Do Only Dead Fish Swim With the Stream?

Sometimes romantic drifting is beneficial

Posted Mar 15, 2017

“Only dead fish swim with the stream.” Malcolm Muggeridge

Many people's long-term romantic behavior is similar to dead fish floating with the current, slowly drifting with the stream. Is such behavior damaging? Not always, it would seem.

Decision-making mechanisms

“An intellectual is a person who has discovered something more interesting than sex.” Aldous Huxley

Deliberative thinking and emotional intuition are two major decision-making mechanisms. Deliberative thinking typically involves slow and conscious processes, which are largely under voluntary control. Emotional intuition consists of a dispositional mechanism activating ready-made patterns that have been set during evolution, social, and personal development. Unlike deliberative thinking, emotional intuition is fast, automatic, and accompanied by considerably less awareness.

Drifting is another type of decision making; it is actually an avoidance mechanism involving not deciding, or deciding not to decide. The meaning of “drifting” that I use here is that of moving slowly and aimlessly, especially as a result of outside forces, with very little control over direction.

The three types of decision-making mechanisms, i.e., deliberative thinking, emotional intuition, and drifting, can be arranged in light of their measurement (Low, Medium, and High) in four major aspects of such mechanisms: their degree of awareness, voluntary control, speed, and goal-direction. The following table summarizes these differences between the three decision-making mechanisms:

Source: Ben-Ze'ev

It is clear that the decision-making mechanisms underlying deliberative thinking and emotional intuition are valuable in differing circumstances. Thus, intellectual deliberations are valuable in considering the long-term aspects of romantic relationships, and emotional intuitions are of greater value in assessing the attraction between the two partners. The value of romantic drifting is less apparent.


“Continents drift, and so do hearts.” John Mark Green

The literal meaning of “drifting” in English indicates slow coasting. In some other languages, the word “drifting” denotes both slow and fast drifting. Love at first sight is an example of fast drifting. I focus here on slow drifting.

Slow drifting is common in our everyday life; its benefits are both subjective and objective. From a subjective perspective, such drifting is highly convenient, as it does not require investing a much effort and resources, and the agent’s responsibility in the case of failure is minimal. From an objective perspective, drifting is a gradual process that takes reality into account. There are no rushed decisions; decisions are left to simmer on low heat until they are thoroughly "well-cooked."

The problematic aspect of drifting is that it favors short-term considerations that maintain the status quo rather than long-term activities that actively advance our situation. Drifting also inflates the cost of changing the situation and disproportionately reduces the weight of improvement. This lessens immediate conflicts but increases the likelihood of profound, long-term calamities.

Romantic drifting

“We are drifting apart. And now I’m not sure I want to fix it.” Unknown

Slow romantic drifting facilitates a gradual shift from one romantic state to another without the agent's full awareness or complete control. Although the drifting process can be long, the realization of its import can often come in an instant, taking the agent by surprise. Thus, Bertrand Russell claimed that he was a happily married man until one day, while riding a bicycle along a country road, he suddenly realized that he no longer loved his wife: “I had had no idea until this moment that my love for her was even lessening” (Irvine, 2006, 14–15).

Slow romantic drifting in which love is eroded or developed is a long process, but the realization that one does not love one’s spouse or that one has fallen in love with one’s friend can be abrupt and instantaneous. Drifting is characterized by habituation and the lack of strong emotional intensity. Everything occurs in small incremental steps, and nothing constitutes a change that is significant enough to generate great emotional intensity, as is typically the case in acute emotions (Ben-Ze’ev, 2000).

Romantic drifting might appear to be a reason-less, choice-less, action-less process of which we are unaware, but this is not entirely correct. It is not reason-less; it is just that we do not use the more familiar method of conscious deliberative thinking. Drifting is also not entirely choice-less. Although it does not involve a deliberative choice in which all options are considered, the agent does in fact make some choices without being physically or mentally coerced. While we are less aware of the drifting process than we are of our deliberative thinking, we are partially aware of some aspects of the process. Thus, partners who are drifting apart can be aware of their marital difficulties but might not be fully aware that these difficulties have gradually worsened or that they are indicative of romantic eroding. Drifting is also not entirely action-less. Although people who are drifting seem similar to dead fish floating with the stream, they always have (unlike the fish) an alternative they can take. Often they do not take the alternative because it is perceived to have little value or to be risky, unpleasant, or embarrassing. The agents’ responsibility in romantic drifting stems from not investing more effort in exploring the implicit, partial information they have. In some, but not in all, cases such efforts could change the situation (Ben-Ze’ev & Krebs, 2015).

Drifting into marriage and drifting into love

“As he read, I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once.” John Green

Drifting has bad press since we do not like to perceive ourselves as people who make significant decisions in a superficial manner. However, while drifting into marriage has often negative consequences, drifting into profound love is typically quite positive.

Drifting is particularly harmful in decisions that have long-term practical consequences. One such an example is drifting into marriage after living together (see here). The major argument in support of premarital cohabitation is that it enables the couple to get to know each other better and to see whether they get along well enough to embark on marriage. However, counterintuitively, many (but not all) studies have found that premarital cohabitation is associated with an increased risk of divorce, a lower quality of marriage, poorer marital communication, and higher levels of domestic violence.

A main reason for such surprising results concerns the process that leads to the decision to get married. Such a process is usually based upon drifting (or sliding), which lacks serious deliberative thinking and strong romantic intensity—it is mainly based on inertia. Thus, over one half of couples who live together don’t talk about the consequences of getting married, but simply drift into it (Stanley et al., 2006). Typically, in these cases, the partners’ believe that there is no difference between cohabitation and marriage; consequently, drifting and inertia are natural.

This drifting gives a greater relative weight to the immediate costs (e.g., financial obligations, a shared lease, sharing a pet, pregnancy, embarrassment), while neglecting the long-term profound considerations that are associated with the more demanding framework of marriage. The decision to get married should take into account other features related to the non-romantic aspects of marriage, such as whether the partner is able to be a good parent or a good provider; these aspects can balance the weight given to love when making the decision to marry someone.

The negative effects of cohabitation upon marriage are considerably reduced when cohabitation begins after engagement; that is, when the decision to marry is taken in a more deliberative and less stressful manner before the couple cohabits. In these cases, people reported less negative communication, higher satisfaction, and less physical aggression than did those who cohabited before engagement or marriage (Stanley et al., 2006). In such circumstances, the intellect plays a greater role in the decision-making process, while emotional attitudes are still allowed to make the final call after the couple has lived together and engaged in joint meaningful interactions. In this case, cohabitation can be characterized as drifting into deeper love rather than into marriage (as the decision to get married has already been taken). Drifting into such love involves being in touch with the partner, getting to know each other better, and slowly deepening mutual love.

Drifting out of love (and marriage)

"It used to be so easy living here with you
You were light and breezy and I knew just what to do
Now you look so unhappy and I feel like a fool 

And it's too late, baby, now it's too late
Though we really did try to make it
Something inside has died
And I can't hide and I just can't fake it." Carole King

Given that slow drifting takes place over a relatively long time, it expresses some stable features of reality. Thus, romantic drifting apart adequately expresses the sad reality of the deteriorating relationship. In the slow incremental process of drifting apart, the partners lose their romantic attachment over time and become increasingly less passionate toward each other. When people feel that something inside has died and it's too late to change, hide, or fake it, then all doubts disappear and separating is a natural step to take.

When people are aware of this but nevertheless keep living within the loveless framework into which they drifted, they are romantically compromising. This compromise often stems from factors such as people’s fear that their search for ideal love elsewhere will be unsuccessful, the series of disappointments and heartbreaks they experienced in their previous searches for love, or the assumption that such a search does not warrant the risks it involves.

Drifting out of love genuinely expresses the way the partners feel toward each other when the situation seems to be irrevocable. However, if the partners become aware of the drifting process early enough, in some cases they can stop it and possibly even reverse it. Lack of awareness poses a major risk to relationships in which drifting is an essential part of romantic behavior.

Concluding remarks

“I think drifting describes so many people in this world, especially with so much external pressure and stimulation hitting us constantly. We deal with it all by not dealing with it all. It certainly expresses what I do about so much that is difficult to face in my life.” A twice-married woman

The non-intellectual and non-emotional decision-making mechanism of drifting is not as beneficial as those mechanisms involving deliberative thinking and emotional intuitions, both of which are crucial in managing human life. Indeed, in many cases romantic drifting is problematic—never being on a stable island in the changing stream. However, finding such stability does not necessarily mean becoming stuck or fixed in all aspects of our relationships. In some circumstances, drifting is valuable and a slow but steady process of cooking deepens romantic profundity. Slowly comes, slowly (if at all) goes.

The post is based on: Ben-Ze’ev, A. & Krebs, A. (2015). “Do Only Dead Fish Swim with the Stream?”


Ben-Ze'ev, A. (2000). The subtlety of emotions. MIT Press.

Ben-Ze’ev, A. & Krebs, A. (2015). “Do only dead fish swim with the Stream? The role of Intuition, emotion and deliberation in love and work.” In Fröse, M. W., Kaudela-Baum, S., and Dievernich, E. P. F. (eds.), Emotionen und intuitionen in führung und management.  Springer Gabler, 43-64.

Irvine, W. B. (2006). On desire: Why we want what we want. Oxford University Press.

Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., & Markman, H. J. (2006). Sliding vs. deciding: Inertia and the premarital cohabitation effect. Family Relations, 55, 499–509.