The Arc of Love: How Our Romantic Lives Change over Time

Aaron Ben-Ze'ev

University of Haifa, Israel

Ben-Ze'ev, Aaron. 2020. "Précis: The Arc of Love: How Our Romantic Lives Change over Time." Journal of Philosophy of Emotion 2, no. 1: 1-7.

Keywords: love, time, profundity, intensity, caring, dialogue, and partner

Arc of Love: How our Romantic Lives Change over Time (2019) examines the central issue of how to make love stay over time. The book is about long-term romantic love and how we go about developing it—or fail to do so. It is about building the foundations for this love and dealing with the difficulties that inevitably emerge in such a challenging and critical construction project.

The book is not about a particular theory of love, or a specific philosophical view. It is about a central issue in understanding enduring profound love. It provides conceptual tools for this task. Some of these tools have been used by philosophers (mainly, but not merely, Aristotle) and psychologists, and some are original. The combination of these tools with the extensive knowledge of relevant empirical studies provides a powerful presentation of the nature of romantic love and the circumstances in which it can turn into an enduring one. One may wonder whether the many references to empirical studies all share sufficiently similar notions of love. In response, I would say that the empirical studies are not intended to provide a general theory of love, but rather to deal with specific empirical claims that are valid or invalid, regardless of one's view of what love is.

The book takes an optimistic perspective. Not only is enduring, profound love possible, it is also more common than most of us think. Yet the romantic road is often bumpy and long. Enticing romances encounter many blind alleys. How is the would-be lover to know when such romances are promenades for flourishing love and when they are dead-end streets?

This précis focuses on four major themes of the book: how to make love last, philosophical models of romantic love, the clash between love and life, and how to find “the one” (or two).

[page 1]


Romantic ideology claims that true love overcomes all obstacles and that love lasts forever. This seductive claim is empirically questionable, and has been debated by philosophers and psychologists. In the field of philosophy, the discussion has centered on the question of whether love is conditional, that is, whether it is dependent on anything. In the field of psychology, one finds conflicting views concerning the possibility of long-term romantic love. A large body of empirical research indicates that sexual desire decreases dramatically over time within relationships. Yet research also suggests that many long-term couples remain deeply in love.

Coping with this apparent paradox requires making several conceptual distinctions. A crucial one is the difference between romantic intensity and romantic profundity. Romantic intensity is a snapshot of a momentary peak of passionate, often sexual, desire. Romantic profundity goes beyond mere romantic intensity and refers to the lover's broader and more enduring attitude. External change is highly significant in generating romantic intensity; in romantic depth, familiarity, stability, and development are tremendously important. While romantic novelty is useful in preventing boredom, romantic familiarity is valuable in promoting flourishing.

The profundity of a romantic experience differs from the intensity with which it is felt; profundity involves certain types of activities that take place over time. What the temporal dimension adds to romantic profundity is shared emotional experiences and interactions. In moving from mere romantic intensity to romantic profundity, it is not only time spent together that matters, but also time spent on activities during which the partners flourish. Thus, the joint activities that promote profound love require time to do so. If time is available, but the activities are missing, we wind up with an experience that is not profound.

Romantic profundity involves friendship and sexual desire. Friendship takes time to develop and involves mutuality; although we speak of unrequited love, we do not speak of "unrequited friendship." At the beginning of a relationship, romantic intensity depends mainly on physical attractiveness. Over the years, the focus in a romantic relationship shifts from romantic intensity to romantic profundity, and from sexual desire to the yearning to be with each other. Romantic profundity is not threatened by a low frequency and intensity of sexual activity but rather by a low quality of shared interactions, mutual support, and intimacy.

A Russian proverb states that "Love and eggs are best when they are fresh." When it comes to eggs, we look for two things—taste and nutritional value. And it is when eggs are fresh that these are at their peak. Life gets more complicated when love is at stake. The intensity of excitement (the "taste") is strongest when love is fresh, but the profundity of the connection (the "nutritional value") is often best when love is mature.

In order to understand the feasibility of long-term love, I suggest distinguishing between three major types of emotional experiences: (1) acute emotions, (2) extended emotions, and (3) enduring emotions. Acute emotions are brief, almost instantaneous experiences. Extended emotions involve successive repetitions of experiences that are felt to belong to the same emotion—for example, being angry or jealous for hours. Compared to acute emotions, extended emotions last longer and occur more frequently. The intensity varies over the period of the episode, and the nature of the emotion can change somewhat. Enduring emotions are the longest-lasting of the three and can persist for a lifetime. In addition to their duration and frequency, enduring emotions involve a qualitative meaningful development (and sometimes deterioration), and a dispositional nature that unfolds over time.

[page 2]

I argue that we typically experience emotions when we perceive positive or negative significant changes in our personal situation—or in that of those related to us. This seems to work against the possibility of enduring romantic love, as 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.

In addressing this concern, I distinguish between external change and intrinsic development (growth). 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 process of improving by expanding or refining. In its full sense, development involves becoming deeper and better. Acute emotions express our sensitivity to immediate change, whose time scale is often seconds or minutes. However, we also need a sensitivity to processes enduring months and years, which are essential for our thriving. In such sensitivity, reasoning, which combines past and present experiences to future development, is crucial.


Two major philosophical models of romantic love are the care model and the dialogue model. The care model, which is the most popular model of love, focuses on the beloved's needs. Without question, caring is central in romantic love. It goes beyond a positive attitude toward, and the wish to be with, the beloved, seeking to enhance the beloved's well-being. In this view, genuine love has less to do with the lover's own needs and more to do with a strong concern for the other, accompanied by actual deeds. The care model is most relevant in loving relationships that involve significant inequality, such as parental love, love of God, or love for someone who is unwell. In such cases, there is nothing wrong with one-sided caring. However, among equals, as in the ideal form of romantic love, one-sided caring (and love) is problematic. This model seems to involve too passive an understanding of love and fails to capture the importance of the interactions between the two lovers that underlie romantic profundity. Caring is an important component in other models of romantic love as well, but in those models, caring is not necessarily the essence of love, and in any case, it is not sufficient for maintaining long-term profound romantic love.

The dialogue model, whose origins can be traced back to Aristotle, has more recently been advanced by Martin Buber and Angelika Krebs. It considers the shared connection between the partners as the bedrock of love and views shared emotional states and joint activities as the foundational features of the connection. The connection amplifies the flourishing of the lovers as well as the flourishing of their relationship. Krebs further argues that love is not about each partner having the other as their object. Rather, love is about what happens between the partners. Thus it is "dialogical." In loving somebody, you enlarge yourself through closely interacting with and responding to the other person. We do not thrive in isolation: we are social creatures. In shared activities, the participants are integrated into a (psychological) whole, which is more than the sum total of two individual actions (Krebs 2014, 2015).

Unlike the care model, the dialogue model emphasizes the autonomy of lovers and their essential equality in establishing the romantic connection. Sharing can occur when one lover is not autonomous and the relationship is not one of equality. However, such sharing is not deep enough to sustain the development of long-term

[page 3]

profound love. The romantic connection expresses the qualities of the romantic partnership that are different and more than the combined value of the lovers' individual characteristics.

Proponents of the dialogue model tend to transfer the importance of the romantic connection to the issue of the location of love, claiming that love is a property of, and, in some formulations, even resides in, the connection between the two lovers. This claim is problematic. After all, feelings such as pain or enjoyment, which are essential to love, are not a property of the connection between the two lovers. Love is a psychological property of a lover. Accordingly, we would expect that some features of love, such as feelings, evaluations, and action tendencies, are properties of the lover, whereas other features, such as compatibility, resonance, and harmony, are properties of the connection.


The claim "I love you, but I am leaving you" seems paradoxical. If you love me, why should you leave me? After all, love implies the wish to be with the beloved, and not to leave him. Despite this paradoxical tone, I claim that there is no paradox in this claim. Sometimes love and life clash and we have to make compromises—one such compromise is leaving the one you love.

Romantic love not only adds sweetness to our lives, it also enhances health, happiness, and flourishing. It makes us feel alive. We need to love in order to flourish. And it is equally true that profound love craves a flourishing life. Thus, we come to the thorny issue of whether to remain in a romantic relationship that prevents one's personal flourishing.

In romantic compromises, we give up a romantic value, such as passionate love, in exchange for a nonromantic quality-of-life value. Such a compromise stems from the awareness that we are limited creatures; we cannot always meet our standards or achieve our ideals. Survival sometimes depends on being flexible, settling for something less—or simply different—than we might have wanted. Today, the prevailing view is love over life. Time and again, we hear that "love always wins" and "love always finds a way." Life might not be the greatest enemy of love, but it often involves considerations that clash with romantic ones. To admit that in some circumstances life should take precedence over love is to admit the necessity of romantic compromises.

Although romantic love has a very positive impact upon one's life, people need more than love to flourish. For love to thrive and endure, we need a good-enough living framework. When romantic love thrives, it can contribute to the overall thriving. Sometimes, however, love and life conflict. And so, we can find ourselves asking: Which takes precedence: love or life? This can be a hard call. At one extreme, one might sacrifice life for love (let's remember Romeo and Juliet). At the other, one might sacrifice love for life (remaining in a loveless, but otherwise comfortable, marriage, for example). Of course, most of us make romantic decisions that fall somewhere between these harrowing poles. It is the strength of love, the nature of the life's demands, and the degree of conflict between them that dictate exactly where we wind up on that continuum.

When intense desire is perceived as the core of romantic love, the conflict between romantic love and life ramps up. Such desire is usually brief and decreases with time. Life, by contrast, tends to last. A lover cannot be blind to life, and love does not always win. In any case, love cannot replace life.

[page 4]

When love and life go head-to-head, love almost always loses, especially when it is based on intense desire. In the long run, it is when lovers nurture the connection between themselves and do things that enable each other to flourish that love is maintained and enhanced. That is how ties to the living framework are tightened.

The statement that "all you need is love" indicates that love is everything. Although romantic love is extremely important for our happiness and flourishing, love is neither a necessary, nor a sufficient, condition for a happy and thriving life. As it turns out, love is not everything in life, though it is often a central part of it. If indeed, love is not all we need, then it is certainly reasonable for some people to leave the one they love.


Iddo Landau (2017) presents two major approaches to life: aspiring to be the best, and aspiring to improve. Landau leans toward the second approach, which is associated with meaningful development, and critiques the first, which often involves an endless, unproductive search for "the best."

In my book, I apply this distinction to the romantic realm by suggesting two related approaches: a comparative and a uniqueness approach. Being romantically meaningful in the first approach depends on a comparison of factors that are external to the connection between the two lovers. In the second approach, 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 concern about missing the perfect person, or perhaps the younger, richer, or more beautiful one. If, however, romantic flourishing mainly involves improvement, a couple holds much more of the outcome in their hands. While the comparative approach is more natural during romantic abundance, the bond must be unique for it to endure.

The comparative and uniqueness approaches make use of different scales for assessing romantic partners: a meritocracy scale and a suitability scale. The nonrelational meritocracy scale, applied mostly in the comparative approach, measures things like external appearance and achievements; it is easy to identify and compare these traits. The more complex and relational suitability scale measures one's unique connection, and depends on personal and circumstantial factors about which we do not have full knowledge.

Should someone choose to marry a wealthy person? On the meritocracy scale, a big bank account can be a good thing. But such a person might score low on fidelity, which is a feature of the suitability scale, because money opens many romantic doors. Moreover, wealthy people tend to believe that they are more deserving, and hence their caring behavior might be lower. Similarly, having a good sexual appetite is usually good, but a large discrepancy between the partners' sexual needs is not conducive to a romantic connection.

If all the positives on someone's meritocracy scale are reduced by negatives on the suitability scale, it does not bode well for personal flourishing. Even if both partners score high on the meritocracy scale but are not able to bring out the best in each other, which is crucial for thriving relationships, their suitability score will be low. In times of romantic abundance, the use of the meritocracy scale eliminates negative options. But the suitability scale is vital for choosing an enduring profound partner. Needless to say, there are various degrees of suitability.

[page 5]

At the initial stage of romantic relationships, suitability is not such a big deal. After all, information about long-term profound suitability is not yet available. Such information comes from interactions between the two partners, since a loving attitude becomes more knowledge-based. As time goes by, the issue of suitability gains greater importance, and the gap between the two scales could grow. We update and refine the two scales over time. Thus, a woman whose spouse is not particularly sensitive might say that, over time, his lack of sensitivity disturbs her less (she assigns it less weight), since she finds that his other traits compensate for it. However, she might also say that he seems to her a little bit more sensitive than she initially thought.

Both nonrelational and relational traits can enhance romantic love. Although there is no direct positive correlation between the two groups, they often correlate—a high value in one group often increases the value in the other. Thus, rich and charming people are often able to enhance the romantic connection, and a caring person is frequently considered of higher overall value.

To sum up, constant comparison of your partner to others is contrary to the spirit of profound romantic love. Long-term lovers are not in the business of accounting and comparing—they are busier with bettering their relationship than in having a better partner than someone else. People often think that by finding the perfect person, they will find their perfect partner. They are wrong. A partner can be just good enough on the meritocracy scale, but still be ideal on the suitability scale. Suitability, not meritocracy, is the name of the romantic game. As it turns out, two imperfect people can form a perfect romantic relationship.

The book points out the presence of many phenomena whose coexistence in romantic relationships seems paradoxical: mild and wild intensity, sensitivity and indifference, distance and closeness, calmness and excitement, nurturing and preventing, as well as flexibility and stability. These apparent paradoxes stem from our desire to draw one comprehensive, consistent, intellectual picture for all people, all of the time. However, we now know better: the dynamism and partiality of the emotional and romantic realms mean that emotional and romantic experiences can be radically mixed.

Today's romantic reality combines great diversity and restricted flexibility. While we cannot romantically indulge in everything we want and still stay healthy, we also do not need to go on a hunger strike. Adopting a moderate diet never killed anyone.

[page 6]


Ben-Ze'ev. A. 2019. The Arc of Love: How Our Romantic Lives Change Over Time. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

Krebs, A. 2014. "Between I and Thou–On the Dialogical Nature of Love." In Love and Its Objects, edited by C. Maurer, T. Milligan, and K. Pacovská, 7-24. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Krebs, A. 2015. Zwischen Ich und Du. Eine dialogische Philosophie der Liebe. Berlin, Germany: Suhrkamp.

Landau, I. 2017. Finding Meaning in An Imperfect World. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

[page 7]

Aaron Ben-Ze'ev © 2020.

Author email: