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Alain de Botton on Monogamy
Alain de Botton on Changing our Expectations of Marriage

Alain de Botton on What Children Can Teach Us About Love

TheCourseOfLove“We believe we are seeking happiness in love, but what we are really after is familiarity,” says Alain de Botton in The Course of Love. “We are looking to re-create, within our adult relationships, the very feelings we knew so well in childhood.”

It’s a persuasive argument, one that would explain why most of us see love as “a quest to find love rather than to give it, to be loved rather than to love”, however much we might try to convince ourselves otherwise. It’s also a reminder than parental love is much less selfish than romantic love. As such, de Botton suggests, perhaps we should try to emulate it in our adult relationships too.

“Children teach us that love is, in its purest form, a kind of service. The word has grown freighted with negative connotations. An individualistic, self-gratifying culture cannot easily equate contentment with being at someone else’s call. We are used to loving others in return for what they can do for us, for their capacity to entertain, charm, or soothe us. Yet babies can do precisely nothing.”

Marriages often founder if the couple believe they no longer have anything in common. Yet this is not the basis of our love for our children:

“Neither Kirsten nor Rabih has ever known such a mixture of love and boredom. They are used to basing their friendships on shared temperaments and interests. But [their baby daughter] is, confusingly, simultaneously the most boring person they have ever met and the one they find themselves loving the most. Rarely have love and psychological compatibility drifted so far apart—and yet it doesn’t matter in the slightest. Perhaps all that emphasis on having “something in common” with others is overdone: Rabih and Kirsten have a new sense of how little is in truth required to form a bond with another human being.”

We are often more forgiving of the bad behaviour of children than we are of the bad behaviour of our partner. But adults should know better! we may think. De Botton is sceptical:

“The child teaches the adult something else about love: that genuine love should involve a constant attempt to interpret with maximal generosity what might be going on, at any time, beneath the surface of difficult and unappealing behavior. The parent has to second-guess what the cry, the kick, the grief, or the anger is really about. And what marks out this project of interpretation—and makes it so different from what occurs in the average adult relationship—is its charity. Parents are apt to proceed from the assumption that their children, though they may be troubled or in pain, are fundamentally good. As soon as the particular pin that is jabbing them is correctly identified, they will be restored to native innocence. When children cry, we don’t accuse them of being mean or self-pitying; we wonder what has upset them. When they bite, we know they must be frightened or momentarily vexed. We are alive to the insidious effects that hunger, a tricky digestive tract, or a lack of sleep may have on mood. How kind we would be if we managed to import even a little of this instinct into adult relationships—if here, too, we could look past the grumpiness and viciousness and recognize the fear, confusion, and exhaustion which almost invariably underlie them. This is what it would mean to gaze upon the human race with love.”

We believe that treating adults like children is patronising. De Botton argues that not only is this not always true, it is often precisely what we want. But rather than seeking such unconditional love from another, something over which we have no control, perhaps we should just focus on providing it:

“It isn’t surprising if, as adults, when we first start to form relationships, we should devotedly go off in search of someone who can give us the all-encompassing, selfless love that we may once have known in childhood. Nor would it be surprising if we were to feel frustrated and in the end extremely bitter at how difficult it seems to be to find—at how seldom people know how to help us as they should. We may rage and blame others for their inability to intuit our needs, we may fitfully move from one relationship to another, we may blame an entire sex for its shallowness—until the day we end our quixotic searches and reach a semblance of mature detachment, realizing that the only release from our longing may be to stop demanding a perfect love and noting its many absences at every turn, and instead start to give love away (perhaps to a small person) with oblivious abandon without jealously calculating the chances of it ever returning.”

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