Love is not Enough


In Breaking the Spell, in a chapter called “Belief in Belief,” Daniel Dennett discusses how our beliefs sometimes are held simply because we don’t know how to not hold them. Some beliefs seem too painful to let go, no matter how much other parts of our brains may see through them. Not only that, there is a kind of superstition that says it is good to believe in something, no matter what it is. In fact most people will express derision about anyone who doesn’t believe in belief. “He’s a nihilist,” they hiss, “he doesn’t believe in anything.” Most people would prefer we profess belief in things we know are untrue, in other words lie, than discuss our rational skepticism.

Our belief in love is kind of like that. It’s not that love is a fraud or that it is not part of the human condition. On the contrary, it is fundamental to our species and it is what makes life worth living. But as powerful a force as love is for good, it can turn on a dime and become oppressive when pressed into the service of some collectivist social agenda or a personal erotomanic fantasy.

When people say “Love is blind,” they mean that we overlook the obvious flaws in our love object. Or we ignore obvious signs the love is unrequited. This sounds suspiciously like what believers do when confronted with the ugly frauds of their faiths. According to Dennett:

It is surely no accident that the language of romantic love and the language of religious devotion are all but indistinguishable, and it is similarly no accident that almost all religions (with a few austere exceptions, such as the Puritans and the Shakers and the Taliban) have given their lovers a cornucopia of beauty to ravish their senses: soaring architecture, with decoration applied to every surface, music, candles, and incense. The inventory of the world’s great works of art is crowned by religious masterpieces. Thanks to Islam, we have the Alhambra, and the exquisite mosques of Isfahan and Istanbul….Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion and Handel’s Messiah and those miniature marvels the Christmas carols are among the most rapturous love songs ever composed…

Dennett agrees that love is what makes life worth living. He says, “I am inclined to think that nothing could matter more than what people love.” But he also declares, like the Nine Inch Nails song of the same name, that “Love is not enough.”

We ignore practical considerations at our peril. I propose that we can rid ourselves of the blindness of love and not destroy its essence. We can understand how oxytocin and vasopressin operate, without denying the subjective bliss or longing for the feelings they engender.

Sometimes love also makes us lie to preserve a mood, quoting Steven Pinker:

Murmuring that your lover’s looks, earning power, and IQ meet your minimal standards would probably kill the romantic mood, even though the statement is statistically true. The way to a person’s heart is to declare the opposite–that you’re in love because you can’t help it.

Back to Dennett:

This demonstrated (or at least passionately professed) helplessness is as close as you can muster to a guarantee that you are not still shopping around. Like all communications signals, however, if it can be cheaply faked, your commitment signal will not be effective, and the result, as so often in the world of animal signaling, is the inflationary spiral of costly signaling. It is not just lovestruck young men who shower their beloveds with presents they can barely afford; the bowerbirds’ bowers are costly investments…

So See’s candies, and Fedex, and FTD, and deBeers, and vintners, and growers of flowers in the developing world, and the cargo planes which deliver their product to market are all slaves to human brain chemistry and cultural expectations. So much of this for humans is a recent construct (last 800 years or so).

What I take away from this is that romantic love behavior is basically the result of a chemical addiction. It makes us lose control, do insane things, it makes us ignore warning signs. It is, as Dennett would say, a “good trick,” because the survival of our species is maintained.

Like most illusions, what lies beneath is actually better than the fantasy. Conscious people are not at the mercy of their chemistry. We can feel the flutters and body rushes. We can choose to indulge in a romantic interlude–much as we might watch a film, enjoying it thoroughly, without trying to pretend it is real. We can thoughtfully evaluate each other–is she good for me? Is he good for me? Do we have great sex? Do we have the same goals? Realism is better than fake surrender to romance every time. Because if it’s not real, the romance will fade in any case. If it’s real, it won’t matter if the romance fades.

We can have our mental eyes wide open, even when our eyelids are locked tight, lips pressed together and our arms and legs intertwined. We can come to understand that the feelings we feel about our lovers are really coming from our own brains. We can have all our fun while at the same time shattering the pernicious myths our culture has formed to prevent us from really seeing our loves for what they actually mean to us, but above all–the way they really are.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Hey, the closer we think we are
Well it only got us so far
Now you got anything left to show
No no I didn’t think so
Hey, the sooner we realize
We cover ourselves with lies
But underneath we’re not so tough
And love is not enough

from Love is not Enough by Trent Reznor

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Comments (40 comments)

morgaine / February 14th, 2007, 4:55 am / #1

Hi Sean,

I agree with most of what you have to say here, that romanitic love as we tend to think of it, is largely ( if not entirely) a result of powerful neurochemistry, and that for the purposes of evolution keep people together long enough to have kids etc… And, I think the term love OBJECT goes right to the reality that it is at least initially merely our projections of who we think the 'other' is.. that we "fall in love" with, and that many relationships are built on an unconscious fantasy of romantic love being all that you need. As wonderful it is to "fall in love' , the real challenege and value does come in sorting out the meaning of those projections… and being willing to do the work of loving someone for who they are. That you speak to this experience of a a deeper, more mature, and more fullfilling aspect to loving another. .in terms of truly seeing, valuing, accepting and affirming who the other is…. is what makes this article complete for me.

The one aspect that seems a bit too cut and dried though is where you speak of the gifting aspect as simply a matter of being slaves to cultural expectations and brain chemistry. Although there is some truth to this, as I see it, the exchanging of gifts..(and that doesn't require money….) is a very practical and effective way to mark and honor a special connection with another…or others. Hopefully we all all try to show our appreciation and love as a matter of routine through the course of our relationships but in reality we all know that no matter how well intentioned we tend to get swept away with our day to day tasks, obligations, concerns, and sometimes its helpful to have moments where we are given pause to stop and think. We all take things…not meaning to…for granted . Everyone of us does it…What I'm saying is, as sappy as Valentines day is, and as much as it is a manipulative device to generate revenue…..It also can serve as a life and love- enhancing ritual… Sometimes, worthwile relationships begin to die not because there is anything necesarrilly wrong, but sometimes just because of the lack of nurturance. And sometimes, all thats needed to restore a spark , or stimulate a deepening interactiion , is the simple act of honoriing.. So as much as everything you said is very important for people to realize, in my opinion, its equally important to remember that neurochemistry aside, loving relationships of all kinds are alive with psychological energies and dynamics that feed us as humans like nothing else can. and those energies needs to be stoked.. tended to .. if we wish to reap the benefits of their warmth. We all readily acknowledge the value of honoring in some fashion literal births and deaths, so lets not minimimze the value of honoring what has been nurtured and birthed when two ..or three ..or more people invest time sweat and tears for the sake of deep , unique human connections.

Happy Valentines Day!

BlackSun / February 15th, 2007, 7:50 am / #2

I think all rituals which honor personal connection are very meaningful. Especially with those whom we love deeply and have made a big difference in our lives. I enjoy marking those in my own unique way, and I especially enjoy being honored by those I love in ways that might not seem obvious or conventional.

For example, I prefer consistency to grand gestures. The little things–done on an ongoing basis.

But the objection I have is about the cultural context. Like birthdays, sometimes the expectations heaped on a relationship by social holidays can lead to a letdown. e.g. “the lady who works across the hall from me got a bigger flower arrangement than I did from her lover”, etc.

If taken too far, this can lead to symbol over substance, and romance can be a cover for deeper non-resolution. For example, I had a female friend who was in a relationship she described as unfulfilling (must have been sort of fulfilling because she stuck around). Whenever she tried to break it off, the guy would make ever larger grand romantic gestures. Each time, she would go back to him for a little while. When she finally broke up with him for good, she came back to her apartment and found it literally filled with balloons and flower arrangements (imagine what that cost!).

Not a healthy situation, to be sure. But even ‘normal’ people can get carried away. My basic position is to say enjoy the gifts, but remember what’s actually going on–deep archetypes are at play. As you said, morgaine:

“loving relationships of all kinds are alive with psychological energies and dynamics that feed us as humans like nothing else can. and those energies needs to be stoked.. tended to .. if we wish to reap the benefits of their warmth. We all readily acknowledge the value of honoring in some fashion literal births and deaths, so lets not minimimze the value of honoring what has been nurtured and birthed when two ..or three ..or more people invest time sweat and tears for the sake of deep , unique human connections.”

So give them their due…

morgaine / February 15th, 2007, 5:31 pm / #3

Yes , I hear a big concern is with the unhealthiness of societal pressures that feed expectations between lovers for things that are at best distractions from the meat of a relationship, don’t reflect any real quality or health between people, and at worst can escalate into a destructive pathological one upmanship in “proofs’ of love ..”proofs” that sadly make a mockery of any real love that may have at one time existed. In this, I thoroughly agree . And like you, for me, it is the day to day consistency that counts, above all.. Your examples of this one upmanship are really tragic…I know that happens.. My point has to do with a) the polar swing of this phenomenon,..where in reaction to these kinds of societal expectations and pressures I have known people to throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water and reject any aspect of ritual honoring or marking of events.or connection… I don’t think this is conducive to a mature conscious love either. But even moreso I was speaking to b) the common tendency of humans to become complacent… and to forget the healing power of occasional small afirming gestures. .. and that in this regard, one positive to these holidays.. is that it can serve as a reminder to some…Lastly along the lines of complacency , I have found that people often forget this: that what makes us feel appreciated doesn’t necessarily translatesthe same to those we love. … Just as we all have different learning styles,( some need to hear , some need to see, others need to do, some all the above..etc) we each have unique ways of recognizing appreciation(and communicating it) to and from others . So, for me, its very important to discover how my lover feels appreciated cause if I assume he’ll experience it via the words/actions/ gestures that I would like… maybe I’ll get it right .. but I have a very high chance of missing the boat entirely. We are all wired and shaped. differently this way.. Psychologists have referred to this as the different”love languages” that we speak…I think its been narrowed down to about 5 kinds..

Anyway, assuming we are not just loving our projections…I think we need to be in tune with the love language our significant other speaks if we truly wish for them to experience our intentions.Like I said ..this isn’t about money, or sweping gestures… The power of small consistent recognition is enormous and in my experience a lack of these can sometimes be just as much of a tragedy …as these holidays tendency to encourage destructive expectations

Joseph C / February 15th, 2007, 6:03 pm / #4

Good stuff.



Doris Tracey / February 16th, 2007, 3:08 am / #5

Hi Sean,

I love the beautiful heart on the water, thanks for my Valentine. Love is enough for me!

say no to christ / February 16th, 2007, 8:44 am / #6

Very interesting topic. I love seeing inteligent people share their thoughts with one another.

Doris Tracey / February 16th, 2007, 5:01 pm / #7

Hi Sean-Good evening,

I have kind of observed love relationships in myself and other people. Many relationships are very superficial and unrealistic. Love has to have spirit and one of the best ingrediance for love is laughter. If you take things too seriously the love you thought you had will die very quickly. There has to be spontinaity to allow the other person to be himself, which means to allow the other individual to discover themselves through the connected relationship. One can always tell when an individual really cares, you feel safe and at peace. Of course you should have verbal and non verbal communication. Making some kind of love connection every day is very important, especially to the woman. Many woman like myself enjoy being held and caressed , someday I may enjoy that experience again!

BlackSun / February 17th, 2007, 9:00 am / #8

@Say No To Christ: Nice to hear from you!

@Doris Tracey:

“Many woman like myself enjoy being held and caressed , someday I may enjoy that experience again!”

What are you waiting for? Life is short–you have to let someone in!

Here’s what eternal love looks like:

Doris Tracey / February 17th, 2007, 1:22 pm / #9


Thats the most romantic scene I’ve ever seen; I can’t wait for my next date !

Doris Tracey / February 17th, 2007, 1:28 pm / #10


I can’t stop laughing, every word in my paragraph describes that picture!

Doris Tracey / February 18th, 2007, 5:46 am / #11

Hi Sean,

I would like to share with everyone my birthday card given to me by my Dear Friend of 51 yrs. We met each other when I was 5 and she was 6yrs old. She shares the same birthday as Charles Darwin & Abraham Lincoln; February 12th.

A friendship like ours gives life a sweet continuity. Our relationship combines the past and future in a way that is natural, comfortable…reassuring. And while other friends, new friends, see the me that I’ve become, you know the me I ‘ve always been, just as I know the history you grew from, the stories that shaped you. In this world of change, it is a rare thing, a precious thing, to know and be known so well. A friendship like ours is something to cherish, And I want you to know I do. Happy Birthday Dear Friend !!

Christopher / February 19th, 2007, 10:03 pm / #12

Love it. Just great! Also, please note that I switched up my site name and domain, please redirect the Topherama link to Alternative Philosophy! Thanks!

Woynshet / August 14th, 2013, 7:24 pm / #13

Hello Sean,

What a romantic story. I really appreciated it.

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