Everyone has secretly pondered this question. How you answer it is a window into your values—and your capacity to rationalize.
In the book Passions Within Reason, Robert Frank writes about a woman who asked her friend the following questions: Why do I fall in love with people who are not interested in me? And why don't I care about the ones who fall in love with me? Her colleague replied: You're an 8 chasing after 10's, and being chased by 6's. How could this woman know that she is an 8 and not a 7 or a 9? And should she stop dreaming about 10's?
Aaron Ben-Zeév, Ph.D., is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Haifa and former President of the University (2004 – 2012). His research focuses on theoretical issues concerning the emotions, as well as the study of particular emotions. His major books are The Subtlety of Emotions (MIT, 2000), Love Online: Emotions on the Internet (Cambridge UP, 2004), In The Name of Love: Romantic ideology and its victims (With R. Goussinsky, Oxford UP, 2008); The Perceptual System (Peter Lang, 1993); and Die Logik der Gefühle: Kritik der emotionalen Intelligenz (Suhrkamp, 2009)
Editor: Saad Shaheed
Once you evaluate your partner as inferior to you, you are faced with making a romantic compromise. The concession here does not refer to whether the person loves you or is suitable as a partner, but whether—in your opinion—he or she is above, below, or equal to you or to other partners available to you. There might be wide agreement about whether the person is handsome or ugly, intelligent or thick. You may think you are superior to your partner in all aspects, or just in some important ways. Marriage to a significantly inferior partner is a compromise that often leads to divorce.
In this kind of partnership, you acknowledge your partner's inferiority; this is painful and insulting for both parties, and it injects poison into the relationship. Often, to maintain love for an inferior partner, you might lower your own value, thereby facilitating your admiration for your partner. More prevalent among women, this remedy may be temporary and superficial, as the real problem with the value of the person will likely re-emerge.
Calculating the comparative mate value of a person is complex as it involves many features that all carry different weight. Moreover, in evaluating a partner we have some choice in allocating relative weight to each characteristic; hence our own view of this person can be positive. If this is not the case, and we feel we are compromising on our partner's overall value, it reflects our sense of the deep inferiority of this person, that the partner is "not in our league." Grading partners thusly, like beauty queens or football players, is humiliating, anathema to a fulfilling relationship.
Despite the complexity in calculating the comparative value of a partner, people are typically aware of doing it. When there is dissonance between the one you are with and those you believe are more equal to you, you feel you got a raw deal. This negative attitude can create many difficulties in a relationship.
The Comparative Calculus
Both parties in inequitable relationships may consider themselves undeserving of their situation. The "inferior" partner often will feel guilty for being over-compensated by the relationship; the "superior" one, meanwhile, may become indignant at being "under-compensated."
Involvement in extramarital relationships can counterbalance inequity. The under-compensated may perceive affairs as something they deserve because their spouses get more from the marriage than they do. The over-compensated engage in affairs to escape the unpleasant state of inequity, and to prove that they are deserving and attractive to others.
Even if a person decides not to make comparative calculations, or not to behave according to them, this imbalance can preclude gratifying love.
In focusing on your equals, you know that you will get the best for you; however, this means giving up the pursuit of more immediately alluring options. You may pine after others who are objectively better than you. You may adore them more, but these people will probably not love you the way an equal would; accordingly, they are likely to be less satisfying partners for you. Yearning for them is futile and destructive.
The sense that we deserve each other is important. Otherwise, are we settling? In the short term, inequity might give rise to great admiration, and hence may increase love and desire. People who provide us with social status—the rich, the famous, the powerful—often generate intense sexual desire and satisfaction. However, the higher-status person may begin to show a lack of reciprocity, which will eventually damage the lower-status person's love and could provoke negative emotions such as jealousy and anger.
A Domain Exchange
Inequality in one domain (say, intelligence) can be compensated for by qualities in another (say, kindness). One woman claims her mother justified staying with her less intelligent husband thus: "If I need friends, I can find them. If I need intellectual stimulation, I can go to college. Your father took care of my intimate needs—he never turned from me in bed." The marriage lasted 32 years, until his death.
The value of equality in intimate relationships is clear, but its determination is complex. In some cases, the gap is obvious and both partners are aware of it. In other cases, where love is absent, each partner thinks that she or he is superior and making a trade-off. In many cases, people use self-deception: "I adore my partner and consider her to be just about perfect."
It seems that comparative value is of less importance when the differences are minor and refer to different domains. They are disturbing only when they fill your mind and heart, making you believe you are settling.
Because there are various domains of comparison—kindness, attractiveness, wisdom, humor—and because it is up to the lover to determine the relative value of each, your esteem for your partner often depends on your values. Those values are not identical for all people.