Remember the last time we had this dinner party, Aristophanes got drunk and went on a rant about soulmates? Here we are — almost 2,500 years later — and people still believe in this myth.
Everyone seems to have forgotten that Aristophanes was joking!
When we fall in love, it does feel like it will stay forever. It’s one of the reasons we’re so inclined to leap into long-term commitments such as marriage, mortgages, and kids. Yet, neuroscientists are finding what we already know through experience: passion fades. The hormones that go into hyperdrive when we fall in love — such as dopamine and oxytocin — wear off within six to 18 months. When we start a new romantic relationship, it might well be the case that we think there is no one else in the world nearly as adorable and delightful as the beloved. Yet invariably there comes a point when we notice flaws, sometimes of such meteoric proportions as to annihilate our original belief of having found the perfect match.
Albert Camus thought the only serious question was whether one ought to commit suicide. Novelist Tom Robbins — probably taking a stab at Camus — counters: “Who knows how to make love stay? Answer me that and I will tell you whether or not to kill yourself.”
The problem is that often lovers end up wanting to kill each other. We keep promising ‘till death us do part even when we know there’s a pretty good chance love won’t last. If the best we can hope for is to squeeze out two years of romance, it’s irrational for us to keep making long-term commitments to romantic lovers. Even if we take marriage out of the equation, if we know heartbreak is dead ahead, then perhaps it’s just irrational to fall in love.
There are many possible solutions, such as not making any commitments, making short-term commitments, commit knowing that we might have to break our word, or commit with lots of caveats. The existential philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said that if we are invited to a party, no one thinks to answer, “I shall certainly attend your party, but I must make an exception for the contingency that a roof tile happens to blow down and kill me; for in that case, I cannot attend.” He was joking. Maybe. It’s always hard to tell when to take Kierkegaard seriously.
Nevertheless, Kierkegaard makes a good point. Making a commitment is a leap into the future. This is a problem because it’s hard to predict the future, and so we don’t know whether we will be able to fulfil our commitment or, more importantly, whether we will even want to. This is the problem with romantic love, too. Although it’s beautiful and intoxicating, it’s also unstable because it depends on sexual and emotional impulses. We don’t know whether love will last or for how long, and so we tend to wallow in what Kierkegaard calls ‘lovesick fear and trembling’.
To escape the abyss of romantic uncertainty, Kierkegaard recommended taking a leap into marriage, and ultimately, into a religious commitment: instead of committing to a lover, we commit to love. We can’t control whether the other will continue to love us back, but we can commit to ourselves — to being a loving person who does loving things. Kierkegaard’s solution is an irrational commitment and the problem is that there is something insidious and zombie-like about performing loving actions without passion for the beloved. Even the best of us will find it difficult to maintain loving actions when the other person is doing their utmost to be unlovable.
We could take a more rational approach. An ultra-rational person wouldn’t commit to something unless they had thought through all the different options and came to a decision once they were absolutely convinced. The obvious objection that this sort of person might never decide anything at all. Consider Chidi on the TV show called The Good Place. Chidi is not a soup, as Kristin Bell discovers, but rather the character portrayed by William Jackson Harper. He ends up in hell because he spends his life infinitely deliberating and paralyzed with indecision. Kierkegaard pointed out that such a person would never attempt to make a leap across the abyss unless they had scientifically analyzed their thrust and projection to be sure that they would land safely on the other side. Even if they do decide, it ends up being not much of a leap after all.
This kind of attitude doesn’t allow for passionate engagement or acting when one has not had time to think through one’s options. For example, it doesn’t allow for love at first sight. It doesn’t allow for seizing the moment, for spontaneity, for so much of what we associate with romance. Knowing the science behind love that suggests passion atrophies, they could not make a commitment based on love. Power, status, and money are all rational reasons to make a relationship stay — but not to make love stay.
Instead of leaping into a commitment like marriage, perhaps we could accept that we choose in the context of incomplete information, but we do so with the best knowledge available at the time. We remain open to be proven wrong, or open to discovering that the consequences of our decisions were not what we had hoped for. We are not so committed to a position that we cannot change our minds in the light of new knowledge or criticism.
The American philosopher William Barrett Bartley suggests that within such a framework of what he calls “pancritical rationalism,” one can be engaged and convinced without being committed, always open to criticizing and disputing beliefs and attitudes. Such a person never stops thinking, but it is not a matter of infinite regress as Kierkegaard feared because knowledge develops through criticism and does not appeal to an authority (such as religion) for justification.
Nevertheless, this implies that there are differing degrees of commitment: a rational person is only ever a little bit committed. And perhaps being slightly committed is like being slightly married. If we’re making the sort of commitments in which we can change our mind any time, then that undermines the sentiment of the commitment in the first place. Commitment — if one takes it seriously — locks us into a particular course of action and so limits our options on the future. A meaningful commitment is rather one that we have every intention of fulfilling.
Albert Camus proposed that we need not take a Kierkegaardian-style irrational leap into faith, nor do we need to be so rational either. Rather, what’s important is being able to stand on the ‘dizzying crest’ of absurdity. Sisyphus embraces his torture to endlessly push the rock up the hill only to watch it roll back down again. Just as the absurd hero finds revolt, freedom, and passion in his lucidity, this is how we ought to approach relationships: we embrace the absurdity of love and give it our best shot. It might not be altogether pleasant to take this approach — but Camus would say that what’s true isn’t always desirable. It’s the price we pay for love.
Technology such as lovotics, sexbots, love drugs, and anti-love potions might well be able to help us make love stay longer, but so far they seem to be Band-Aid solutions. Popping a pill is only going to rebalance our brain chemicals for a few hours and the jury is out on whether a robot can make love stay or alienate us from one another quicker than ever. Perhaps there’s more we can actively do to make love stay. I’m with Tom Robbins when he says:
“When two people meet and fall in love, there’s a sudden rush of magic. Magic is just naturally present then. We tend to feed on that gratuitous magic without striving to make any more. One day we wake up and find that the magic is gone. We hustle to get it back, but by then it’s usually too late, we’ve used it up. What we have to do is work like hell at making additional magic right from the start. It’s hard work, but if we can remember to do it, we greatly improve our chances of making love stay.”
Maybe we can’t choose to whom we’re attracted or how long it will last, but we can do our best to work to make that magic stay.
Skye C. Cleary PhD MBA is the author of Existentialism and Romantic Love, Associate Director of the Center for New Narratives in Philosophy at Columbia University, Managing Editor of the APA Blog, and she teaches at Columbia, Barnard, and City College of New York. An earlier version of this paper was published in New Philosopher magazine and is republished here with permission.