Should We Dance First in Love?
The heart-head conflict in romantic love.
Posted June 11, 2020
“Dance first. Think later. It's the natural order.”—Samuel Beckett
“God gave men both a penis and a brain, but unfortunately not enough blood supply to run both at the same time.”—Robin Williams
The dancing heart and the thinking head are powerful rivals in romantic love. Should the head, in fact, be ranking our romantic priorities—or should the heart lead the romantic dance?
The heart-head rivalry
“The heart has its reasons which reason does not understand.”—Blaise Pascal
“When people go to work, they shouldn’t have to leave their hearts at home.” —Betty Bender
When the heart and head clash, the conflict often shows up in the pull between acute emotions—which are personal, partial, and relatively brief—and intellectual considerations—which are broader, more objective, and have longer-term validity. The intellect is concerned with the general and the stable, whereas acute emotions are engaged with the particular and the volatile.
The heart-head conflict is obvious in romantic love, which has often been considered a type of addiction, disease, or, at best, irrational behavior. Despite the crucial weight of the heart in romantic matters, the common wish to give complete priority to the heart over the head is often unwise. Following our heart might not always involve acting according to our long-term concerns. Moreover, how can we identify what the genuine expressions of our heart are? (Ben-Ze'ev, 2019).
The true story of Mildred and Janet
"You know what, there is a place you can touch a woman that will drive her crazy ... her heart." —Melanie Griffith
“When your heart is on fire, you must realize, smoke gets in your eyes.” —The Platters
At its core, the conflict boils down to the tug of short-term values vs. the appeal of enduring profound values. A true story about two sisters, Mildred and Janet, will illustrate this most basic manifestation of the heart-head collision.
At the start of Mildred’s relationship with Bruce, the romantic intensity was lower than in her previous relationships, in which her more “athletic” partners were, in her words, “much more outwardly exciting or adventurous.” Despite the fact that she has “always appreciated masculine beauty” and continued to take “pleasure in seeing a handsome man,” she chose to marry a man who “was not the most romantic of my loves as a young woman.”
Consequently, in the first year of marriage, she had two brief extramarital affairs. When she cried as she told Bruce about her affairs, he generously comforted her. His wise and caring reaction clarified for her that even if she had to relinquish tempestuous opportunities, she had gained so much more in her profound, loving relationship with him. Her flings became a small amount of poison that immunized and enhanced their relationship.
Mildred’s younger sister, Janet, has a different tale, one of passionate, wild love that quickly ended in disaster. She gave up higher education and married a man whom others considered inferior to her. When asked about the quality of her relationship with this man, she answered, “We love each other and that is what really matters.”
Janet was madly in love with her husband at the time of her marriage, but from the start, their relationship revolved around dining out, heavy drinking, and violence. Eventually, Janet left her husband and entered Alcoholics Anonymous. Her husband died two years after the divorce, aged 53.
Janet had no problem with intense passion—often, as in love at first sight, an excellent starting point. But her ability to recognize the red flags that signal potential problems with enduring profound love was weak.
Overthinking: the risky business
“I don't think when I make love.”—Brigitte Bardot
As we see in the story of Mildred and Janet, ignoring rational thinking while making romantic decisions is a risky business. Spending too much time on the heart can indeed end in disaster—but so can refusing to give the heart a significant say in shaping romantic decisions.
When my son, Dean, was 11 years old, he informed me that a girl had proposed a romantic friendship to him. I recall feeling a bit envious about his early and easy success (compared to his father) and asked him how he had responded to the classmate. He answered: “I told her that I have to think about it.”
I am not sure whether Dean’s response was pitch-perfect for a romantic relationship. I am quite sure, however, that over-thinking—and thus over-worrying—is a risky business in the romantic arena.
Research indicates that we devote a great deal of time every day (more than an hour and a half) to thoughts underlying worries. Moreover, about 85% of what people worry about never happens. The cherry on top is that when concerns really do come to something, most people discover that they can manage better than they expected and/or that the challenge has taught them a lesson worth learning. Women tend to worry more than men do and often worry about interpersonal relationships, and we typically worry less as we get older.
Brigitte Bardot is right when claiming that she does not think when making love; she probably also closes her eyes in order to reach orgasm. Sometimes, intense romantic experiences require that we disconnect ourselves from reality. Enduring profound love, however, is always connected to reality in a meaningful way.
What is the right order of things in love?
"Who is more foolish, the child afraid of the dark or the man afraid of the light?" —Maurice Freehill
Clearly, both the heart and the head should be involved in making romantic decisions. But what are the optimal priorities here?
Leah, a divorcee, blocks her heart at the beginning of the romantic road, not letting herself fall in love till she is certain about the presence of a solid infrastructure for developing enduring profound love. Gideon, a married man, does not block his heart at the beginning of the romantic road, and easily falls in love; however, he blocks the heart toward the end of the process, by refusing to divorce.
Both Leah and Gideon shy away from the romantic light while placing the head too firmly at center stage. In the romantic realm, the heart should make the initial call and the head ought to follow. In short-term love, which is highly attraction-based, the heart should lead the dance; in enduring, profound love, it is the head, which is capable of taking into account long-term considerations, that should steer the dance steps.
Romantic relations do not float freely in the air; they take place in the midst of the limitations, imposed by the circumstances of our lives. Adapting to these limitations sometimes calls for compromises. Many people will not stay in a romantic relationship that damages their personal flourishing.
The romantic heart can be short-sighted: recent events are seen clearly, while remote ones become blurred. Enduring profound love needs the help of the head, which is capable of seeing some things a bit down the line. Indeed, one study shows that listening to your heart is something that will more likely hurt you than not, if you’re feeling time pressure (Hu et al., 2015). When we can take our time, thus letting the head do its work, our decisions become optimal.
The heart-head combination, which underlies the thoughtful romantic heart, is indeed crucial for the flourishing of profound love.
Ben-Ze’ev, A. (2019). The arc of love: How our romantic lives change over time. University of Chicago Press
Hu, Y., Wang, D., Pang, K., Xu, G., & Guo, J. (2015). The effect of emotion and time pressure on risk decision-making. Journal of Risk Research, 18, 637-650.