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Do Lovers Want Change or Familiarity?

The temporal romantic puzzles.

Key points

  • External change, which underlies the generation of emotions, typically endures for a brief time.
  • External change has become the go-to stick for stoking romantic fires.
  • Intrinsic development, which is a kind of change, can endure for a long time.
  • In different romantic circumstances, lovers may need change (and consumption) and familiarity (and perpetuation).

Our dilemma is that we hate change and love it at the same time; what we really want is for things to remain the same but get better.” —Sydney Harris

There are various puzzles associated with romantic relationships, though here I want to focus on two major temporal puzzles: change and familiarity, consummation and perpetuation. The temporal aspect is crucial for understanding the nature of romantic relationships.

Change and Familiarity

Sex is emotion in motion.” —Mae West

People typically experience emotions when they perceive positive or negative significant changes in their personal situation—or in that of those related to them. This seems to work against the possibility of enduring romantic love. From an evolutionary point of view, it is advantageous to focus our attention on change rather than on static stimuli. Change indicates that our situation is unstable, and awareness of this may mean the difference between life and death. When we become accustomed to the change, mental activity decreases, as there is no need to waste our time and energy on something to which we have already adapted.

A change cannot persist for an extended period; after a while, we consider the change as normal, and it no longer stimulates us. Like burglar alarms going off when an intruder appears, emotions signal that something needs attention. When no attention is required, the signaling system can be switched off. We respond to the unusual by attending to it.

Accordingly, sexual response to a familiar partner is less intense than to a novel partner. Indeed, the frequency of sexual activity with one's partner declines steadily as the relationship lengthens, reaching in many cases roughly half the frequency after one year of marriage compared to the first month of marriage, and declining more gradually thereafter. Decline has also been found in cohabiting, heterosexual couples and in gay and lesbian couples (Buss, 1994; Metts et al., 1998). While change tends to generate intense, short-term emotion, familiarity tends to produce a more moderate attitude, which can be long-lasting (Ben-Ze’ev, 2000; 2017).

Consummation and perpetuation

Orgasms don’t end my desire to my lover; on the contrary, it enhances it, and I want him more.” —A married woman

Ronald De Sousa argues that although lovers have many desires common to other relationships, such as intimacy, friendship, and companionship, romantic (or erotic, in his terms), love has two additional unique, powerful desires: consummation and perpetuation. These unique desires are conflicting since consummation is an ending, while perpetuation involves indefinite continuation. He further claims that what constitutes consummation is different in sex and love. In sex, consummation is orgasm, and “in love, it is often assumed to be marriage, regarded as a form of possession. (And to consummate a marriage is to seal possession by sexual intercourse)” (De Sousa, 2015: 13).

De Sousa’s worries concerning the consummation-perpetuation puzzle are genuine. Thus, the French famously refer to orgasm as “la petite morte,” or “the little death.” Once orgasm is reached, it is, in a sense, the end of the experience preceding it, and hence, it is a little death. Along these lines, it has been claimed that “All animals are sad after sex.” These ideas reflect the momentary nature of orgasm. However, this is true concerning one type of romantic desire and activities, and not all of them. The central issue here is not whether romantic, and in particular sexual, desire decreases with time; everyday experience and empirical studies provide ample evidence for this. The central issue is rather whether there are cases in which this apparent paradox does not appear and we can speak about perpetuating romantic attitude and desire (Ben-Ze’ev, 2022).

Empirical studies suggest that enduring loving relationships do not have to lack sexual or romantic intensity. Indeed, one study suggests that many long-term couples remain deeply in love. Daniel O’Leary and colleagues (2012) asked 274 married individuals: ‘How in love are you with your partner?’ Among those in marriages of 30 years or more, 40 percent of wives and 35 percent of husbands reported very intense love for their partner. Moreover, Bianca Acevedo and colleagues (2012) showed 10 women and seven men who had been married for an average of 21 years and reported being intensely in love with their spouses. This was determined by showing them facial images of their partners while scanning their brains with fMRI. The scans revealed a significant activation in key reward centers of the brain—much like the pattern found in people experiencing infatuation, but vastly different from those in companionate relationships. These studies suggest that the difference between romantic consummation and romantic perpetuation is more complex than we might think.

Coping with the temporal puzzles

We do not succeed in changing things according to our desire, but gradually our desire changes.” —Marcel Proust

The two temporal puzzles are genuine and have considerable impact upon our romantic behavior. There are various ways to solve them. A central manner discussed here is the distinction between external change and intrinsic development.

Change is commonly taken to mean becoming different, typically without permanently losing one’s characteristics or essence. Development is a specific type of change that involves a temporal process of improving by expanding or refining. The external change underlying intense love is a one-time, simple external event. The growth underlying profound love is continuous; hence, it is associated with moderate intensity, with occasional abruption of an intense one. The process of romantic development leads people to attempt to improve themselves by, for example, increasing their connectedness. We can speak here about an “upward spiral.” In romantic love, these circumstances generate the phenomenon of bringing out the best in each other, which is so crucial for enduring profound love (Armenta et al., 2017).

External changes and intrinsic development operate on different time scales—that of the first is quite short, and that of the second can take years. A significant development on the intrinsic scale could reduce the need for external changes. Whereas the impact of external change depends largely on good timing, intrinsic development is constituted by time. In the case of external change, the individual remains essentially the same, and change is needed to alleviate boredom; in the case of intrinsic, meaningful development, one is continually developing. This means that relying too much on external causes for our romantic satisfaction can upset the balance between our profound and superficial values in a way that we really do not want. Development improves us in a direction that we consider valuable, and, objectively, it is indeed better for us.

External change has become the go-to stick for stoking the romantic fire. Think, for instance, of changing a partner, or at least taking an occasional walk on the wild side. Making changes within the couple’s relationship, like exploring new places or new activities together, produces less intensity—and at first seems like a kind of pauper’s joy. However, when we distinguish between romantic intensity and profundity, these joint interactions go from being a pauper’s joy to a millionaire’s dream—a powerful engine for the development and enhancement of love. Romantic profundity develops through a gradual ongoing process involving reciprocal intrinsic activities whose value increases with familiarity and use. External changes can increase the intensity of romantic flames, but the heart of the enduring romantic connection lies in its intrinsic development (Ben-Ze’ev, 2019).

To sum up, change is frequently prescribed as a remedy for boredom, but this does not mean that we must change our romantic partners in order to fan romantic flames. The ability to develop together, while bringing out the best in each other, is a complex task that if successful, can mitigate the temporal puzzles of romantic relationships.

References

Acevedo, B.P., Aron, A., Fisher, H., & Brown, L. L. (2012). Neural correlates of long-term intense romantic love. Social Cognition and Affective Neuroscience, 7, 145-159.

Armenta, C. N., Fritz, M. M. & Lyubomirsky, S. (2017). Functions of positive emotions: Gratitude as a motivator of self-improvement and positive change. Emotion Review, 9, 183-190.

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

Ben-Ze’ev, A. (2017). Does loving longer mean loving more? On the nature of enduring affective attitudes. Philosophia, 45, 1541-1562.

Ben-Ze’ev, A. (2019). The arc of love: How our romantic lives change over time. University of Chicago Press.

Ben-Ze’ev, A. (2022). “’I am glad that my partner is happy with her lover’: On jealousy, and compersion,” in A. Pismenny & B. Brogaard (eds.) (2022), The Moral Psychology of Love. Rowman & Littlefield, 127-150.

Buss, D. M. (1994). The evolution of desire. Basic Books.

De Sousa, R. 2015. Love: A very short introduction. Oxford University Press.

Metts, S., Sprecher, S. & Regan, P. C. (1998). Communication and sexual drive. In P. A. Andersen & L. K. Guerrero, eds., Handbook of communication and emotion. Academic Press, 353–377.

O'Leary, K. D., Acevedo, B. P. Aron, A., Huddy, L., & Mashek, D. (2012). Is long-term love more than a rare phenomenon? If so, what are its correlates? Social Psychological and Personality Science, 3, 241-249.

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