The Game of Love

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.”

7 responses to “The Game of Love

  1. I love your main point and i totally agree…loving the person in front of you is much better than loving as part of a zero sum game or because the best met some criteria ect. (if i got the main point wrong, please let me know. I’m dense like that sometimes).

    I’m just worried that you’re a little too hard on hyperbolic language.

    Are you saying then that maybe we in the west have taken what should’ve remained hyperbole and made it into guiding worldview proposition? If you are, I think that’s a really cool insight, and I’d love to hear more about that.
    If not, then I’d love to hear more about what hyperboles would better fit what you are talking about.

    • Of course I’m too hard on hyperbole, that’s my job! But in earnest, that’s precisely the aporia of hyperbole, in its amplification of a truth there is always and already untruth. In a real sense, every hyperbolic statement is a lie, by definition, regardless of whether it is rhetorically justified or not.

      But secondly, I think I would question your assumption that “hyperbole” and “guiding worldview proposition” are separable. The language we use is always shaping our worldview, as meaningless as it may seem. One of the clearest examples would be how popular it has become to call the latest “thing,” the “coolest thing ever.”

      Within that economy of language, we privilege the new over the old, the bombastic over the subtle, and exclusion over inclusion. I would argue that this isn’t innocent language but reflects a culture driven by advertising & sales.

      But again, I over think everything.

      • “…in (hyperbole’s) amplification of a truth there is always and already untruth. In a real sense, every hyperbolic statement is a lie, by definition, regardless of whether it is rhetorically justified or not.”

        The problem for me is that this can be said for all forms of metaphor and many forms of poetry.

        I wonder tho, Is it possible that you and I place hyperboles in different categories?

        I group hyperboles in the metaphor/poetry category and therefore should be understood differently than propositions. I hear you saying that hyperboles, even if they are metaphor/poetry, they still should be categorized as proposition and should be treated as such because they are inseparable from worldview.

        If that’s what you are saying, then I agree, largely because I like Rorty. But just because they are inseparable, does not mean they are the same thing. I guess I’m asking for some quarter on behalf of metaphors.

        I’m doing so because i have nothing better to do on a Friday afternoon than to argue about the illustration (the minor point) that you’ve used to get to your main point which I have no problem with.


  2. In regards to you saying that how we use language impacts our understanding of it, I could not agree more. I find how we use the phrases “like” and “don’t like” particularly irritating and prone to misinterpretation. For example, when I say I don’t like Obama or that I don’t like country music, most people interpret that as I actively dislike or even hate Obama or country music. Personally, I’m largely indifferent towards both, but that is a stance that can be difficult to communicate based on how our society uses language, Our insistence to interpret “don’t like” into dislike has consequences. It creates a false love/hate dichotomy, where, if you’re not in support of something, you must be actively against it, and vice-versa. This is, in my opinion, at least part of the reason our elected officials are never allowed to show any sign of real consideration to anything their opponents may propose. We think that trying to understand someone is the same as siding with them. And I dislike that quite a bit.

  3. I agree that the “you’re the most ____ in the world” language is probably very unhealthy in the long run. Especially so for people who are dating who say this to each other and who then break up (or married people who end up separating, although these are not the same circumstances). Then you are in a position of having to go back on all those superlatives and find someone else who is the most _____ person in the world… just like the last person you dated. It would stop feeling sincere after a while.

    However, I’m not sure I’m comfortable with moving to predominantly subjective language either. I am quite interested in knowing whether I am actually a good husband or not, whether I’m actually intelligent, etc., or whether all that is just my wife’s affectionate way of thinking about me. To put it differently: her subjective experience of me may be all I need in our own relationship, but whether or not I think the way I behave is actually smart, kind, attractive, etc., based on my wife’s opinion of me, affects how I think/behave toward myself and other people too (for better or worse). So, paradoxically, marriage may need the rhetoric of both objective and subjective love.

    • This is good, Dave, thanks! I would totally agree. But I think there is a difference between looking at my wife with subjectivity and inviting objectivity to make me a better person. In my mind, it’s about the “because.” I often tell my wife where I think she could improve (when she asks) and I answer her objectively. But that’s only because we have an established a security of subjectivity, as though my commitment to her is based on my answers.

      Maybe I’m not making sense since I am not really thinking that clearly right now. What do you think?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s