A thought experiment. In 4 very short parts.
Part 1: A Valentine’s Day Observation
Today was Valentine’s Day. One of the phrases I saw most often was, “My spouse/boyfriend is the best spouse/boyfriend in the whole world.”
Innocent enough. Except that implicit in that statement is a logic of competition. As though what makes them special to me is that they are better than other options.
Part 2: Why You Hating?
In other words, in order to make my spouse look good, I have to make other spouses look worse. In economic or game theory we call this a zero-sum game. Anytime you are in a situation where one person’s gain is another person’s loss, you are playing a zero-sum game. Now, I know that people aren’t consciously putting other spouses down, and you are groaning right now (especially if you know me personally because this is how I think. All the time.), but bear with me. The language itself implies it. And it is precisely the fact that we don’t consciously mean it that I find it more interesting, not less.
Part 3: The Downside of the Zero-Sum Game of Love
We get this language from how we pick a mate in the first place. I choose you because I think you are more attractive than others in my context, smarter, funnier, and so on. That makes sense. However, once we choose a mate, using that same criteria becomes slightly problematic, for two reasons.
First, as I already said, you implicitly (or should I say, explicitly but perhaps unconsciously) put others down to lift up your spouse. That’s like making your kid feel better by telling him that all the other kids are worse than him. And besides, seriously, if your spouse is the “sweetest man in the whole world,” and 100 million spouses are saying that, well, the logic just doesn’t add up.
But secondly, and perhaps more dangerously, if we continue using the zero-sum game of love after we have committed ourselves to someone, especially a spouse, we have implicitly made our marriage conditional. If the reason I stay married to you is because you are the smartest, prettiest, etc. then what do I do when you are no longer the smartest, prettiest, etc.? My point is, if we continue thinking of our relationships in terms of a competition after we are already in them, we run the risk of feeling justified if we ditch the relationship when “something better comes along.”
Part 4: From Competition to Love
Like I said, the language of competition makes sense when we are choosing people to be in relationship with. After all, we can’t be in a relationship with everyone, so we need some criteria to choose. But once we have made the choice, and have made the choice to commit ourselves to them, we should, over time, transition from the language of competition to the language of commitment.
We should move from seeking a person to love, based on certain criteria, to loving the person you see. And when do we switch from one to the other? When we decide to commit ourselves to them. It is then that we stop comparing our beloved to others, in order to justify our choice to commit to them, and start to find joy in that they are the beloved. In other words, they go from being pretty & smart objectively to being pretty & smart to me.
This does not mean we do not shout from the rooftops how meaningful our loved ones are to us. It just means what we shout is no longer about how they are better than others but how they are perfect for me. We don’t need to justify our relationship according to some standard of approval but find that our spouses and loved ones begin to redefine the standard. She isn’t simply pretty but I begin to define my very subjective idea of prettiness based on her. She becomes the filter for my criteria.
May we begin to love the people we see.
As I was writing this, I remembered that Kierkegaard wrote something very similar. Here are parts of one section of his Works of Love that speaks of this, in case you’re interested:
“The task is not to find the lovable object, but to find the object before you lovable – whether given or chosen – and to be able to continue finding this one lovable, no matter how that person changes. To love is to love the person one sees.
We foolish people often think that when a person has changed for the worse we are exempted from loving him. What a confusion in language: to be exempt from loving. If this is how you see the person, then you really do not see him; you merely see unworthiness, imperfection, and admit thereby that when you loved him you did not really see him but saw only his excellence and perfections. True love is a matter of loving the very person you see. The emphasis is not on loving the perfections, but on loving the person you see, no matter what perfections or imperfections that person might possess.
He who loves the perfections he sees in a person does not see the person, and thus does not truly love, for such a person ceases to love as soon as the perfections cease. But even when the most distressing changes occur, the person does not thereby cease to be. Love does not vault into heaven, for it comes from heaven and with heaven. It steps down and thereby accomplishes loving the same person throughout all his changes, good or bad, because it sees the same person in all his changes. Human love is always flying after the beloved’s perfections. Christian love, however, loves despite imperfections and weaknesses. In every change love remains with him, loving the person it sees.
Alas, we talk about finding the perfect person in order to love him. Christianity teaches us that the perfect person is the one who limitlessly loves the person he sees. We humans always look upward for the perfect object, but in Christ love looks down to earth and loves the person it sees. If then, you wish to become perfect in love, strive to love the person you see, just as you see him, with all his imperfections and weaknesses. Love the person you see and see the person you love.”