Monday, July 30, 2012

Falling Out of Love

Bear with me here kids, this post is going to get a little personal- but I promise it's going to resolve to an actual philosophical point at the end.

As readers may or may not know, I've been in love with a Christian girl for the last several years- since back before I left Christianity.  Recent events (last 6 months or so) have made it clear that I need to move on from that relationship.  I'm now trying my best to fall out of Love with her.

Now, I've got a couple of options here:

1) Forget her.  Facebook combined with my lack of self control makes this a difficult proposition, but not impossible.  I could certainly keep busy enough to at least minimize the amount of time I spend dwelling on that past relationship

2) Get angry at her.  There's plenty of things from our past that I could get angry about (some that I genuinely am angry about, no encouragement required).  Villifying another person is a pretty common mode of human interaction.  If you're liberal, then those conservatives are souless sycophants.  If you're conservative, those liberals are brainless ideologues.  Especially in the case of interpersonal relationships, when things go wrong, the safest thing to do is usually to blame the other person.  In my particular case, if I'm mad enough, that might assuage some of the pain associated with missing that relationship.

3) Wait.  This might or might not work, but either way it's not very helpful in my current position.  More to the point, this seems like either a glorified version of option 1, or worse, a claim that the emotional pain will eventually form the equivalent of emotional scar tissue.  That which used to hurt will no longer hurt because there are no more nerves left to hurt- not because I'm in any better of a position, and not because I've made any real moral or emotional progress.

Here's the thing: I'm really suspicious of any solution that involves either ignoring or fabricating facts about reality. 

I want to understand and act on reality in any given situation.  This desire is the basis for my rejection of Christianity, and it would be pretty hypocritical for me to not apply this to my personal life as well.  So to me, the problem with all the solutions I've suggested so far is that I actually love her. Forgetting that might be temporarily useful, but it has me dealing with a map that isn't a good representation of the territory of my life.  Ideologically, I'm flat out against self-deception, but even practically speaking, this seems like a really bad idea.  All it takes for any of these solutions to fall apart is for me to have a single real conversation with her.  In that conversation, I'm reminded of all the good things about her, all the reasons I fell in love, and I'm reminded that, while her actions may be objectionable, her motivations are not.  She legitimately cares about me, and doesn't want to hurt me.  And how angry can you really be with someone who's trying to do what's best for you inside the framework of what they think they're allowed to do?  She may be wrong (I think she is), but she's not malicious.  And it's hard for me to stay angry at someone who has my best intrest at heart.

Now we're finally getting to the point.  Two of them, actually.  First, this thing called love is... pure.  I can't think of any other word for it.  There's a lot in the Bible that I don't agree with, but "love is patient, love is kind, it does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud"- that stuff is spot on.  I've talked before about how I find the existence and quality of love a pretty good argument against materialism, but the further I go in this process, the more convincing it gets.  I have absolutely no explanation for why I don't hate this girl.  It seems like I should.  The only reason I don't is that I have this weird connection to her called "love" that I'm literally unable to overcome (I've tried).  It's actually acting as a stronger motivator than my empirical experience of being continually hurt by that relationship- and that just gives me the epistemological willies. 

I'm not sure how to rectify this with atheism.  The argument can certainly be made from evolutionary psychology that my experience of love is an evolutionarily selective behavior- that people who experience this kind of love are more likely to have a family and hang around for the development of the children, and therefore their children are more likely to succeed.  But first, that seems pretty ad hoc to me- it's a decent after-the-fact explination, but not a great prediction.  And second, I as a self-aware moral agent value happiness a lot more than I value evolutionary fitness.  The experience of love- at least this part, the experience of leaving love behind- is pretty damaging to happiness, in both the short and the long term.  It would seem that my optimal happiness strategy (at this point) would be to find a way to circumvent the love mechanism in my head- find a way to be happy without it, and get rid of my need to find love in the first place.  If I can find happiness without love, that's a lot less risky of a way to go through life (using the simple heuristic that my own happiness is the ultimate goal of my existence).  Once again, here I am fighting against evolution.  And this is the core of my ongoing problem with atheistic morality- it always seems to end with me fighting against evolution.

But there's another reason I'm not comfortable with this intentional abdication of the experience of love.  I think I'm more convinced of love being a moral imperitive than I am of just about anything else.  Call it irrational if you wish (I do), but my empirical, emotional, and consequential experiences all tell me that love is the most important thing in this life.  It seems likely, at this point, that my life would be better going forward if I found a workaround for love- but even if that's true, it still strikes me as the wrong thing to do.

The second point of this post is more of a question: how do you kill something that is good?  It seems like a lot of people at one point in life end up in a position where they're actively trying to fall out of love.  It's sort of nonsensical to try in the first place.  The very act of being in love should entail trying to preserve that love- and it's this cognitive dissonance that's rendering my attempts at "moving on" through conventional means pretty ineffective.  I can't "move on" because the desire to move on is incompatible with the experience of love.  If I were capable of moving on, I would no longer be in love, and would have nothing to move on from.

But supposing we get to the point of wanting (or needing) to kill something that's good, how do you go about it without damaging your moral compass?  I'm straying into virtue ethics here, but how do we destroy something valuable without simultaneously devaluing it?  Is it even possible to force yourself out of love while also realizing what love actually is?  This seems a lot like the argument that God is constrained to good because he alone understands the full consequences of good and bad.  It seems like, the more clear understanding you have of what it means to love, the harder it's going to be for you to choose to stop loving.


  1. I've been in a kinda similar position. I didn't try to unlove the person in question, I just worked on expressing that love differently. I still delight in him, but now I don't express that love romantically. I try to offer the love that will help him most and wound up quite pleased we're still close and still find ways to serve each other

    1. I was going to take your sage wisdom in silence, but seeing as you're going to be having a discussion on the telos of marriage and love soon, a reply seemed apropos.

      I've considered the option of "expressing love differently" in the past, but I've run into a few problems.

      This kind of love, at least in my mind, is a Singleton. I can't care about this girl as much as I do right now if I want to have a successful relationship with someone else in the future. I could certainly try to make the transition from romantic to platonic, but it seems like even if that works, the amount of love I have for her is wildly inappropriate for anything other than a romantic relationship. I'm still left in the position of having to kill off most of the love I have for her if I want a shot at being with someone else.

      Love is sort of like Faith, in that we use one word to refer to a whole bunch of different things. In everyday language, we demux the signal by looking at the context, but in questions of philosophy, the definition gets muddled because there really isn't much of a context. All this to say, I think romantic love is categorically different from platonic love. I have plenty of friends that I love, that I would drop everything if they needed me, but I don't have anyone else who I'm the least bit interested in going on a date with, or kissing, or sharing a life with. Platonic love seems like a necessary backstop to any healthy romantic love, but there's no conversion rate between the two. I don't know that they're simillar enough that one can transition between them as an act of will.

      Further, romantic love seems like a lot less like a choice than a belief. Presuming it was possible to make some sort of transition there, I'm not sure how you could even start. It's pretty clear to me that you can't choose to stop being attracted to somebody, you can just choose the actions you take. But being in love feels a lot less like an action than it does an involuntary response to a true understanding of the nature and character of the other person. Certainly part of being in love is a choice- particularly in a long-term committed relationship- but definitely not all of it is.

    2. My ultimate conclusion was that whatever relationship she and I ended up with, it had to be something that would still be appropriate if and when either of us started dating or married someone else. Distant-friend-aquaintances-who-interact-only-at-mutual-friends-weddings-and-college-reunions might be doable. Actively-involved-in-each-others-lives seems like it's probably not.

      After saying all that, it's interesting to me that you've had success doing this (I notice that I am confused). It's quite possible that I'm simply immature in my approach to love, but I would question two things about your experience (feel free to ignore these as rhetorical questions). First, how, if at all, did your relationship with him change when one of you started dating again? And second, how deep into the relationship were you when you called it quits? For me, this feels a lot more like getting a divorce and trying to stay friends than it does like two friends who dated for awhile and happened to not work out. IIRC, you were Atheist/Catholic before you started dating. My experience was a bit different, in that I was a Christian when we started dating, and fully expected to get married at some point. To be perfectly honest, even after my deconversion, I overcommitted myself to a relationship I should have known didn't have a great chance of working out. But that mistake has been made, and I'm not sure how I can ever delight in her and not have it be tangled up in romantic feelings.

    3. I don't know, I'm pretty weird. I hoped that the bf and I would get married, but that's off the table. The bits I liked best about the relationship weren't romantic, it was the two of us getting to work on a project (political, helping someone out, etc). That's easier for me to translate back into the platonic realm. I still really admire him, but that's also something I can do platonically. He's still my best friend and I'm the person he calls on Feb 13th to help him plan a date with his new gf. I don't know exactly how we ended up here (my being much more into the intellectual than the physical side of love probably helps, at least on my end), so I wish I had a better roadmap.

    4. "I hoped that the bf and I would get married, but that's off the table"

      There it is. At the risk of prying, how is that off the table? In particular now that you're both Catholic. Did you just reach a consensus that that was not going to happen, and you're now sticking with it on principle? Or has one or both of you moved on to the point where you're not even interested in that anymore? If it's the former, goodonya for the self control, though that sounds pretty ascetic. If it's the latter, it seems like at least one of you has gone through this process of killing off some part of the love you once had.

      I definitely don't want want to generalize my experience (or in any way indicate that I know what I'm talking about), since it sounds like we have very different ways of experiencing romantic love, but I think this question of romantic love being "off the table" is an important one. Speaking only for myself, I'm pretty sure "off the table" means loving someone less. If off the table simply means not acting on the romantic feelings you still have for that person, it seems like most people will end up with some severe emotional damage out of the deal. There's a reason most breakups don't end with the people being friends.

      Or maybe put it another way- if a romantic relationship was ever truly off the table (surprise! she's your long lost sister!), then it might be possible to maintain a platonic relationship without diminishing how much you care about the other person. But in the vast majority of cases, nothing is ever really off the table. Even in the case of a religious mismatch, its only off the table because of the choices being made by the two people. You could both simply choose to be together anyways, and it's no longer off the table (or one of you could convert, c.f. your relationship with the bf).

      Point is, I don't think a lable of "off the table" is strong enough to supress my emotional response to being around her- and as far as I can tell, that's true for her being around me as well. In deciding the best thing to do for both our sakes, it seems like severing ties might be the lesser of many evils.

    5. And this is the point where I'd be glad to talk to you if I can help, but not in your comments. Shoot me an email if you like.

    6. Totally fair. Sorry if my interrogation went too far

    7. No worries, just don't want to discuss it in reach of google.

  2. Well, I guess that explains why you've been seeming unhappy these last few posts. Now, I realize that I'm at the risk of giving advice on not enough information, and I'm surely at risk of being tactless -- losing love has got to be one of the most unpleasant experiences a person can go through without being the victim of crime or disease, and I really hope nothing I say here will make it worse. -- but, well, I can't resist an argument (and maybe there's even the off chance I can be helpful.)

    So, the first thing I notice here is that nothing you've written seems to address what's best for your ex-girlfriend. This seems curious to me, since it never struck me that all those prohibitions about being "unequally yoked" were meant to protect the non-believers: Intuitively it seems that it would be much easier to stay with someone who had an overactive imagination, than it would be to live with a Hellbound sinner, or worse still, a constant reminder that maybe salvation isn't really waiting on the other side. So, I am guessing that she believes ending the relationship is the best thing for her. If my guess is correct, then, it would at least seem to me that the most loving action on your part would be to accept what is best for the woman you love, and to do so cheerfully, since it isn't very loving to mope around and make her feel guilty either.

    There is also, as you have observed, another way that the imperative to love may demand that you move on: there may come a time when the love you feel for your ex interferes with your ability to love someone more willing to accept your love (without demanding that you change your beliefs.) That said, how soon that happens depends a lot on the choices you make, so you will likely be able to face up to that problem at your own pace.

    My final observation: You seem to be saying that you see things more clearly through the lens of love, but in my experience, a love wrongly directed can also lead to distortion and illusion: It may make you overlook the flaws of someone who isn't really good for you. It may make you overlook the fact that you may not be the best person for her (c.f. love is neither envious nor prideful.) It may even make you see flaws in others that aren't there.

    Anyway, hopefully you will recover soon from your heartbreak, one way or another. And maybe on some future day, you will find a way to love that is more harmonious with your own happiness and that of those around you.

    Best of luck. Keep blogging. Keep learning. I look forward to someday reading posts from "the happy atheist."

    1. "So, the first thing I notice here is that nothing you've written seems to address what's best for your ex-girlfriend"

      This is an excellent, excellent point. There are some specific reasons I've tried to avoid doing that here, but its always a good reminder that actually loving someone means caring about what's best for them, not just how that love affects you.

  3. "The second point of this post is more of a question: how do you kill something that is good?"

    It's really hard- and I'd argue impossible- to force an immediate change to how you feel about someone. And you're right, to try to do so can seem like extinguishing something central and vital within yourself, like "killing." But from an ethical perspective, feelings of love AREN'T the same thing as people; you really can't do physical violence to them. What can you do with a feeling- apart from be tormented by it? Recognize this love - I don't say "allow it to" - slowly change into a different sort of feeling, as your life goes on. Maybe a feeling of friendship, maybe just "pretty much nothing." And then, or even concurrent to all this going on, love again.

  4. "So to me, the problem with all the solutions I've suggested so far is that I actually love her. Forgetting that might be temporarily useful, but it has me dealing with a map that isn't a good representation of the territory of my life. Ideologically, I'm flat out against self-deception, but even practically speaking, this seems like a really bad idea. "

    You actually love her, but how does it follow that the consequence of your love is a relationship? Those are two separate issues. You can be in a relationship without love and be in love without having any contact or relationship. You don't need to forget, get angry or wait. You just severe the relationship and remain in love. Not fun, but if a relationship is impossible, what else can yo do. Love has nothing to do with it.

  5. Wow, this is a beautiful blog entry. I went through something similar over a year ago, and I recently wrote a blog post quite similar to this on my own blog. You are much more eloquent than I, however, and I found this to be exceedingly enlightening and interesting. Thank you!

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