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Romantic Pluralism

What makes someone romantically attracted to someone else? Usually the answer is broken down into two types of attraction: attraction to one’s physical features and to one’s personality. But this answer seems to leave out important factors that play large roles in romance. Take intelligence for example. Intelligence is not a physical feature but it doesn’t seem to be a feature of one’s personality either. The same seems true of the interests we have. If I like baseball and you like baseball, we share something in common. This commonality will likely make us more attracted to one another. But you liking baseball has nothing to do with your physical features or your personality. The same also seems true of our beliefs. Few would deny the relevancy of beliefs to the romantic attraction one feels toward another. The sharing of political and/or religious beliefs is often listed as top among the factors one considers when looking for a romantic partner. These are often “deal breaker” issues. But beliefs are neither part of one’s physical features nor one’s personality. It is possible, of course, that your interests and your beliefs flow out from your personality. Perhaps people with a certain personality type XYZ are more likely to have interests and beliefs of the sort XYZ whereas people with personality ABC are more likely to have interests and beliefs of the sort ABC. But this is far from obvious. And even if true, there would still be no necessary connection between one’s interests and beliefs on the one hand and one’s personality on the other. There would be no contradiction in having personality XYZ and have beliefs ABC. The problem seems to be that we lack a coherent conception of “personality.” Physical attraction is a very important and indispensable part of romance, but it is not difficult to understand what we mean by it (although admittedly there are various features involved here as well). “Personality” by contrast seems to be a muddle of conceptions, a melting pot where we throw everything non-physical into. This is a mistake because it paints a picture of romance that is all-too simplistic: it paints a picture that does not line up with the complex situation we find in experience.

So what is “personality” if not a conglomeration of all non-physical features of a person? Personality traits usually look like the following: shy, boisterous, kind, sarcastic, generous, petty, hot-tempered, goofy, stern, introvert, extrovert, and so on. These are important features that make up a person but they are only one slice of a multifarious pie. Physical features also make up a part of that pie. But so do things like intelligence, interests, beliefs, desires, and values.

The complexity of this view becomes apparent when we realize that different people weigh these factors differently. Different people will slice up the pie in various ways. If you place high priority on sharing similar beliefs, you will not be attracted to someone with starkly different ones. But beliefs for you may also take a back-seat to your interests or your values. In this case, you may not care very much if you share beliefs with this other person so long as your values are similar. Perhaps you are diametrically opposed with regards to your political beliefs, but the important thing is that you both place great value on political awareness. Other people place great weight on physical attractiveness, at times sacrificing some of the other factors for it.

Moreover, it is implausible to suppose that these various factors of attractiveness are completely independent from one another. Very often the physical attractiveness of another person will increase if it is found that they share similar interests or beliefs with yourself. It is also possible that physical attraction could be so great that it leads to a convergence of interests and beliefs. Furthermore, the pie that we initially slice up–by assigning different percentages to the different factors–will likely change with experience. Perhaps we start with physical attraction taking up half the pie, but as we age that portion may slowly give way to the other factors. Or the reverse may happen. I suspect that all logically possible scenarios (the various possible pies and their development over time) have had or do have counterparts in the actual world.

So what is the best possible pie? I don’t know. I don’t even know if there is a best possible pie. Some pies are probably better than others: a view that places one hundred percent priority on physical attractiveness will not be as good a view as one that disperses each factor more evenly. This is because any view that places all priority on physical attractiveness will not capture the complexity of goods that people contain. People are more than their looks and to only value looks is to overlook an important feature of persons. Romantic pluralism is thus about two different things: the plurality of factors involved in romantic attractiveness and the plurality of possible pie distributions that are equally good.

People are complex. We should not expect the reasons for attraction to be any less so.

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  1. lenarivers
    03/16/2011 at 10:16 pm

    i’m pretty sure that this is the major area in your life where you find it hard to let go of things. you can’t let go of analytical thought. you analyize everything into the ground! i think i’ve said it to you before, but i’ll say it again: sometimes letting go is good! i don’t envy you this obsession. it makes my brain tired when i try to put myself in your shoes.

    • 03/17/2011 at 12:18 am

      Does it make you tired because it seems as if I am always reflecting on something and can’t stop (trapped in contemplation) or because the reflections themselves seem to require a lot of mental effort? There are many topics that I have begun writing about or wanted to write about but stopped because I came to the realization that it requires too much effort to write competently on the subject. But for the most part, I’m not tired of reflection in general. I probably would if that’s all I did–and because most of my writings are contemplative in nature I understand if it looks that way from the outside–but as you can even see in my latest post, I’m not always reflecting. Toward the end of my college days I was burned out probably in part because there was too much thinking and reflection going on. But in general, reflection is a large part of what I consider the good life. Life without a proper amount of reflection is a lesser life in my own view. And one thing I like about the contemplative life is that there is nothing off limits: one can reflect on any possible topic, activity, idea, behavior, belief, form of life, even something like romance, an area that often lacks reflection because of its “in the moment” nature.

      So on one level I probably can’t let go of reflection just because my mind, quite uncontrollably, moves toward it. But on another level, I choose not to let go of it because I like it. Although I will agree with you, sometimes it can be tiring and can sometimes interfere with other parts of my life. However, I sometimes think that the most tiring and rather disheartening part of it might be that most others don’t value it as I do.

      Most of my life consists of loneliness too, which tends to move me toward reflection. With all that said, I like your words. They’re a reminder that I don’t have to be this way, which is a comforting thought. And I miss our conversations, between us and those other fools.

      • lenarivers
        03/17/2011 at 9:44 pm

        you’re not wrong. i wouldn’t want you to not be analytical. it’s who you are, and you’re good at it. i just think it’s funny to make something like love and romance and relational chemistry scientific. it’s weird to break it down into obviousness. those things are supposed to be magic and natural.

        i’m with ya on the loneliness thing. i miss being able to have a good, deep discussion. this might be the most pretentious thing you’ve heard all day, but sometimes it’s tiring and annoying to have to pretend to be shallow. if you can’t identify with that sentiment or the need for expressing it, just be grateful for the mercy.

        also, i miss you. (even though insults are your love language. 😛 ) can things ever go back to before, or have we all grown up and out of that stage?

  2. 03/18/2011 at 5:50 pm

    I certainly haven’t outgrown that stage, at least in the sense that I would still enjoy it. I do think I have lost my knack for insults and sarcasm. I haven’t had much practice lately. And I’ve become too serious and sentimental in my old age. Or maybe that’s just the anxiety and depression talking. Oh wait, TMI. 🙂

    I know what you mean about pretending to be shallow. I think I have a different problem. I usually don’t pretend, the result being that I appear anti-social, perhaps a bit elitist, and say things that can be socially inappropriate. I really hate everyday bullshit talk. But what I hate even more is having to be dishonest and disingenuous. It’s not that I want to or have to talk about philosophy or science or something like that. But whatever we talk about, personal stuff or not, I can’t bullshit. I can joke around of course, but that’s not the same thing. I just wish honesty was valued more. It almost seems as if other people are happy playing the game, putting on their masks, and bullshitting. And then there’s the realm of romance where honesty is transformed into creepiness. That’s definitely a symptom of the modern age.

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