic sensitivity. Just as I cannot love everyone, I cannot be sensitive to the same degree and manner to all my beloved’s characteristics and behavior. Romantic sensitivity should focus upon the most meaningful and relevant aspects involved in romantic thriving. The lack of such focus and an order of priority can jeopardize the value of the given sensitivity and even make it toxic. If you deal with a penny like you would with a fortune, sensitivity becomes indiscriminate and will quickly overload the agent with irrelevant and even destructive noise. When it comes to romantic sensitivity, it is often the case that up to a certain point "the more the merrier," but after that it is "too much of a good thing." Accordingly, we should learn to be honestly insensitive to some issues and particularly sensitive to others.
Calmness is the new romantic excitement
“The cyclone derives its powers from a calm center. So does a person.” Norman Vincent Peale
Calmness is an overall mood in which agitation is absent. When “calmness” is used in reference to the weather, it indicates a situation that lacks storms, high winds, or rough waves. Whereas calmness is free of negative elements such as agitation, turmoil, nervousness, disturbance or distress, it does not necessarily mean being inactive or lacking positive activities or excitement (see here). As Julia Roberts said, “The kind of energy I attract is very calm.” Calmness indeed implies the absence of violent or confrontational activity, but not the absence of profound, positive activities that are constitutive of the agent’s flourishing and love. Calmness can be found in action and not merely in inaction. The experience of profound love consists of a significant proportion of meaningful intrinsic activities promoting the flourishing of each lover as well as their togetherness. The satisfaction arising from performing these activities is not transient—it involves the optimal development and functioning of the lovers through shared and joint activities.
As long as we consider romantic love to consist of merely, or even mainly, the intensity dimension (mostly sexual desire), such love cannot be both dynamic and calm. However, profound love can endure for a long time and still be dynamic and exciting since profound intrinsic activities, which are relatively dynamic and exciting, are constitutive of such love. The presence of calm-energy romantic experiences indicates that a stable romantic relationship is not inevitably associated with dullness and lack of excitement. In fact, the only way in which romantic love can endure for a long time is for it to preserve its profound intrinsic activities that involve profound calmness and further enhance the flourishing of each lover.
Distance is the new romantic closeness
“Sometimes it's easier to love people when there is a healthy distance between us.” Marianne Williamson
Geographical proximity and frequent face-to-face interactions have long been considered crucial for promoting romantic relationships. However, an increasing body of research indicates otherwise: Living-Apart-Together relationships often have equal or greater value in maintaining and promoting romantic relationships. Can we say then that (geographical) distance is the new (romantic) closeness? Is “living apart together” better than (physically) living together but (romantically) apart? Distant relationships involving profound love are a growing phenomenon that more and more people find beneficial. It seems then that (geographical) distance might indeed be the new (romantic) closeness, though it does not eliminate the value of other types of romantic closeness (see here).
Closeness is a crucial element determining emotional intensity. Because emotions are highly personal, they are usually elicited by those who are close to us. When a person is detached from us, we are unlikely to have a significant emotional attitude toward her. Distance typically decreases emotional intensity, as it is contrary to the involved and intimate perspective typical of emotions. Love includes the wish to be as close as possible to the person we love. Despite these considerations, there are now increasing numbers of romantic couples who live at a geographical distance from each other. Commuter marriage is one such example. A commuter marriage is a relationship between people who are married and intend to remain so, but nevertheless live apart, usually because of the locations of their jobs, educational demands, or dual-career pursuits. Technologies such as phone calls, videos, instant messaging, texting, Skype, and e-mails enable direct and immediate communication that can sustain a continuous meaningful romantic relationship despite the geographical distance.
Compared to close-proximity relationships, distant relationships are characterized by higher levels of relationship quality on several indices, including relationship adjustment, love for the partner, fun with the partner, conversational quality, and improved communication. The commitment level among distant couples is similar to that of geographically close couples. Accordingly, distant relationships enjoy a higher rate of survival. The communication between these couples is indeed more intimate and positive, and less contentious than in geographically close dating. These couples enjoy greater personal space, which enhances their personal flourishing and the flourishing of their togetherness (Jiang & Hancock, 2013; Kelmer et al., 2013).
Commitment and trust are important in all romantic relationships, but in long-distance relationships they have greater significance as there are more opportunities for events to occur that could threaten the commitment. Indeed, long-distance romantic couples (including both dating and married couples) generally enjoy equal or even higher levels of stability, satisfaction, commitment and trust than do comparable geographically closer couples. In distant relationships, commitment, rather than co-residence, is the more essential aspect (Stafford, 2005).
In contrast to the romantic ideal of unity, spending too much time with the beloved can decrease love. It seems that some kind of distance, providing a greater personal space, is important for a personal relationship. Distance may focus the partners’ attention on the profound aspects of their relationships and help them to disregard the superficial ones. Significant and temporally extended physical distance can harm relationship, but a more limited distance may be beneficial. As the saying goes, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” Distance may have its own costs, but an appropriate distance can minimize the impact of those costs. While many married couples are busy thinking about how to reduce the distance, others would like to enlarge it in order to provide more room for personal space while keeping the common framework intact. Determining the appropriate distance is not an easy task, but it is crucial in intimate relationships. Alas, there is no perfect formula for love.
“I love men. They are intelligent and sensitive, but there's also that hard-edged arrogant side, which is just so attractive.” Rachel Hunter
I have suggested three novel principles that are suitable for coping with the current romantic excess of romantic features such as sensitivity, excitement and closeness: (a) Indifference is the new romantic sensitivity; (b) Calmness is the new romantic excitement; and (c) Distance is the new romantic closeness. These principles aim at moderating what currently dominates in our cyberspace society: too much superficial romantic sensitivity, excitement and closeness. In order to maintain and enhance long-term profound love, lovers need to be less sensitive to superficial experiences, calmer and more trusting about their own relationship, and establish a greater personal space. These principles are not strict rules that should be obeyed in all romantic relationships. There are many relationships that are in dire need of greater sensitivity, excitement and closeness. However, there also exist a growing number of relationships where the principles outlined above should be the guiding ideals. It is not a sin to be romantically less sensitive, less excited, and less physically close—sometimes, it is a great virtue.
Jiang, L. C. & Hancock, J. T. (2013). Absence makes the communication grow fonder: Geographic separation, interpersonal media, and intimacy in dating relationships. Journal of Communication, 63, 556–577.
Kelmer, G., Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (2013). Relationship quality, commitment, and stability in long-distance relationships. Family Process, 52, 257-270.
Stafford, L. (2005). Maintaining long-distance and cross-residential relationships. Erlbaum.