Why We Love Our Partners More Than Anyone Else
People's superficial attributes both explain and justify romantic love.
Posted December 28, 2017
Are there any good reasons why we fall in love with one person rather than another? To answer, we need to distinguish between explanatory (or causal, or sustaining) reasons and justifying reasons.
The distinction is commonly invoked when asking why a person acted the way he or she did. If I kill you in an angry outburst even though you did nothing wrong, my angry outburst explains my action, but it doesn’t justify it. If I kill you in an act of self-defense, my desire to live not only explains my deed — it also justifies it.
An analogous distinction applies in matters of love (Brogaard, 2015). There are reasons that explain why we love the people we do, and occasionally there are also reasons that justify our loving feelings. All instances of falling in love and remaining in love can be explained, regardless of how hopeless or irrational they may seem.
Sometimes what explains our loving feelings for a particular person can seem ridiculously simple. For example, a sudden increase in adrenaline and our brain's attempt to make sense of this physiological response in the presence of a lovely person can explain why we fall in love with that person, rather than another equally lovely person (Dutton & Aron, 1974). In other cases, the explanatory reason for why we fall in love may be a complex assembly of factors, such as reciprocal liking, mystery and unpredictability, relationship readiness, and similar core values, attitudes, and personality traits.
While all instances of romantic love can be explained (even if we don't always know how to explain them), only select instances of romantic love can be justified. There are justifying reason for love — or at least a lack of justifying reasons against it — only when the love is rational. And romantic love is rational (or reasonable) only if there is a proper fit between your romantic feelings and the psychology and behavior of the person you love. Unreciprocated love, for instance, is always irrational, owing to a lack of this sort of proper fit (Brogaard, 2015). It is this kind of proper fit that gives us justificatory reasons for loving a particular person romantically.
For a particular person to be worthy of your love, all her features taken together must be such that if you love her, they do not subtract from your overall well-being. Since many people can have features that are such that loving them romantically does not subtract from your well-being, you can have justificatory reasons for loving an indefinite number of people romantically. The presence of justifying reasons for love thus doesn't make it mandatory for us to love any particular person.
There is nothing problematic about this lack of a duty to love a particular person romantically (Brogaard, 2015). You are not always required to perform a particular action, either. You may have justificatory reasons for going to the gym, meeting a friend for coffee, and calling your mom — all within a short window of time. You cannot do it all. So unless one thing is more important than another, there is no one thing you are required to do (although you may be required to do one of those things).
Likewise, there is nothing that makes me obligated to love just one person romantically, or to love one particular person rather than another. From the point of view of rationality, the only mandate there is that I do not love someone whose features are such that my being in that state subtracts from my well-being.
The view that there can be justifying reasons for love which are based on the physical and psychological attributes of the person has sometimes been criticized on the grounds that we tend to treat our beloveds as irreplaceable (Kolodny, 2003). Most of us are strongly inclined to think that even if a perfect replica could be put in the place of the person we love, this would not quite be the same.
A common reason given for this is that we would not have had the same shared history or past relationship with the replica as we have with the person we love (Kolodny, 2003). On this view — also known as the history view — there can be justifying reasons for love, but these reasons are not based on physical or psychological attributes of the beloved, but rather on facts about the particular history we share with them — for example, the good times we have spent together.
The history view is peculiar for two reasons: First, it seems to confuse past love with memories of the past. But our resistance to someone else taking our current partner's place is not due to our actual past with the other person. It is due to nostalgia and sentimentality (Grau & Pury, 2014). But the nostalgia and sentimentality that sometimes surround past relationships should not be confused with romantic love (Brogaard, 2015). If you hang onto your mostly fabricated memories of the "good times" and ignore the red flags right in front of you, you risk staying in a toxic relationship much too long.
Second, the history view implies that a preponderance of good times together in the past can be a justifying reason to continue to love the other person, regardless of how he or she treats you now. Current passive-aggressive behavior, gaslighting, or cold indifference would not matter.
Conversely, a preponderance of bad times together in the past can be a reason against continuing to love the other person. Since you fall out of love faster if you cut all contact with the other person, this should motivate you to break off the relationship, and that may be the right thing to do in many ugly cases.
But there are plenty of exceptions to the rule that a preponderance of bad times in the past should make you break things off. You may start off on the wrong foot, for example, but then go on to develop a beautiful romantic relationship.
Contrary to the history view, the current status of your relationship should matter a great deal more than what has happened in the past. Admittedly, things can happen that are absolute deal breakers, such as a severe betrayal of trust, but bad things that happen can also often be forgiven and forgotten.
*** Before concluding, a remark on the difference between romantic love and parental love: A fallout, a lack of shared interests, parental pressure to give up most of your core values, an extended period of separation from your child, and so on may be justificatory reasons for ceasing to love a friend or a romantic partner, but they are not justificatory reasons for ceasing to love your child. So whereas the physical and psychological attributes of a romantic partner can give you justificatory reasons to love a person romantically, your parental connection to your child is the only defensible justificatory reason for loving the child.
The unique justificatory reason you have for loving your child carries with it a duty to love your child. While you have no duty to love any particular person romantically, you have an ethical obligation to love your child. How the child treats you or others ought not to affect your love. Of course, you have the freedom to give up your parental rights or terminate your parental status, at least assuming that certain conditions are satisfied. The love of your child can even mandate giving up parental rights: If you are not in a position to provide acceptable parental care, the love of your child may require a reassignment of the job of parenting to someone else. The new caregiver will now owe it to the child to provide “good enough” care (O'Neill, 2000; Prusak, 2008).
Berit "Brit" Brogaard is the author of On Romantic Love.
Brogaard, B. (2015). On Romantic Love: Simple Truths about a Complex Emotion, New York: Oxford University Press.
Dutton, D.G., & Aron, A.P. (1974). “Some Evidence for Heightened Sexual Attraction Under Conditions of High Anxiety”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 30 (4), 510-517.
Grau, C. & Pury, C. (2014). “Attitudes Towards Reference and Replaceability.” Review of Philosophy and Psychology 5: 55-68.
Kolodny, N. (2003). “Love as Valuing a Relationship”, Philosophical Review 112: 135–89.
O'Neill, O. (2000). “The 'Good Enough' Parent in the Age of the New Reproductive Technologies," in Hille Haker and Deryck Beyleveld (eds.). The Ethics of Genetics in Human Procreation, Aldershot: Ashgate, pp. 33-48.
Prusak, BG. (2008). “Not Good Enough Parenting: What's Wrong with the Child's Right to an ‘Open Future’ ”, Social Theory and Practice Vol. 34, No. 2, pp. 271-291.