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Culture & Religion

How Romance And Reason Became Frenemies

Romance and reason are becoming estranged bedfellows (too bad—they were a cute couple). Does love’s logic now add up? Or is love like “happiness,” a low-resolution word (unhelpful in seeing key distinctions). Food for thought on love’s unrequited logic…

Does love’s logic add up? Like “happiness,” love is becoming a low-resolution word (blurry, unfocused). Some food for thought on love’s unrequited logic:

1. “Love is a kind of war” wrote Ovid. Can one of its opposites illuminate love? Stephen Pinker’s book on war and violence provides “Better Models of Our Nature.” His ideas on the complicated couplings between our biological drives and our behaviors, apply also to love.

2. In love, do we fall for Freud’s “hydraulic” error? Hunger is hydraulic: Its pressure builds, requiring regular relief. The logic of fighting can’t work that way—it’s evolutionarily adaptive only if used strategically. Is love more like food, or fighting?

3. In mating models, are we too tempted by the evo-irresistible error? Is our evolutionary fate to constantly fight conflicting impulses? The mechanics of non-hydraulic drives require self-command, an evolved (culturally configurable) capacity humans have always had.

4. All our drives play out on an ever-social stage, shaped by norms, rules, and cued “scripts.” Our hydraulic food habits are heavily culturally scripted. As is love’s relationship to sex ( = very variable).

5. We absorb our culture’s, often tacit, rules, norms, and scripts for love. And pop-culture makers (psychologists all) have superseded novelists (Stalin’s “soul engineers”) and poets (Shelley’s “unacknowledged legislators”) in both describing and patterning our behaviors. For example a Dylan song taught one listener “about heartbreak before [he’d] suffered any.” [Aside—film/video’s visual patterns trump language, going directly to System 1).

6. Grappling with love’s logic, Socrates called it the fourth form of “divine madness.” Greeks gripped by passions imagined themselves possessed by gods, but ideally sought “the perfect combination of human self-control and divine madness.” Reason’s role is self-command, precisely to guide our drives towards long-term goals (vs short-term pleasures).

7. Short-and long-term “love” now seem easily divorced. Scientists hook up them up separately to wobbly evolutionary stories. Maybe today’s plain old biology is enough, and here food analogies help. Could junk love be like junk food? Is sex love’s sugar? Sweet but never free? Never a complete diet?

8. We can’t choose to have a short-term relationship with doughnuts. Their long-term effects come whatever we decide (biochemical karma). Likewise, perhaps there’s no such thing as casual sex: All sex is causal—it always causes biochemical changes. Divorcing pleasure from what it unavoidably causes, causes food woes. As might the biochemical bondage sex likely evolved to tie us up in.

9. Perhaps it’s a misconception that two generations of contraception can override 10,000 generations of biochemistry. Though we can, and do, ignore biology’s signals (e.g. ignoring biochemical satiety = widespread obesity).

10. The logic of unshort love requires loyalty (“love is not love which alters when it” easier alternatives finds). We once were connoisseurs of commitment (our self-deficient survival required it). Today’s norms/scripts can counter commitment, encouraging co-omit-ment, we jointly omit to commit (uncool to ask = a form of don’t ask don’t tell dating).

Romance and reason are becoming estranged bedfellows. Too bad—they were a cute couple.

Illustration by Julia Suits, The New Yorker cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions


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