From “Romance Without Love, Love Without Romance,” which was published in the Spring 2021 issue of Liberties.
I have only ever had one friend as crazy as I am. Once, we painted a giant fireplace onto a wall in her apartment as decoration for a dinner party we were hosting. Later, toward the end of the party, she led our guests onto the roof, bringing with her a boom box playing Strauss. I climbed up the fire escape in a ball gown. I held out my hand. We waltzed with speed and gusto. Our friends and professors looked on, terrified: there was no railing.
I haven’t done as much dancing in the seventeen years since I ended that relationship. The breakup happened like this: we had planned an elaborate outing in Sonoma County. The picnic supplies took days to gather. We left early, got home late, and as she told me when she hugged me good night, everything in between had been perfect. It had been a perfect day. The next morning, I wrote her a letter telling her that I did not want to be friends with her anymore.
I had my reasons, of course. As I say, she is crazy. I am, too, but in a very different way. The immense effort it took for me to spend a whole day with her and ensure that it was “perfect”—that I did nothing to offend, upset, or bother her—proved to me that we just didn’t work. And I thought: When a relationship does not work, each party has the right to exit. It will hurt, but we will get over it, and we will both be better off in the end. The thing is: the pain hasn’t gone away. I still miss her. I still dream about her. And lately I have come to think that part of the problem lies in how I broke things off: unilaterally. I took matters into my own hands, as though there were no rules governing how you break up with someone.
“All’s fair in love and war” dates to the turn of the nineteenth century, when the ethics of warfare were very different from today’s. Two world wars generated explicit international agreements as to behaviors prohibited in wartime; we now reject wars of conquest and plunder; we harbor deep suspicions about the glorification of military violence. Have we made similarly substantive revisions to the ethics of love?
“All’s fair . . . ” appeared in the 1850 British novel Frank Fairlegh: Or, Scenes from the Life of a Private Pupil, by Frank E. Smedley. The story goes as follows. The title character, on the brink of unilaterally cutting off relations with his love interest, recoils at breaking the seal of a stolen letter—“I cannot avail myself of information obtained in such a manner!” His more pragmatic interlocutor is the one who takes the “all’s fair” approach: since the letter promises to reveal her virtue and innocence, he insists that Frank should open it. It is notable that at no point does Frank’s high-mindedness extend to questioning his own breakup plan. He apprehends no moral duty to talk the issue through with the girl.
Today, as in 1850, high-minded people condone the unilateral breakup—in romantic as well as nonromantic love. When people act as I did, exiting a friendship perceived as detrimental, we tend to view the decision as sad but not immoral. The reason is clear: we see love as having a certain autonomy from the space of moral judgment. Even the archmoralizer Kant agreed that you cannot be “morally obligated” to have feelings for someone, and it was for that reason that he interpreted the biblical command to “love thy neighbor” in terms of the rules governing how you choose to treat your neighbors. You do not actually have to feel love for them. You cannot legislate yourself into experiencing passion, empathy, or lust.
And this is part of what we love about love: that it affords us an opportunity to lose control, to go a little crazy. But does it really follow from this that a free and clean exit is available? I don’t think so. Even if it is impossible to moralize one’s way into passion, it remains open to us to moralize about passions that are already in place. There are more regulations governing exiting relationships than entering them.
These regulations exist not in spite but because of the fact that the connections between people are idiosyncratic and passionate. It is precisely because such connections are irreplaceable that disconnection is not a trivial matter. Over time, people’s lives grow together, such that what happens to one person affects the other. When I come to care deeply about you, I can actually feel your pain. And that lateral growth also makes vertical growth possible: with your hand in mine, I become someone who waltzes, paints walls, and drinks Japanese tea that looks and tastes like the forest floor. (Having spent a year abroad in Osaka, my friend introduced me to tea ceremonies.)
You can’t waltz by yourself. When I lose you, I also lose the me I became for you. And vice versa. Which is why cutting you off, once we have grown together, is an act of violence. I am not cutting anything visible, like your arm or leg, but I am nonetheless cutting away something that is a part of you—me. This is an act of psychological violence.
A decade after that breakup, I faced the prospect of divorce. I consulted with friends and family, many of whom advised me to not even discuss our problems with my husband, but simply to quash my concerns until the children were grown. The consensus was that I was morally obligated to stay married for the sake of my children. But even if I could have kept my discontent secret, which I doubted was possible, I felt that doing so would have been a deep betrayal of the life that I shared with my husband. And once I spoke with him, he agreed that divorce was the only option.
The strange thing—or so it seemed to me—was that once my husband and I did divorce, those same friends and family pushed me toward “a clean break.” I should stop having regular meals with my ex; we should separate our bank accounts; we should reduce our connection to the minimum required for co-parenting our children. One person recounted, somewhat proudly, how he hadn’t spoken to his ex since their children had graduated from college. Now, a decade after the divorce, the fact that I still share close friendship and many everyday matters of life with my ex is perceived by many as peculiar and in some way wrong, and forgivable only to the extent that it is beneficial for the children.
The parent-child bond is the most striking exception to a blanket “all’s fair” permissivism about love. It would take extraordinary circumstances for someone to feel justified in disowning their child, and this makes sense. Children depend profoundly on their parents, and moreover they did not consent to enter into this dependence. My view is that a relationship with a friend or a spouse differs from a relationship with one’s child in degree, not in kind. My husband and I had come to depend on each other in many ways over seven years of marriage, and those forms of dependence could not simply be ignored or wished or decided away.
As for consent, it is not an alternative to dependence but a mechanism for generating dependence—mostly by way of tacit and gradual and small-scale agreements, but occasionally, as in the case of marriage vows, by way of sudden and large-scale agreements. We don’t simply inflict our lives on others; rather, we learn, over time, to coordinate, to synchronize, to co-deliberate. We grow together, bit by bit, by way of agreement and experience: the result is something too real to be annulled by one party simply deciding to opt out.
When it comes to moralizing, people tend to take an all-or-nothing approach: either a bond is sacrosanct, demanding total sacrifice, or everyone is free to “just walk away.” When I got divorced, I drank the Kool-Aid that I was scarring my children for life. That turned out to be false—they are fine, more than fine, really—but let the record show that I believed it, and went ahead anyway: I was not prepared to completely sacrifice my own happiness for theirs. Nor was it only for their sake that I was reluctant to completely sacrifice the relationship I had with their father. Even if I could have done so, I did not want to walk away from him. I care about him. I do not want to lose the me I am for him. And I owe him. No break between us could or should be “clean.”
The extremes of total bondage and total freedom strike me as being on the wrong scale for human relationships. They are appropriate for creatures much larger or smaller than us. We humans need to do our living, and our moralizing, in the middle. Often a relationship that doesn’t work in one form might work in another form, a renegotiated one. And even if no livable arrangement can be arrived at, such an ending should be the product of the reasoning of all parties involved.
Consider how far we have come from the ethics of the Iliad, in which Achilles is glorified for choking a river with the blood of his enemies. We now understand that moral excellence lies not in the use of physical force but the abstention therefrom. Humanity has been slower to acknowledge the reality of psychological injury and trauma, and correspondingly slower to see the rules that govern violence in that domain. I propose that one of those rules is that you are not allowed to “just walk away.”
I am not saying you can never break up or get divorced, but rather that all is not fair when it comes to these endings; you cannot simply cut people off; you are not free to leave at any time. If your life is entwined with someone else’s, then a new arrangement between the two of you must be the product of an agreement you can both live with. Also, you must be open, forever, to revising that agreement if and when the other person offers reasons for doing so.
Those requirements are robustly ethical. In that letter to my friend, I made the usual excuses, arguing that the relationship was in some way “toxic”; that this was the best course for both of us; that the break “had to” happen. Whether those claims were true, enforcing them without her consent was wrong. It was like shoving words in her mouth and forcing her to say them. Instead of deliberating with her about how to move forward, I took matters into my own hands: I tore out a part of her life, and a part of mine, violently, because that violence seemed to be in my interest. If that kind of behavior is not wrong, what is?