Fall in Love In Three Easy Steps! Seriously. Cross My Heart. But, Would You Want Do It?

The Technique of LoveIf you could fall in love with anyone, using a simple, easy, and effective technique, would you do it?

Mandy Len Catron, in this very sweet and enjoyable piece, tells the story of how, one evening, she and a friend tempted both Fate and Cupid, using a technique developed by Dr. Arthur Aron more than twenty years ago. And, lo and behold, it worked! They fell in love.

And it only took three easy steps. No wine required, but it probably can’t hurt.

  1. Find a willing partner/test subject.
  2. Ask and honestly answer these thirty-six questions.
  3. Stare silently into each other’s eyes for four unbroken minutes.

Are you, like me, reminded of both The Simpsons and those superstitions that involve muttering a name into a mirror. Do you really want the apparition to appear? I mean, really?

Think of it another way.

If you and a potential partner could swallow a pill that would ensure a mutually respectful, and lasting love, would you take it with just anyone or would you wait for the best match to come along? I suspect the latter, unless, of course, you’re over thirty.

And that may be the key point. Dr. Aron’s technique seems to be about mainlining intimacy. Do that with a partner — any partner — and there is a good chance you will fall in love. Mainline with the wrong person, and you may end up in love, but not so happy.

Coming full circle, it seems love can — and perhaps even should be — a choice, rather than something that happens to us. Find a plausible match, encourage intimacy, and, then, look into each other’s eyes.

When I put it like that, the technique sounds a lot like a good romantic date. It also makes me think that people falling out of “love” are actually falling out of “intimacy”.

Can you think of someone you want to test this test on? Why not give it a try? I double dare you! Please let us know how it goes below.

Safer still, if you are already in a relationship, why not give it a go? It might rekindle the simmering flames much more than another lame “dinner-and-a-movie date night.” Let us know how it goes!


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Preferences v. Reasons: What the Heart Knows, the Mind Shouldn’t Explain.

PreferencesNot too long ago, someone asked me why I liked her — that is, why I found her attractive in a romantic kind of way. She didn’t like my answer.

Prompted by her dissatisfaction, I thought some more about it, and I decided I didn’t particularly like my answer either. It also occurred to me that certain kinds of questions seem to beget certain kinds of answers. “Why do you like me,” for example, seems to beget necessarily a laundry list of straightforward, conventional, and even cliche reasons as an answer. My answer was unsatisfying, I concluded, because it was the wrong kind of question to ask.

A somewhat longer time ago, someone else asked me why I didn’t like her — that is, why I didn’t find her attractive in a gooey on the inside kind of way. She also didn’t like my answer.

In this instance, I avoided answering the question directly, shrugging my shoulders and pleading it was unknowable. I could have, if I wanted, produced a laundry list of reasons, but I also knew that the list would not be a truthful answer to the question. If I actually had the gooey feeling for her, I knew, all the potentially hurtful reasons I might mention would be totally irrelevant to that feeling. In this instance, I refused to answer because I knew the laundry list was irrelevant to the question.

It turns out that both of my conclusions may be in align with our growing understanding of the brain.

Research indicates that the part of our brain that forms preferences is distinct from the part of our brain that generates reasons to justify our preference and actions. More importantly, our preference forming brain may be inaccessible to our reason giving brain. So, when asked to justify our preferences, our reason giving brain makes something up that makes sense to it, but may have no connection to the part of us that actually formed the preference.

David McRaney, my source for this research, summarizes the phenomenon in this way:

When you ask people why they do or do not like things, they must then translate something from a deep, emotional, primal part of their psyche into the language of the higher, logical, rational world of words and sentences and paragraphs. The problem here is those deeper recesses of the mind are perhaps inaccessible and unconscious. The things that are available to consciousness might not have much to do with your preferences.

One of the, perhaps, unexpected but measurable consequences of this research is that we can easily reason ourselves out of what we actually desire. For example, in one experiment, students were invited to choose and keep one of  a series of posters. One group of students was invited simply to pick the poster they most preferred. Another group was asked to justify their decision in advance of their choice. Six months later, the students, who simply picked their posters, loved them. The students who had to justify their choice ahead of choosing, hated them. Introspection, it seems, can work at cross purposes to our deepest preferences and desires.

This research, McRaney points out, challenges the value of introspection in many domains of life. Artists, for example, probably shouldn’t pout when a devoted fan can’t articulate why he loves their work. Theatre producers also might want to reconsider their efforts to stimulate at every turn a critical conversation about their latest production. Often, wordless appreciation is its deepest form. In the romantic context, it may also explain why people can reason their way into relationships which lack oomph and out of relationships with plenty of oomph, but no logical explanation for it.

It seems to me that lovers will always wonder about and inquire after the beloved’s feelings and intentions. Love is a roller coaster of euphoria and insecurity, and a Q&A about your mutual attraction is an easy way to flirt, to reinforce the mutual attraction, and to reassure each other of your feelings and desires. Of course, if the loving heart cares little for reasons, as this research suggests, maybe one shouldn’t worry too much about the exact nature of the reasons offered, so long as they are offered with conviction. Similarly, my recent experience suggests, if the beloved asks why you like her and is immediately critical of the reasons you offer, it’s probably a good sign that she really isn’t into you that much.

Live and learn. Live and learn.

The Worth in the While of the Noisy Exercise of Existence: Me and Kool and the Gang’s Joanna

AutobiographyJoanna Cooper was the first girl I ever fell in love with. It was Grade 4. I must have been nine. She was smart, pretty, and chatty. She sat in front of me, in my new class, at my new school. Kool and the Gang’s hit, “Joanna”, was tearing up the charts. It’s chorus said it all.

Given my age, you might be tempted to dismiss the emotions I was experiencing as something other than love — by calling it “puppy love” or a “crush.” The experience of love, however, is little more than a brain awash in the right chemicals. If those chemicals were awash in my brain, then, it’s fair to say I was in love. If my memory serves correctly, later experience suggests that my nine year old brain was awash in the right chemicals.

Of course, Capital-L Love refers to much more than one person’s experience of those chemicals. It also refers to our reactions to those chemicals, how the beloved responds to our reactions, whether or not the beloved’s brain is awash in the same chemicals, and whether or not the beloved’s brain is awash in the chemicals because of and for you. Love is an experience, reactions to the experience, and a relationship.

My nine year old brain’s reaction to the chemicals that Joanna stirred in me was, I think, both sweet and sad. On a piece of paper, I wrote, “Joanna, I love you.” Then, around this little note, I folded construction paper of different colours, making many protective layers. Then, I tightly sealed the little bundle of construction paper in masking tape. On that, I wrote statements like, “Top secret” and “Do not open.” Finally, I hid the package at the back of my sock drawer. Basically, I turned my love for Joanna into a secret treasure.

I did this, I think, because, on the one hand, my nine year old brain recognized that the experience of love was precious, valuable, and a kind of treasure. That’s the sweet part. On the other hand, my nine year old brain had also decided that the experience of love was something that should be concealed and protected. And that, I think, is the sad part. I suspect my nine year old brain reached this sad conclusion because of bad parenting, playground politics, and biology.

From my parents, who had been separated for a few years and, by this point, were locked in a custody battle, I learned that all emotions can and will be manipulated, especially the feelings I have for others. Emotions and, most importantly, the expression of them, I learned the hard way, put one at risk and made one highly vulnerable.

I also learned on the playground that emotions could be ridiculed and manipulated. In those days, for example, little boys teased each other for liking girls. Today, I’m not even sure why that was the case, but, back then, liking a girl could and would be used against you in the kangaroo court of the playground. Of course, I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that the very same boys doing the teasing were also the first boys to sneak kisses with the girls behind the portable.

Last but not least, I think the intense power of the chemicals of love also helped me draw my sad conclusion. Evolution put them there for a reason — to motivate us to action — and they are incredibly powerful motivators. For a kid, who had already learned that survival at home and on the playground depended on controlling one’s emotions, the arrival of this new high octane motivator must have felt like some kind of new mutant force. No matter how good the experience might have felt, my nine year old brain had been nurtured to think it had to be contained, controlled, and protected.

I remember taking great satisfaction in the knowledge that my love was safely hidden and preserved in my drawer. I also suspect that the chance of its discovery added a measure of titillation. Often, when I was sure I wouldn’t be discovered, I’d run to the drawer, uncover the package, and take hold of my beautiful secret, rolling it in my hands, testing the security of the tape. On more than one occasion, I tore open the package to reveal and read the exquisite secret hidden inside. Once the satisfaction of revealing and relishing the secret ebbed, I would make a new package, and hide it away again.

I don’t remember for how long my treasure making game went on. Was this something I did over a weekend or was it something I did for a couple of weeks or even months? I’m not sure. I am sure, however, that I never communicated my feelings to Joanna. The treasure game took the place of that scary and much riskier task.

Because I never expressed my feelings to Joanna or to anyone else who might have done the hard work of telling her for me, I had — and have — no idea, if anything like my feelings were reciprocated. I suspect they weren’t. I was probably a convenient new distraction in class, nothing more. Similarly, she may have been only a conveniently located target for my newly hormone-charged emotions. Love, as in property and business, is often a simple matter of location, location, location.

I also have no specific memory of my feelings for Joanna fading or disappearing. I switched schools again in the first month or two of Grade 5, and, by the time Joanna and I ended up in the same high school together, four years later, she no longer had any special effect on me. I recognized her as the girl I previously had strong feelings for, but my memory of her younger self had no effect on my feelings for her older self. Time does much more than heal wounds.

By the time I was eleven or twelve, I had divided the world of girls into two camps. There were girls I loved and desired, but about whom it was inappropriate for me to fantasize sexually. Alternatively, there were girls I didn’t particularly like, but about whom it was OK to fantasize. By all appearances, a seemingly classic distinction.

This distinction, however, is somewhat different from the conventional distinction between virgins and whores. I wasn’t particularly concerned about preserving or honouring the virtue of the girls I loved. I had incredibly strong sexual desires for them, but the romantic longing, I decided, had to take precedence over my sexual desires. So long as the love I wanted was unattainable, I wouldn’t allow myself to entertain the sexual fantasy, as kind of way to honour that love. I was, nevertheless, desperately horny. I wanted — nay, needed, — some hope of sexual intimacy, even if only as a fantasy, so I decided that it was OK to fantasize about girls about whom I was otherwise indifferent.

Once high school rolled around, and along with it the theoretical chance of actual physical intimacy, I had firmly committed myself to the idea that I was going to have sex for the first time with someone I was totally in love with — and she with me — or with someone to whom I was mostly indifferent. Eventually, and not surprisingly, my first sexual encounters were with perfectly pleasant people to whom I was mostly indifferent.

In the first year of university, at the age of twenty, I fell in love with someone that I was in awe of and, fortunately, she also fell in love with me. We successfully communicated our love to each other, and started what was was to be my first relationship. It was in that relationship that I learned to share my feelings of love and, importantly, some of the dark and still wordless sadness I had bottled up from childhood. One important and debilitating habit — concealing and containing emotion — was not quite broken, but it was severely cracked.

Despite the positives in the relationship, we broke up in the last year of our undergraduate degree. I can’t say that we broke up for any particular reason. By the end, there were obvious incompatibilities that the high fire of our chemical love had obscured early on, but nothing that we couldn’t have worked through, if we had the weight of tradition or children to hold us together. I also suspect, by not addressing those underlying issues when they first appeared, we let the chemical fires of our love burn too low. Without tradition, children, or a blazing love to encourage or compel us to work on evolving the relationship, when we were both feeling restless towards the end of university, we ended it.

Since then, when I review my romantic history, it seems like it has been governed by the distinction I first formulated when I was ten or eleven. I have had relationships with women because they stirred in me incredible feelings of love and I have had relationships with women because they were perfectly good and likable people, but, for whatever reason, there was no spark. Often, the first kind of relationship seemed to be a struggle against all odds, while the second developed out of good natured convenience.

On the one hand, the persistence of this distinction might be a sign that, despite a life of constant self-examination, I have not actually matured much with respect to my romantic feelings. On the other hand, it could also mean the distinction is motivated by some fundamental experience which is as true today as it was then. I won’t entirely dismiss the notion that I sometimes have the emotional development of an eleven year old, but I am also inclined to think the distinction may have some relevance at any age.

I think this because the experience of love, whatever our age, is always powerful and unsettling. It has the curious ability to make us both invincible and immeasurably vulnerable. It moves us in ways that are both mysterious and mundane. It is liberating and imprisoning. It makes of us both a master and a slave. In contrast, physical intimacy can be satisfying, fun, enjoyable and relatively frictionless, with no love required, so long as it is with a reasonably decent and considerate person. Ideally, I want to say, people will find love, physical intimacy, and companionship in one relationship, but I’m not sure everyone would agree with me.

Love, however powerful and beautiful it may be, can be terrifying because it is always experienced for some other person who may or may not be having the same experience, who may react to the experience of love in a manner that is unfamiliar to us (sometimes, even unfamiliar to him or herself), and who, for many reasons, rightly and wrongly, may not want to devote the time and energy to build and evolve a relationship that keeps both fires blazing. The indubitable experience of love, in and of itself, is a well-spring of uncertainty and, through it, an immeasurable ocean of vulnerability is discovered. It is only in and through the reactions of the beloved that we might find some certainty, but there is no assessment of those reactions that will ever provide the total certainty for which we desperately long. There are charlatans and fakes; sincere and well meaning people who evolve and change in the light of new circumstances; and some of us have been nurtured to experience the chemical rush with the wrong kind of people for all the wrong reasons.

With so much at stake in love, for many, it may seem simpler and safer to stick with the pleasant and nonthreatening comforts of physical intimacy and companionship. Despite my own commitment to the delicious terrors of love, I can’t think of any definitive reason why people shouldn’t take this easier and, arguably, more conventional path, so long as, they are, on the whole, happy. I prefer a relationship forged in love, but I won’t say it’s the one true path to a happy and long-term relationship. A commitment to perpetuate the relationship, for any reason, and a willingness to work together to solve problems and resolve difficulties seem to be the only prerequisites.

All these years later, long after my first encounter of it with Joanna, I am still in awe of the experience of love and those who can stoke its flames in me. And while I have sometimes wished that I had had the courage to jump into the game of love at a much early age than I did, when I reflect on the circumstances of my much younger self, I’m inclined to think, all things considered, he probably made the right decision to hide and protect his secret treasure.

Rejection by Joanna or some other beloved in my adolescence would have been devastating, and it would have been at a time when I was ill equipped to deal with such devastation. I also doubt I would have been well-prepared or well-positioned to return love had it been on offer. It is no coincidence, I think, that I had my first meaningful relationship far from the environment in which I learned to control and conceal my emotions. Emotional vulnerability, which is a necessary prerequisite of love, really wasn’t an option for me so long as I was living with or in proximity to my parents and the world I had created to endure them.

I also think it’s fair to say that my first relationship was far more successful than it otherwise might have been simply because my brain was much more developed. The human brain, we are discovering, continues to grow and develop for far longer than we had originally thought. A brain today is considered adolescent until “an individual attains a stable, independent role in society.”

Notably, an adolescent brain is as effective at rule following as an adult brain, but it is measurably less effective at adopting the perspective of another person to guide its behaviour, and this is an ability which is essential to any happy and healthy relationship, romantic or otherwise. Had I jumped into the game of love at too young an age, before my brain was ready, I might have made a mess of it, developing childish habits that would have haunted me long into adulthood.

Of course, my rosy glassed conclusion is probably one more example of the same after-the-fact reasoning our brains are always inclined to do. Research suggests we are hardwired to take solace in whatever outcome we eventually happen to find ourselves. Similarly, my fierce and, perhaps, irrational commitment to the experience of love, and relationships driven by it, is probably little more than a swollen set of rogue neurons or the accidental outcome of a highly imaginative kid growing up in a loveless family.

Nevertheless, whatever the root cause of my analysis and commitment may be, when I reflect on the contingency of the universe and the fact that it and everything in it will come to an empty end, and when I think of all the imaginable and currently unimaginable works and feats of humankind and of whatever other intelligent life might be out there, it is, for me, the fact that beings evolved to experience and share love that makes the whole noisy exercise seem worthwhile. If I am ever so lucky to have one final and grand assessment of my life, before I drift off into that good and empty night, I know, of all my achievements, what will matter most to me is that I learned to love and to be loved in return. And that, more than anything else, will make the noisy exercise of my life seem worthwhile now, tomorrow, and until the moment before my own empty end.

Between Laissez-Faire and The Rule of Law: What is the Politics of Your Relationship?

DirectionMost people want to be in some kind of romantic and/or sexual relationship, whether it be short-term or long-term, monogamous or non-monogamous. Many people, it seems to me, rarely reflect on the best way to arrange or organize that relationship. We very often race from tree-kissing to the baby carriage, without reflecting on whether or not there are better or worse ways to organize a relationship, given our goal or goals for that relationship. Certainly, we all have preconceived notions of the kind of relationship we want. Rarely, however, do we reflect on how best to arrange or organize that relationship, and whether or not a particular arrangement is consistent with a relationship’s intended purpose. The aim of this (rather lengthy) post is to propose a framework with which to make sense of and assess the many ways two (or more persons) might arrange and organize their relationship.

An Assumption With Which to Start

In this day and age, I have a hard time imagining that there are very many people who are looking for a romantic partner to complete him or her, in the classic sense of some fraction of a person meeting the complementary fraction of a person in order to make one person. It seems to me that most people are looking for a whole and complete person (more or less) with which to form a partnership in which both partners have equal standing (more or less). I write, “more or less” because whole and complete people tend to evolve over time, so, in one important sense, they are never whole and complete. Also, perfect equality in any relationship seems impossible, but equality, on the whole, certainly is possible.

So, if we begin with the assumption that the best romantic relationships are made up of (at least) two whole and complete people, what is the best way for this relationship to be arranged? There seems to me to be four options that can be usefully highlighted on a spectrum of possibility.

A Laissez-Faire Approach

In this approach, two whole and complete persons say to each other, “I am who I am, I do what I do, I do it when I want to do it, and I have no responsibility to you or anyone else, unless, in any given moment, I decide to create that responsibility. I can also revoke that responsibility as quickly as I create it.” The relationship exists so long as both persons independently make choices, with little or no coordination, that allow the relationship to persist over time, unless, of course, both independently decide to make some choices together.

A Hobbesian Approach

In this approach, two whole and complete persons recognize that they need to give up some of their freedom to avoid certain negative outcomes that neither of them want to experience. They recognize that a completely Laissez-faire approach to their relationship can and will lead to harm, so they agree to some basic ground rules that reduce the chance that they might be harmed by the other. In principle, any set of rules could be agreed upon. Crucially, the persons involved in the relationship only agree to the rules because they don’t want to experience the harm that occurs when the other person breaks the rules.

An Autonomous Approach

In this approach, both whole and complete persons recognize that they need to give up some of their freedom not only to avoid harm, but also to achieve certain goods that would otherwise be unachievable. They freely enter into a relationship that constrains both of them because they recognize that each partner will be better off when they both accept the limitations. In principle, any kind of relationship can be agreed to, so long as both partners contribute equally to the development of the relationship and freely accept and abide by it. Moreover, if both partners agree to revisit the terms of the relationship, they can.

An Absolute Law Approach

In this approach, both whole and complete persons recognize that there is a certain set of rules, which govern any and all successful relationships, whatever the people involved may think of them. Perhaps, the rules are god-given, naturally-given, or the result of the accumulated wisdom of the ages. Whatever the underlying metaphysical explanation, the rules are more important than what the partners think of them. In principle, one can imagine any set of rules being identified as the one-true set of rules for all relationships, depending on the people involved. The important consideration is that both partners are expected to play by those rules, no matter what they think of them, and the rules are not subject to revision.

Which Approach is the Best Approach?

I’m pragmatic enough to accept that each approach can work for different people at different times in their lives and in different circumstances, given their relationship goals. However, there is no reason to expect every approach to work for every kind of goal that a relationship might have. Some approaches are likely to be  better than others, depending on the goal or purpose of the relationship. Because most people seem to want a relationship that involves a long-term commitment, let’s consider these approaches from that perspective.

Assessing the Laissez-faire Approach

Although it seems unlikely, a Laissez-faire approach could, in principle, lead to a long-term and committed relationship. Perhaps, the wants, desires, and insecurities of the two people are so perfectly aligned, when they act on them without consideration of the other person, they simply stay true to each other. It is theoretically possible, but highly implausible.

Relationships never happen in a vacuum. Every whole and complete person has other people making demands on his or her time and attention. Unless both people are reacting only to the exact same people in the exact same circumstances, it seems unlikely that their decisions will always align in a way to allow for continuity over time.

Finally, it seems possible that two people could simply decide they are in a long-term and committed Laissez-faire relationship, even if their behaviours towards each other don’t really look anything like a long-term and committed relationship to anyone else. Importantly, however, certain goods, which can only be achieved through cooperation, would be very difficult to achieve or sustain in this kind of relationship. Raising a family together, in this approach, seems to me to be pretty much impossible.

Assessing the Hobbesian Approach

A long-term and committed Hobbesian relationship seems possible. So long as both partners respect the terms of the relationship, it could run smoothly for an extended period of time. In fact, I suspect very many relationships are Hobbesian in nature.

The shortcoming of this approach, I think, is that certain kinds of goods will be inaccessible to the people involved in this relationship because each person only gives so much regard to the other. It also seems plausible that the partners might inadvertently corner themselves into situations where they both make choices that make both of them worse off because of that limited regard. For example, people who are not wholly honest with each other might, in the light of more information from their partner, make different and better choices. Nevertheless, a family could, I think, be raised in this kind of relationship. In fact, many families probably are.

Assessing an Autonomous Approach

A long-term and committed Autonomous relationship is also possible, however, there is no reason to think it will be any more or less long-term and committed than a Hobbesian relationship. An Autonomous relationship, I think, has the potential for a wider range of goods and experiences than the Hobbesian approach because there is much more opportunity for cooperation and all those goods that are accessible only through cooperation, but it can’t, of course, guarantee them. Furthermore, if the whole and complete people involved in the relationship don’t want these cooperative goods or experiences, there really is no reason for them to relinquish more of their freedoms in order to adopt the Autonomous approach. For some, the Autonomous approach is the right approach, for others, it is not.

Assessing a Rule of Law Relationship

A long-term and committed Rule of Law relationship is also possible, but, once more, I can’t say it will be any more or less long-term and committed than a Hobbesian or Autonomous approach. The advantage of this approach over the others seems to be the security and peace of mind of operating within one clearly defined set of rules, which are not open to revision. The shortcoming, it seems to me, is that the supreme authority given to the one set of rules undermines the notion that the people involved are whole and complete. Because the rules take the place of the person’s own reflections on the best way to arrange a relationship, the rules, it can be said, complete the people involved, if those rules fill a vacuum in the person’s development.

A Rule of Law relationship doesn’t, however, preclude the possibility that the people involved in it are whole and complete. Whole and complete people can freely and willing enter in relationships of total obedience to a particular set of rules, and remain whole and complete people, because a substitution of one’s own reflections for a particular set of immutable rules does not make a person less whole and complete. It is, after all, a substitution. One might suspect that the opportunity for further growth will be limited in this kind of relationship, but, there may be opportunity for growth in learning how best to interpret the rules and how best to live within their constraints.

The Laissez-Faire Approach: What Have We Learned?

It seems that a Laissez-faire relationship is highly unlikely either to be long-term or committed. In fact, the Laissez-faire attitude that motivates this kind of relationship is antithetical to all but the thinnest notions of what a relationship might be. Accordingly, if you find yourself thinking or saying things like, “I want to be in a long-term committed relationship with a whole and complete person, and I also want to do whatever I want whenever I want,” you have two incompatible and competing desires. You can have a long-term and committed relationship with a whole and complete person or you can have a life of total freedom, but you can’t have both.

The caveat that the relationship involve another whole and complete person, however, is important. I am sure there are people who would be willing to put up with a Laissez-faire relationship, because they are less than whole themselves or because they hope for some long-term payoff. In either case, however, this kind of unequal relationship would not do well for the person with the Laissez-faire attitude. We only become whole and complete persons when we learn to negotiate the compromises necessary to live justly with others. When we are given permission to act as if we have total freedom, we are, in fact, being granted permission to delay our development as a human being.

Furthermore, I think people who adopt a Laissez-faire attitude to relationships will find it much more difficult to be a part of a long-term and committed relationship. First, the people with the skills, habits, and attitudes necessary for a long-term and committed relationship will be alienated in short order, leaving only those people who are themselves incapable of forming long-term and committed relationships. Second, the skills, habits, and attitudes necessary for a healthy long-term and committed relationship don’t necessarily arise in a person spontaneously, especially when one adopts habits and attitudes that are antithetical to them. One can only learn the skills, habits, and attitudes necessary for a long-term and committed relationship by trying to develop them. Presumably, these skills, habits, and attitudes could be developed in other kinds of relationships (the family, civic associations, clubs, etc), but they are probably best developed in relationships that aspire to be the kind of relationship one actually wants.

One might say, of course, “oh well, I guess that proves that I’m not ready for a long-term relationship.” This may be true, but to prepare for one — that is, if a long-term and committed relationship is what one wants — then, it is best to start preparing earlier rather than later. A Laissez-faire approach to relationships only prepares a person for more of the same. One should either discard the desire for a long-term and committed relationship or discard the Laissez-faire attitude.

The Other Approaches: What Have We Learned?

With respect to the other approaches, when one attempts to assess their suitability for a long-term and committed relationship for all people everywhere, the only conclusion one can draw at this level of abstraction is “different strokes for different folks” The three other approaches, in principle, are all conceptually consistent with the possibility of a long-term and committed relationship. To decide between them, we would need, I think, some solid empirical evidence that one approach is more likely to produce long-lasting and committed relationships than the others. I know of no such research, but it is possible it already exists or could be easily undertaken.

Nevertheless, when assessing the approaches for oneself and one’s own relationship, a decision can be made by specifying more carefully one’s own wants and desires. For example, for me, the autonomous approach seems much more appealing because it opens up possibilities that would otherwise be impossible. Companionship, for its own sake, has never been of much interest to me because, I suppose, I am fairly independent. I would, however, happily give up some of that independence, if it would open up experiences and possibilities for growth that would otherwise be impossible. Similarly, a Hobbesian approach could work for me with the right person, but “I won’t hurt you, if you don’t hurt me” doesn’t strike me as a particularly edifying principle with which to negotiate the complexities of a shared life. The Autonomous approach also seems to offer more possibilities for positive goods and outcomes. Finally, I’m disinclined to adopt a Rule of Law approach because I doubt the plausibility of an immutable one-size-fits-all-for-all-time set of rules. I’m also not willing to submit myself to any set of rules that isn’t always open to revision in the light of new evidence.

Another Perspective?

While writing this, it occurred to me that my understanding of the relationship spectrum might be too static and atemporal. Relationships are, of course, fluid. Perhaps, what I have identified are different moments in a long-term and committed relationship, rather than different approaches to such a relationship.

Seen as a straight linear narrative, the moments might tell a story something like this: in the beginning, two whole and complete people find time for each other when they can find the time. Then, after some attachment and trust develops, they enter into a Hobbesian relationship. Trust and attachment increases between the two people until they can engage in the kind of dialogue that leads to an autonomous relationship. Finally, after testing various arrangements, they commit themselves to a Rule of Law relationship, perhaps, because they feel they’ve found the one-true arrangement for a relationship or, perhaps, because they’ve decided they have better things to do than constantly renegotiate the terms of the relationship.

Furthermore, if one is willing to stipulate that claims about the one-true law for relationships can be falsified through experience (i.e. there is one-true law, but our first guess turned out to be wrong), one can imagine a long-term relationship entering into these moments at different stages and times depending on the circumstances and needs of those involved. Indeed, the moments might even be entered into more than once.

My concerns about the Laissez-faire attitude and approach, nevertheless, remain relevant in this temporal model. It’s easy to imagine a person getting stuck in the Laissez-faire moment because they are unable to develop the skills, habits, attitudes, trust and attachment necessary to move on to the other approaches to relationships. One can’t learn how to play the piano, for example, unless one practices the relevant skills and adopts an attitude appropriate for learning the piano. The laissez-faire attitude and approach simply does not prepare a person for a long-term and committed relationship, nor does it foster the appropriate attitude. A return to this moment might also compromise the trust and attachment developed in the other moments.

What do you think?

Is this a useful framework with which to make sense of romantic relationships? Do you see yourself or your relationship in either, some, or all of the approaches? Do you agree or disagree with my assessment of each of the approaches? Alternatively, do you want to shift the terms of the debate, and make the case that the “two-halves making one” model should not be discounted so quickly.

All questions, comments, thoughts and reflections are very welcome!

Indisputable, Not Immutable: An Inhuman Fact of Our Society.

HopePlease note: This post discusses the prevalence of sexual violence in our lives.

It is an indisputable fact. Sexual violence is ubiquitous.

I know sexual violence is ubiquitous because of the statistics. Decisive as they may be, however, the shortcoming of statistics is that they are impersonal. They inadvertently obscure the fact that the numbers represent real, living, breathing people in your life right now.

Look around you. Odds are you will see someone who has experienced sexual violence, whether you are at home, at school, or at work. There’s a good chance that you have experienced it, too. I know this because I have been told directly by friends, lovers, family and colleagues that they have experienced sexual violence. Humans — not numbers — experience it everyday.

The other fact, inadvertently obscured by the statistics is the fact that we are also surrounded by perpetrators of sexual violence. Yes, not all men are sexually violent, but many of them are. Yes, some women are too. Include whatever caveat you would like, but we must recognize that the perpetrators of sexual violence are all around us. They rarely hide in bushes. Friends, lovers, family and colleagues choose to be sexually violent everyday.

And yet the ubiquity of sexual violence is something that most men and many women rarely talk about. This is disingenuous, given the overwhelming prevalence of sexual violence. It is also disheartening. In the final analysis, it is the silence surrounding sexual violence that allows its ubiquity to persist. To reduce and, ideally, to eliminate the experience of sexual violence, all of us must recognize and discuss the fact of its existence frankly and on a regular basis.

When it comes to recognizing and discussing sexual violence, the distinction between the experience of sexual violence and the fact of sexual violence is, I think, important. We all have a duty to talk about the fact of sexual violence, but no person — woman or man — has a duty to talk about his or her experience of sexual violence. She (or he) may keep it secret, never disclose it to anyone, and never report it to the police, if she chooses. There are good reasons for someone who has experienced sexual violence to report it or seek professional counselling, but I won’t claim she has a duty to do it. One choice was taken from her violently. I won’t add insult to injury by trying to take another away from her rhetorically.

As ubiquitous as sexual violence may be, I am certain that the incidents of sexual violence can be reduced significantly. Dueling, smoking in bars, drunk driving, corporal punishment, these all once seemed like behaviors that could never be curtailed or eradicated, but we have reduced or eliminated these seemingly unchangeable behaviors and, in some cases, at an incredible pace. Sexual violence is a present-day fact, but there is a future in which it is a thing of the past.

The way forward doesn’t seem to me to be terribly complicated either. Effective education for our children and effective vigilance in our communities will be key. But for either of those goals to be achieved, all of us first need to admit, recognize and discuss the ubiquity of sexual violence. We can prepare our children and ourselves to solve a problem only if we first admit that it exists and that it affects us all.

Sexual violence isn’t a woman’s issue or a feminist issue. It’s a human issue. We must address it, if we are ever to live up to the full potential of our common humanity, because any society, in which sexual violence is ubiquitous, isn’t human at all.

The Fear of Vulnerability: Nature or Nurture?

VulnerableI’m writing a play right now. The two characters are struggling to connect because of their fear of vulnerability.

This is a very old and common theme, on-stage and off. So, I wonder, is it in our nature to fear vulnerability? Has it provided us with a reproductive advantage?

On first reflection, it doesn’t seem like there should be any reproductive advantage to such a fear. We often experience vulnerability when we think or know we are more attached to someone than they are to us. A fear of this kind of vulnerability would, I think, lead to fewer rather than more attachments. Attachment is the foundation of all human relations. Without it, far fewer babies would be born or survive. So, if this analysis is correct, it seems likely that a fear of vulnerability shouldn’t lead to a reproductive advantage.

However, perhaps this fear of vulnerability helps us to be more selective or discerning in our attachments. Yes, attachment is good, but attachment to the best primates is better. Perhaps, a fear of vulnerability leads to more stable pair bonds, and maybe this leads to a reproductive advantage in the long run. There is some plausibility to this conclusion.

Of course, there may be a whole other way to approach the question of why we fear vulnerability. Perhaps, we humans are naturally inclined to form attachments fearlessly and it is human society that has evolved in such a way that very many of us endure experiences that almost always engender a deep fear of vulnerability. We are not born with a fear of vulnerability, but instead learn to fear it as we live in a social environment, which is very different from the one in which we first evolved.

If a fear of vulnerability is not a question of our nature, but is instead the result of a certain kind of nurture, overcoming and eventually eliminating the fear of vulnerability could be a way to return to where we began. The wise, for example, are often said to be very much like children. Moreover, if a fear of vulnerability is a reasonable and rational response to social life as it has evolved, it may also help explain why the wise often stand apart and outside of conventional society.

And my characters? Will they get over their fears and connect? Fortunately, for them, the fantasy of fiction is far neater and far simpler than fact. Maybe that’s why we enjoy it so much.

The Princess and the Frog: Freedom and the Pursuit of Less Happiness

Frog TalesI can’t recall when I first heard the story of the Princess and the Frog. For as long as I can remember, however, I have always had the notion that the moral of the story was intended for women. I suppose this could be because of the pervasive trope that subverts the romance of the story: women, it is often said, need to kiss many frogs to find their prince.

It occurred to me recently that the moral of the story could also be intended for men. In this reading, to reveal one’s true princely nature, a man must convince a princess to overlook his froggish appearance. The moral of the story is that it is the affection of a man’s true love — his princess — that reveals his true and higher nature. Of course, the romance of this moral can also be easily subverted by saying that a man must be kissed by many princesses before he will become a prince.

As it turns out, neither of these readings work with the original story. To start, the Grimm tale is called The Frog-Prince and no kissing is involved. Rather, the Frog-Prince extracts a promise from a somewhat bratty princess to spend time together. Once the princess allows the Frog-Prince to eat with her and sleep on her pillow, his true princely nature is revealed. Marriage and happiness ensues.

For women, the lesson of the original tale seems to be: if a man does a favour for you in exchange for a promise to spend time together, you should honour that promise, no matter how froggish he may seem. He may, despite his froggish appearances, be princely. The lesson for men seems to be: to reveal your true princely nature, you must extract a promise from a princess to spend time together. Because of the time you spend together, your true princely nature will be revealed.

It is interesting to me that the story I internalized is very different from the story as it is actually written. What does it say about me that I have internalized the story in this way? What does it say about the culture in which I was raised? I can imagine a book that examines the origins of this story and how different versions of it have entered into our common culture. In fact, I can imagine it has already be written.

As an initial hypothesis, it seems the original story was written to address a problem that must have existed at a time when marriages were arranged or effectively arranged due to the limited choice available. The story seems to say that a poorly matched couple can be happily reconciled if they go through the motions of married life. It may also be significant that the couple finds happiness and joy rather than love.

In contrast, the newer “kiss many frogs” version of the story seems to reflect the abundance of choice we all now have. Women are advised to keep on kissing until they find a prince. Men, presumably, should try to be kissed by many princesses. If, after the kiss, there is no immediate transformation and jolt of true love, move on to the next frog or princess.

The switch of emphasis from disciplined and respectful cohabitation to physical intimacy and immediate gratification also seems significant. Sexual compatibility rather than — let’s call it — familial compatibility now seems to be regarded as the foundation of a successful relationship. And the reward now is love rather than happiness.

The one thread that runs through the original fairy tale and the modern version is that in both stories the woman and the man find happiness or love in someone previously unknown to them. In both stories, the princess and the frog are strangers and, after the magic is worked, they are happy to run off together to find happiness or love. It seems we humans, if we are to make sense of ourselves through these stories, have a persistent fascination and hope for the unknown prince or princess who will arrive and transform our lives.

On the personal front, it seems I am a product of my time. I tend also to think of relationships in terms of sexual compatibility and love rather than familial compatibility and happiness. If the desire and love is there, the details of incompatibility are of secondary importance. I have, however, in recent years, given a greater priority to happiness, especially for the beloved. Love is great, but love and happiness is better, and there is plenty of love to be found out there, so aim for both if you can.

Nevertheless, in practice, like most people, I most often become sexually and/or romantically involved with people I have already known for some time, and, even if love was at first sight, I tend also take a bit of time to decide if my vision was as perceptive as I first thought it was. Somewhere in the middle, there are those people who can meet a stranger and engage in couple-like behaviour (e.g. “dating”) to find out if the happiness or love will emerge. So, it seems to me the moral of The Frog-Prince is still relevant in contemporary life, even if the rhetoric of romance has changed.

It is tempting, at this point, to say, “different strokes for different folks, so long as everyone is consenting and having some kind of a good time.” Both strategies for finding a prince or princess have pros and cons depending on what a person wants. People might even prefer a talking frog to a prince. In the market of love, then, let us be liberals! Let people decide for themselves how they will go about turning frogs into happiness or love.

There is, however, research that indicates that people prefer, when given the choice, to make reversible choices rather than irreversible choices, even though reversible choices are almost always reported to be much less satisfying than irreversible choices some time down the road. It seems we choose more freedom of choice even though it leads to less satisfaction in the choices we make. What is true of Van Gogh prints might also be true of princes, princesses, and frogs.

Government, for example, is an institution that we collectively employ to constrain our choices, in order to avoid the very many unavoidable and worse outcomes we would encounter without it. Perhaps, institutions and practices that constrain our romantic choices rather than expand them might make us happier in the long run. It may also be because of this long-run happiness that we still, even in the face of a seemingly endless supply of princes, princesses and frogs, so often frame our romantic choices as if they are, in fact, irreversible.

La Grande Bellezza: Admired but Never Known.

AdmirationOnce a woman passes a certain threshold of physical attractiveness, it’s not unreasonable to claim that, for her, every heterosexual man is, in principle, sexually attainable. In most cases, a man will resist the sexual advances of a woman he finds attractive only when there is some kind of promise, rule, or law he feels he must respect. Often, even that won’t be enough.

The same is not true for men. A very attractive man will very often fail to convince a woman to have sex with him, even when she is attracted to him. Less attractive men can have an even more difficult time.

This asymmetry probably exists because the consequences of sex can be far more costly for women than men. Whether the asymmetry exists for biological or cultural reasons remains to be seen. The age of mostly safe and reliable contraception has barely begun.

In large part because of this asymmetry, it is not unreasonable to claim that most men, whatever their level of attractiveness, experience sex with a woman as a kind of victory — an attainment of something not easily attained. Sex with a woman who was previously thought to be unattainable is, for many, the greatest victory of all. For the narrator of La Grande Bellezza, it is not just the greatest victory, but the great beauty.

Presumably, women can have a similar experience, but it’s probably much rarer because of the asymmetry. If most men are attainable most of the time, it will be pretty rare for a woman to even encounter a man she regards as, strictly-speaking, unattainable and, for biological and/or cultural reasons, there’s no reason to expect she will even pursue him.

Moreover, if the man is deemed to be unattainable for reasons that are meant to contain his sexual desire, a woman might experience her attainment of the unattainable as a disappointment. In being attained, the man, in effect, renounces that which made him unattainably desirable. The lord becomes just another bondsman with all-too-human appetites.

Men, of course, do the very same thing. The unattainable goddess becomes mere flesh and blood, once attained. For example, the great beauty for the narrator of La Grande Bellezza is not the sex itself, but the moment when the woman reveals to him that she will allow herself to be attained by him. The sex itself is of secondary importance to his aesthetic and noetic experience.

What’s at issue here, of course, is the unique satisfaction of attaining what was previously thought unattainable. The problem is that a person will normally first know that the other is now attainable and, if that is all there is to its desirability, then the desirability will vanish with that knowledge and, one might go on to say, make the unattainable truly unattainable.

In La Grande Bellezza, the narrator experiences his great moment of beauty as a young man, and it seems that this event may have been the catalyst for the one and only novel he wrote, the success of which also catapulted him into Rome’s high society. The question upon which the whole movie hangs is why didn’t he write another novel?

The narrator’s answers seems to be that he could never again find a moment like his moment of great beauty. Without that inspiration to drive his creativity, he floated instead on the pleasant distractions of Rome’s high society. If we take the narrator at his word, the lesson of the film might be somewhat pessimistic. The great beauty once experienced is lost forever.

There is, of course, no reason to accept the narrator’s analysis of his own life. Here is a man finally confronting his mortality and he might be simply looking for a profound excuse to justify his decision to build a life of promise on the premise that what really matters is an ability to make or break a party. What might have been a tower of literature is instead a perpetual party of frivolity.

There is, I think, a different lesson that can be drawn from the movie, if we stand back from the narrator’s analysis. As a young man, he gazed upon his great beauty, but he never knew her — precisely because, for him, her beauty was entirely reducible to her unattainability. So, the lesson we might draw from the example of the life this film portrays is that a life lived for the attainment of the unattainable — for its own sake and its own sake alone — is a life that can admire, but never know beauty.

The Call of Duty: Your Heart May Call, the Beloved Isn’t Obliged To Answer.

Call of DutyRecently, I ended up on the wanting end of a “I-want-more-than-you-want” affair. Contrary to what you might expect, it was a pretty positive experience.

Things worked out well for two reasons. First, and most importantly, she was upfront and very clear about what she wanted — or did not want — at this point in her life. Second, I was able to adjust my expectations based on a fairly important insight: my feelings for a person don’t create any duties, responsibilities, or obligations for that person.

So, instead of anxiously fretting over what I didn’t have and wasn’t going to get, I was able instead to focus on what we both wanted in the here and now, and, as a result, some good to beautiful memories were made and no one hurt anyone else in the process.

I probably should be clear: this is a “way-to-go-brain” post and not a “woe-is-me” post. I mention the backstory only to provide context for the important insight that one’s feelings for another person do not create duties, responsibilities, or obligations in that person. Only a person’s choices, actions, and/or promises create duties which he or she is obliged to respect.

It’s an important insight and, I think, relevant to all relationships, romantic or otherwise. I suspect also that there are many people who would be a lot happier, if they also learned to adjust their expectations based on it.

The Relationship Calculation: What Motivates Your Pair-Bond?

BondsFor most of human history, a pair-bond between humans has almost always been a kind of business deal, whether the deal was struck by two families on behalf of the prospective business partners or by the partners themselves. In this model, the pair-bond is normally expected to be created by the agreement to share the costs and benefits of raising children, maintaining property, and supporting each other’s families. Arranged pair-bonds (e.g. arranged marriages) tend to make sense; romantic and sexual love is nice, but hardly necessary. What really matters is that the couple gets along reasonably well and that their families do, too.

Even now, in the developed world, as the relevance of child-rearing and one’s duties to the extended family diminishes, it seems to me, very many people still make sense of their pair-bond in terms not unlike a business deal. The main difference is that it is the relationship itself that is now the enterprise, whatever its outputs may be. The pair-bond motivates or is created by an agreement to share the costs and benefits of the relationship. The fact of the relationship is the primary good and each partner makes concessions to ensure the relationship continues. In this model, arranged pair-bonds still make a lot of sense (hello, eHarmony); romantic and sexual love is yet again a nice to have, but not a must have. What really matters is that the couple gets along reasonably well and that their friends and families do, too.

If one wants to raise a family or have a relationship for its own sake, either of these kinds of pair-bonds make a lot of sense. On the other hand, if one doesn’t want or need any of these things and one isn’t required by social norms to have them anymore, neither of these pair-bonds make a lot of sense. To put it more simply, it doesn’t make much sense to take on any of the costs associated with the pair-bond, if one doesn’t want any of its benefits. Moreover, there are also many other benefits that one must deny oneself in a pair-bond. Which is to say, the great increase in the number of single person dwellings in recent years can probably be explained by this simple calculation. For many people, the costs of a pair-bond and/or cohabitation outweigh its benefits.

For me, personally, the point of a pair-bond has always been the experience of love, especially an experience of love that exists at the intersection of eros and a secular version of kenosis, which involves the lover rather than God, and kenshō. Sure, I can see the benefits of a partnership for the sake of children, family, and property, but, for me, the benefits and purpose of the relationship are one in the same: love, tenderness, trust, and all that gooey stuff.

For the record, part of me recognizes that there is more than a measure of adolescent selfishness in the priority I place on the experience of love. There’s also another part of me that sometimes worries that this emphasis on the experience of love treats the beloved as a mere means to the end of experiencing love.

Ultimately, I say, fuck it. I am very lucky to live in this unique time in human history, a time when I can give priority to this experience, so, if and when I am so lucky to find it, I will try and enjoy it for as long as I can. Furthermore, I don’t think there’s even an opportunity for the experience of love, unless the other person is an equal participant. One must see the other as an absolute end before truly losing oneself therein.

Returning to the beginning, I guess the point of all this is to admit that, even though I understand the reasoning behind a marriage for the sake of children, property, family, or for the sake of a relationship in its own right, I don’t really understand why one, in the age of reliable contraception, would pursue the practical relationship rather than the one that is quasi-mystical.

Of course, the age of reliable contraception has been a short one and you probably have children or have the opportunity to have children, whereas I currently do not. From the perspective of evolution, it is clear who is the winner and who is not. Having said that, I’m sure (or hope, maybe) that very many babies have been born and well-raised in the name and glow of ooey-gooey love. In the age of reliable contraception, however, we romantics, in the name of love, might eventually eliminate ourselves from the gene pool.