Love Is in the Air, but the Air Is Polluted
The predicament of romantic abundance.
Posted Jan 04, 2020
“Love is in the air, Everywhere I look around,
Love is in the air, Every sight and every sound.”
—John Paul Young
These are flourishing times for love, even its renaissance. Love is in the air: Everywhere you look, every sound sends the message that love is all around. Yet the air is often too thin and polluted to permit the development of long-term, profound love. There are too many momentary stars covering the romantic sky.
Romantic abundance may be too much of a good thing. There is a price to pay for having too many romantic options. One of these costs is that we are likely to feel less satisfied with the option we have when there is an abundance of choices. This dissatisfaction is accompanied by regret for the road not taken. The major challenge for our society, then, is not that of finding love, but that of maintaining it.
“My marriage is on the rocks again, yeah, my wife just broke up with her boyfriend.” —Rodney Dangerfield
People care not only—or even mainly—about the present, but also about the possible. One of humanity’s greatest advantages over other animals is our greater capacity to imagine circumstances that differ from our present situation. We are hardwired to imagine the possible, so it is humanly impossible to ignore it.
Imagination expands our horizons. However, the capacity to imagine, which unchains us from the present, also chains us to the possible. Imagination is a double-edged sword: it is a gift, but one that can cut deeply.
In the romantic realm, imagination gives us the wondrous ability to be aware of various romantic possibilities and the chance to develop ourselves accordingly. At the very same time, it can prevent us from enjoying our own romantic lot. A major dilemma in romantic life is choosing which of these possibilities to pursue actively and which to relinquish. When should we settle for what we have?
In the long term, we might regret closing doors; in the short term, we might risk losing what we already have (Gilovich & Medvec, 1995). When we are young, we usually perceive our future horizons as expanding. As we age or become sick, the horizon appears to shrink. While at young age, the immediate meaning relates to external (romantic and otherwise) options, in older age, the immediate meanings tend to be part of our current frame of living.
The comparison underlying emotional significance encompasses the mental construction of an alternative situation. The more available the alternative, namely, the closer the imagined alternative is to reality, the more intense the emotion. A crucial element in emotions is, indeed, the imagined condition of "it could have been otherwise." An illuminating example comes from research on singles bars: As closing time approached, men and women viewed the opposite sex as increasingly attractive. The looming alternative—the likelihood of going home alone—increased the value of those still available (Gladue & Delaney, 1990).
A major dilemma in romantic life is choosing which possibilities to pursue and which to set aside. When should we settle for what we have? The imagination-driven allure of romantic roads not taken places challenging barriers to being happy with what we have—a feeling that lies at the root of long-lasting love.
The Comparative and Uniqueness Approaches
“I am far from perfect, so expecting a perfect partner would be unrealistic. Imperfection is perfect for me. Growth comes from imperfection!” —June Bradsell
The presence of many romantic options increases the value of the comparative concern in romantic love and decreases the value of the concern for uniqueness.
Iddo Landau (2017) distinguishes between two meaningful attitudes toward life: (1) aspiring to be the best and (2) aspiring to improve. He criticizes the first attitude, which is often associated with overcompetitiveness, involving an endless, unproductive search for “the best,” and praises the second, which is associated with meaningful development.
This distinction is captured by the difference between the comparative and uniqueness approaches to romantic love. Being romantically meaningful in the first sense depends on comparison with factors that are external to the connection between the two lovers. In the second sense, love depends mainly on the activities of the two lovers.
Improving the connection between the two lovers, rather than finding the person with the best nonrelational properties, is the most meaningful task of romantic profundity. If romantic meaning mainly concerns achieving the best, lovers will always be restless, consumed with the comparative concern about missing the perfect person, or perhaps the younger, the richer, or the more beautiful one. If, however, romantic flourishing mainly involves improvement, achieving it lies much more in the hands of the couple.
Being married to someone who is not perfect but is still a caring and loving partner is not necessarily a compromise. In fact, that partner might be the optimal choice. We can have an (almost) perfect loving relationship with an imperfect lover. Many people even view their partner's imperfections with compassion and amusement and consider these negligible compared to his or her profound virtues and their own flaws. The ability to notice and cope with both negative and positive aspects of the beloved expresses emotional complexity and is valuable for profound love (Ben-Ze’ev & Brunning, 2018).
For many people, the quest for the perfect person, instead of the most suitable partner, is a major obstacle to an enduring, profound, loving relationship. Since life is dynamic, and people change their attitudes, priorities, and wishes over time, achieving such romantic compatibility is not a onetime accomplishment, but an ongoing process. In a crucial and perhaps little-understood switch, perfect compatibility is not necessarily a precondition for love; it is love and time that create a couple’s compatibility (Ben-Ze’ev, 2019).
"Waste your money, and you're only out of money, but waste your time, and you've lost a part of your life." —Michael LeBoeuf
These are the worst of times and the best of times for lovers. Many romantic relationships do not last for long, and many others are crumbling; lovers are constantly perplexed about their current relationship and tempting alternatives. However, these are also flourishing times for love, even its renaissance.
Love is on the mind of a greater number of people, and its presence is a major criterion for many relationships. Love cannot be dismissed as silly fantasy; it is perceived as realistic and feasible for many more people. Love has made an impressive comeback. And rightly so (Ben-Ze’ev & Goussinsky, 2008).
This post is part of my new book, The Arc of Love: How Our Romantic Lives Change over Time (2019).
Ben-Ze’ev, A. (2019). The arc of love: How our romantic lives change over time. University of Chicago Press.
Ben-Ze'ev, A., & Goussinsky, R. (2008). In the name of love. Oxford University Press.
Ben-Ze’ev, A., & Brunning, L. (2018). How complex is your love? The case of romantic compromises and polyamory. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 48, 98-116.
Gilovich, T., & Medvec, V. H. (1995). The experience of regret: What, when, and why. Psychological Review, 102, 379-395.
Gladue, B. A., & Delaney, J. J. (1990). Gender differences in perception of attractiveness of men and women in bars. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 16, 378-391.
Landau, I. (2017). Finding meaning in an imperfect world. Oxford University Press.