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Giving Your Heart and Selling Your Soul

Is love all you need?

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In his break-up song, "Don't Think Twice It's All Right," Bob Dylan offers us an insight into why a man left his lover: “I gave her my heart, but she wanted my soul." Without interpreting the meaning of the entire song, I would like to clarify the intriguing distinction between giving one’s heart and giving one’s soul. It seems that when love is not all you need, it is unthinkable to give your soul.


The term “soul” refers to something larger than the “heart.” While the "heart" is mainly focused on love (or more generally, emotions), the soul refers to an individual's whole personality and life in general. It is unclear exactly what we mean when we say that we give our heart or our soul: How can we give something that is a constituent part of us? Even if we take that phrase metaphorically, the nature of this giving is uncertain. In light of the three models of romantic relationships—caring, fusion, and dialogue—we will consider three different types of romantic giving:

Caring as One-sided Giving

"A good wife always forgives her husband when she’s wrong." — Milton Berle

The care model of romantic love, which is focused on the other agent, is the prevailing model of love. There is no doubt that caring is essential in romantic love (Frankfurt, 2004). It expresses the desire to be with the beloved, and focuses on enhancing the partner’s well-being—even at great personal cost. In some versions of this model, true love has nothing to do with the lover's own needs. Caring is central in loving relationships that involve significant inequality, such as parental love and God’s love. In these cases, love essentially consists of one-sided, unlimited giving. However, among equals, as in the ideal form of romantic love, this one-sided giving is problematic. In our still-sexist society, it is often the woman who cares and is ready to sacrifice her flourishing for the flourishing of her partner. In this case, love is giving one’s heart as well as one’s soul.

Fusion as Giving Up One’s Autonomy

"I give you all of me, and you give me all of you." — John Legend

The fusion model of the romantic connection postulates the ideal of two lovers who become one person, as if they were two faces of the same coin. The desire to be with the beloved is taken to the extreme and becomes a desire for complete fusion. Such a union is often understood to involve a joint identity. A classical version of this model is found in Plato’s Symposium. In the myth recounted by Aristophanes, all human beings are halves looking for their other missing half in order to become whole and one again. The giving here is total, including both the heart and the soul, but it is reciprocal. One obvious problem of this model of love is that it does not make any physical sense because the two lovers remain distinct individuals. And even if this view is meant to be merely a psychological fusion, it is still problematic; fusion and autonomy don’t go together, and autonomy is of great value in romantic relationships. A less extreme version of this model is exemplified by a lover who wants precise information about the partner's whereabouts every minute of the day. Again, the need for such complete control points to a coercive loss of the partner's autonomy.

Dialogue as Expansion By Mutual Giving

"No married man is truly in love until he understands every word his wife is not saying." — Unknown

The dialogue model considers shared activities and experiences to be at the center of romantic love (Krebs, 2015). The dialogical connection amplifies the flourishing of each lover, as well as the flourishing of their relationship. By loving somebody, you expand yourself through closely interacting with the other person. In shared activities, the participants are integrated into a (psychological) whole—something like a new we. The giving here is restricted and reciprocal.

In this model, there is also an expansion of the self. According to the self-expansion model (e.g., Aron & Aron, 1996), people treat the resources, perspectives, and identities of close others as their own, and in this sense they expand their self. Interacting with your partner helps you shape your identity and perspectives, enhancing both your flourishing and that of your partner. In this sense, self-expansion is not egoistic. This ideal of giving and receiving here assumes that humans have an intrinsic motivation to self-expand, and that they often achieve self-expansion through close relationships that allow the (psychological) inclusion of the other in the self. Accordingly, an essential aspect in expanding oneself is promoting a unique sense of belongingness by each lover seeing the other as an irreplaceable part of the relationship (Baumeister & Leary, 1995).

In short, caring involves one-sided, often unlimited, giving of both the heart and the soul; fusion includes mutual, unlimited giving, of both the heart and the soul; and dialogue implies expansion by mutual, restricted giving of the heart and only conditionally the soul.


Two modes of romantic giving that are relevant to our discussion are generosity and compromise; whereas the first mode is highly praised, some dispute the value of the second.


"That's what I consider true generosity. You give your all, and yet you always feel as if it costs you nothing." — Simone de Beauvoir

Generosity is the virtue of giving to another without expecting anything in return. It is characterized by a willingness to give to the other person freely and abundantly, and giving more than expected. In generosity you give a lot, without giving up your values; on the contrary, you reinforce your values. This kind of giving is commendable, and many religions and moral traditions praise generosity, and scientific studies show that generosity is beneficial to our physical and mental health. Generosity can decrease blood pressure, reduce stress, help you live longer, boost your mood, promote social connections, and improve the quality of your marriage (see, e.g., Whillans, et. al, 2016). In generosity you often give your heart, but there is no need to give your soul.


"We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give." — Winston Churchill

Unlike generosity, in which giving is basically one-sided, compromise involves giving and receiving. Making compromises is necessary and valuable when living with people, because everyone has their own unique needs and wants. However, there is also a type of compromise that is bad for us, which involves renouncing or trading essential aspects of ourselves. In contrast to generosity, in compromising oneself you want to get something for yourself, but by fulfilling this wish, you improperly relinquish some of your profound values.

When compromising oneself in love, you do not generously give your heart; instead, you sell your soul for lesser returns. Marrying for money instead of for love typically involves compromising oneself. Compromising on insignificant values is not compromising oneself; not all of our values are constitutive of our personality and life, and when these are not fulfilled or achieved, we are not compromising ourselves. Modern society offers many seductive options that generate the feeling of having made compromises. Settling for one good option might be a solution to feeling compromised, but doing so is hard because of the presence of many other available options that are perceived to be better (Ben-Ze’ev, 2011; Ben-Ze'ev & Goussinsky, 2008).

The difference between making compromises and compromising oneself is manifested in the following statement by Ryan, a divorcee who holds conservative views: “I would not be able to marry a man who was a leftist, even if I found him very attractive—although most of the men I have slept with are leftists." Marrying someone whose worldview is dramatically different from yours is a kind of compromise of oneself, as there will be many activities and experiences you will not able to share and enjoy. However, in light of the more limited nature of sex, Ryan can participate in this without damaging any of her profound values.


"All my heart is yours, sir: it belongs to you; and with you it would remain, were fate to exile the rest of me from your presence forever." — Charlotte Brontë

Now that we have distinguished between various models and modes of romantic giving, we can return to a more detailed discussion of the difference between giving your heart and selling your soul.

Giving Your Heart and Selling Your Soul

"Never dare to sell your soul for money, because no amount of wealth would buy you an air conditioner in hell." — Edmond Mbiaka

A view that identifies the heart with the soul, or love with life, considers the transition from giving the heart to giving the soul as naturally valid; this is the case in the fusion model. In Romantic Ideology, love is considered to be our life and the fate of our love is the fate of our life. This identification can lead to lovers disregarding the complexity of life, as long as they are in love, there is nothing else to consider. Lovers often say, "I can't live without you." In this ideology, love is taken seriously, while life—as much as it concerns aspects other than love—is taken lightly. When love disappears, it seems as if there is no reason for living anymore. This kind of fusion love is of little value, since lovers lose their autonomy and sometimes even their lives, as in the case of men who killed their wives "out of love" (Ben-Ze’ev & Goussinsky, 2008).

Giving your heart to someone, or declaring that “my heart belongs to you,” has a positive connotation in that it manifests profound love. In such love, your heart is filled with your beloved, leaving no space for anyone else. The actor Dustin Hoffman claimed that after meeting his wife, he felt no passion toward other women. Such devotion is considered to be highly moral.

Unlike the case of giving your heart, giving (or, as more commonly described, selling) your soul is associated with negative connotations. Thus, we speak about selling your soul to Satan (the devil), selling your soul for fame and fortune, for money and power, and so on. In doing so, you not only make certain inconvenient compromises, you also give up your most profound values for superficial gains. It is possible to only love one person. However, you cannot subordinate your whole life to one person. There is more to life than love, and love is not all you need.

Why Try to Change Me?

"You know I'll love you, till the moon is upside down. Don't you remember, I was always your clown, Why try to change me now" — Frank Sinatra

The wish to accept the soul of your romantic partner is related to another central issue in romantic relationships—the desire to change each other. Taking over the partner’s soul and autonomy, which is associated with the fusion model, implies controlling the partner and changing him or her to the way you want. The aspect of control is lacking in the dialogical model, but the wish to change the partner is still present. Each partner wishes that they, and their partner, will change a bit in order to become a better partner for the complex interactive dialogue they share. As long as such change does not involve compromising oneself, then it is valuable; many people make comments such as, “I am a better person when I'm with her.” However, when the desire for change touches upon fundamental aspects of the other’s soul, it could hurt the relationship.

Love is good, love is wonderful, love can be the heart of life, but love is not all you need in life. There are other valuable activities and experiences that enable us to flourish—and subordinating these to love is a mistake. Compromising on love because of life is the counter-mistake. Finding the right balance between life and love is one of the great challenges for those who wish to pursue the good life.


Aron, A., & Aron, E. N. (1996). Self and self expansion in relationships. In G. J. O. Fletcher and J. Fitness (eds.), Knowledge Structures in Close Relationships. Erlbaum (pp. 325-344).

Baumeister R. F., & Leary M. R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117, 497-529.

Ben-Ze’ev, Aaron, 2011. “The nature and morality of romantic compromises,” in C. Bagnoli, ed., Morality and the Emotions. Oxford University Press (95–114).

Ben-Ze'ev, A. & Goussinsky, R. (2008). In the name of love: Romantic Ideology and its victims. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Frankfurt, H. G. (2004). The Reasons for Love. Princeton University Press.

Krebs, A. (2015). Zwischen Ich und Du. Eine dialogische Philosophie der Liebe. Suhrkamp.

Whillans, A. V., Dunn, E. W., Sandstrom, G. M., Dickerson, S. S., & Madden, K. M. (2016). Is spending money on others good for your heart? Health Psychology, 35, 574-83.

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