One on One: All you need is...flexibility and boundaries

University of Haifa president tries to tackle the 'most complex' emotion.

September 24, 2008 21:47
"LOVE" statue

love 88. (photo credit: )


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'Every time I came upon what I thought was a rule, I encountered its exception," says University of Haifa president Aaron Ben-Ze'ev. Given the subject of his work - human emotions - it's small wonder that he ran into that particular difficulty. And given his more recent endeavor - examining romantic love - it's astounding that he didn't leave the proverbial laboratory in a huff, lock the door and throw away the key. On the contrary, counters Ben-Ze'ev - whose previous positions at the university included serving as rector, dean of research, chairman of the philosophy department, head of Haifa University Press and the Academic Channel, and cofounder of the university's Interdisciplinary Center for the Study of Emotions - "I've been studying emotions for the past 20 years (love for the last six), and I still won't have finished 20 years from now." Indeed, continues the Zichron Ya'acov resident, who has a BA and MA from the University of Haifa and a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Chicago, "I have always strived to understand the human psyche. Emotions are its most complex part. And love is the most complex of the emotions." This doesn't mean that emotions are mere chaos, he asserts. "In fact, they can be explained and understood." Whether they can be understood is a matter of interpretation. But explaining them is what Ben-Ze'ev attempts to do in his books, articles and blog on the Psychology Today Web site ( His latest tome - In the Name of Love: Romantic Ideology and Its Victims (coauthored with Jezreel Valley College and University of Haifa social scientist Ruhama Goussinsky, and published by Oxford University Press) - is a case in point. Like its title, its content is attention-grabbing, on the one hand, and highly academic on the other - with the personal testimonies of interviewees used as anecdotal evidence to support the "science." And the science here leads Ben-Ze'ev, who calls himself a "philosopher of psychology," to conclude that while traditional models of marriage and long-term relationships have been mauled by the modern world's idealization of what it means to be in love, alternatives are feasible. But these, he suggests, require and involve a healthy sense of self - as separate from a partner - and allowing for more flexibility within the boundaries of coupledom. "Though none of what I present is absolutely universal," stresses the 59-year-old, married father of two, during our hour-long interview (in Hebrew), "The one principle that applies to everyone is that if you're not happy, your spouse won't be either." True or false - romantic love occurs when sexual attraction meets fear of abandonment? False. The foundation of romantic love is attraction - not necessarily sexual, though sexual attraction is usually central - plus admiration for other characteristics, such as kindness, intelligence, sense of humor, etc. Really? Then how do you explain the phenomenon of the battered woman, who says she's madly in love with her tormentor, in spite of the fact that he lacks kindness, intelligence and/or a sense of humor? Where love is concerned, we give different weight to different traits. When you fall in love with somebody, you fall in love with one or two of those traits that give the bulk of the weight, and the others become secondary. If you think someone is really smart, for example, or shares your political views, you might say that this is central to what you care about, and give less weight to the fact that he is a liar, or that he's not good-looking. The point is that each of us gives different weight to different characteristics. So, a battered woman might say, OK, this man is good-looking, rich, funny or whatever, and this gives her the high. That he sometimes hits her then takes on less weight. Wouldn't Freud have argued that this phenomenon is a re-creation or reenactment of the early childhood sensations associated with love - such as pain - not some kind of intellectual weighing of traits? I don't want to argue with Freud. I'm not basing my findings on his theories. And what you're talking about explains the development of love from a person's background. I can offer other factors - such as environment and genetics - but I certainly wouldn't explain love based on any one factor by itself. I deal more with love as it is now. I want to describe and explain it as a current phenomenon, not examine where it came from. This way, I can introduce rules that are common to most people, rather than specific to individuals who have different histories or who come from different cultures. Romantic love is often associated with pain, such as in poetry. Even the underline of your book, "romantic ideology and its victims," has a negative connotation. Why is that, and what is the biggest pitfall? The biggest pitfall is that while admiration for one's partner can endure, passion is far more short-lived. If the basis for an attraction is sexual or romantic, this can be problematic in the long term. Research has shown that sexual attraction, like the strength of emotions, wanes over time. Statistically, the frequency of sexual relations a year after marriage is halved, and continues to wane after the first year. The problem is how to sustain passion over a long period, and this is one of the things I deal with in the book. This problem is exacerbated in modern society. In modern society, one can see two things that make life in this respect very difficult. First, all the former obstacles to dissolving a marriage or a long-term relationship have basically disappeared. One exception is the taking into account of the emotional impact of divorce on the children. But even that is becoming less and less of a consideration, as the phenomenon becomes more and more common. Today, not only can you get divorced, no questions asked, but there are lots of alternatives available. You meet people at work or on the Internet. Furthermore, there are two interesting graphs from the beginning of the last century showing a parallel between the rise in women's joining the workforce and the rise in divorce rates. In other words, financial concerns, too, are no longer an obstacle. This is the problem of the modern world. Is it really a problem, rather than a sociological phenomenon? Is it not possible that the whole notion of family - and the family structure - is changing? What I am calling a problem is the sustaining of romantic relations over time. I am not saying it's a problem for society at large necessarily. Another problem is that in modern society, life spans are much longer than they used to be. And people are active - even sexually active - at an older age. And the shorter the life span, the shorter the marriage. But there's also an advantage to all these factors. The common ideology of love - such as, "I will love you to till end of time" and "Love is all you need" - is very problematic in today's world because romantic relations last less time. And though I critique this ideology throughout the book, I end it by presenting an alternative model for love. I conclude with the following: "Love has made an impressive comeback. And rightly so." Why do I say this? Because, precisely now that a person can easily get out of a long-term relationship, the sweetness of the relationship plays a much more central role. In other words, the possibility of a marriage's breaking apart forces you to pay more attention to your spouse - since without love there's no reason to stay in the relationship. So, while it's easier to split up, those who stay together strive for genuine love, and not merely an arrangement. This is what I mean by saying that love has made an impressive comeback. In Fiddler on the Roof, there is the famous song "Do you love me?" And the answer is, "For 25 years, I've washed your clothes," etc., "if that's not love, what is?" Do you think that the proverbial washing of clothes over a long period of time constitutes love? In the last chapter, "The nurturing approach to love," I present a distinction between intrinsically valuable activities and extrinsically valuable ones. The "washing of clothes" is an example of the latter, whereby the interest in doing it doesn't lie in the activity itself, but rather in the result. It's a means to an external goal. An example of the former is different for different people. In my own case, for example, writing is something I enjoy for the process - not for the result, though my writing does result in the publication of books. The more a couple enjoys intrinsically valuable activities together - such as going to the movies - the less the extrinsically valuable activities, such as washing clothes or paying bills, feel like chores. Rather than experiencing these tasks as burdensome, a member of a couple who invests in intrinsically valuable activities feels he or she is doing it to help his or her partner. So, of course, you'd rather do something more fun than wash clothes, but you don't see it as something so negative. Couples who share fewer intrinsically valuable activities argue and keep score over the household chores, which is not a good thing. Wealthy people hire others to do household chores, yet the rich have equally high, if not higher, divorce rates than the general public. How do you explain that? That's because when a couple is loving, they don't consider it a bad thing to have to do those chores for each other, and make time to do so. What about couples who spend great amounts of time apart, such as academics in the US, who teach at different universities? Does distance make the heart grow fonder, or is it actually the opposite? Research indicates that commuting marriages are at least as successful as other marriages, if not slightly more so. What's most interesting is that infidelity in such marriages is not higher, in spite of the greater opportunity that the geographical distance provides. The advantage to commuting marriages is personal space, and change. Each week, you can look forward to a fresh change. So, there is both an element of change and an element of permanence. You mention infidelity. How realistic is monogamy in what you refer to as "modern society"? I have interviewed many people about whether it's possible to feel romantic love for more than one person at the same time, and also about having affairs. Many said that it's possible to love two people at the same time. Among those who said it's possible, how many said they would be willing to be on the less favored end of that equation? Most of the women I spoke to who were involved with two men at the same time said they wouldn't put up with having their man be with other women. This is where the distinction I make between exclusivity and uniqueness comes in. Traditionally, exclusivity was what safeguarded monogamy. In the alternative model I propose, more weight is given to uniqueness. In other words, it is your uniqueness which guards monogamy, not exclusivity. The chance of your being with me because of your uniqueness is greater than if it's because I made a commitment. Emotions are discriminatory. That's why completely open relations aren't good. The difficulty someone has when his or her partner is with someone else is not a moral one; it's an emotional one. The problem is that we have been so convinced by the romantic ideology according to which "all you need is love," that we don't realize how much of it isn't true. It isn't true that all you need is love. You also have intellectual and other needs that your partner can't always provide. No one person can fulfill all your needs. Isn't this precisely why so many people say that monogamy isn't really natural or possible? Here is where a combination of flexibility and boundaries comes in. In today's world, people spend more time with their colleagues than with their spouses, even going out to dinner and the like. Once upon a time, that would have been forbidden for married people, particularly women. Maybe "once upon a time" people were wiser about preserving marital vows. I don't know if they were wiser, but the price today for not sticking to your partner at all cost means that you have to be more flexible, not where sex is concerned, but about other things. Can't a woman be just as upset with her husband for being best friends with another woman, even in the absence of sex? Indeed, there are women who would say about their husbands' relations with other women: sex yes, friendship no. What is different about what you're saying from most marriage counselors or sex therapists - who say that being a couple takes work, and that partners have to keep their love alive through a combination of flexibility and boundaries? First of all, I'm not sure that it takes a lot of work. Too much work isn't good either. But, regarding what is different about all this: [Ludwig] Wittgenstein said: "The work of the philosopher consists in assembling reminders." The point of my work, in other words, is not to cause people to say, "Wow, I never thought of that," but rather for them to say, "Wow, that's exactly what I've been thinking."

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