A Skeptic's View of Love

Lightbrush love
What does it mean to have a skeptical view of love?

I don’t mean having a cynical attitude about love. (Funny how the words “skepticism” and “cynicism” get conflated.) I mean taking a skeptical, materialist, entirely non-woo view of life — and applying it to how we think about love.

Tim minchin
The other day, Ingrid showed me this video by Tim Minchin, famed atheist and skeptical singer/ songwriter/ poet/ performance artist/ comedian. (For boring technical reasons, I’ll embed it at the end of the post instead of here.) The gist of the song, sung for and about his wife (spoiler alert!): “If I didn’t have you, I probably would have somebody else.”

At first, Ingrid was worried that I’d be hurt by her showing me the video. But like her, I found it hilarious — and in a freaky way, I found it one of the most romantic and loving things I’ve seen in a while. (“You fall within a bell curve” has now become one of our endearments.)

And it’s gotten me thinking about the whole idea of soul-mates, and romantic destiny, and there being one perfect love for you in the whole world. All of which I think is a load of dingo’s kidneys.

And I don’t think I’m being unromantic.

Wings of destiny
First, obviously, I think the whole “soul-mate/ romantic destiny” thing is just wrong. Mistaken. Not true. I don’t think we have souls, much less mates for them; I don’t think there’s an invisible hand pushing people together (and if there were, it’d have a seriously sadistic sense of humor, what with putting people’s true destined loves on opposite sides of the country and whatnot).

But maybe more to the point:

The “soul-mate/ romantic destiny” vision of love puts the focus on love as something you feel — rather than something you do.

It puts the focus on love as something that happens to you — rather than something that you choose.

And I find it much more romantic, and much more loving, to see love as something we do, and something we choose.

When we see love solely as something that we feel… then what happens when those feelings change? As they inevitably do.

And when we see love solely as something that happens to us… then what happens when the going gets tough, and we have to make hard choices about the relationship? For that matter, what happens when something else happens to us — something that conflicts with the love? What happens when we get job offers in other cities… or when other romantic prospects appear on the horizon?

Of course a huge part of love is the way we feel about our beloved. The feelings of tenderness and passion that well up in me when I look at Ingrid, the feelings of anxious excitement that I had when we were first starting out…that’s an enormous part of what we have between us. And of course a huge part of love is the feeling that something has hit you out of the clear blue sky. When Ingrid and I were first going out, I used to say that I felt like I’d been conked on the head with a giant vaudeville rubber mallet. If love didn’t have the power to knock us out of our tracks and into a whole new life, it wouldn’t be what it is.

But I don’t think that’s enough. It’s enough to get love started — but it’s not enough to sustain it.

Dishes in sink
I think what sustains love is doing the dishes when you promised to. Remembering the book they said they wanted, and getting it for their birthday. Skipping the movie you wanted to see, to go with them to a party of their friends who you don’t know very well. Remembering which kind of seltzer water they like when you go shopping; remembering how they like their burgers cooked when you’re making dinner. Sitting with them when they’re grieving… and restraining your impulse to always try to fix things and give advice and make things better, and instead being willing to just sit still and be with them in their pain. Asking if there’s anything they need from the kitchen while you’re up. Wearing the stupid sticky breathing strip on your nose at night so your snoring doesn’t keep them awake. Bringing them endless cups of tea when they’re sick. Keeping your temper in an argument, and remembering that as angry as you might be right now, you love this person and don’t want to hurt them. Saying, “I love you.” Saying, “You’re beautiful” — not just when they’re dolled up for a night on the town, but when they come home from work and you notice that they look particularly fetching. Noticing when they come home from work looking particularly fetching. Going to their readings, their dance performances, their office parties. Going to their family gatherings, and treating their family as your family, too. Going to the vet together. Trying out music they like, books they like, recipes they like, hobbies they like, kinds of sex they like, even if you don’t think it’s your thing: not just because you want to make them happy, but because it’s part of who they are, and you want to find out more about them, and share the things that matter to them.

In the inimitable words of Tim Minchin, “Love is nothing to do with destined perfection/ The connection is strengthened; the affection simply grows over time… And love is made more powerful by the ongoing drama of shared experience and synergy/ And symbiotic empathy or something like that… ” Sure, the feelings I have for Ingrid have a lot to do with the giant vaudeville rubber mallet I got conked on the head with when we fell in love. But they have more to do with the eleven plus years we’ve spent together: the meals we’ve eaten, the parties we’ve thrown, the vacations we’ve taken, the arguments we’ve had, the sex we’ve had, the griefs we’ve borne, the thousands of nights we’ve spent sleeping in the same bed, the long conversations we’ve had about politics, about religion, about books, about our friends, about our cats, about bad reality television.

And none of that has anything to do with fate.

Like Tim Minchin, I’m intensely aware of the massive role that pure chance plays in our lives. Not fate, not destiny, but pure dumb random roll- of- the- dice luck. As passionately as I love San Francisco, I realize that I could have landed in a dozen other cities — New York, Portland, London, Seattle, Minneapolis — and settled happily there instead. I often think about the people in those cities who would have been my friends if I lived there instead of San Francisco; I sometimes even feel a loss, a yearning, for the people I’ve never met who could have been my best friends.

And I realize that if I’d wound up in one of those cities instead of San Francisco, I would never have met Ingrid, and we both would likely have met and fallen in love with other people instead. While there’s a pragmatic sense in which I suppose Ingrid and I were destined to meet — we both lived in San Francisco, we were interested in many of the same things, we knew many of the same people, it’s not actually that big of a city — any one of a thousand small choices and pieces of random chance could have resulted in our paths not crossing. Or not crossing at the right time.

What makes Ingrid uniquely special to me isn’t that she’s my soul-mate, my destiny, the one person in billions I could have loved and been happy with. What makes Ingrid uniquely special to me is the years we have behind us: the meals and parties and sex and conversations and trips to the vet and everything else. It’s the things we do, and have done, and will do for many years to come; it’s the choices we make, and have made, and will make in the years we have left.

Wedding portrait
Of the people in the world I might have been happy with? She falls within a bell curve. Of the people in the world I now want to be with? She is entirely and 100% unique. Not because a divine hand made us uniquely suited to be together… but because we have chosen to make each other unique.

Oh, yeah. The Tim Minchin video is below the jump, since when I put videos above the jump it screws up my archives.

Like I said. Ingrid and I both think this is totally romantic. I know. We’re freaks.

A Skeptic's View of Love
The Orbit is still fighting a SLAPP suit! Help defend freedom of speech, click here to find out more and donate!

22 thoughts on “A Skeptic's View of Love

  1. 1

    I totally agree that having that “ooh, soulmates” idea of love can often lead to people leaving good relationships: certainly it’s the people who really buy into that idea who seem to be the ones most likely to be prepared to agonise for ages over whether small relationship imperfections are signs that It’s Not Meant to Be.
    But there’s also a flip-side: I think the soulmates concept of love can also lead to people staying in bad relationships.
    Take me. Now, I’m not a very “soulmates” sort of person, but there was one popular idea that I did really buy into: that when you meet the person who you should be with for the rest of your life, You Just Know. Not love-at-first-sight or anything like that, but It Will Feel Right and You Will Just Know. Like that.
    Well, I met someone, and I did Just Know. And that person turned out to be very unhealthy for me to be with. Luckily for me (I can now see in retrospect), the relationship ended for unrelated reasons before she had got completely entangled with the warp and the weft of my life. If it hadn’t done, I think I would have got hurt more badly than I did (which, btw, was pretty badly).
    And like I say, I’m not the sort of person who buys into that idea very strongly. But for someone who does… well, I can easily imagine someone staying in an abusive relationship because “We’re soulmates! On our first date we stood on Hungerford Bridge as the sun came up, and I looked into his/her eyes and I knew he/she was the one for me! How can I let that go? We’re meant to be together! If I just try harder…”
    And yeah, I know people do stay in abusive relationships even if they don’t have that “soulmates” thing going on. But if you did – if you really thought that, out of all the world, this person was The One who you just had to be with – that would make leaving a whole lot harder, I reckon.

  2. 2

    I very much agree with you that love really should be seen as an action, rather than a feeling. In this perspective, the greatest compliment from one lover to another should be “You love me” rather than the three little words that really have it backwards, “I love you”. For my wife to tell me “You really love me” means that she has noticed all the things that I do to demonstrate my love for her. Ultimately, if I don’t demonstrate my love by doing things (that was a great list, Greta), the stuff I feel doesn’t make a bit of difference. If I tell her I love her while I mock her in front of friends, then I’m not really loving her. If I scrub the bathroom tub because I know she hates doing it, then whether I say “I love you” or not, I’ve demonstrated that I do, just a little bit.
    Unfortunately, the three little words “I love you” are just more catchy and ingrained, so we’ve never really changed to “You love me”. But periodically we’ll pull it out to remind each other just how much we’ve noticed that love.

  3. 4

    If there were a god, Tim Minchin would be it. I imagine you’ve heard his beat poem “Storm”? “The Good Book” is a fantastic song too, but I don’t know whether anyone’s posted it on YouTube yet.

  4. 6

    Actually, just a quibble here, but I think what you have is unromantic love – love without bullshit.
    Romantic love, is that celebrated in songs where the person sings they will die for you, or they don’t think they can live without you, or any variation of that theme of “romance” that is more about what people imagine as pleasing deceptions than anything real.
    What you have is not so plastic.
    That said, reading wires I saw Reuters have a story you might want to blog about: http://www.reuters.com/article/lifestyleMolt/idUSTRE55E3G320090615

  5. 8

    “Romantic love, is that celebrated in songs where the person sings they will die for you, or they don’t think they can live without you, or any variation of that theme of “romance” that is more about what people imagine as pleasing deceptions than anything real.”
    Also, those are early warning signs of an abusive partner. That was something I should probably have put into my earlier comment: Being into the whole “romantic love, soulmates” idea wouldn’t just make you more likely to stay with an abusive lover, it’d actually make you more likely to get with them in the first place. Because when someone says “I can’t imagine my life without you, you mean more to me than anything in the world, I’d die without you” – and means it – that’s when you want to start running. That kind of talk is pretty well-known to be the very earliest warning sign that you’ve got into, or are getting into, an abusive relationship. Someone who thinks like that doesn’t actually think of you as a person separate from them: they think of you as a security blanket they can cling to. And if you start doing things that indicate you do in fact have a personality separate from them, that’ll be very threatening for them, because it denies the security blanket image they’ve got of you. And they’ll do anything to get that security blanket back: after all, they’d die without it, right? And “anything” includes emotional abuse, physical abuse, whatever.
    But if someone’s really into the whole “my soulmate who is the Only One for Me and I am the Only One for Them” idea, someone saying “I can’t live without you” wouldn’t be a warning sign, it’d be a potential-soulmate sign. And they could easily just wander into an abusive relationship without realising.
    Especially as the next sign after that is excessively extravagant gift-giving. What this actually means is the abuser is trying to buy your affections, to ensure that you can’t possibly reject him/her because that would be so ungrateful after he/she’s been so generous.
    But again, the whole “soulmates” concept styles extravagant gift-giving as a sign that this is The One True Love For You.
    “Oh, it was so wonderful! He hired a private jet and flew us both to Paris!”
    “On your second date?”
    “No, our third. Isn’t he romantic?”
    “He sounds dangerous to me.”
    “What? Don’t be ridiculous!”

  6. Leo

    There is an interesting book that touches on this “soul mate” subject called “Please Understand Me” by Dr. David Keirsey, that might make you think twice about over-generalizing and too quickly dismissing the soul mate concept. Keirsey starts with decades of Myers-Briggs data (you know, the ENTJ stuff) and breaks it down into four “Temperaments.” As a fifty-something business exec, I’ve been through dozens of such evaluations during my career and most come off about as useful as horoscopes. But this Temperament approach from Keirsey seems to really, really ring true for both me and my family and friends. It has been invaluable in offering the appropriate guidance to my teenage children (instead of basing everything off of what I did or would have done) and in my relationship with my wife. Based on this sample of one, IT WORKS!
    Keirsey suggests that for one of the four temperaments, the Idealist, a soul mate is exactly what they are looking for. Idealists, however, are the second smallest segment of the population at 10-15%. I’m in the smallest segment, the Rationals, at 5-10%, who are looking for ‘mind mates’. The Guardians (40-45%) and the Artisans (30-35%) are looking for help mates and play mates respectively.
    I won’t go into detail about Keirsey’s definition of ‘soul mate’, but it does not have to be interpreted religiously or spiritually at all; it can simply work to represent the nature of the romantic relationship between two people. Rationals and the others might cringe at the thought of having a soul mate, and most likely would prefer someone complementary to themselves before settling for someone who themselves desires a soul mate, but don’t be in too much of a rush to mock the idea – you might be married to an Idealist yourself, and it would behoove you to understand what they need and want if you are in love and want a successful relationship.

  7. jo

    Thanks for this. I’ve been saying for months that the “love feelings” I have for my girlfriend aren’t that special (i’ve felt them for lots of people, even one-night stands), but the way we treat each other with respect & caring is definitely special. That has nothing to do w/chance; it’s a matter of choice.
    That hands-free love=magic approach made my early dating life unnecessarily angsty for sure.

  8. 12

    I’m somewhat surprised that no one has mentioned They Might Be Giants’ song Ana Ng, which is based on the premise that the singer’s One True Love is out there, but lives on the opposite side of the planet.
    As for me, back when I was a teenager, I figured that if my One True Destined Love was randomly chosen from all the women of a certain age bracket on the planet, then she could be anywhere: China, Suriname, Congo, etc. And that since I’d only meet an infinitesimal fraction of the billions of people on earth, the odds were heavily stacked against me ever meeting my One True Love.
    And yet, I saw lots of happily-married couples around me, many more than would be expected from randomly-chosen soulmates happening to run into each other. I realized that the soulmate theory had to be rubbish, and that love was something that arises from local conditions, not something planned out by whoever runs the universe. It would take me some more time to figure out that love is something you work at, and that there’s a difference the initial passionate love and the kind of long-distance marathon love that makes a relationship work, but it was a start.

  9. 13

    Oh, I agree completely.
    It always stuns me the people that believe that there’s one unique person (out of 6.6 billion!) who is perfect for them, and yet somehow that person just happened to live a few miles from where they did.
    I hadn’t seen that one of Minchin’s – he’s fantastic.
    A (very happily married) female friend with whom I share a great many beliefs and interests once described me as a soul-mate (after she’d had some alcohol to loosen the tongue a bit). It’s probably true in some sense (I don’t think she intended it romantically), we certainly share a connection that I don’t share with many other friends.
    At the time we were both happily in relationships (and both remain in them well over a decade later – so even if there was some romantic intent in it, it was never going anywhere). Anyway, the point is, a (to me) surprisingly deep connection with someone other than my partner.
    I expect that if I lived in a different city (which I nearly did), I’d probably have other friends with whom I have nearly as close a connection – and who knows; maybe even more so.
    Most of us know maybe 700 people or so. So there’s ten million people on earth for every person we know. For any person we like, there is probably hundreds of thousands of people we don’t know that we’d like at least as well – and even that one person that may well be the best we’ve ever met – there’s still probably tends of thousands of people in the world we’d get on with just as well or better – we just didn’t meet them.
    We can choose to build a life with someone. What matters is the relationship we’re in, not the billions of relationships we’re not in.

  10. 14

    Great video and song.
    No, skepticism and cynicism are not the same thing. As I like to say, there’s an upside to every downside, and a downside to every upside.
    In love, as in all things.
    That’s not cynical, IMO, that’s realistic.

  11. 15

    Wow. Efrique, “most of us know 700 people or so”. That’s a generalisation that is WAY! out. Most of the people I know maybe know 20 people or so in their whole lives.
    And this is another angle on this topic: apart from the individual, the economic system wants this ‘soulmate thing’ just as it wants the ‘achievement and career thing’. It’s all to support and further the economic interests of the system we live in. We individuals are nothing more than numbers. We live, we die, we disappear, get replaced and are forgotten. The system doesn’t care; it feeds on generations. That makes at least the career and achievement thing an irrelevant exercise. It’s much better to enjoy yourself, take it easy and forget about all that. The soulmate thing gives us a mirage to look forward to.

  12. 16

    I tell my boyfriend all the time, if I thought that soulmates made any mathematical or rational sense, and if I believed in souls in the first place… he could be my soulmate.

  13. 18

    She was nervous about showing this to you? I think this is going to become a test I administer: if I show it to a woman and she doesn’t laugh, we aren’t getting married.

  14. 19

    Love is not forgetting to put cream in his chocolate drink every morning even if you’re still too sleepy. 🙂
    Nice post.
    (URL removed and author name edited due to commercial content. -GC)

  15. 20

    As a person in a long-term relationship, I believe that I have the creds to talk about love and relationships. As our time together lengthens, the quality of the relationship should improve. and yet too often it doesn’t. One partner might be getting feelings of ownership over the other, or maybe unresolved personality problems cloud the vision and lead to blind abuse. Either way, the quality suffers while the quantity builds.
    I have been pondering what to say to my sons, neither of whom is yet involved in a serious relationship even though there are no parental constraints against them. I don’t want to see them get into a relationship which is more draining than enhancing, yet that is what they saw their parents do. Reading this post is at least stimulating some new thought as to defining what I want to say.
    Thank you.

  16. 21

    Thanks v much for the weblog awards nomination btw! I was completely unaware of the event till I saw the link in my stats and found your very kind nomination.

  17. 22

    I do use the word “soulmate”, but I define it a bit differently than the traditional “One And Only” idea. For me, a “soulmate” is a person whose personality fits well with yours, one who you feel a deep connection with, and with whom you can share your deepest thoughts and feelings with. A person who appeals to you on a deep level, one of a relatively small proportion of humanity with whom you can have such a connection. I call my boyfriend my “soulmate”. Is he the only person in the world I could’ve had such a relationship with? No. It’s possible I might’ve found someone else who I would’ve called my soulmate had my life gone on a different path (or possibly not; not everyone finds a suitable partner in their life). But of all the people I know, he’s the one I have the deepest connection to.

Comments are closed.