Unpromising promise?

Marriage usually involves sharing and exchanging a huge bunch of things. Love, sex, childcare, money, cooperation in finding a mutually agreeable place for the knives to live, etc. For all of these but one, you can verify whether I’m upholding my side of the deal. And for all but one, I can meaningfully promise to keep my side of the deal more than a day into the future. Yet the odd one out, love, is the one that we find most suited to making eternal promises about. Are these things related?

5 responses to “Unpromising promise?

  1. If one can love a child forever once (s)he is born, why should one fail to love the spouse forever? Initial attraction may evaporate year by year, but love should not. Then what is the problem with eternal promises?

  2. We promise to love most fervently precisley because partners are, justifiably, least secure about that aspect which is supposed to be the bedrock of the arrangement. We need stronger signals of emotional commitment because of the absence of corroborating evidence for the signals.


    Then again, it is often non-trivial to verify sexual fidelity or even full financial honesty in relationships.

    And depending on your definitions, love may be measurable (EEGs) , and/or voluntary (initial romantic impulse probably not, but long term deep affection quite likely.)

  3. The promise of eternal love is not really about the future, but rather a demonstration of love and commitment in the present.

  4. These other exchanges are extensions of love. If love is not there, you are unlikely to cooperate for other parts of the relationship unless forced to by other factors. And of course the distinction between physical attraction and genuine love is being addressed in the promise of continued devotion.

  5. Love can help justify (or help one ignore) the unfair parts of the deal, and the opportunity cost of settling. Injecting such an “equalizer” is necessary since otherwise you’d be saying “I’ll stay with you as long as you keep doing what I need you to and nobody better at it comes along” and your partner would be thinking “…but neither of those is especially unlikely”. So it makes sense for the long life of love to be emphasized, since love is about an unjustifiably long and strong commitment.

    Your point about making big promises about untrackable things is independent of this, and sounds right.


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