Romantic Partners

Grumps: The romantic crushes in my mind are always crushed by reality.

Optimist: There's nothing wrong with quick, intuitive judgments that lead to a crush, as much in love as in deciding whether a situation is dangerous. In the end, you may be wrong or right, but while that should be based on some reasons, there's nothing wrong with having initial crushes.

We have evolved to be ready to make quick decisions about people (to trust or withhold, to fight or embrace, to share or deny) on the basis of very limited evidence – the way someone looks at us, how they stand, a twitch of the lips, a slight movement of the shoulder – and we bring this ingenious but fateful talent to situations of love as much to those of danger.

We may be right. The wry posture may really belong to someone with a great line in scepticism; the head tilter may be unusually generous to the foibles of others. The error of the crush is more subtle, it lies in how easily we move from spotting a range of genuinely fine traits of character to settling on a recklessly naive romantic conclusion: that the other across the train aisle or pavement constitutes a complete answer to our inner needs. 1

Grumps: Someone I like romantically doesn't have the same feelings for me and this makes me feel sad.

Optimist: Explaining your feelings (even if just to yourself) may reduce tension and awkwardness. Some romantic feelings are based on subconscious cues and intuitions that the other person may not be able to control 2. While knowing that the other person isn't romantically interested in you may pain your ego, knowing the truth may free you from angst and worry, and frees you to pursue other opportunities. You can also consider why the other person might not have the same feelings and consider improving in those areas (if you agree with them). Finding the right romance, instead of forcing the wrong one, will probably lead to a sustained and healthy relationship:

The present study examined the neural correlates of long-term intense romantic love using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Ten women and 7 men married an average of 21.4 years underwent fMRI while viewing facial images of their partner. Control images included a highly familiar acquaintance; a close, long-term friend; and a low-familiar person. Effects specific to the intensely loved, long-term partner were found in: (i) areas of the dopamine-rich reward and basal ganglia system, such as the ventral tegmental area (VTA) and dorsal striatum, consistent with results from early-stage romantic love studies; and (ii) several regions implicated in maternal attachment, such as the globus pallidus (GP), substantia nigra, Raphe nucleus, thalamus, insular cortex, anterior cingulate and posterior cingulate. Correlations of neural activity in regions of interest with widely used questionnaires showed: (i) VTA and caudate responses correlated with romantic love scores and inclusion of other in the self; (ii) GP responses correlated with friendship-based love scores; (iii) hypothalamus and posterior hippocampus responses correlated with sexual frequency; and (iv) caudate, septum/fornix, posterior cingulate and posterior hippocampus responses correlated with obsession. Overall, results suggest that for some individuals the reward-value associated with a long-term partner may be sustained, similar to new love, but also involves brain systems implicated in attachment and pair-bonding. 3

Grumps: The rejection is physically and emotionally painful.

Optimist: The rejection is also honest. What if the other person wasn't honest, and deceived themselves, or used you, or pitied you, leading to missed opportunities with another partner or, worse, a bad marriage with screwed up kids, and a divorce? It's probably very valuable that there are signs of a true romance which is likely to last. Consider these thoughts about uncontrollable romantic reactions:

Somewhere in this world lives the best-looking, richest, smartest person who would settle for you. But this ideal match is hard to find, and you may die single if you insist on waiting for such a mate to show up. So you choose to set up house with the best person you have found so far.

Your mate has gone through the same reasoning, which leaves you both vulnerable. The law of averages says that someday one of you will meet an even more desirable person; maybe a newly single Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie will move in next door. If you are always going for the best you can get, at that point you will dump your partner pronto. But your partner would have invested time, child rearing and forgone opportunities in the relationship by that point. Anticipating this, your mate would have been foolish to enter the relationship in the first place, and the same is true for you. In this world of rational actors, neither of you could thus take the chance on the other. What could make you trust the other person enough to make that leap?

One answer is: Don't accept a partner who wanted you for rational reasons to begin with. Look for someone who is emotionally committed to you because you are you. If the emotion moving that person is not triggered by your objective mate value, that emotion will not be alienated by someone who comes along with greater mate value than yours. And there should be signals that the emotion is not faked, showing that the person’s behavior is under the control of the involuntary parts of the brain–the ones in charge of heart rate, breathing, skin flushing and so on. Does this emotion sound familiar?

This explanation of infatuation was devised by the economist Robert Frank on the basis of the work of Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling. Social life is a series of promises, threats and bargains; in those games it sometimes pays to sacrifice your self-interest and control. An eco-protester who handcuffs himself to a tree guarantees that his threat to impede the logger is credible. The prospective home buyer who makes an unrecoverable deposit guarantees that her promise to buy the house is credible. And suitors who are uncontrollably smitten are in effect guaranteeing that their pledge of love is credible. 4

Grumps: I'm attracted to someone rationally but not intuitively or sexually.

Optimist: The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer argues that our intuitive attractions are subconscious, with the "will-to-life" aiming at equalization 8:

Everyone endeavours to eliminate through the other individual his own weaknesses, defects, and deviations from the type, lest they be perpetuated or even grow into complete abnormalities in the child which will be produced.

As Botton notes, "the pursuit of personal happiness and the production of healthy children are two radically contrasting projects, which love maliciously confuses us into thinking of as one for a requisite number of years." Accepting the complexity of our desires for love and happiness is the first step to truth and dealing with being rejected or rejecting someone else. This gives us the insight to understand our subconscious feelings, to not be led too strongly by our rational sides, but also not to neglect rationality, and finally to embrace more fully the person that sparks both sides when they arrive. Continues Botton:

We should not feel confused by the enormity of the upset that can ensue from only a few days of hope. It would be unreasonable if a force powerful enough to push us towards child-rearing could - if it failed in its aim - vanish without devastation. Love could not induce us to take on the burden of propagating the species without promising us the greatest happiness we could imagine... There is nothing wrong with us ''per se''. Our characters are not repellent, nor our faces abhorrent. The union collapsed because we were unfit to produce a balanced child ''with one particular person''. There is no need to hate ourselves. One day we will come across someone who can find us wonderful and who will feel exceptionally natural and open with us (because our chin and their chin make a desirable combination from the will-to-life's point of view). We should in time learn to forgive our rejectors. The break-up was not their choice. In every clumsy attempt by one person to inform another that they need more space and time, the rejector is striving to intellectualize an essentially unconscious negative verdict formulated by the will-to-life. Their reason may have had an appreciation of our qualities, their will-to-life did not and told them so in a way that brooked no argument - by draining them of sexual interest in us... We should draw consolation from the thought that a lack of love, [as Schopenhaur says], "is the announcement that what they might produce would only be a badly organized, unhappy being, wanting in harmony in itself," [and so] we might have been happy with our beloved, but nature was not - a greater reason to surrender our grip on love.


Grumps: My marriage doesn't seem to flourish.

Optimist: It's important to have positive and optimistic emotions to better handle the negative ones that may come up.

Flourishing marriages... require a ratio of at least 5:1 positive statements to negative statements.

How people celebrate good events that happen to their spouse is a better predictor of future love and commitment than how they respond to bad events (Gable et al., 2004). 7


Grumps: Most friendships are unsatisfying.

Optimist: Keep looking, for a real friendship is boundless! Here is philosopher Michel de Montaigne reflecting on his friendship with Étienne de La Boétie:

What we normally call friends and friendships are no more than acquaintances and familiar relationships bound by some chance or some suitability, by means of which our souls support each other. In the friendship which I am talking about, souls are mingled and confounded in so universal a blending that they efface the seam which joins them together so that it cannot be found. 6

Finding and building genuine friendships takes effort.

Epicurus realised that a lot of our striving for power and money is related to wanting to impress people we don’t especially like and who certainly don’t much like us, but who have ended up in our social circle and who we’ve allowed to hold our self-esteem in their hands. We call such people our ‘friends’, but this is really a travesty of the word. A true friend is someone who accepts us as we really are, with whom we have no impulse to boast and around whom we know we can show our most natural, unimpressive and vulnerable selves. Spend years (and it will take years) to seek such people out; devote to the hunt the same energy as others use to chase status and power, counselled Epicurus. These friends will be worth a lot more to you when you find them. 5


Grumps: Loneliness is a sad, boring, and sorry state for too many.

Optimist: Lonely moments may be used as a time for reflection and inspiration. Reflection is a useful way to understand where you are at a deeper level, physically and emotionally, by pondering and exploring yourself, free from distractions. Inspiration often flows from reflection, whether to solve a problem, organize your life, or think about what it means to be lonely and what an ideal, non-loneliness would look like. Periodically seek out loneliness and look forward to its surprises, whether that's simply the awareness of a lonely shower, or a conscious effort to take a temporary break from some routine.

We are often, in the words of the Epicurean poet Lucretius, like "a sick man ignorant of the cause of his malady." It is because they understand bodily maladies better than we can that we seek doctors. We should turn to philosophers for the same reason when our soul is unwell - and judge them according to a similar criterion. Epicurus: "Just as medicine confers no benefit if it does not drive away physical illiness, so philosophy is useless if it does not drive away the suffering of the mind."

The task of philosophy was, for Epicurus, to help us interpret our indistinct pulses of distress and desire and thereby save us from mistaken schemes for happiness. We were to cease acting on first impulses, and instead investigate the rationality of our desires according to a method of questioning close to that used by Socrates in evaluating ethical definitions... And by providing what might at times feel like counter-intuitive diagnoses of our ailments, philosophy would - Epicurus promised - guide us to superior cures and true happiness. 8

Grumps: What about persistent loneliness?

Optimist: If you feel persistently lonely and this feels like a problem to you, then this may be a useful psychological pain that drives you to act to solve this problem. First, consider whether this feeling is primarily your own or whether the feeling may have been pushed on you by others. If the feeling is primarily your own, then you can start to consider what loneliness is and how to change it. Persistent despair about loneliness is probably a healthy mental reaction in some cases, so it's a good starting place to consider that your mind is providing useful flags for healthy and unhealthy behavior. This probably means that your mind will reward you when the loneliness is solved.

Grumps: Nothing is working to cure my loneliness.

Optimist: If you've tried certain things and they haven't worked, then you've eliminated what hasn't worked, and you can try new things. Consider if you're seeking the right type of people to cure your loneliness. If they may be the wrong type of people, what type of people would you desire, and what in you would make it more likely for them to desire you? This type of self-exploration and self-knowledge may expose things in you that repel the people you want and attract the people you don't want.

True friends do not evaluate us according to worldly criteria, it is the core self they are interested in; like ideal parents, their love for us remains unaffected by our appearance or position in the social hierarchy, and so we have no qualms in dressing in old clothes and revealing that we have made little money this year. 8

Grumps: I rarely experience the pleasures that popular people seem to experience.

Optimist: Life satisfaction is less affected by pleasure than by the pursuit of meaning and engagement.

The pursuit of meaning and engagement are much more predictive of life satisfaction than the pursuit of pleasure (Peterson et al., 2005). 7


Grumps: I have few or no friends.

Optimist: It's better to have few or no good friends rather than any bad friends. The lack of bad friends is a good thing to good people.

Social life is beset with disparities between other's perceptions of us and our reality. We are accused of stupidity when we are being cautious. Our shyness is taken for arrogance and our desire to please for sycophancy. We struggle to clear up a misunderstanding, but our throat goes dry and the words found are not the ones meant. Bitter enemies are appointed to positions of power over us, and denounce us to others... Though we inhabit one place at one time... we may imaginatively project ourselves into other lands and eras which promise to judge us with greater objectivity. We may not convince local juries in time to help ourselves, but we can be consoled by the prospect of posterity's verdict.


Don't you think it a good principle that one shouldn't respect all human opinions, but only some and not others... that one should respect the good ones, but not the bad ones?... And good ones are those of people with understanding, whereas bad ones are those of people without it... So my good friend, we shouldn't care all that much about what the populace will say of us, but about what the expert on matters of justice and injustice will say. 8


Grumps: My family has a lot of problems or is downright dysfunctional or abusive.

Optimist: You did not choose your family, but you can choose how you deal with them. You can also reflect what an ideal family is and try to make one.

Grumps: If I bring up any deep issues with my parents, they respond that "they did their best," and I feel very unsatisfied.

Optimist: When parents invoke such predictable bromides, this is an opportunity to probe the depth of the relationship. For example, you can agree, for the sake of argument, that they did do their best, but are they trying to do their best within the current conversation? Do they respect your feelings and emotions? Are they curious about your reasons for bringing up the issues? Are they interested in whether or not you feel satisfied with their responses? Exploring the deeper meaning of what each side wants, while empathizing with their attempts, can evoke deeper thought and connection, and if not, show the true nature of the relationship and help with its closure.

Monday, Sep 04, 2017 8:19:13 PM