Beyond "I and Thou": Intimacy's Pronouns

Iskra Fileva

University of Colorado, Boulder, USA

Fileva, Iskra. 2020. "Beyond 'I and Thou': Intimacy's Pronouns." Journal of Philosophy of Emotion 2, no. 1: 20-26.

Abstract: I discuss three limitations of the account of romantic love Aaron Ben-Ze'ev offers in The Arc of Love. I first argue that Ben-Ze'ev never actually tells us what romantic love is. I then suggest that he does not appreciate the proper role of the ‘we' perspective that emerges in romantic love. Finally, I claim that his account of the genesis of romantic love is importantly incomplete and, as a result, he conflates falling in love with love.

Keywords: love, "I and Thou," "we" perspective, and intransparent mind

Aaron Ben-Ze'ev's (2019) aim, as I understand it, is to offer an account of love that is practical but not cynical. While he opposes what he calls "romantic ideology"—roughly, the idea that there is one person that's right for you, and that if you find that person, the love between the two of you will conquer all—he does not wish to give up on positive romantic illusions entirely.[1] The account reflects the modern Zeitgeist. On the pages of The Arc of Love, we find discussion of open marriages, polyamory, and levels of satisfaction among monogamous and non-monogamous people.

On the view Ben-Ze'ev puts forward, love—much like virtue for Aristotle—is, above all, activity. Dialogue and joint ventures are essential to romantic love. Ben-Ze'ev expresses sympathy with a "dialogue model" of love. Dialogue between two people who love each other is characterized by a sort of mutual attunement and synchrony. This is not to suggest that there are no conflicts in love, on Ben-Ze'ev's reckoning. Rather, it is to say that conflicts are handled without hostility. The connection between the lovers is more important than any quality the beloved may possess independently (Ben-Ze'ev 2019, 68). Caring too is a key component of love, but pace defenders of the alternative "care model," caring is not the essence of love, or at least not of romantic love, though it may be the essence of parental love or of the love of God for the creation (Ben-Ze'ev 2019, 45).[2]

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In the spirit of healthy pragmatism, Ben-Ze'ev urges willingness to compromise when it comes to love. A less than ideal love may still be quite good and preferable to an indefinitely long period of waiting for the perfect other. Ben-Ze'ev counsels romantic generosity as well—being willing to tolerate a partner's non-exclusivity in exchange for an enlargement of one's own romantic and sexual freedom.

Much of what Ben-Ze'ev says sounds eminently reasonable. My aim in what follows is not to criticize The Arc of Love but to help think through the issues he raises and perhaps, go a step further than he does.


I wish to begin with the very idea of romantic love. Though romantic love is the ostensible topic of the book, Ben-Ze'ev says little about what makes love specifically romantic. The dialogue model of love with which he expresses sympathy can apply to other kinds of love (such as that between friends or siblings) as well as to relationships other than love (for instance, a therapeutic relationship). Love aside, there is dialogue in every healthy relationship.

Perhaps, it can be supposed that we can get romantic love by adding sex to some other kind of dialogical love. But that cannot be the answer. While sexual attraction is no doubt important, as Ben-Ze'ev himself notes, friends may have sex with each other (as well as good dialogue) without love or without romantic love. They call it "friends with benefits." On the flip side, we cannot turn romantic love into either non-romantic love or into a different kind of attachment by subtracting sex from the equation. A person who, like Jake Barnes from Hemingway's 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises, is incapable of sexual intimacy due to injury may nonetheless be in a loving, romantic relationship.[3]

In Hemingway's novel, Jake Barnes's love, Brett Ashley, does not want to be more than (good) friends with Jake. The reasons for this are complex and by no means reducible to Jake's inability to have sex, but Jake's injury is probably not helping. However, we can well imagine a different woman in Brett's place who falls in love with Jake and makes a commitment to him. There may be sadness in a celibate relationship of this sort, but that sadness may be further evidence of the depth of love. Indeed, we can imagine a case in which the partner who cannot have sex, in a spirit of generosity, encourages the able-bodied one to have sex with others and the able-bodied one does so, but the sex is not fully satisfactory. There is a difference between sex—even sex with someone you are physically attracted to—and sex with the person you love. Iris Murdoch (1973) makes a related point. In The Black Prince, she says this:

The absolute yearning of one human body for another particular body and its indifference to substitutes is one of life's major mysteries. There are, I am told, people who just want 'a woman' or 'a man'. I cannot conceive of this state of affairs, and it does not concern me. (Murdoch 1973, 326)

I conclude that sex is not the missing ingredient.

One may, perhaps, approach the issue of the nature of romantic love from the opposite side and ask what is lost when romantic love is gone. It may but need not be dialogue, caring, or sexual attraction. Sometimes, love is gone yet people stay together precisely because they still get along and care for each other. They can still talk. They may respect each other and try to help each other grow. Indeed, it may be that both partners hope love will

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return because they get along so well. Yet it may seem that the blessing of the gods of love has been withheld. There is dialogue, caring, and even sexual intimacy, but not romantic love. The question is what is missing. Ben-Ze'ev does not tell us, but I wish he had.


My second comment concerns what I would like to call the romantic we perspective. In discussing the dialogue model of love, Ben-Ze'ev references Martin Buber (Ben-Ze'ev 2019, 46). I welcome the reference. Buber has probably done more than anyone to underscore the importance of the second-person perspective and the difference between regarding another third-personally, from an observational point of view, and addressing the other as an interlocutor, a thou.

However, I wish to suggest here that when we are lucky enough to find love, something else happens. There emerges a composite of the two lovers: a first-person plural; a we. 'We' is the pronoun of romantic intimacy. Ben-Ze'ev himself touches upon this issue briefly and quotes Nozick, who expresses a sentiment similar to mine here. Writes Ben-Ze'ev, "Robert Nozick argues that romantic love 'is wanting to form a we with that particular person'" (Ben-Ze'ev 2019, 47). But I don't think Ben-Ze'ev appreciates the full force of this remark, as he mentions Nozick and Buber in the same breath.

The we of intimacy, I want to argue, goes beyond second-personal address, beyond I and Thou. While two people who love each other remain separate people and ideally, retain their autonomy to a large extent, there is a sense in which they no longer think of themselves as fully independent and separate (nor does society think of them that way). The idea here is not that the two merge to the point of losing their own identities, as per the "fusion model" Ben-Ze'ev rejects as unhealthy.[4] Rather, the point is that when the lovers have attained a we perspective, each believes the other has a say in all major decisions and vice versa, and not for legal reasons but for reasons that have to do with love and commitment. Sometimes, when love is gone, one partner may say to the other, "We can work this out," to which the other may reply, "There is no we," alleging that the composite has disintegrated. Once love ceases to function as glue connecting the lovers, they become detached from each other once again.

In his discussion of polyamory—a model of love that allows for multiple intimate partners (rather than one primary partner plus one or more secondary ones, as in the case of sexually open relationships)—Ben-Ze'ev suggests that this type of relationship is compatible with deep and enduring romantic love. He does not say that achieving enduring love in a polyamorous relationship is easy, and indeed, he emphasizes the likelihood that feelings of jealousy may arise, but he does say that enduring love may nonetheless emerge in polyamory. This is because, on his view, we can love more than one person. Love, he tells us, is not like butter: it doesn't get thinner as we spread it more and more widely (Ben-Ze'ev 2019, 210).

This may be so. Parents, for instance, may be able to love the fifth or seventh or tenth child just as much as they love the first, and it may seem to them that their hearts are ever expanding to make room for each newborn child. But romantic love is unlike parental love in that enduring romantic love, but not parental love, involves a we perspective. Of course, a we perspective may emerge in a variety of contexts, for instance, when a father and a son are baking muffins together, when two soldiers are trying to survive together, or when two philosophers are

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working on a co-authored book. In all these cases, people act not solely as individuals but as parts of a composite. But these are temporary, local alliances.

The we of romantic intimacy is global, and it persists. Two people who love each other don't make important plans without consulting their partner. They don't think to themselves, "I will move to New York City" or "I will buy a condo." They think of what they will do together. (Indeed, some of the most painful breakups involve cases in which one partner is caught off guard due to having been kept in the dark. The we may have ceased to exist long ago, but the spurned lover did not know this as the other may have kept up appearances while secretly making plans that concern only him or herself.) If this is right, and if one nonetheless wants to maintain that polyamory is compatible with romantic love, then one must explain what sort of we might be expected to emerge in a polyamorous arrangement. Can the we that two people share survive the addition of a third person? If so, how?


There is a final point I wish to make before closing this discussion. I just argued that there is a we phase in a romantic love relationship and that this phase supersedes the I and Thou phase. (I should note that to the extent two lovers retain their autonomy, the I and Thou phase never ends, strictly speaking, so what we have here is not so much succession of two phases as a case in which the we phase starts later and overlaps with the I and Thou phase.) That's one way in which the sketch of the "arc of love" Ben-Ze'ev offers us is incomplete: the arc bends toward a we perspective.

There is another way in which the account may be said to be incomplete. There is a phase that precedes I and Thou: the I and Other phase. When we first fall in love with someone, the mind of the other is to a great extent intransparent to us. We alternate between regarding the other as a thou, and trying to gauge the other's thoughts and feelings third-personally by doing such things as talking to other people who know the object of our romantic interest or spying on the other on social media. This perceived impenetrability of the other's mind is the reason why nothing the other says at this stage is sufficient to give us the reassurance we seek. This is also why if we begin to doubt the other's feelings for us—whether with or without ground—a previously intimate relationship may devolve and go back to this earlier phase.

Both George Eliot ([1860] 1997) and Marcel Proust ([1925] 1982) underscore our tendency to see the beloved whose feelings we have doubts about as intransparent to us and as unknowable. Eliot writes, "Jealousy is never satisfied with anything short of an omniscience that would detect the subtlest folds of the heart" (Eliot [1860] 1997, 397). Proust suggests that the mental lives of others are always obscure to us, actually, but we don't notice this, because we don't much care about what they think or feel. Jealousy throws the opaqueness of the other's mind into sharp relief and makes us take notice, "It is one of the faculties of jealousy to reveal to us the extent to which the reality of external facts and the sentiments of the heart are unknown elements which lend themselves to endless supposition. We imagine that we know exactly what things are and what people think for the simple reason that we do not care about them. But as soon as we have a desire to know, as the jealous man does, then it becomes a dizzy kaleidoscope in which we can no longer distinguish anything" (Proust [1925] 1982, 529).

When the object of love is subject to endless interpretation, he or she remains an Other whose mind is hidden from view and whose motives must be inferred from observational evidence. For this reason, while love generally

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begins with falling in love, falling in love is not yet love. Ben-Ze'ev is not clear on this point and conflates falling in love with love. He calls this initial phase "fresh love" and says that fresh love is more intense though less profound than mature love. He writes:

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. While the old saying has it that "revenge is a dish best served cold," I believe that romantic love should never be cold. It does not need to be served at the boiling point, however; warm is very good as well. (Ben-Ze'ev 2019, 242)

But if the foregoing considerations are right, Ben-Ze'ev's suggestion here is misleading: the fresh love (which he, on the same page, calls also "intense wild love") is not love at all. The fledgling we at this initial phase is too unstable for the relationship to count as one of love. What we have at this point is excitement and perhaps a promise of love, a promise that may or may not be fulfilled. In addition, the lovers do not yet know each other, so whatever they are excited about, it isn't the other person, the real other.[5]

Finally, love may be checkered by periods of doubt, jealousy, and reversal to the I and Other phase. It is this early phase as well as the subsequent we perspective that seems to me to be largely missing from Ben-Ze'ev's otherwise thoughtful and informative discussion of the "arc" of love.

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[1] He says that "positive illusions tend to maintain and enhance […] love." Read Ben-Ze'ev 2019, 95.

[2] The alternative Ben-Ze'ev discusses here is the care model on which care for the other rather than dialogue is the essence of love. It may be supposed that the care model fits the love of a healthy partner for a partner with dementia, but Ben-Ze'ev argues that, "even if sick people cannot contribute to the loving relation as much as they did before, their loving relation is the continuation of what was before. This is compatible with the dialogue model" (199).

[3] An anonymous referee notes that to assume, as Hemingway does, that Jake Barnes is incapable of sexual intimacy on account of the particular injury he's suffered is to accept an overly restrictive view of sexual intimacy. I agree, but for present purposes this doesn't matter. One can imagine instead a person who is completely paralyzed and so incapable of sexual intimacy of any kind. Such a person too may be in a committed, loving relationship.

[4] Ben-Ze'ev writes, "Importantly, we are not talking about an unhealthy fusing of the lovers' identities—quite the contrary. Fusion, a kind of conjoined-twins model, implies not merely a loss of freedom but also a loss of each partner's identity" (84). Neither am I talking about fusion. What I am talking about is togetherness. Togetherness requires separate identities. Two partners who are together, unlike two who are "fused," may each have friends, hobbies, or interests the other does not share. Togetherness manifests itself in that each partner is consulted and has a say when it comes to the other's important choices. If my spouse strongly dislikes a group I plan to join, I owe it to him to either try to persuade him that joining is a good idea or reconsider joining. It is worth noting here that historically, fusion has tended to involve the loss not of two identities but of one – one partner, typically a woman in heterosexual marriage – assumes the identity of the other and sometimes even the title, as in the once popular in German-speaking countries "Frau Doktor X" bestowed to women married to physicians who were not themselves physicians. In these cases, one partner may come to be identified primarily as the other's spouse. These are clearly not cases of togetherness and a romantic we perspective in the relevant sense but rather, of subordination of one partner's identity to that of the other. But even in the absence of subordination, togetherness, as I just argued, is not the same as fusion.

[5] I have argued elsewhere (Fileva 2020) that so-called "unrequited love" is, for similar reasons, not love of the other at all but of a fictionalized version of the other.

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Ben-Ze'ev, Aaron. 2019. The Arc of Love. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Eliot, George. [1860] 1997. The Mill on the Floss. London, UK: Wordsworth Editions Limited.

Fileva, Iskra. 2020. "Is There Such a Thing as Unrequited Love?" Psychology Today, April 11, 2020.

Hemingway, Ernest. [1926] 2016. The Sun Also Rises. New York, NY: Scribner.

Murdoch, Iris. 1973. The Black Prince. New York, NY: Penguin Books.

Proust, Marcel [1925] 1982. The Fugitive in Remembrance of Things Past, 3 Volumes. Translated by C. K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin. New York, NY: Vintage.

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Iskra Fileva © 2020.

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