Monday, February 14, 2011

The mystery of romantic love

One thing that’s clear about romantic love is that the math simply doesn’t work out on “soul-mates”. I don’t think there was one woman out there for me that could uniquely fulfill me that I was destined to find. It’s an absurd idea. In that sense there is nothing “special” about Kate (which is not to say that Kate isn’t special – simply that it’s not the fact that she’s some “soul-mate” of mine that makes her special). The very idea quickly falls about. We’re talking roughly a one in 3 billion chance if we abstract away from minority orientations. We can improve the odds somewhat by restricting the “soul-mate” concept to a specific age cohort. That seems reasonable. But any other adjustments strike me as being inappropriate. We’re just supposed to believe that these soul-mates often live in reasonably close geographical proximity to us? That they often attend our high school, college, or one of our first few jobs? And that historically that proximity correlation has gotten weaker as transportation networks have improved? That’s an odd pattern for Cupid to follow, is it not?

So no, I don’t buy into the idea of soul-mates. As I said, the math simply doesn’t work out. Romantic love seems to be a function of access and convenience. And yet that doesn’t make sense either. Anyone who’s married or has been married knows there’s nothing really “convenient” about it. “Convenient” would be no need for compromising, no need for spending two hours picking out curtains, no need for keeping a predictable schedule. That’s not marriage or in a committed relationship knows that that is not what we’re talking about.

So what is it? A dependable availability of sex? Perhaps, but there’s nothing especially challenging about getting that either if you want it.

All of these seem to miss something fundamental. “Love”, really, but what is that? It’s a feeling. It’s a commitment you make. It’s frustratingly slippery, though. We shove a lot under that word “love” and don’t spend too much time worrying about understanding exactly what the hell it is. But it clearly is something. It is a real thing.

I end up seeing lots of beautiful women over the course of the day. It’s not hard to see a woman and acknowledge if she’s beautiful or not. It’s subjective, of course, but it’s not something that takes careful study to ascertain. You can determine that quality walking by someone on the sidewalk. But I never get enraptured looking at a beautiful woman on the sidewalk. Nobody does! If I passed a group of super-models walking down the sidewalk I would certainly turn my head, but nobody would walk into a lamp-post or anything ridiculous like that like they do in cartoons. And super-models are supposedly the cream of the crop! And yet despite that, I genuinely get enraptured by Kate’s beauty. Sometimes the sunlight catches her the right way and I can literally lose my train of thought. I’ve been married to this woman for three years, I’ve dated her for almost seven years, and I’ve known her for eight and a half years and yet this can still catch me off guard. Why? It doesn’t make sense at all. Romantic love seems to me to be a violation of a social second law of thermodynamics. Even when we put aside nonsense about soul-mates and even if we come to grips with the things that make pairing efficient (division of labor, resource pooling, etc.) there’s still this very mysterious residual of romantic love, and the more you think about it the weirder is. It’s just very hard to account for – but I’m glad it’s out there.


  1. I read this post out loud to Tricia and we discussed it a bit. She doesn't like your rejection of the "soulmate" idea, but we also agreed that a lot of the disagreement might come out of differing conceptions of soulmates. Tricia would acknowledge that there's probably a million guys she could have had a perfectly fine marriage with, but also would want to say that one person might be "right", meaning best for you in some way. A person could miss out on their soulmate and still have a fine marriage, though. So in the end I'm not sure how much you two disagree, especially since you haven't defined a "soulmate".

    I'm more inclined to agree with your assessment here, although I do think that you are too strict on the social probabilities when you speak of the patten of partners "often attend[ing] our high school, college, or one of our first few jobs." Why isn't this relevant for someone who is your soulmate? Romantic love itself is a social relationship, so it stands to reason that social factors like community background, religious beliefs... even occupational skill sets!... are relevant for whether someone is "meant for you" or a perfect match. Why would you disinclude these? Don't they make someone who they are as much as age or sex do?

    Tricia also pointed out that when you begin to wax mysterious and romantic, you're quite open to a more rational disenchantment in your own right. The fact that Kate's beauty is an ever blooming flower of romantic affection for you isn't necessarily a violation of some social second law of thermodynamics... couldn't it just be the evolutionary biology of monogamy? It's in the interest of your genes to shack up with and stand by a stable progeny-generating relationship, and while you could sow your seeds widely to get the job done, humans seem to be geared less towards mass and indiscriminate breeding, and more towards the inefficiencies of high-maintenance family structures that make for slower but more stable genetic legacies.

  2. "We’re just supposed to believe that these soul-mates often live in reasonably close geographical proximity to us?"

    Well, Daniel, if, in fact, we really are essentially souls, and if reality is essentially spiritual, and if some of those souls are "paired" in some way, then we would almost expect souls that were somehow right for each other to grope towards each other in some way, and we would find them near each other an awful lot.

    What you are saying essentially is that "The concept of soulmate makes no sense within a materialist world picture" -- and that is surely correct!


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