The Arc of Love: How Our Romantic Lives Change over Time
Nöel CarrollThe Graduate Center, CUNY, USA
Carroll, Nöel. 2020. "On Aaron Ben-Ze'ev, The Arc of Love." Journal of Philosophy of Emotion 2, no. 1: 2020.5-4. https://doi.org/10.33497/2020.5. Originally published in a slightly different form (without abstract) as a book review on May 18, 2020, The European Legacy, DOI: 10.1080/10848770.2020.1769284.
Abstract: Although I am in agreement with much of Ben Ze'ev's analysis, I have a few quibbles. One reservation that I have is that in some respects Ben Ze'ev may be guilty of presentism—of generalizing contemporary viewpoints to past historical periods—as with his suggestion that sharing intrinsic activities, by which I take it he means intrinsically valuable activities, is a necessary ingredient in long-term, enduring, romantic relationships. Specifically, I wonder if the activities in question have to be intrinsically valuable. I am also not sure there is necessarily a pronounced zero-sum competition between enduring romantic love and all of the various forms of contemporary sex that diverge from enduring romantic love. Finally, despite the subtitle of Ben Ze'ev's book—How Our Romantic Lives Change over Time—there is one type of change that he does not scrutinize to any appreciable extent, namely, the permanent breakdown of long-term, romantic love as might end in divorce as a result of betrayal. I think that betrayal is a subject worthy of discussion in the context of changes in our romantic lives, since it happens so frequently.
Keywords: love, intrinsically valuable activities, contemporary sex, and betrayal
The Arc of Love: How Our Romantic Lives Change over Time by Aaron Ben-Ze'ev is a wise book. I wish that I had been able to read it when I was sixteen.
The book is about long-term, enduring romantic love. Its major thesis is that such love is possible. On Ben-Ze'ev's view, long-term, enduring romantic love is historical, requiring time to develop, which involves care and nurturing for the other's best interests and mutual flourishing as a result of being based upon shared, intrinsically valuable experiences and activities, including sex. The book charts structural and phenomenological aspects of enduring romantic love as they emerge over time as well as citing many of the problems that may beset
such a relationship and often proffering advice—indeed, very good advice—about ways to negotiate them, including how to choose a lover and options concerning what to do if one's spouse is stricken with dementia.
What I admire most about this book is Ben-Ze'ev's decision to focus on one sort of romantic love—enduring romantic love—rather than to attempt to generalize about every sort of romantic love, including not only long-term love relationships, but infatuation and courtship. By segregating out enduring romantic love and not indiscriminately lumping it together with infatuation and courtship, Ben-Ze'ev avoids certain problems, such as answering the question of whether love is rational or not, since infatuation is arguably ungoverned by reason, whereas enduring romantic love is rational inasmuch as it is connected to the mutual and individual flourishing of the beloveds. Isolating the different types of love affords greater clarity as Ben-Ze'ev ably demonstrates.
This is not to say that Ben-Ze'ev ignores infatuation and courtship. Rather, he views them as elements in the development of enduring love—sometimes as stages thereof and sometimes as impediments. Nevertheless, by centering his discussion on enduring romantic love, Ben-Ze'ev places us in a position to answer the question of why it is reasonable for someone in an enduring romantic love relationship to stay with his/her partner despite the availability of someone else with the same properties as those of the beloved but in greater abundance.
The reason the lover will not, in a manner of speaking, "trade-up" is that the lovers in the long-term, enduring romantic relation have a history that has shaped their identities as parts of a positive and significant relationship. Each member of that relationship (when it is successful), for example, has tried to live up to the idealizations of the other, thereby becoming better selves, or, as Aristotle might say, flourishing. They have shared experiences, activities, and challenges which have made them what they are. The uncertain prospect of a new relationship—even a relationship with someone smarter, funnier, sexier than one's present beloved—pales in the face of the shared history of a genuinely enduring, long-term relationship.
Despite the subtitle of Ben-Ze'ev's book—How Our Romantic Lives Change over Time—there is one type of change that he does not scrutinize to any appreciable extent, namely, the permanent breakdown of long-term romantic love that might end in divorce as a result of betrayal. Ben-Ze'ev does discuss what he calls "consensual nonmonogamy" as a strategy for dealing with the waning of sexual desire in an enduring couple-relationship, but he does not delve into nonconsensual nonmonogamy—also known as infidelity or, more commonly, as cheating. Perhaps this is because his main interest in enduring romantic love is with its development rather than its dissolution.
Nevertheless, I think that betrayal is a subject worthy of discussion in the context of changes in our romantic lives, since it happens so frequently. Yet I hasten to add that I say this not in order to challenge Ben-Ze'ev's account of enduring romantic love, but rather because his historical portrait of the possibility of the identity-construction, as afforded by enduring romantic love, sheds light on the wrong done by cheating. Clearly, cheating, insofar as it involves deception, falls into the category of lying. But the wrong perpetrated by cheating seems deeper than just dishonesty and an analysis such as Ben-Ze'ev's of enduring romantic love can tell us why.
A long-term romantic relationship involves a history during which the members forge an identity in concert with what they take to be each other's activities and commitments. If the couple-contract presupposes exclusivity, the monogamous partner may take his/her fidelity as a reflection upon his/her character. He/she may take pride in his/her efforts in trying to make the relationship work. He/she may attempt to realize the
idealizations he/she takes the partner to hold of him/her. And they may regard their efforts to sustain the relationship as an important aspect of whom they take themselves to be. Indeed, he/she may have regarded his/her deliberate incuriousness about what his/her partner was up to as evidence of the romantic virtue of trust. To learn that one had been betrayed in such a situation can predictably amount to a blow to one's identity.
That is, if one member of the relationship considers sustaining the relationship as an accomplishment and that his/her contribution to that accomplishment is one of the finest things that he/she has done, to then learn that that is an illusion can sunder his/her self-narrative to the extent that that subplot in his/her life story, which is part of his/her identity, is destroyed. It is not just a matter of being lied to. It is a harm done to the victim's sense of self. The damage would be akin to learning that all the good grades and academic achievements that one believed he/she had earned were actually the result of bribes paid by his/her parents. It would be psychologically crushing and potentially debilitating. It would not simply be a matter of puncturing one's pride. It could undercut the kind of self-esteem one needs to function in the relevant domains of living. It can leave one feeling incomplete for losing, so to say, part of one's identity.
It seems to me to be a strength of Ben-Ze'ev conception of enduring, romantic love that, even though he does not analyze cases like this, he has given us the tools to understand infidelity insofar as the historical account of enduring romantic love emphasizes the degree to which this species of love involves identity construction. A good theory is fecund in the sense that it points ahead to the solutions of questions it does not explicitly broach. And in that sense, Ben-Ze'ev's account is fecund.
Although I am in agreement with much of Ben-Ze'ev's analysis, I have a few quibbles. One reservation that I have is that in some respects Ben-Ze'ev may be guilty of presentism—of generalizing contemporary viewpoints to past historical periods. One place where this may be happening is with his suggestion that sharing intrinsic (non-instrumental) activities—by which I take it he means intrinsically valuable activities—is a necessary ingredient in long-term, enduring romantic relationships. Specifically, I wonder if the activities in question have to be intrinsically valuable. I imagine that in times and/or places in which the conditions of human life are/were harsher than they are in prosperous, postindustrial societies, the opportunities for indulging in intrinsically valuable, joint activities may have been or may still be decidedly rare and even nonexistent. The environment may be so unforgiving that most of the couple's time must be spent in securing the necessities of human existence for themselves and their families. They must engage in many joint activities—working together in the fields from dawn to dusk, for example—but they may have little time left over for intrinsically valuable joint activities. Their joint activities by-and-large and in some cases even exclusively are instrumentally valuable, aimed at the external goods required for staying alive. I see no reason why a long-term relationship of this sort couldn't become an enduring romantic relationship of the sort Ben-Ze'ev has in mind.
It might be thought that the absence of joint intrinsic activities is highly unlikely. After all, the kinds of societies that I seem to have in mind are frequently religious and religion often provides the source of opportunities of joint intrinsic activities. But suppose our couples engage in the religious activities not for their own sake, but because they are obligated to do so by their gods who in return will look over them and protect them from adversity. So even their moments of worship together will turn out to be instrumentally valuable. However, as far as I can see, the same relationship fruits can blossom from joint activities that are instrumental in nature as those Ben-Ze'ev attributes to intrinsic activities. Both members of the relationship can nurture and encourage the other to become their better selves under the influence of the idealizations of their partner. Even if the joint
activities in which they engage are instrumental, each member of the relationship can benefit from the desire of each to improve the lot of the other and, in addition, each can flourish at the same time that the relationship flourishes. Both can approach the best version of themselves through their joint activities. That is, I don't see why there cannot be long-term, enduring romantic unions of the sort that Ben-Ze'ev theorizes among people who through desperate circumstances have little or no time for the luxury of joint intrinsic experiences. Indeed, I suspect that historically there have been many such relationships during straitened periods. It may even be possible that sometimes when situations make couples more reliant upon each other and dependent upon each other to consistently rise to the occasion, the likelihood of the emergence of an enduring romantic bond might be enhanced. Or, at least, I see no reason to suspect this.
Ben-Ze'ev's account of long-term, enduring romantic love is not merely descriptive. It is clearly normative. It valorizes enduring romantic love. This is apparent from the recurring contrasts Ben-Ze'ev draws between it and various, contemporary sexual practices which he repeatedly criticizes for placing more weight on the quantity of erotic experience rather than its quality, as occurring at an accelerated pace rather than slowly and deliberately, and as preferring intensity rather than profundity.
Contemporary erotic life, as Ben-Ze'ev repeatedly portrays it, tends to be a matter of lust rather than love, a pursuit of superficial, and casual sex, abetted by the Internet, rather than a cultivation of depth, which sorry state of affairs Ben-Ze'ev suggests may be influenced by the culture of consumerism at large in terms of carnal window-shopping. At times, it sounds as though Ben-Ze'ev regards long-term, enduring love, perhaps supplemented, when needed, by consensual nonmonogamy, as an antidote to pursuing the present surfeit of sex on what we once called "the meat market." He regards enduring romantic love as a leading means for satisfying a human need for belonging and thus, one supposes, as a natural cure for the ills of contemporary sexuality.
But I am not sure there is necessarily such a pronounced zero-sum competition between enduring romantic love and all of the various forms of contemporary sex that diverge from enduring romantic love. Ben-Ze'ev himself wisely reminds us that enduring romantic love is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for human flourishing. For example, one may find belonging in one's work—as in the case of the community of one's fellow scholars—while satisfying one's sex life in various alternate ways, including by indulging in casual sex on occasion.
It is true that many people think that enduring romantic love is essential for happiness, that they yearn for it, and would feel incomplete without it. But there are other forms of modi vivendi—other forms of combining one's projects with one's sex life—which need not be stultifying as Ben-Ze'ev portrays contemporary romance. As I am sure Ben-Ze'ev would readily concede, there is a plurality of ways to evolve a flourishing life, ones that integrate forms of romance other than the enduring sort. Nevertheless, his repeated description of the contemporary scene makes it sound as though enduring romantic love were the only satisfactory alternative. He is correct in observing that many people believe this. But that may be no less an artifact of the kind of romantic ideology that convinces so many that there is only one Mr. or Mrs. Right and which ideology Ben-Ze'ev is out to dismantle.
On the one hand, I think that exploring alternative ways in which romance other than the enduring kind can be incorporated effectively in a flourishing way of life would be appropriate in a book devoted to the vicissitudes of love. On the other hand, I believe that Ben-Ze'ev has done such a stellar job in illuminating the outlines of long-term, enduring romantic love that it would be churlish to ask for anything more.
Published with the permission of the European Journal © 2019.
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