[Previous] The Problem of Monogamy | Home | [Next] Maximising Intimacy?

Caution and Discernment in Romance

Short version:

To carefully judge a new love interest against a current spouse, and make a wise judgment about who is preferable, requires a great deal of time and attention. However, single people pledge eternal love very quickly, even though their knowledge can be no more complete.

Expanded version:

Consider a man with a loving family, who has been married to his wife for no less than two decades. He is content, he has a good job, and his children have good prospects. He never fights with his wife. But, like every man, he knows there is more that could be attained. It is only natural to think that life would be even more pleasant if his wife had more skill with rhetoric, or a greater interest in ancient history, or liked to play tennis. But it is a virtue to remain content, and not be distressed by unavailable possibilities.

This man meets a new woman, who is lovely, and witty, and kind, and shares with him some qualities, interests, hobbies, and virtues that his wife does not share. He is intrigued, and starts to fall in love with her, and wonders if his life would be better with her. At this point a wise reader will object that the man proposes a most abrupt and immoderate change, and disaster is the likely outcome. But let us put aside any qualms about sudden, large changes, and consider another argument.

To decide in favor of the new woman, and to leave his family, the man must, in his best judgment, be confident he will be happier with her, and have a better life. He must know her flaws, to be certain he will not find them more loathsome than his wife's flaws. He must know her assets, to be certain they are greater than his wife's. He must know her interests and hobbies, to be sure he prefers them, and will not be giving up some most important ones. He must spend time with her, to see what she is like after the initial infatuation wears off. He must also see her in all manner of situations: when she is angry, when she is sad, when she is happy, when she is anxious, when she is scared; in this way, he will immunise himself to the possibility of a hidden flaw in her disposition that could cause him great grief. A sagacious reader will see the great weight of tasks necessary for the man to pass a considered judgment, and will see they must, to be done properly, take a great period of time.

Let us now consider a single man, who is a young adult. He has no family, but he hopes to have one soon. He meets a woman, and quickly falls in love with her, and they marry. It is a common story. But why should this young man have any better judgment, or faster wit, than the family man we considered first? All the considerations the family man needed to make about his new potential wife, so too a young man should make them about a potential wife, if he wishes to avoid mishap. Some have said the young man has less to lose, and it is acceptable for him to assume a greater risk. But he risks his future family, which he should value no less than the family man values his own family. And so he must exercise equal prudence and caution before embarking on such a great commitment.

Elliot Temple on December 11, 2005

Messages (5)

you mention that the young man falling swiftly in love is a common story: may these version be only that, a story?

One person, old or young, may be cautious from the first time to the 50th time, while another hops into every bed he can find, while a third mixes and matches: in none fo these is success gurenteed, and perhaps the hot, fast passion may be all that is desired, much like the old saying "the fire that burns twice as bright burns half as long"

lastly, you speak soly of the mens role: is the womans role diferent? Is her process the same, or utterly physically or psychologically different?

Sitraahra at 6:26 PM on December 11, 2005 | #77 | reply | quote

I agree with the general thrust of your post, but I have two main criticisms of the argument you offer.

In sketching the considerations that must be weighed up by the wavering husband, you make no mention of the impact on his wife and children should he decide to leave them. In your conclusions you make a passing reference to the value the married man places on his family, but you do not mention the value the other members of his family place on its continuing survival.

This is a significant omission because it undermines the validity of the analogy you draw between the risks faced by the single man making an impetuous commitment and the married man leaving his family. The impetuous single man may or may not cause harm to himself and others by his decision to marry after only a brief acquaintance with his partner. But the married man who abandons an otherwise contented family is certain to cause great harm to the rest of his family, and, as a consequence, most probably to himself, as well.

My other criticism concerns your assumption that in order to make a prudent commitment to each other, it is necessary for a couple to amass a great deal of empirical knowledge about how the other person acts in a variety of situations. While there is much to recommend this approach up to a point, it is predicated on the premise that the two individuals' behaviour within a committed relationship can be accurately predicted based on their behaviour prior to the commitment being entered into.

This is not necessarily true. For people who are sufficiently adept at harmonising their preferences according to their evolving understanding of how best to advance their life goals, the fact of entering into a deeply felt commitment can lead to a profound evolution in their personalities and values. In such a scenario, which I suggest is the objectively desirable one, basing a commitment decision primarily on meticulous research into the other person's prevailing behavioural propensities would necessarily foreclose on the growth of invaluable moral knowledge and untold human fulfilment.

Kolya at 9:11 PM on December 11, 2005 | #78 | reply | quote


Thank you for your lucid comments.

I agree with your first point that my analogy has a significant omission, which throws into question its validity as an argument. Certainly it is no proof. However, I did not intend to rely on it in that manner; rather, its primary intent was explanatory: through my analogy I hoped my reader to gain a richer sense of how I saw the situation, and what I advocated. Despite having the weakness you say as an argument, I think it suffices for the other role.

In regards to empirical knowledge, I want to clarify that I meant the man to use his observations to test his theories about the woman's personality. So I would not emphasize the empirical nature of the observations. I stressed the amount because I wished the man to go through many phases of conjecture and refutation (which will surely be aided by a variety of observations), and because I wished to illustrate the myriad of issues he must consider. The object of this exercise is to create bona fide explanations of the woman's propensities and values which could even, in theory, offer an account of what will result due to changes in situation, both physical and moral. Another reason for my focus on observation was that a person's own description of his character is notoriously unreliable.

That said, your point that a person may substantively change when entering, or during, a committed relationship still stands. This evolution may be difficult to foresee with accuracy and profound in scope. As I reflect on your comments, I see that this is a common occurrence, and explains an otherwise inexplicable phenomenon: people make a momentous occasion out of agreeing to date, declaring their love, or getting engaged or married, and then change their behavior to each other on account of that event, even though their knowledge of each other does not improve substantively.

Let me pose a question: We should fear that such agreements are not creatures of prudence, because they attempt an abrupt restyling of a relationship, not a gradual adjustment. Do you have a view on how to make the commitment event take on a more subtle nature, or some alternative way to silence that fear?

Elliot at 11:48 PM on December 11, 2005 | #79 | reply | quote


When a young person moves out of home for the first time, this can lead to an apparently rapid and profound change in the individual's personality. This abrupt change is not necessarily a cause for concern, because it may indicate the release of pre-existing personality tendencies which had previously not found an acceptable form of expression.

Similarly, people who have either thoroughly internalised their culture's marriage-meme, or have spent a long time thinking about and preparing for their future role as a committed partner in a relationship, or have undergone some combination of these two processes, may be able to activate their nascent committed-persona relatively rapidly, once they are convinced they have met the right person.

And that condition, too, can be satisfied after a relatively brief acquaintance, based on an appraisal of the other person's goals and values, and their willingness and capacity to adapt to new requirements arising from the pursuit of those ends.

One could liken this situation to that of a venture capitalist deciding whether to invest in a project proposed by an untested inventor. A "prudent" investor would not dream of doing such a thing, because of the apparently self-evident risks. But an investor with a deep understanding of wealth creation, and a nose for talent spotting, may well feel that the risk is worth the potential gain. It is the latter kind of investor who has been in the vanguard of advancing human knowledge.

The moral, dear reader, is that abrupt change can be highly desirable, when it is a consequence of substantial creativity.

Kolya at 10:11 PM on December 12, 2005 | #80 | reply | quote

I see :-)

Elliot at 10:50 PM on December 12, 2005 | #81 | reply | quote

Want to discuss this? Join my forum.

(Due to multi-year, sustained harassment from David Deutsch and his fans, commenting here requires an account. Accounts are not publicly available. Discussion info.)