November 9, 2012 7:10 pm

The Shrink & The Sage: is love a choice?

‘By thinking about our desires, why we have them and how they fit with each other, we can alter or defy them’

The Shrink

Illustration by Laura Carlin©Laura Carlin

To many people, love seems the antithesis of choice. It descends upon us without warning, often in unsuitable circumstances, and it’s hard to cure ourselves no matter how much we try. Many songs have been written on the subject. Conversely, we cannot just magic up a feeling of love even for the most suitable potential partner. Still, it’s hard to believe that choice doesn’t come into it at all, as a reader started to wonder after the end of what she believed was a long and happy marriage.

Like it or not, love’s first stirrings may be mostly to do with hormones and chemicals. We have little choice over who we are attracted to. But those initial feelings tend to fade. According to Dr Helen Fisher of Rutgers University there are three phases of love. It won’t come as any surprise to hear that these are infatuation, romantic love and calmer long-term attachment.

Although Fisher and her colleagues also found that for some long-married couples the romance didn’t end, the time comes for every couple to enter the calmer attachment phase. Might there be more room for choice at this stage? Even if we start with the most promising match, love can be squandered through neglect, so we need to think about all the small daily choices and habits that can foster increasing closeness or creeping apart.

There is much that we can choose to do to keep love in good health – things like really listening to each other, communicating openly, spending time together, adopting a constructive attitude towards the glitches and problems that inevitably lie on the path. All this requires awareness and, above all, commitment – not just a vague general commitment to a person, but the determination to do the things it takes to make the relationship work.

But all of that will come to nothing if you haven’t chosen the right person in the first place, someone who is also prepared to keep their part of the bargain. You can make all the right choices for yourself but you can’t make them for someone else.

The Sage

Although the western world is often said to worship Mammon, freedom and choice are arguably the real Jupiter and Juno of our time. The trouble is that the gods are a fractious bunch and it sometimes seems hard to pay homage to Venus and Cupid while remaining loyal to their king and queen.

The secret is to recognise the paradox that all meaningful choice starts with something that is not chosen. Consider pretty much any choice you are faced with that matters. Who do you vote for? Where do you shop? Who do you marry or move in with? In each case, the one thing you do not choose is which option you prefer. You do not decide that you like the taste of coffee more than that of tea: you decide to have coffee because you prefer it to tea. Nor do you decide to favour conservative over social democratic policies or vice-versa. Rather, you become convinced that one is better and you then choose accordingly.

So having a preference that you did not choose is the precondition for a meaningful choice. To put it another way, the basis of free choice is choosing whatever it is you prefer, not choosing your preferences.

So what makes the choice free? First, that you are allowed to make it without coercion. Second, that you don’t simply follow your preferences without reflection. That would make you a slave to your desires, not a free spirit. By thinking about our desires, why we have them and how they fit or conflict with each other, we can alter or defy them. We can’t choose them in the first place but we can choose how to nurture or hinder them.

Love is no exception. You do not – cannot – decide that you prefer one potential mate over another. You do not choose who makes you desperate to be with them. You don’t choose who you fall in love with, but you do choose who to give your love to, who to try to hold on to and who to let go, however reluctantly.

The Shrink & The Sage live together in southwest England. To suggest a question, comment below or email shrinkandsage@ft.com

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