Crazy About You

Berit Brogaard asks, does the idea of irrational love make sense?


If you’ve ever fallen for the wrong person – a phenomenon that often seems far easier than finding and falling for the “right” person – your friends and family may have been all too eager to tell you that your love was irrational. Meanwhile you may have felt so deliriously in love that despite all evidence to the contrary you swore you’d found “the one.” Indeed when we feel swept away by love it’s almost as if we’re under the influence of a drug, and it turns out there are neurological reasons this is so.

Some think it makes no sense to talk about love as rational or irrational. The philosopher Laurence Thomas holds that love cannot be meaningfully said to be rational or irrational. “There are no rational considerations whereby anyone can lay claim to another’s love or insist that an individual’s love for another is irrational,” says Thomas. This view is encapsulated in received wisdom in the form of sayings like “love is blind,” “love has no reason,” “love is temporary insanity.” We cannot lay claim to another’s love because there is no irrationality involved in ceasing to love a wonderful person. “There is no irrationality involved in ceasing to love a person whom one once loved immensely, although the person has not changed,” Thomas adds. Common wisdom has it that love differs from other emotions in resisting rational assessment. Ceasing to fear a real Jack Torrance howling “Heeere's Johnny!” (in the movie The Shining) is irrational. You should fear things that present an actual threat to your well-being and not fear things that are harmless.

Is this common opinion correct? Are we morally free to stop loving a person “just because” and not because the person has changed? Should we stay with people we once loved but love no longer? Surely not. You should not stick around in a relationship with someone you don’t love, even if there is no good reason not to love them.

But the view that love can be meaningfully said to be rational and irrational does not imply that you should stick around. My view is that our beloveds must possess certain physical attributes or personality traits in order for our love to be rational, but our loved ones needn’t possess any particular physical attributes or personality traits in order for our love to be “true love.” Or, to put the point differently: Not all love is rational, but just as we sometimes act in irrational ways, so our love can be irrational. Rock climbing in difficult terrain without a safety line is irrational, or imprudent, but it is nonetheless a true, or real, act. Likewise, foolish love is true, or real, despite its lack of rationality.

Philosopher Ronald de Sousa has said that emotions are irrational (or what he calls “unsuccessful”) when the emotional response does not fit the perceived object. Fear of flying is an example of this. Flying, despite being safer than eating lunch in the campus cafeteria, may elicit fear responses. Because flying isn’t dangerous – or at least is safer than other modes of transportation – the responses do not fit the object. But lack of rationality can also reside in a misperception of the properties that sustain the emotion. If a child misperceives a dangerous spider as Satan and responds with trembling, the trembling fits the dangerous object, but the fear is based on a misperception of the object as Satan and hence is irrational.

When we see our romantic and objectively lovable partners as idealized, god-like versions of who they are, our love fits them, but the response is based on a misperception of the qualities that sustain our love. So, the love is irrational despite perhaps being perfectly reasonable from our own point of view. The same goes for love of a ghost or an invisible friend or the demons in your head.

Your love for a person does not fit the beloved properly (that is, the person is not lovable), if your continued love of the person would be likely to decrease your overall happiness or well-being. Just as it is irrational to fear an innocent teddy bear, so it is irrational to be in love with someone who beats you with a stick every day or to be infatuated with a bloke who moonlights as a serial killer.

While all qualities of a person are important for determining whether your love matches them, not all their qualities are relevant to whether your love misrepresents. If you are red/green color-blind, you cannot distinguish red and green. Red and green things look grayish to you. So, you misperceive your beloved, but the color of your beloved is not normally what sustains your love for her, so this misperception would not normally be relevant to whether your love is rational. If, on the other hand, you are in love with your own fantastical creation of your S.O. instead of your S.O. as she really is, your love is irrational.

Love that already obtains is rational if there is a proper fit between the loving response and the beloved and the love doesn’t misrepresent reality. If your love for your sweetheart is irrational, you should try to discontinue that love – to make an effort to fall out of love and eschew things that might deepen that irrational love.

But the constraints on rational love don’t tell us anything about when it is irrational not to love someone we don’t love. They only tell us when it is irrational to love someone we already love. The argument against assessing love in terms of rationality is confusing the conditions under which people ought to cease to love someone and the conditions under which people ought to continue to love someone. Good reasons for loving your sweetheart only renders it permissible for you to love her, it does not require that you begin or continue to love her.

Love is irrational, and hence impermissible, if there is not a proper fit between the loving response and the beloved or the love misrepresents. But when there is a proper fit and no misrepresentation, then continuing the love is in all likelihood optional, just like it is optional whether or not you want to perform actions that are not wrong. It’s optional whether or not you want to raise your arm right now. It’s perfectly fine for you to do it. It’s a permissible act. Punching someone, on the other hand, is (usually) irrational and morally prohibited.

Here is another reason that someone may balk at the idea that love can be assessed for rationality. If love can meaningfully be said to be rational and irrational, then love is rational only when it is felt for a reason.

But we do really love for reasons? Wouldn’t that be the ultimate case of vanity? To answer that question, we should distinguish here between justifying reasons and explanatory (or causal) reasons. If you kill a person because you are angry, your anger is an explanatory reason for your action but it doesn’t justify your action. If, on the other hand, you kill someone to save your own life, then your reason may justify your action.

If you love a person because she knows that money is made out of linen and not paper or because she consumes five hundred extra calories a day by licking stamps, these reasons are explanatory reasons. They may explain why you love the person but they do not by themselves justify your love. A single quality, for example flaming red hair, may be a causal or explanatory basis for love, but it is never a sufficient justificatory basis.

It is not required that a person has any particular set of qualities in order for your love of that person to be justified. On my view, for there to be a justifying reason for your love, there must be (among other things) a good fit between the person’s qualities and the loving feeling. Many different sets of qualities can guarantee this type of fit. The set of qualities that I have and the set of qualities that you have may very well make both of us worthy of love.

In this respect love is not very different from other emotions. For example, different attributes make different things and events dangerous. A grizzly bear is dangerous because it has sharp claws and teeth. A boa constrictor is dangerous because it can strangle you. A motorcycle ride in Miami is dangerous because you’re likely to crash in the crazy traffic here.

Furthermore, some things are dangerous for some people but not others. Grizzly bears are dangerous for humans but not for dinosaurs. Riding a motorbike on a quiet country road is dangerous for me, who has zero experience riding bikes, but not for Bob, who is pro. Peanuts are dangerous for MayZ, who has a serious peanut allergy, but not for Beckster, who doesn’t. Because eating peanuts is dangerous for MayZ, but not for Beckster, MayZ can rationally fear eating peanuts, but it would be irrational for Beckster to fear it. Dangerousness properties therefore are relational properties that depend on the person for whom the dangerous object present a danger.

The analogy with love should be clear. Different people are lovable in virtue of different attributes and different sets of qualities make people lovable for different people. Monroe is lovable for Fitzgerald in virtue of being kind-hearted and ultra-feminine. Linda is lovable for Nina in virtue of being strong, independent and dominant.

The love-for-a-reason view, when so construed, is not as fatuous as it may at first seem. This view, however, is also sometimes said to be unintuitive because it construes love as a psychological state like belief.

People sometimes balk at the idea that love is an emotion that can be justified. In The Metaphysics of Morals Kant maintained that “Love is a matter of feeling, not of willing, and I cannot love because I will to, still less because I ought to (I cannot be constrained to love); so a duty to love is an absurdity.” Similarly, Richard Taylor argues,

“Love and compassion are passions, not actions, are therefore subject to no terms of duties or moral obligations .... Love, as a feeling, cannot be commanded, even by God, simply because it is not up to anyone at any given moment how he feels about his neighbor or anything else.”

The objection here appears to be that we cannot love at will the way that we can raise our arm at will. But this is not a good argument. We cannot believe at will. I cannot normally believe that it is raining on a sunny day. But it is not completely unheard of that it may be your duty to believe some things and not others. Some people think we have a duty to believe only what is true, even if we cannot comply with this duty.

It may be denied, though, that love, like belief, is sensitive to evidence. Suppose you see water drizzling down outside the window. You come to believe that it is raining. But your friend then tells you that the water pouring down originates in a new watering system installed in the greenhouse on the rooftop. If your friend is trustworthy, then you ought to stop believing that it’s raining. But it seems that you are not obliged to stop loving your S.O. when you learn that his natural hair color isn’t blond. And this is so even if you are so vain that your adoration is sustained by the appearance of him having naturally blond hair.

Belief and love, however, are more akin to each other than it may at first seem. In our example involving belief your reason is undercut by your truthful friend’s testimony. So, the rational thing to do is to revise your belief. In our example involving love, your sweetie – who is now correctly perceived – may well elicit a new loving response in you even if he doesn’t have naturally blond hair (you got over your vanity). So, your continued love for him, which is no longer a response to a distortion of reality, is justified. You correctly revised your psychological state in both cases.

Like all emotions, romantic love can thus be meaningfully said to be rational and irrational – I argue for the view that love is an emotion in chapter three of my book, On Romantic Love. Sometimes love is illogical and foolish or even harmful, and sometimes it’s perfectly sensible. If you love someone who treats you with disdain and disrespect or who abuses you, your love is irrational. If you are in love with your own fantastical creation of your beloved, your love is irrational. On the other hand, the love you feel for the partner who respects you and desires your happiness is perfectly rational.

If irrational love is threatening your well-being, it’s time to face the hard work of falling out of love. Of course, this isn’t nearly as easy to accomplish as your friends and family would like it to be. Just as with irrational fear, you cannot simply turn off love the way you switch off the light in your bedroom. But irrational fears can be surmounted, and just as people work hard to eradicate their phobias and anxieties, it’s quite possible to fall out of love. Several ways to do that are discussed in my book.

If one can fall out of love, the question naturally arises whether one could also make oneself or someone else false in love.

The answer is “yes.” Love can be triggered at will. Dr Arthur Aron once made two strangers fall in love in a laboratory. The writer Mandy Len Catron and a friend decided to see if they could replicate the results. According to the protocol of the original experiment, two strangers are supposed to stare each in the eyes for several minutes and ask each other four sets of 12 very deep questions, such as "What do you find most attractive in a woman/man?" "If you were to die this evening with no opportunity to communicate with anyone, what would you most regret not having told someone? Why haven’t you told them yet?" and "Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?"

Mandy and her friend fell in love.

But Mandy adds a few disclaimers: her experiment took place in a bar, not a laboratory setting, her friend wasn't a stranger and they probably wouldn't have conducted the experiment if they had not already been open to the idea of letting it happen.

The idea, though, is to create a feeling of intimacy, which the brain may confuse with love. Intimacy can trigger an increase in dopamine, one of the chemicals that literally floods the brain when you are in love.

You can fool the brain in other ways. Kickstart the adrenaline pump in the person of your dreams while you're with that person. They may just confuse the feeling of adrenaline rushing through your veins with the feeling of new love.

Adrenaline comes along with low levels of the feel-secure-and-safe chemical serotonin – just the right brain cocktail for fooling the brain into producing feelings of falling in love.

This approach has also been tried and tested. A woman asked strangers survey questions on a dangerous bridge and also safely on solid ground. Afterwards, she gave them her number for potential follow-up questions. Who were more likely to call her later?

You guessed correctly. The men on the bridge confused the adrenaline caused by the danger of the bridge with adrenaline caused by new love and apparently thought they had a crush on the woman.

So, take your date to Six Flags. Go paragliding. Watch a horror movie (I recommend The Ring). Take a trip to Grand Canyon and venture out on the see-through glass ledge. Make use of the fact that while there are speed limits, there are no acceleration limits (don't quote me on that).

But always we mindful of what you wish for. Control your emotions before they control you. That is the only safe way to prevent getting sucked into an irrational love relationship and all the insanity that comes along with that.

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Berit Brogaard is professor of philosophy at the University of Miami. Her most recent book is On Romantic Love: Simple Truths about a Complex Emotion.