What do lovers talk about when they talk about philosophy?

My boyfriend has posited a hypothetical that he says is just hypothetical but is driving me up the wall

Published June 28, 2011 12:01AM (EDT)

Dear Reader,

Sometimes I work very hard all day on a piece and even miss my deadline trying to get it right and still have a feeling I'm missing the boat and this is one of those times so please read this person's very long but quite articulate letter carefully and provide her with the thoughtful dialogue she is seeking. I think I kind of get it but I also think in trying to entertain more than one possibility I have blurred the whole thing. --ct

Dear Cary,

The other day I was having a conversation with my boyfriend about the viability of lifelong love and he expressed the conviction that it is inevitable, even in a happy marriage, that at some point over a lifetime both people will meet someone else who inspires the thought: "Wow, I could have made it with this one -- s/he has all of my current partner's positive qualities and none of the negative ones." When I asked him to elaborate, he said that he has talked to "a lot" of older people about this, and that they have universally reported having had at least one such experience at some point in their marriages. "Why would I be any different?" he asks. He also says that no one compares to me, and that he would discount a reaction of this type to another woman as being based on illusion, because the risk that the new person would turn out to be a disappointment is too great to justify discarding a relationship that is known to be good. After much discussion he stands firmly by his remarks.

I have a lot of thoughts about this. I have a lot of thoughts in general. But the reason I am a person who has a lot of thoughts is that I am a person who has a lot of feelings. I have intense feelings about things that other people seem to not even see, and I have to think about them in order to keep them from taking over. Like homeless people. I walk to work every day and see at least four homeless men on the way. I can give them a little money or buy them some breakfast, and then I know I have to keep going, and I do have a job that lets me work against systemic injustices, but every morning part of me wants to hit pause and yell around to the crowd: "Wait! Wait a minute everybody! There are people sleeping on the sidewalk in pools of urine! Not just one person, but one person every other block! What the heck?! What are we going to do about this? Someone sleeping on the street is an emergency! What is going on? Why are you just walking by? Are you all CRAZY?" And I know that it is not that they are individually crazy, it is that we are living in a sort of insane society, and that ignoring that insanity has become necessary in order to put one foot in front of the other every day. Every day can't be a revolution. Except that secretly I think it can. Secretly I want it to be. Secretly I am trying to have my days be little revolutions.

Other small things that I have intense emotions about: mean remarks about a person's appearance, even (maybe especially?) when they are flippant and not in earnest; contempt for categories of things (like religion -- I have a lot of friends that are contemptuous about religion. I am not religious myself, but it really bothers me to hear religious belief used as a proxy for ignorance and conservatism); remarks about "criminals" -- usually in a way that suggests the "criminals" in question have ceased, upon conviction, being human.

Anyway, I think what all of these examples I have mentioned have in common is that they are essentially harmless affirmations or invocations of broader harmful truths. Like, there is nothing shockingly malicious about referring to "dumpy middle-aged women" as a group. But when a friend of mine used that phrase the other day I felt a simmering fury. And I know it was not because the comment was such a terrible infraction, but because it is true that physical appearance -- especially when you are an American woman -- is a very powerful determinate. And that over-emphasis on physical beauty causes suffering. I've seen it. I think it's horrible and devaluing. My friend's remark called that truth up for me, and called up my hatred of it.

I don't usually indulge in the emotional reactions I have to these sorts of things. I understand the feelings I am having, I think they are legitimate, but I don't invest in them when they come up inside me, and I don't push them on others. If I gave them too much space I would not be able to function socially.

But sometimes, when it is someone I am intimate with, I do get caught up in them. This means that most of my loved ones have at some point been subjected to interrogation sessions prompted by their casual unthinking and seemingly meaningless comments or actions that I see as having, at their base, the unconscious adoption of a harmful truth. I don't do it very often anymore because it makes people feel attacked and judged and I don't want them to feel that way especially because that isn't what's motivating me when I dig in on some little thing that someone I love says -- what's motivating me is a feeling of vulnerability. I am scared to be in a family (family for me means anyone that I rely on for love and support) with someone who is comfortable with -- or worse, perpetuating -- harmful truths. And the more intimate the relationship, the more likely I am to feel alienated by words and deeds that reflect such comfort.

So, back to the thing my boyfriend said. When he said it, I felt like I was being dropped from the top of a 50-story building. I definitely don't expect my life partner to be blind to the beauty, intelligence, humor, warmth or genius of other people, whether or not they fall within the right age and gender range to be sexual possibilities. I wouldn't want that even if it were on offer. I want to be with someone who actively enjoys and appreciates other people. But I think there is a difference between appreciating the wonderful things about someone, and viewing that wonderfulness as a commodity with relative market value in one's own personal economy. (And yes, there are other things about my boyfriend besides this one remark that make me hear his comment in this way -- like he is extremely ambitious, hyper-aware of how others perceive him, has had a very privileged life, and is a huge flirt.) And I think that he's right that there is an element of this in most relationships -- but I don't think that is evidence that it is "inevitable." I think it is evidence of another one of those harmful truths -- the harmful truth that we tend to view others in terms of what they can do for us. I agree that this is prevalent, perhaps even biologically ingrained, but that doesn't make it good or right. And it doesn't mean that I should just accept it as an unavoidable condition of any long-term romance -- does it?

Is this making sense, Cary? I don't want to be in a partnership where I have to survive daily head-to-heads with the rest of the female population, where the ever-present possibility of upgrade has any gravitational force, where other people who seem great have to in actuality be not so great in order for me to retain my place of prominence in my partner's romantic imagination.

When I told my boyfriend that I didn't think what he described was inevitable for me, he told me I am an "outlier" and that it is crazy to expect that your partner will never be tempted. But I don't expect that. In fact, I sort of don't care whether the thing he is talking about actually happens. I mean, I know it would hurt to find out my love is attracted to someone they have deemed superior to me, but I know I can't control outcomes and that pain is always a part of intimacy, and I don't want to waste emotional energy worrying about ways that pain could happen; I'd rather just work on loving and being loved. So, I'm not fretting about the possibility of him finding someone who strikes him as a missed opportunity, I'm fretting about whether I should be giving myself to someone who views people as opportunities to begin with. And I know that what I hope for is rare. I know most people never find it, or learn it themselves. But I can have the kind of life I want without a partner, and I'd rather be alone than with someone who doesn't share my same intentions in love.

I want to know what you and your readers think -- about my boyfriend's comment, about my reaction, about any of what I have said. Sorry this is so long. I am struggling.

The Rambler

Dear Rambler,

I tend to think when lovers say they are talking about philosophy they are really talking about, Will you love me forever until the stars fall from the sky no matter what happens even if I grow a mustache?

Love is what lovers talk about when they talk about philosophy. How will you feel about me if I get a humpback like an old lady? Will you ditch me?

That's what you are talking about, isn't it?

In an ideal world he would apologize for bringing it up; he would admit that it was a silly and stupid conversation, and you would forgive him and that would be that except you would file it away as his secret weakness and every time a pretty woman in a great dress said something dazzling and faintly suggestive you would be a little short with him and he would wonder why, but then he would realize why.

I find your thinking admirable. I am drawn to think with you about these things. But as you say, you think so much because you feel so much. It is your feeling that is driving you to ask what the hell is going on in your boyfriend's head.

Of course you are concerned. It sounds like he is trying to warn you that one day he is going to see some woman and make a calculation and dump you on the spot. So for him to say confidently that the calculation could never work out in her favor sounds hollow. How does he know, once he starts calculating, how the numbers will add up? And what is he to do if they don't add up the way he expects? It is not enough, now that he has brought it up, for him to claim that he would not be swayed. We know that logical thought is no match for the passions.

But that is just the danger of talking about this. It can't be decided or figured out. It was a bad choice. But part of its being a bad choice, and of his boneheaded insistence on a weak argument, may be that he is just a guy. Sometimes we have to let people be not quite so good as we wish they were in order that they can be who they are.

This I know: At times I am just a guy. World peace is important but sometimes I want to be just a guy on his way to a baseball game. And maybe he would like you to acknowledge that most people have this side, that we will walk by the Ferrari in the window and we will think about what it would be like to have one and if the opportunity ever arose ... well, we think about things. But if we are wise we keep these thoughts to ourselves.

I admire you greatly. Your prose, your mind, your high ideals. I admire you. My advice would be to be careful around your boyfriend because he is indeed telling you something about the pressures and longings he feels, but he is also just being himself, and may just have been having a bad day. So if he could just apologize and the both of you could just back away slowly from the unprovable philosophical proposition, you'd be better off.


Citizens of the Dream

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By Cary Tennis

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