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On Parenting

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.”


Neil Strauss on Monogamy, Polyamory and Marriage

The TruthOne reason we marry is to create stability in our lives. Yet, as Stephanie Coontz noted in Marriage: A History, since we started marrying for love, around two hundred years ago, marriages have actually become less stable. Is lifelong monogamy an idea whose time has come and gone? Are there other forms of intimacy more appropriate to the way we live our lives today?

These are the some of the questions explored by Neil Strauss in The Truth: An Uncomfortable Book About Relationships.

“We expect love to last forever. Yet as many as 50 percent of marriages and even more remarriages end in divorce. Among those who are married, only 38 percent actually describe themselves as happy in that state. And 90 percent of couples report a decrease in marital satisfaction after having their first child.”

The book is not an intellectual exploration of the subject, but a personal one, as Strauss recounts his own battle to understand what kind of a relationship he himself wants.

“When I’m single, I want to be in a relationship. When I’m in a relationship, I miss being single. And worst of all, when the relationship ends and my captor-lover finally moves on, I regret everything and don’t know what I want anymore…

Maybe the problem isn’t just me. Perhaps I’ve been trying to conform to an outdated and unnatural social norm that doesn’t truly meet—and has never met—the needs of both men and women equally…

Is it even natural to be faithful to one person for life? And if it is, how do I keep the passion and romance from fading over time? Or are there alternatives to monogamy that will lead to better relationships and greater happiness?”

The book begins with Strauss in rehab for sex addiction after being caught cheating on his girlfriend, Ingrid. Like Tomas in Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Strauss sees his desire for variety in women no differently from his desire for variety in any other aspect of his life:

“I love traveling, eating at different restaurants, and meeting new people. Sex is the same: I like getting to know different women, experiencing what they’re like in bed, meeting their friends and family, and having the adventures and memories…

Whether it’s Nicole or Sage, Anne or Veronika, each woman is a wonderful world unto herself. And monogamy? It’s like choosing to live in a single town and never traveling to experience the beauty, history, and enchantment of all the other unique, wonderful places in the world. Why does love have to limit us?”

Strauss wonders whether the desire for exclusivity is selfish:

“Perhaps on some level, the demand for exclusive love is an immature demand, the desire of the needy child who hungered to be the sole object of its parents’ attention, affection, and care.”

When a relationship starts to fall apart, should we even try to save it? Strauss observes several men in therapy with him struggling hard to save marriages they’re not enjoying anyway. “You know, Neil, I call her every afternoon and tell her I love her,” one man sighs, recounting his attempts to win his wife’s forgiveness. “I send her flowers. I do everything to show her I care.” “But do you care or are you just doing a duty?” retorts Strauss.

“Most people seem to believe that if a relationship doesn’t last until death, it’s a failure. But the only relationship that’s truly a failure is one that lasts longer than it should. The success of a relationship should be measured by its depth, not by its length.”

Echoing Anthony DeMello’s belief that our behaviour is largely programmed into us in childhood, Strauss realises his life is “running on a unique operating system that took some eighteen years to program and is full of distinct bugs and viruses”, and that the roots of his behaviour can be traced back to his dysfunctional childhood relationship with his mother.

“I move on to explain the third type of parenting: enmeshment. This is my upbringing. Instead of taking care of a child’s needs, the enmeshing parent tries to get his or her own needs met through the child. This can take various forms: a parent who lives through a child’s accomplishments; who makes the child a surrogate spouse, therapist, or caretaker; who is depressed and emotionally uses the child; who is overbearing or overcontrolling; or who is excessively emotional or anxious about a child. If you grew up feeling sorry for or smothered by a parent, this is a sign that enmeshment likely occurred: In the process, enmeshed children lose their sense of self. As adults, they usually avoid letting anyone get too close and suck the life out of them again. Where the abandoned are often unable to contain their feelings, the enmeshed tend to be cut off from them, and be perfectionistic and controlling of themselves and others. Though they may pursue a relationship thinking they want connection, once they’re in the reality of one, they often put up walls, feel superior, and use other distancing techniques to avoid intimacy. This is known as avoidant attachment—or, as they put it here, love avoidance.”

In contrast, one of his therapists says:

“A healthy relationship is when two individuated adults decide to have a relationship and that becomes a third entity. They nurture the relationship and the relationship nurtures them. But they’re not overly dependent or independent: They are interdependent, which means that they take care of the majority of their needs and wants on their own, but when they can’t, they’re not afraid to ask their partner for help.” She pauses to let it all sink in, then concludes, “Only when our love for someone exceeds our need for them do we have a shot at a genuine relationship together.”

Strauss, however, finds himself increasingly uncomfortable with his therapists’ assertions about what’s right and wrong.

“If we eliminate one half of the dysfunctional relationship, the dysfunction is gone,” I explain. “What’s left is a single guy enjoying life and its pleasures. Why is the option with two people in a reciprocal nurturing relationship any better than this option?”

Disenchanted, Strauss quits therapy, agonising over whether to end his relationship with Ingrid:

“This is it, then: I must make a decision. A lifetime of monogamy with the woman I love. Or a lifetime of dating who I want, of doing what I want, of having complete and total freedom. It doesn’t mean I’ll never have a girlfriend or a child or a family. It just means I’ll have them on my terms, not those of this repressive society that expects you to cut off your balls as soon as you say “I do”…

On their deathbeds, people don’t think about their work or their life experiences or the items remaining on their to-do list. They think about love and family. And I’m throwing it away. I may genuinely be turning that nightmare I had when I was a kid— of being a lazy, broke, unloved deadbeat sleeping on the couch in my brother’s perfect suburban family home— into a reality this time. But do I actually want that dream: a house in the suburbs, a domestic routine that never changes, a lifestyle where going out to a movie is some sort of grand adventure, ungrateful kids like me who blame all their problems on their parents?”

He decides he doesn’t.

“Ingrid strokes my head reassuringly and says, “I feel like I caught a beautiful bird in the wild and put it in a cage, just for me to look at.” I listen. She knows. She understands me. “The cage is near the window, and the bird keeps looking outside and thinking about life out there. And I need to open the cage and let it go, because it belongs in the wild.” Then her face falls, her eyes redden, and the tears start coming faster. I can’t let go, but she can. Between sobs, she sputters her last thought, the six words that will haunt me forever after: “But birds die in the wild.””

As Strauss sets out to explore alternatives to monogamy, one of his friends cautions him to remember his real objective. “The goal is not monogamy or nonmonogamy. It’s for you to be living a life that brings you happiness.”

Monogamy has its drawbacks, but Strauss quickly realises that polyamory comes with its own challenges:

“Shama Helena explains that to most people, polyamory means having multiple loving romantic relationships in which all the partners know about one another. The key word here is loving. A relationship that permits only casual sex on the side wouldn’t technically qualify. The other distinction is honesty. Having a secret mistress or being in a “don’t ask, don’t tell” relationship wouldn’t truly be polyamorous either. And poly doesn’t necessarily come with freedom. Many relationships, Shama Helena explains, require sexual exclusivity to some or all members of the group— or, as it’s called, polyfidelity…

There’s a concept called compersion. And that means if your partner has another lover, rather than being jealous, you’re happy for her because she’s happy…

True love is wanting your partner to have whatever she wants—whether or not you approve of it.”

As Strauss starts to have non-exclusive relationships, he begins to realise how difficult this is. “Compersion is a struggle. It goes against every fiber of my being. I don’t know if my resistance to it is cultural or evolutionary or both,” he says.

When Strauss tries living with three women in a group relationship in San Francisco, he realises there are other challenges. Now he’s not managing one relationship, or even three, but six: between himself and each woman and between each of the women. The conflicting expectations rapidly bring the experiment in communal living to an end.

“A piece of relationship advice Lorraine taught in rehab rings ominously in my head: “Unspoken expectations are premeditated resentments”…

In the dance of infatuation, we see others not as they are, but as projections of who we want them to be. And we impose on them all the imaginary criteria we think will fill the void in our hearts. But in the end, this strategy leads only to suffering. It’s not a relationship when the other person is completely left out of it.”

Strauss tries other open relationships, but again struggles with jealousy. When he becomes sure that one woman is on the point of leaving him for another man, he calls one of his former therapists, Lorraine, for advice.

““Just remember,” she adds soothingly, “that the only people who can be abandoned are children and dependent elders. If you’re an adult, then no one can abandon you except you.””

This doesn’t help. Strauss realises that although he wants to be able to have multiple partners himself, he wants those he’s with to be exclusive to him. The hypocrisy is not lost on him.

As he begins to realise that polyamory is not for him, Strauss’ thoughts return to Ingrid, and why he loved her.

“Love isn’t about wanting someone to save my life or see a vista with me or make me laugh or any of those selfish reasons I’ve always given for loving Ingrid. Those are just things she can do for me or ways she makes me feel…

[Love is] when two (or more) hearts build a safe emotional, mental, and spiritual home that will stand strong no matter how much anyone changes on the inside or the outside.”

Strauss realises that he should have stayed with Ingrid, and asks her to take him back. Remarkably, she agrees. As the book comes to an end, however, Strauss acknowledges that this is not the end of his story, that building that safe home together will be difficult.

“Though Disney cartoons and romance movies end the moment the lovers reunite, leaving the audience to assume they lived happily ever after, in real life this is the moment the story truly begins…

Without the intensity to keep them busy, the common enemy to unite them, or the obstacles to intensify their longing, these legendary lovers now face the biggest challenge of all: dealing with each other— and the differences, be they great or slight, in their values, upbringings, opinions, personalities, expectations, preferences, and imperfections.”

The Truth is a fascinating account of one man’s journey from monogamy to polyamory and back again, and a sobering reminder of the difficulty of maintaining any kind of relationship with another human being.


Mindful Parenting

As a parent, I've often felt the urge to rush through the bedtime ritual - dinner, baths, PJs, teeth, books - with my kids. The few precious hours after they're asleep are sometimes my only time to do chores and pursue personal interests. It's easy to become impatient when a protracted bedtime cuts into that.

In Love 2.0: Creating Happiness and Health in Moments of Connection, psychologist Barbara Fredrickson shares a similar experience:

"My second-born was such a good sleeper that my husband or I could place him in his crib awake and he’d happily drift off to sleep all on his own. Our firstborn was altogether different. He needed to be in our arms while he drifted off. He also needed a particular motion, one that we couldn’t achieve in the comfort of a rocking chair, but only by walking. For at least the first year of his life, then, my husband or I would slowly pace across the tiny nursery, holding him in our arms, for up to thirty minutes or more. He trained us well. We learned that we could only place him in his crib after he’d succumbed to a deep sleep. Anything less would lead to another long bout of pacing.

With so many things to juggle as new parents, not to mention our own sleep deprivation, my husband and I began to dread the time-sink of this bedtime ritual. We’d yearn to be released from the shadowy nursery so that we could tackle the mounting dishes and laundry, make headway on a few more work projects by e-mail, or collapse into our own bed."

I had the same experience with both my children when they were babies. On several occasions I had to take my son out for a drive before he would finally fall asleep.

But like any stressful situation, it's not the situation itself that's difficult, it's the interpretation we choose to place on it.

"Then, my husband discovered a radical shift that changed everything. He gave up thinking about where else he could be and immersed himself in this parenting experience. He tuned in to our son’s heartbeat and breath. He appreciated his warmth, his weight in his arms, and the sweet smell of his skin. By doing so, he transformed a parental chore into a string of loving moment. When my husband shared his secret with me, we each not only enjoyed this bedtime ritual all the more, but our son also fell more swiftly into his deep sleep. Looking back, I now recognize that even though we were physically present with our son as we had walked him to sleep, at first we were not also emotionally present."

Instead of seeing bedtime as a chore, by choosing to exercise mindfulness Fredrickson and her husband turned it into an opportunity to connect with their child.