Alain de Botton on Love and Relationships

Krista Tippett Interviews Alain de Botton:

What if the first question we asked on a date were, “How are you crazy? I’m crazy like this”? Philosopher and writer Alain de Botton’s essay “Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person” was, amazingly, the most-read article in The New York Times in the news-drenched year of 2016. As people and as a culture, he says, we would be much saner and happier if we reexamined our very view of love. How might our relationships be different — and better — if we understood that the real work of love is not in the falling, but in what comes after?

Mr. Alain de Botton: We must fiercely resist the idea that true love must mean conflict-free love, that the course of true love is smooth. It’s not. The course of true love is rocky and bumpy at the best of times. That’s the best we can manage as the creatures we are. It’s no fault of mine or no fault of yours; it’s to do with being human. And the more generous we can be towards that flawed humanity, the better chance we’ll have of doing the true hard work of love.

Ms. Tippett: Alain de Botton is the founder and chairman of The School of Life, a gathering of courses, workshops, and talks on meaning and wisdom for modern lives, with branches around the world. He first became known for his book How Proust Can Change Your Life. His latest book is a novel, The Course of Love.

Ms. Tippett: So, we did speak a few years ago, but on a very different topic, and I’m really excited to be speaking with you about this subject, which is so close to every life. And as I’ve prepared for this, I’ve realized that you’ve actually — I knew that you’d written the novel On Love a long time ago, but you’ve really been consistently attending to this subject and building your thoughts on it and your body of work on it, which is really interesting to me. You wrote On Love at the age of 23, which is so young. And you were already thinking about this so deeply. I think this is the first line: “Every fall into love involves the triumph of hope over knowledge.”

Mr. de Botton: Well, I think what’s striking is that our idea of what love is, our idea of what is normal in love is so not normal.

Ms. Tippett: Is so abnormal. Right.

Mr. de Botton: So abnormal. And so we castigate ourselves for not having a normal love life, even though no one seems to have any of these.

Ms. Tippett: Or not have been loved perfectly.

Mr. de Botton: Right, right. So we have this ideal of what love is and then these very, very unhelpful narratives of love. And they’re everywhere. They’re in movies and songs. And we mustn’t blame songs and movies too much. But if you say to people, “Look, love is a painful, poignant, touching attempt by two flawed individuals to try and meet each other’s needs in situations of gross uncertainty and ignorance about who they are and who the other person is, but we’re going to do our best,” that’s a much more generous starting point.

So, the acceptance of ourselves as flawed creatures seems to me what love really is. Love is at its most necessary when we are weak, when we feel incomplete, and we must show love to one another at those points. So we’ve got these two contrasting stories, and we get them muddled, and…

Ms. Tippett: And also — and I feel like this should be obvious — but you just touched on art and culture and how that could help us complexify our understanding of this. And one of the things you point out about When Harry Met Sally or Four Weddings and a Funeral, one of the things that’s wrong with all of that is that they — a lot of these just take us up to the wedding. They take us through the falling and don’t see that — I think you’ve written somewhere — and you’ve said, “A wiser culture than ours would recognize that the start of a relationship is not the high point that romantic art assumes; it is merely the first step of a far longer, more ambivalent, and yet quietly audacious journey on which we should direct our intelligence and scrutiny.”

Mr. de Botton: That’s right. We are strangely obsessed by the run up to love. And what we call a love story is really just the beginning of a love story, but we leave that out. But most of us, we’re interested in long-term relationships. We’re not just interested in the moment that gets us into love; we’re interested in the survival of love over time.

Ms. Tippett:  A lot of what you are pointing at, the work of loving over a long span of time, is inner work, right? [laughs] And it would be hard to film that. But I’m very intrigued by how you talk about the Ancient Greeks and their “pedagogical” view of love.

Mr. de Botton: That’s fascinating, because one of the greatest insults that you can level at a lover in the modern world apparently is to say, “I want to change you.” The Ancient Greeks had a view of love which was essentially based around education, that what love means — love is a benevolent process whereby two people try to teach each other how to become the best versions of themselves.

Ms. Tippett: Right. You say somewhere they are committed to “increasing the admirable characteristics” that they possess and the other person possesses.

Mr. de Botton: That’s right.

Ms. Tippett: Your most recent book on this subject is The Course of Love, which is a novel, but it’s a novel that actually I feel you kind of weave a pedagogical narrator voice into it. Do you think that’s fair?

Mr. de Botton: That’s right. Absolutely.

Ms. Tippett: Woven into the narrative. And you say, at one point, this is the relationship between Rabih and Kirsten. And you said, at one point, “Their relationship is secretly yet mutually marked by a project of improvement,” which I think we all recognize. And then there’s this moment where you say, “After the dinner party, Rabih is sincerely trying to bring about an evolution in the personality of the wife he loves. But his chosen technique is distinctive: to call Kirsten materialistic, to shout at her, and then, later, to slam two doors.” [laughs]

Mr. de Botton: That’s right.

Ms. Tippett: And we all recognize that scene. [laughs]

Mr. de Botton: [laughs] By the time we’ve humiliated someone, they’re not going to learn anything. The only conditions — as we know with children, the only conditions under which anyone learns are conditions of incredible sweetness, tenderness, patience. That’s how we learn. But the problem is that the failures of our relationships have made us so anxious that we can’t be the teachers we should be. And therefore, some often genuine legitimate things that we want to get across are just — come across as insults, as attempts to wound, and are therefore rejected, and the arteries of the relationship start to fur.

Ms. Tippett: Someone recently said to me — I’m curious about how you would respond to this. It was a wise Jewish mother who had said to them, “Men marry women with the intention that they — with the idea that they will the stay the same. Women marry men with the idea that they will change.” Which is obviously a huge generalization. But gosh, it made a lot of sense to me, even in terms of my own life and in terms of what I see around me.

Mr. de Botton: Yeah. I would argue that both genders want to change one another, and they both have an idea of who the lover should be. And I think a useful exercise that sometimes psychologists level at feuding couples is they say things like, “If you could accept that your partner would never change, how would you feel about that?”

Sometimes pessimism, a certain degree of pessimism can be a friend of love. Once we accept that actually it’s really very hard for people to be another way, we’re sometimes readier. We don’t need people to be perfect is the good news. We just need people to be able to explain their imperfections to us in good time, before they’ve hurt us too much with them, and with a certain degree of humility. That’s already an enormous step.

Ms. Tippett: It’s a lot to ask, but it’s so — it’s also — it’s sounds reasonable, right? If we could really have that in our minds early enough on in a relationship.

Mr. de Botton: That’s right. And almost from the first date. My view of what one should talk about on a first date is not showing off and not putting forward one’s accomplishments, but almost quite the opposite. One should say, “Well, how are you crazy? I’m crazy like this.” There should be a mutual acceptance that two damaged people are trying to get together because pretty much all of us — there are a few totally healthy people — but pretty much all of us reach dating age with some scars, some wounds.

And sometimes, we bring to adult relationships some of the same hope that a young child might’ve had of their parent. And of course, an adult relationship can’t be like that. It’s got to accept that the person across the table or on the other side of the bed is just human, which means full of flaws, fears, etc., and not some sort of superhuman.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah. And I think that question that you said could be a standard question on an early date — “And how are you crazy?” — there’s also something that you’re getting at that — it almost seems like we must be hardwired to do this. Although, one of the wonderful things we’re learning in the 21st century is that we can change our brains. But a way you say it in On Love, in a scene in On Love is — boy meets girl, and they — you start to be enamored in details of this new person and find things in common like — I don’t know — “both of us had two large freckles on the toe of the left foot.”

And then you wrote, “Instinctively” — and this happens very quickly — “he teases out an entire personality from the details.” But also, what I know from my own life is you tend to — I think we — when we fall in love with another person, we magnify in our minds those things that are immediately enrapturing and craft our idea of the other person almost exclusively around those wonderful qualities, which is not fair to them or to us. [laughs]

Mr. de Botton: That’s right. And we feel in a way that we know them already, and we impose on them an idea…

Ms. Tippett: And of course, we don’t. Right.

Mr. de Botton: We don’t. We don’t. Which also explains another phenomenon that I’m fascinated by — you probably would’ve noticed in both novels — is the phenomenon of being in a sulk, of sulking. Because sulking is a fascinating situation which takes you right into the heart of certain romantic delusions. Because what’s fascinating about sulking is that we don’t sulk with everybody. We only get into sulks with people that we feel should understand us, but rather unforgivably, haven’t understood us.

So in other words, it’s when we are in love with people and they’re in love with us that we take particular offense when they get things wrong. Because the kind of the governing assumption of the relationship is, this person should know what’s in my mind ideally without me needing to tell them.

If I need to spell this out to you, you don’t love me. And that’s why you’ll go into the bathroom, bolt the door, and when your partner says, “Is anything wrong?” You’ll go, “Mm-mm.” And the reason is they should be able to read through the bathroom panel into your soul and know what’s wrong. And that’s such an extraordinary demand.

Read more here

Krista Tippett is an American journalist, author, and entrepreneur. She created and hosts the public radio program and podcast On Being

Alain de Botton, FRSL is a Swiss-born British philosopher and author. His books discuss various contemporary subjects and themes, emphasizing philosophy’s relevance to everyday life

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