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Take a broad look at your romantic relationship and ask yourself the following question:
Is your partnership primarily based on the usefulness you get out of it, the pleasure you derive from it, or the goodness you see in it?
(If you’re not currently part of relationship, look at the one you were most recently in or the one that you aspire to be in.)
It’s important, of course, to answer this question honestly, not the way you might imagine it should be in your fantasy world but rather what your relationship actually is in reality. It’s also key to note that what initially attracted you to your partner may not necessarily be what currently keeps you committed to your loved one. Our relationships, and our reasons for being in them, naturally evolve over time. Hopefully for the better.
However, why do some relationships evolve while others dissolve?
While we don’t have a definitive answer on what predicts marital longevity, taking a cue from a wise and ancient philosopher who regularly pondered the topic of well-being may provide some helpful cues.
In the Nicomachean Ethics, the classic tome on what constitutes the good life, Aristotle says we tend to love three different kinds of things: those that are useful, those that are pleasurable, and those that are good. And he claims that there is a type of friendship that corresponds to each of these three categories.
The first type of friendship is between two people who find each other useful. They may view their relationship as an opportunity for some sort of profit, perhaps financial gain. They might be two forty year-olds investing in a start-up together to make money. A second level of friendship is between two people who find it pleasurable to be together. For example, two twenty-one year-olds who enjoy fun nights out on the town. Aristotle says that while nothing is wrong with these two types of friendships, they are self-oriented and are dependent on what each person gets out of the friendship — profit or pleasure. And when the money or the fun dries up — which it often does — so too does the friendship.
He says the third level of friendship, based on virtue, is the highest and ideal. These friendships are more sustainable because they are based on the goodness we see in each other. Although they are not motivated by the quest for profit or pleasure, they often end up being useful and pleasurable, as well as good. We refer to these friendships as “Aristotelian Friendships.”
We believe that Aristotle’s observations on friendships do not have to be limited to platonic partnerships. His philosophy can be applied to romantic relationships as well. Like friendships, marriages and other romantic relationships can occur on any of the three levels. Some relationships are based on utility or the financial security the relationship provides with all the necessary creature comforts. Historically, these kinds of relationships were prevalent in the time of institutional marriage that commonly factored in dowries, estates and the like. For some, assuring material needs may win out over other reasons for being in a relationship. While nothing is wrong with this type of relationship, we can see how partners could soon be treading in rough waters. With one deep drop in the Dow your finances could take a sudden dive, and your relationship sinks. Relationships of pleasure focus on the enjoyment we get out of them. Perhaps strong physical attraction, sexual pleasure or the sheer fun you get out of engaging in other exhilarating activities together (not just sexual ones!). And naturally, in the early throes of romance the fun factor might even be at an all-time high. However, as the fun subsides these relationships often falter.
Like Aristotle, we find nothing wrong with profit or pleasure as part of a healthy relationship. In fact, one or both of these things may have been what initially attracted us to our partner. However, if that’s all the relationship is based on we may be in trouble since profit and pleasure are unstable and self-oriented motivations that make the relationship conditional on our needs being met.
The third and highest level of relationships is based on virtue. We are not focused on what we get out of them, but rather what we put into them.
These “Aristotelian” relationships are based on finding and feeding the goodness we see in each other. We believe this type of relationship is more sustainable because it’s ultimately based on character. And good character, unlike the usefulness or pleasure we get out of a relationship, is more likely to be more stable over time.
So, when you think about your relationship you might want to ask yourself whether profit, pleasure or goodness is driving it.