It is natural to start deeply examining your relationship once you’ve been in it for awhile. Is it going in a good direction? How have your feelings for this person changed? What do you hope will happen? And usually, people look to two places for answers to these questions — common sense and religion. Common sense is often misleading because it’s different for every situation, and religion, for all its merits, often offers up a bunch of stories with damaging messages. (Like homosexuality is a sin and women are inferior.)
Massimo Pigliucci, professor of Philosophy at the City University of New York and author of Answers for Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us To A More Meaningful Life, suggests we look to “sci-phi” — the congruence of science and philosophy.
Think about it for a minute. Rejections of evolution and bizarre claims of climate change hoax notwithstanding, science has been by far the most successful human enterprise when it comes to getting facts about the world as straight as human beings can hope to get them. Similarly, philosophy is an age-tested way to reflect on our values and their implications, among other things. So why not take advantage of what the best science and philosophy have to say about the big questions in life?
Pretend you are facing one of the most common conundrums couples in a long-term relationship face: you’ve lost the butterflies and you fear you are falling out of love. Things are getting too normal. “Common sense” is not helpful — it tells us that we should either a) not worry because this happens to everyone or b) to worry, because it’s a sign you’re not going to find happiness in this relationship. A religious figure might tell you that you don’t have a choice — the bonds you’ve made with your partner are permanent, so stop even thinking about it.
Sci-phi, on the other hand, gives a more nuanced answer that is more true and meaningful. Science tells us that feelings of infatuation, romance and attachment that we feel at the beginning of a relationship turn into new, deeper feelings of attachment.
Looking to philosophy for answers about your long-term relationship, Pigliucci says that “trading up” for a better partner might be natural (it is natural to want to seek a partner with more intelligence, more wit, etc., than you already have), it is not ethically sound. First of all, the more time you put in with your partner, the more experiences and memories you will accumulate and the more your relationship will grow — hitting the restart button doesn’t always solve anything.
trading up objectifies a companion, thereby undermining her human dignity. And consistently doing so results not only in developing an awful reputation among other human beings, but corrupts our own character, making us worse people. Conversely, practicing virtue is the path to what the ancients called eudaimonia, the happy (because moral) life.
Pigliucci’s advice reminds us that we are part of something much, much bigger than us, that our decisions have a larger impact that we know, and that our feelings are more logical and universal than we think they are. If you are really in a relationship pickle, yes ask your friends. Yes ask your mom. Yes go to church. But add to your team of helpers the philosopher and the researcher, too — they’ll bring some sense to your situation.