Saturday, August 18, 2007

Impermanent Relationships

Over at Right Reason, Alexander Pruss asks:
Is there value (both instrumental and non-instrumental, but especially non-instrumental) in romantic relationships that terminate without having led to marriage or some other form of commitment for life? For instance, some people think such relationships provide opportunities for many goods, while others see such relationships as failures: who is right? Can there be a value (instrumental or non-instrumental?) in having romantic relationships one does not expect to lead to marriage or some other form of commitment for life?

Are these serious questions? I guess someone might consider a past relationship to have "failed" in the sense that it didn't yield everything they might have hoped for, i.e. they are disappointed by how things turned out. But it would seem crazy to think that all impermanent relationships must be unsatisfactory on balance, let alone that they have no value whatsoever. As I wrote last year:
I think it’s a deeply pernicious cultural framework that leads one to only value a romantic partner insofar as they might eventually become one’s future spouse. (Though rarely recognized as such, it’s dehumanizing in much the same way that “using” someone for sex is. Both involve a failure to recognize the intrinsic value of knowing the other person, and hence devalue the relationship.)

What sorts of considerations might lead one to conclude otherwise?


  1. I just began my first open relationship last week, inspired by your writing on the subject. We're both so happy!

    And I assure you (and the clown who you've quoted) that when our feelings expire, we won't consider the time we shared "a failure."

  2. Wow, congrats!

    (I do hope someone can shed some light on the conservative view, though. I'm completely baffled by it. Unless it really is Just Plain Crazy?)

  3. How about this: they may believe that the intrinsic goal or telos of romantic relationships is to lead to a marriage and to children. So one that didn't get to that is "failed" in the sense it didn't reach its telos. The same kind of thinking that sustains natural law arguments against non-procreative sex.

    Of course, you and I believe those arguments to be absurd as well... but maybe if we can at least sort of understand how someone might find them non-absurd, this may help to understand this view of relationships.

  4. Alejandro's right, and it's not simply a conservative view, but a conservative Christian view (perhaps a conservative Islamic or Judaic view too, but I'm not sure). It says that marriage is not just the goal of relationships between men and women, but it is the only true form of a loving relationship between a man and a woman. If marriage doesn't result, then you have failed, pure and simple.

  5. I don't think that the tendency to value exclusively lifelong relationships is typically "pernicious" or objectifies one's partner. Rather, I see it as a matter of naive idealism (an all-or-nothing attitude characteristic of young people) or deeply disappointed hopes. Sure, maybe Christian dogma holds childbirth as the ultimate goal. Maybe spouses have been considered in the past nearly as material acquisitions. As a 20-year old, though, it seems obvious to me that the vast majority of my peers do not see relationships this way at all. (When was the last time you met someone who said that the ultimate aim of dating was to have kids?) I think that most of the views that people have on relationships are more down to earth than armchair abstraction might lead us to believe.

    I think that the view in question has many sources; here's one I find personally resonant. Being open to impermanent relationships means having to deal with the pain which comes when those relationships end. I remember that when my first girlfriend and I broke up, I would often try to convince myself that the relationship had been so fatally flawed as not to have been worthwhile in the first place. I didn't really believe this; rather, it was a way of coping. People who are hurt may try to defensively rationalize their loss by saying that it was no loss at all. ("Well, it didn't last, so it must not have been that great anyway.") Sometimes, saying that only "successful" relationships are worthwhile is the defensive instinct of someone afraid of being hurt.

    Ultimately, I'm incredulous that anyone could really believe that impermanent relationships cannot be fulfilling. I see the acquired understanding that all deep relationships are meaningful as simply a matter of growing up and becoming emotionally mature.

  6. I think it is wrong to think that the only argument for the failure of a relationship is because it didn't end up in procreation. It's more the fact that it didn't end up as a marriage that is the failure. Though failure does not imply no value, simply that the relationship failed in being one that you would want to retain for the rest of your life. And the reason you want monogamy is not because of jealousy, but really because you promise to devote your entire life to the other person, and ultimately that is the uniting nature of a relationship. One would not be giving their complete love to anyone but a monogamous spouse.

    That is not to say the open relationships can't be fruitful, only that they are not relationships that entail the full giving of one person to another and vice versa effectively uniting the two. I'll comment on your open relationships post later, but I must say I find the arguments rather shaky, though I look forward to reading the comments as well.

  7. So I realize my comment above is really not that great. What I meant to communicate was the idea that you can find an open relationship fruitful, and a terminated closed relationship, but it would not be fruitful in the same way that a "successful", closed relationship would be, because that would end in marriage. I'll leave the debate about marriage for the other posts.

    And as for the procreation issue, I think one has to view it not as unity for the sake of making babies, but unity for the sake of the babies themselves. So the failure lies not in the lack of children, but in the lack of a union that could create a positive environment FOR children.

    Let me know if this helps clear things up. And again, I'm sorry for the post above, it really is intellectually lacking (I had been up all night)

  8. It goes without saying that temporary relationships not the absolute best possible. But it simply doesn't follow that anything less than the best is thereby a "failure".

    (I think novels are better than short stories. But if a young author writes some short stories before attempting their first big novel, I would not thereby consider their earlier works to be "failures". They may even be worth cherishing as valuable in themselves, as well as instrumentally valuable in teaching the author something about writing.)


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