web
analytics
Gödel, Escher, Bach
Douglas Hofstadter on Problem Solving

Alain de Botton on Why We Marry

TheCourseOfLove“There is no-one more likely to destroy us than the person we marry,” says Alain de Botton in The Course of Love. Marriage is certainly a risky proposition: some estimates suggest that only around 38% of married couples describe themselves as happy and around 50% of marriages end in divorce. So why do we do it? De Botton dissects some of our most common rationalisations.

We marry because we love the way we feel when we’re with our partner, and we assume we’ll continue to feel this way:

“He proposes because he wants to preserve, to “freeze,” what he and Kirsten feel for each other. He hopes through the act of marrying to make an ecstatic sensation perpetual…

[But] Rabih is not marrying—and therefore fixing forever—a feeling. He is marrying a person with whom, under a very particular, privileged, and fugitive set of circumstances, he has been fortunate enough to have a feeling.”

We marry because it’s intoxicating to find someone who loves us:

“We shouldn’t underestimate the appeal, to someone who has often and painfully doubted many things, not least herself, of a proposal from an ostensibly kind and interesting person who seems unequivocally and emphatically convinced that she is right for him.”

We marry because it’s better than being alone:

“To a shameful extent, the charm of marriage boils down to how unpleasant it is to be alone. This isn’t necessarily our fault as individuals. Society as a whole appears determined to render the single state as nettlesome and depressing as possible: once the freewheeling days of school and university are over, company and warmth become dispiritingly hard to find; social life starts to revolve oppressively around couples; there’s no one left to call or hang out with. It’s hardly surprising, then, if when we find someone halfway decent, we might cling.”

We marry because our culture has taught us to value instinct over reason in matters of the heart:

“For most of recorded history, people married for logical sorts of reasons: because her parcel of land adjoined yours, his family had a flourishing grain business, her father was the magistrate in town, there was a castle to keep up, or both sets of parents subscribed to the same interpretation of a holy text. And from such reasonable marriages there flowed loneliness, rape, infidelity, beating, hardness of heart, and screams heard through the nursery doors. The marriage of reason was not, from any sincere perspective, reasonable at all; it was often expedient, narrow-minded, snobbish, exploitative, and abusive. Which is why what has replaced it—the marriage of feeling—has largely been spared the need to account for itself. What matters is that two people wish desperately that it happen, are drawn to one another by an overwhelming instinct, and know in their hearts that it is right. The modern age appears to have had enough of “reasons,” those catalysts of misery, those accountants’ demands. Indeed the more imprudent a marriage appears (perhaps it’s been only six weeks since they met; one of them has no job; or both are barely out of their teens), the safer it may actually be deemed to be, for apparent “recklessness” is taken as a counterweight to all the errors and tragedies vouchsafed by the so-called sensible unions of old. The prestige of instinct is the legacy of a collective traumatized reaction against too many centuries of unreasonable “reason.””

We marry because our culture has lead us to believe that unless a relationship leads to a commitment to stay together for the rest of our lives, then it lacks purpose, and we’re tired of looking for a relationship that can live up to that ideal:

“He asks her to marry him in order to break the all-consuming grip that the thought of relationships has for too long had on his psyche. He is exhausted by seventeen years’ worth of melodrama and excitements that have led nowhere. He is thirty-two and restless for other challenges. It’s neither cynical nor callous of Rabih to feel immense love for Kirsten and yet at the same time to hope that marriage may conclusively end love’s mostly painful dominion over his life.”

We marry because we think we’d be easy to live with:

“He proposes with such confidence and certainty because he believes himself to be a really rather straightforward person to live alongside—another tricky circumstantial result of having been on his own for a very long time. The single state has a habit of promoting a mistaken self-image of normalcy. Rabih’s tendency to tidy obsessively when he feels chaotic inside, his habit of using work to ward off his anxieties, the difficulty he has in articulating what’s on his mind when he’s worried, his fury when he can’t find a favorite T-shirt—these eccentricities are all neatly obscured so long as there is no one else around to see him, let alone to create a mess, request that he come and eat his dinner, comment skeptically on his habit of cleaning the TV remote control, or ask him to explain what he’s fretting about. Without witnesses, he can operate under the benign illusion that he may just, with the right person, prove no particular challenge to be around.”

We marry because of a reckless desire to demonstrate our commitment:

“Those voices which hint that marriage is no longer necessary, that it is far safer simply to cohabit, are right from a practical point of view, concedes Rabih; but they miss the emotional appeal of danger, of putting oneself and one’s beloved through an experience which could, with only a few twists of the plotline, result in mutual destruction. Rabih takes his very willingness to be ruined in love’s name as proof of his commitment.”

This recklessness is captured perfectly by de Botton’s definition of marriage:

“Marriage: a hopeful, generous, infinitely kind gamble taken by two people who don’t know yet who they are or who the other might be, binding themselves to a future they cannot conceive of and have carefully omitted to investigate.”

comments powered by Disqus