On Aaron Ben-Ze'ev, The Arc of Love

Troy Jollimore

California State University, Chico, USA

Jollimore, Troy. 2020. "On Aaron Ben-Ze'ev, The Arc of Love." Journal of Philosophy of Emotion 2, no. 1: 27-33.

Abstract: I comment on three areas of concern regarding the notion of profundity in Aaron Ben-Ze'ev's The Arc of Love. First, I consider the role of time in the concept of profundity: is a romantic relationship by definition more profound the longer it lasts? Second, I draw a contrast between two conceptions of profundity: in terms of it being measured quantitatively and as being dependent on judgments that cannot be reduced to quantitative measurements. I end with a few brief comments on issues of sexual diversity and polyamory, and their relation to Ben-Ze'ev's views on intimacy and profundity.

Keywords: love, profundity, time, value, and monogamy

Aaron Ben-Ze'ev's The Arc of Love raises and explores a large number of issues in connection with romantic love. I want to address the notion of profundity, and what it means in the context of Ben-Ze'ev's position. My comments will focus on three areas. First, I consider the role of time in the concept of profundity: is a romantic relationship by definition more profound the longer it lasts? Second, I draw a contrast between subjective and objective conceptions of profundity, suggesting that the former can be measured quantitatively while the latter cannot. I end with a few brief comments on issues of sexual diversity and polyamory, and their relation to Ben-Ze'ev's views on intimacy and profundity.


The Arc of Love makes a number of claims about romantic profundity. Many seem to suggest a strong link between romantic profundity and time. Ben-Ze'ev writes, "Something that is profound extends far below the surface and has a lasting effect" (41). Profound experiences are, of course, to be distinguished from superficial

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experiences, which Ben-Ze'e'v says have opposite tendencies: "Superficial experiences affect only the surface and are limited in their scope and impact" (42).

References to "the surface" make sense—generally, 'profound' means something like 'deep'—but it is not entirely clear, in this particular context, what surface we are talking about. (One way for love to be profound is for it to be based on an appreciation of the beloved's deep qualities rather than their superficial properties. Another is for it to cause non-superficial changes in the lover. And there are many others.) The claims about effects, scope, and impact begin to suggest a way of filling this out: to cause an effect that goes far beneath the surface is to cause an effect that will endure over time. Thus, when Ben-Ze'ev writes that the effects of superficial experiences are "limited," at least one thing he seems to mean is that they are temporally limited: they don't last long, but fade quickly.

This seems like an apt reading, given that the book's main focus is love and time. Sometimes, indeed, it sounds as if it might be built into the very definition of romantic profundity that it involves something extended over a period of time: "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" (41).

It may be, though, this is not intended as a (partial) definition of romantic profundity, but rather as a substantive claim about what such profundity typically involves. After all, on the very next page Ben-Ze'ev writes that "romantic intensity, as typically expressed in sexual desire, is brief, while romantic profundity often grows deeper with time" (42; my emphasis). And Ben-Ze'ev makes claims about profundity that are not necessarily connected with time: for instance, that it involves complexity. (For instance, he says that complexity "underlies" profundity (212). I will return to the topic of complexity below.) So the connection between profundity and time seems to be contingent rather than necessary.

That's good, because it is all too common in our culture to assume that profound love must be long-lasting love—and, often, that it must be long-lasting exclusive love—and at first I worried that Ben-Ze'ev was making the same mistake. The fact is that brief, passing experiences can change people in significant ways. People who go outside of their marriages or other long-term relationships are often looking not just for pleasure but for profundity, for meaningful connection, for experiences that will touch them at a deep level and change them in radical ways. Sometimes, it seems, they find what they are seeking. Consider, for instance, of the brief story told to Mr. Thompson, the reporter, by Mr. Bernstein, Charles Foster Kane's business manager, in Orson Welles' (1940) Citizen Kane:

A fellow will remember things you wouldn't think he'd remember. You take me. One day, back in 1896, I was crossing over to Jersey on a ferry and as we pulled out, there was another ferry pulling in - (slowly) - and on it, there was a girl waiting to get off. A white dress she had on - and she was carrying a white [parasol] - and I only saw her for one second and she didn't see me at all - but I'll bet a month hasn't gone by since that I haven't thought of that girl. (Welles 1940)

Consider, as a second example, the end of James Joyce's (1965) story "The Dead," in which Gabriel Conroy, after years of marriage to his wife, Gretta, discovers that she has all along been harboring an enduring love for a boy, Michael Furey, who died when she was young. As she tells the story she is entirely overcome with emotion—so much so that her husband, assuming that this passion for a lost boy means that her passion for him can never be wholehearted, is reduced to despair:

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She stopped, choking with sobs, and, overcome by emotion, flung herself face downward on the bed, sobbing in the quilt. Gabriel held her hand for a moment longer, irresolutely, and then, shy of intruding on her grief, let it fall gently and walked quietly to the window. […] He thought of how she who lay beside him had locked in her heart for so many years the image of her lover's eyes when he had told her that he did not wish to live. (Joyce 1965, 221-23)

It seems to me that if profundity is what we desire from our connections with others, one could hardly do better than to have an experience like Gretta's, Although the relationship did not endure, being ended by death, its impact on Gretta clearly has endured.

This, too, might be resisted. Ben-Ze'ev claims that intimacy is "the essence of love" (39). Such a view might easily be combined with the claim that intimacy can only grow over time, so that a brief encounter or a relationship that is cut short cannot involve genuine intimacy. Again, though, Ben-Ze'ev seems to avoid this mistake. At any rate, he clearly allows that short relationships can involve intimacy:

The experience of healthy intimate sex is not over when both people climax, but continues with embracing, talking, and just being together. Some people (more so women) claim that this is the most enjoyable part of intimate sex. As one married woman said after her first extramarital affair, "What I enjoyed the most that evening was the kissing, cuddling, and his emotional presence." (178)

This passage occurs in a discussion of what Ben-Ze'ev calls "junk sex," and it seems clear from his discussion of junk sex that while one night stands and other short-term affairs might lack intimacy more frequently than long-term relationships do, there is no reason they cannot feature genuine intimacy, and thus do not necessarily constitute 'junk sex.' (Moreover, I stress the might: we should not simply assume that this is so.) It is a further question, though, whether brief encounters can involve profundity, on Ben-Ze'ev's view. If, as he writes on, "profound love requires investing a lot of quality time" (212), it would seem unlikely that they could. Again, though, it is possible that he means only that this is what profound love typically requires, and would be willing to allow that at least in some unusual cases profundity is more quickly achieved.


In a number of places Ben-Ze'ev seems to suggest that truly profound love involves getting to know the beloved in intimate detail in all their complexity, something that did not and could not have taken place between Gretta and Michael during the limited time they knew each other. He writes:

The lovers' emotional complexity strengthens their relationship and weakens the typical decline in intensity. In profound long-term love, the beloved is perceived as a complex human being with whom one can engage in diverse intrinsic experiences. (23)

A bit later, responding to the worry that long-term romantic relationships will eventually lose the spark of romance, he writes:

Philip Sudo states that no matter how familiar we are with each other, we cannot get bored if we truly pay attention to the complexity of the other. He makes this argument for lovemaking as well, saying

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there is a level of depth that genuine lovers can only experience after sharing a great deal of time together. They are like musicians, who, having played together for many years, come to know each other very well. (40-41)

And late in the book he writes that "In general, romantic profundity feeds on the idea that 'to know you is to love you'" (223).

The focus on complexity may suggest a somewhat different conception of profundity than what has been suggested by the passages we have looked at to this point. On the whole, the prior passages suggest a view of profundity as something that is essentially quantitative, and is determined by an impact that is measurable in value-neutral terms (how long the impact lasts, how intense it feels, how many of one's habitual behaviors are altered, etc.) By contrast, the competing approach views profundity as being manifested in phenomena that are not merely impactful but valuable, things like wisdom, insight, and the ability to understand other human beings. But determining when these sorts of things obtain is a qualitative rather than quantitative judgment.

The two approaches are thus deeply different. Many experiences whose impacts are long-lasting, or that feel intense at the time, need not involve any sort of cognitive progress or grasping of profound truths. Sometimes, indeed, experiences with long-lasting effects involve precisely the opposite of cognitive progress (suffering brain damage, joining a cult, becoming a university administrator, etc.) The distinction between quantitative and qualitative accounts might be especially important in cases where a romantic relationship is no longer enriching or rewarding in the ways it once was—cases involving, for instance, love for persons with dementia:

Although in old age and with dementia the shared time and activities are more limited and less diverse, they can still be part of love and intimacy. Thus, even if sick people cannot contribute to the loving relationship as much as they did before, their loving relation is the continuation of what it was before. (199)

The idea that a post-dementia relationship should be seen as a "continuation of what it was before" will no doubt strike some readers as surprising. Our reaction, of course, depends on just what we mean by 'continuation.' Some would want to say that while the post-dementia relationship is indeed, in a sense, a continuation of what went before (a continuation of the relationship, and most likely a continuation of some form of love), it is no longer profound love. But on the next page Ben-Ze'ev claims that at least in many cases, profound love is indeed possible under such circumstances:

While individual experiences differ widely, dementia does consistently mark a change in the way that partners relate to each other and interact. This is not a barrier to profound, though limited, love, but it requires significant adjustments to the new type of relationship. (200)

This, too, seems rather surprising. After all, the ability to achieve and maintain a sophisticated and insightful cognitive grasp of a human being in all their complexity is just the sort of thing that is likely to be threatened, if not extinguished, by the affliction of dementia. If that is what profundity is supposed to consist in, we should probably not expect to find it in these kinds of tragic circumstances. Of course, if we understand profundity in terms of deep and enduring impacts, then there is a sense in which caring for a person with dementia—or anyone else who needs high levels of care—might, like any other difficult experience, be a profound experience. A person who suffers a severe injury, or is diagnosed with a terminal illness, will surely be greatly (i.e. profoundly) impacted. But, while such an impact might bring wisdom, insight, or understanding, it is by no

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means guaranteed to; so the connection with profundity in the deeper, qualitative sense seems contingent at best. On the whole, I tend to agree with Neil Delaney (1996) that in such cases what remains is typically no longer a relationship of romantic love, but rather one of what Delaney terms "loving commitment" (1996, 351); and for this reason I am skeptical regarding the claim that the relationship that remains is properly understood as a continuation of what existed before.


A position that places as much importance as Ben-Ze'ev's does on relationship length and profundity might have been expected to take a fairly traditional view regarding monogamy and lifelong commitment. "Profound love," he writes, "requires investing a lot of quality time . . ." (212). Many would argue that the required time investment would leave little time for investments elsewhere. They might argue, too, that since profundity also requires intimacy, it is incompatible with open sexual relationships, which endanger intimacy (or perhaps simply make it impossible) by inviting in other sexual partners.

But what about the risk of sexual boredom? Here, we might have expected Ben-Ze'ev to deploy Philip Sudo's (2000) view, mentioned earlier, in defense of an ideal of monogamy. If it is true that "no matter how familiar with each other, we cannot get bored if we truly pay attention to the complexity of the other," we need not resort to other partners in order to avoid boredom. We need only pay better attention to our partner.

But Ben-Ze'ev turns out not to be a rigid supporter of monogamy or of fidelity traditionally conceived. He is in fact surprisingly open to alternate, more flexible, arrangements, including polyamory, which he sees as part of a "balanced diet" for many lovers (though certainly not for everybody) (220). Moreover he seems to suggest that polyamory actually encourages profundity: "I have emphasized the importance of complexity for the endurance and profundity of romantic relationships. Polyamory is more complex than monogamy in the senses we have discussed: diversity, ambivalence, and behavioral complexity" (208).

One might have reservations about this. For one thing, we must ask if the "complexity" here referred to is the same one we had in mind, or would properly have in mind, when making the apparently plausible claim that complexity underlies or is otherwise closely connected with profundity. When making such claims, Ben-Ze'ev often seems to have in mind the complexity of one's love partner; both intimacy and profundity are manifested in the process of coming to recognize, appreciate, and know this complexity. But it is not clear that the forms of complexity here associated with polyamory, i.e. "diversity, ambivalence, and behavioral complexity," really amount to the same thing.

At the same time, there is much to be said for Ben-Ze'ev's openness to romantic and sexual flexibility. For one thing, the pro-monogamy argument some might hope to ground in Sudo's claim about boredom, and in his music analogy, is not as strong as monogamy's advocates might hope. Sudo suggests that as long as one is paying attention, one will never be bored, since after all, there is always something new to learn about one's lover. But even if this is true, it is also true that there is a good deal more to be learned about those whom one does not yet know. And if having diverse experiences contributes to profundity, then it is not clear why one should limit oneself to one lover. A single lover, no matter how complex she might be, cannot compete with a diversity of lovers. So consider again the analogy with musicians. It is true that musicians who have played together for many years will know each other very well and will be able to play together in a way they could not with other

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musicians. By the same token, the more they play the same piece together, the better they will get to know it and—up to a certain point—the deeper their experience and performance of it will be. But that "up to a certain point" is important, because eventually the performers will reach a plateau, and soon after a stage of diminishing returns. And even before that—indeed, long before that—it is hugely unlikely that they will choose to focus all their efforts on a single piece, no matter how well they might want to get to know it. For that matter, it is highly unlikely, no matter how good an artistic rapport they enjoy with one another, that none of them will ever go outside the group to play with another musician. Indeed, such brief relationships and musical one night stands can provide a highly desirable kind of freshness, novelty, and excitement; and it is not obvious why they would threaten the mutual understanding and rapport the core group has established. There seem to be reasons both to develop long-term relationships and to seek out novel, brief encounters.

The most plausible view, one might suspect, is that profundity combines and balances change and stasis, which seems to lend credence to Ben-Ze'ev's view that what we should want is a "balanced diet." That said, this leaves open a great many questions about what a balanced diet would consist in, and Ben-Ze'ev's suggested answers to this question are, perhaps of necessity, somewhat tentative and exploratory. A great deal will depend on how we answer questions about intimacy such as those raised above. Is achieving true intimacy with one's current committed partner compatible with enjoying other, less committed relationships on the side? If so, some form of polyamory may be recommended. If not, the most likely alternative is not full-fledged committed monogamy (i.e. one partner for life) but rather some form of serial monogamy: even if we can only make one romantic relationship at a time work, there would still seem to be reason to pursue multiple relationships in one's life, rather than just one. (And even if multiple simultaneous relationships can work, it might still be true that one would maximize profundity not by having one 'serious' partner for life and a number of side encounters, but by moving from one serious relationship to another over the course of one's life, enjoying side encounters the whole while.)

If this is so, and if we value profundity above all else, then we might find ourselves disagreeing with the Tom Robbins (1980) quotation Ben-Ze'ev quotes at the outset of his book: "There is only one serious question. And that is . . . how to make love stay?" (2). It might be, in fact, that there are times when it would be better if love did not stay, but instead released us, freeing us to have new, more diverse, more complex experiences. Then again, perhaps profundity is less important than the value of love itself, or less significant than the commitments love inspires us to enter into. Whether this might be so is itself surely a serious question about love—one that philosophers, and others, need to think seriously about.

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

Delaney, Neil. 1996. "Romantic Love and Loving Commitment: Articulating a Modern Ideal. American Philosophical Quarterly 33, no. 4: 339-56.

Joyce, James. 1969. "The Dead." In Dubliners. New York, NY: Modern Library.

Mankeiwicz, Herman J. and Orson Welles. 1940. Citizen Kane. Original Script.

Robbins, Tom. 1980. Still Life with Woodpecker. New York, NY: Bantam Books.

Sudo, Philip T. 2000. Zen Sex: The Way of Making Love. San Francisco, CA: Harper.

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Troy Jollimore © 2020.

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