On Love and Agency June 2018 • 3 minutes

It seems like one area people don’t try hard is love. For someone with high agency, the concept of “falling” in love sounds like a depression symptom. Love is something that you build, on purpose, every day. It takes time and it does not “last” in a sense that it cannot be sustained without deliberate effort. This concept isn’t lost on people in the world of sports or business, when it comes to working and what it takes to be successful, when applied to love however people’s agency melts away.

Agency is the capacity of an actor (you) to act in a given environment (love). Is it really fair to say that most people can’t “act” on their relationship with another person? The cultural experiment to classify love as something that “happens” as opposed to strictly a verb seems increasingly like a failed one. Is there a better way to guarantee failure in a relationship, than to assume that whatever happens cannot be changed? Even if that is the case, the attitude is a disaster.

The lack of agency in love seems to come more from a response to the prior approach. Before “falling in love” there was basically “marry for utility”. That probably made people pretty cynical about the concept of their relationship being a grind to serve the purposes of survival. Obviously the survival benefits help, but at a certain point people could reliably survive on their own and something had to replace utility as the main “reason” to couple up. Enter “falling in love”.

The problem with “falling in love” as free spirited answer to “marry for utility” is that it actually takes agency away. At least marrying for utility is deterministic, in a sense that it can be pursued and measured in a high agency way. Not everyone liked that system, but it was high agency, so you could either participate and do what it takes or not (like sports). So “falling in love” was a progressive step (for some people), but there needs to be another revolution around the agency piece.

The right approach might be to look at love as purely a verb. It cannot be used to describe something (save “loving” or something for that purpose), it can only be used as an action. To love is to do something deterministic to make your relationship better. What that is varies tremendously based on the nature of the relationship, but it usually means doing (high agency) what is best for the other person (love). That is much more deterministic than “falling in love”.

People get depressed when something makes them feel a lack of agency, the idea that nothing they can do will affect it positively. If you “fell in love” and then all of a sudden had a baby you didn’t ask for and a giant mortgage that crushes your desire to spend as much time as possible on (formerly) enjoyable hobbies, you are going to feel a great deal of resentment. If you chose the same situation, however, you actually might feel good about it. The key is whether you experience agency.

It’s a real shame the attitude people have about something so important. Few things have a bigger impact on the quality of your life than the quality of your relationships with the people closest to you. In most cases, that implicates love, and that should be an opportunity to invest effort. Most alcoholics get divorced and most people who don’t drink do not. Is your relationship really ending for a random reason, or do you objectively drink too much? It comes down again to agency.

My final point is what is the downside to throwing out the Disney-induced lack of agency around love and putting deliberate effort in the with the express purpose of making your relationship better? Worst case, it increases perceived agency and leads you to realize that the relationship cannot be fixed. Now you know and can proceed, lessons learned, to a better relationship where you can exert effort in order to make it a good relationship. Best case, your agency increases, your resentment goes down and you improve your existing situation. This is a worthwhile risk. The middle ground is unsustainable.