How Love Can Be Defined As Procedural Or Substantive, And Which Is Better

by Suneal Bedi

What can civil procedure in the legal arena teach us about relationships?

If you are a law student, lawyer, or know someone who is, you have probably heard the hardest, most boring course in law school is civil procedure.

It’s about how and when lawyers must file documents with a court in order to sue somebody. I assure you, though, the intuitions of civil procedure can be powerful outside of its traditional limited scope.

The core of civil procedure is the difference between a substantive and a procedural rule.

A substantive rule is one that relates to the specific facts of the case at hand. A procedural rule is one that relates to the procedures of how one is accused.

For example, if someone was accused of assault, a substantive rule might detail what exactly must have happened for the action to constitute assault.

Contrastingly, a procedural rule would detail what documents one would need to file to prove the case.

Although people tend to shy away from civil procedures, the distinction between substantive and procedural rules have very interesting implications for relationships.

Love, too, can be substantive or procedural: Substantive love is based on passion; it’s based on a lustful, emotional, almost visceral reaction to a person.

If I substantively love someone, I’m emotionally attracted to a person because he or she elicits strong feelings inside of me.

Think of it like this: Substantive love is the type of love that gives you butterflies in your stomach right before you kiss somebody. It has to do with who the person is at his or her core. It’s the Shakespearean Romeo and Juliet love.

But, love can also be procedural. Procedural love is akin to how one would choose a business partner. It’s about how you coexist with a mate on the day-to-day.

Procedural love seeks to explain how two people solve problems or arguments, how they efficiently solve tasks and how they divide responsibilities.

If you are thinking, yeah, but procedural aspects of relationships are boring, you’re probably not alone. Procedure in the relationship context is as sexy as civil procedure in the law school context -- aka, not at all.

Let’s contrast the two in an example: Say John meets Bob; John immediately finds Bob attractive, not just physically but also emotionally.

John likes the way Bob carries himself and the way Bob wears his emotions on his sleeve.

He likes that Bob makes him feel sensual and likes cuddling with Bob by a fire. John wants to run into Bob’s arms when he sees him.

This is a classical case of substantive love. John thinks he’s in a Nicholas Sparks novel and constantly says he has “found his soul mate.”

He is, in the most classical way, in love with John.

Bob also loves John, but for subtly different reasons. Bob likes how he and John are both very clean. He likes how when he cooks dinner, John cleans up. He likes that they watch the same TV shows and never fight about small things.

He also likes that John is honest and upfront with his emotions, making any problems the two of them have very easy to solve. Bob likes that John is good with kids and thinks he would, someday, make a great father.

Bob exhibits classical procedural love. He likes how easy his day-to-day life is with John.

Now, this isn’t to say Bob doesn’t also find John sexy or attractive.

He does. But, what keeps him in the relationship is his procedural love for John, not his romantic love. And, to be sure, John also likes that Bob is easy to get along with.

But, for John, it’s the substantive love that keeps him coming back for more. Both types of love certainly coexist within Bob and John individually. But, the weight they put on each type of love differ drastically.

So, which is a better type of love to exhibit and promote in a relationship? What’s more important for a long-lasting relationship? Ultimately, the love that matters most may be procedural.

Obviously, substantive love is very strong and important; it’s the type of love that moves mountains. It’s passionate and all-encompassing. It makes us do irrational things. But, where it once seemed so strong, it quickly shows its weaknesses.

Substantive love is fickle, unpredictable and can easily change or fade over time. Some day, the intense emotions somebody elicits inside of you might be gone.

Yet, substantive love seems to be the basis of our conception of a true love relationship. It’s what Disney movies and “Love Actually” are all about.

With people constantly talking about finding their soul mates and with such high divorce rates and high costs, is this the type of love we should desire? Is the basis of a strong, long-lasting relationship, full of passion and sensuality?

I think not. The foundation of a strong and solid relationship might be procedural love, which values people coexisting easily. Procedural love is generally long-lasting.

Once you reach a certain age, you generally don’t change your habits — diet, sleep, exercise.

And, so, when you find someone who is compatible with you, that person will generally always be procedurally compatible.

In this way, seeking out and focusing on procedural love might lead to more sustainable relationships.

This sentiment exists in modern arranged marriages. In modern arranged marriages, families find potential suitors for their sons or daughters.

They base these decisions upon several categories: career, family background, attractiveness and ability to take care of a family.

The criteria are generally procedural in nature. A family doesn’t search for a significant other who might be a son or daughter's soul mate.

And, the goal is not a partner with whom a son or daughter will necessarily fall in love.

Instead, the goal is a companion for coexistence and a strong family unit. In effect, it's when someone looks for potential procedural love between two individuals.

This might contribute to the perceived low divorce rates in modern arranged marriages.

It’s important to note that as with Bob and John, we all feel aspects of both substantive and procedural love.

But, weighing procedural love more and downplaying the significance of substantive love is what seems to be important.

Looking for your soul mate or marrying your high school or college sweetheart is generally rewarding and promotes substantive love, but, perhaps, at the expense of procedural love.

Still, our preoccupation with this context is not our fault. These are the types of marriages we hear about on TV and in movies. It’s the type of love we dream to someday have for ourselves.

And, don’t get me wrong; substantive love is great!

It feels so good when someone is completely emotionally committed and deeply romantically in love with you. It’s euphoric.

But, it’s even worse when someone whom you romantically love betrays you, is disloyal or decides not to love you back. Substantive love is unpredictable; it's a roller coaster.

Procedural love isn’t as sexy; it isn’t as cool. After all, it’s based in civil procedure. But, procedural love is predictable; it's almost a flat line with very little deviation over time.

Although the law may be boring at times, it’s important we attempt to apply some of its fundamental teachings and begin to truly analyze how and in what ways we love each other.

Doing this might lead us to focus on and value procedure over substance, creating for truly wonderful relationships.