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September 2016

Alain de Botton on Changing our Expectations of Marriage

TheCourseOfLoveAlain de Botton's The Course of Love is an unsentimental - some might say pessimistic - look at modern marriage. Writing in the latest issue of The Philosopher’s Magazine, Skye Cleary suggests that the book's main weakness is "that it napalms the Romantic ideal so successfully that it’s not clear that the institution of marriage is worth rescuing". But De Botton doesn't argue that we shouldn't get married, just that we should enter it with much more realistic expectations.

“Once, you were deemed ready for matrimony when you’d reached certain financial and social milestones: when you had a home to your name, a trousseau full of linen, a set of qualifications on the mantelpiece, or a few cows and a parcel of land in your possession. Then, under the influence of Romantic ideology, such practicalities grew to seem altogether too mercenary and calculating, and the focus shifted to emotional qualities. It came to be thought important to have the right feelings, among these a sense of having hit upon a soul mate, a faith in being perfectly understood, a certainty of never wanting to sleep with anyone else again. The Romantic ideas are, he knows now, a recipe for disaster.”

Instead, de Botton offers a quite different set of criteria.

One, you’ve given up on perfection:

“Choosing a person to marry is hence just a matter of deciding exactly what kind of suffering we want to endure rather than of assuming we have found a way to skirt the rules of emotional existence. We will all by definition end up with that stock character of our nightmares, “the wrong person.” This needn’t be a disaster, however. Enlightened romantic pessimism simply assumes that one person can’t be everything to another. We should look for ways to accommodate ourselves as gently and as kindly as we can to the awkward realities of living alongside another fallen creature. There can only ever be a “good enough” marriage.”

Two, you don’t expect to be fully understood:

“Love begins with the experience of being understood in highly supportive and uncommon ways. They grasp the lonely parts of us; we don’t have to explain why we find a particular joke so funny; we hate the same people; we both want to try that rather specialized sexual scenario. It cannot continue. When we run up against the reasonable limits of our lovers’ capacities for understanding, we mustn’t blame them for dereliction. They were not tragically inept. They couldn’t fully fathom who we were—and we did likewise. Which is normal. No one properly gets, or can fully sympathize with, anyone else.”

Three, you admit that you are crazy:

“It’s profoundly counterintuitive for us to think of ourselves as mad. We seem so normal and mostly so good—to ourselves. It’s everyone else who is out of step . . . and yet, maturity begins with the capacity to sense and, in good time and without defensiveness, admit to our own craziness. If we are not regularly deeply embarrassed by who we are, the journey to self-knowledge hasn’t begun.”

Four, you understand that marriage itself is deeply flawed:

“Rabih is ready for marriage because he has understood that it isn’t Kirsten who is difficult. They seem “difficult,” of course, within the cage of marriage when they lose their tempers over such petty things: logistics, in-laws, cleaning duties, parties, the groceries . . . But it’s not the other person’s fault, it’s what we’re trying to do with them. It’s the institution of marriage that is principally impossible, not the individuals involved.”

Five, you are prepared to love, rather than be loved:

“We speak of “love” as if it were a single, undifferentiated thing, but it comprises two very different modes: being loved and loving. We should marry when we are ready to do the latter and have become aware of our unnatural—and dangerous—fixation on the former. We start out knowing only about “being loved.” It comes to seem, quite wrongly, the norm. To the child, it feels as if the parent were just spontaneously on hand to comfort, guide, entertain, feed, and clear up while remaining almost constantly warm and cheerful. We take this idea of love with us into adulthood. Grown up, we hope for a re-creation of what it felt like to be ministered to and indulged. In a secret corner of our mind, we picture a lover who will anticipate our needs, read our hearts, act selflessly, and make everything better. It sounds “romantic,” yet it is a blueprint for disaster.”

Six, you understand that sex cohabits uneasily with love:

“The Romantic view expects that love and sex will be aligned. We are properly ready for marriage when we are strong enough to embrace a life of frustration.”

Seven, you accept that in some ways your partner is better than you, and you want to learn from them:

“We should bear having things pointed out to us. And at other moments we should be ready to model ourselves on the best pedagogues and deliver our suggestions without shouting or expecting the other simply to know. Only if we were already perfect could the idea of mutual education be dismissed as unloving.”

Eight, you accept that, deep down, you and your partner are not compatible:

“The Romantic vision of marriage stresses the importance of finding the “right” person, which is taken to mean someone in sympathy with the raft of our interests and values. There is no such person over the long term. We are too varied and peculiar. There cannot be lasting congruence. The partner truly best suited to us is not the one who miraculously happens to share every taste but the one who can negotiate differences in taste with intelligence and good grace. Rather than some notional idea of perfect complementarity, it is the capacity to tolerate dissimilarity that is the true marker of the “right” person. Compatibility is an achievement of love; it shouldn’t be its precondition.”

Nine, you accept that the love stories in books and movies and TV shows bear little relation to reality:

“By the standards of most love stories, our own real relationships are almost all damaged and unsatisfactory. No wonder separation and divorce so often appear inevitable. But we should be careful not to judge our relationships by the expectations imposed on us by a frequently misleading aesthetic medium. The fault lies with art, not life. Rather than split up, we may need to tell ourselves more accurate stories—stories that don’t dwell so much on the beginning, that don’t promise us complete understanding, that strive to normalize our troubles and show us a melancholy yet hopeful path through the course of love.”

Is de Botton too pessimistic? I don’t think so. As he puts it himself, “Melancholy isn’t always a disorder that needs to be cured. It can be a species of intelligent grief which arises when we come face-to-face with the certainty that disappointment is written into the script from the start.” If we entered marriage with more realistic expectations perhaps there would be fewer divorces and fewer children shuttling between two houses with no one place to call home.

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.”

Alain de Botton on Monogamy

TheCourseOfLove“Marriage,” notes Alain de Botton in one of many pithy observations in The Course of Love, “is a deeply peculiar and ultimately unkind thing to inflict on anyone one claims to care for.” And no more so, perhaps, than when it comes to sex.

De Botton suggests that there is a fundamental contradiction between love and monogamy:

“If love is to be defined as a genuine concern for the well-being of another person, then it must surely be deemed compatible with granting permission for an often harassed and rather browbeaten husband to step off the elevator on the eighteenth floor in order to enjoy ten minutes of rejuvenating cunnilingus with a near stranger. Otherwise it may seem that what we are dealing with is not really love at all but rather a kind of small-minded and hypocritical possessiveness, a desire to make one’s partner happy if, but only if, that happiness involves oneself.”

De Botton suggests that the near-universal value we place on monogamy (a value so ingrained that attempts at polyamory often founder on jealousy) has a religious origin:

“In the West, we owe to Christianity the view that sex should only ever rightly occur in the presence of love. The religion insists that two people who care for each other must reserve their bodies, and their gaze, for each other alone. To think sexually about strangers is to abandon the true spirit of love and to betray God and one’s own humanity. Such precepts, at once touching and forbidding, have not entirely evaporated along with the decline of the faith that once supported them. Shorn of their explicitly theistic rationale, they seem to have been absorbed into the ideology of Romanticism, which accords a similarly prestigious place to the concept of sexual fidelity within the idea of love. In the secular world, too, monogamy has been declared a necessary and crowning expression of emotional commitment and virtue. Our age has strikingly maintained the essential drift of an earlier religious position: the belief that true love must entail wholehearted fidelity.”

In an age where contraception has separated sex and pregnancy, shouldn’t such fidelity be unnecessary?

“It is, so its adherents conclude, just as absurd to suppose that one should only ever have sex with the person one loves as it would be to require that only those in committed couples ever be permitted to play table tennis or go jogging together.”


“This remains, in the current age, the minority view by a very wide margin… Despite the liberal atmosphere of our time, it would be naive to assume that the distinction between “weird” and “normal” has disappeared. It stands as secure as ever, waiting to intimidate and herd back into line those who would question the normative limits of love and sex. It may now be deemed “normal” to wear cutoff shorts, expose belly buttons, marry someone of either gender, and watch a little porn for fun, but it also remains indispensably “normal” to believe that true love should be monogamous and that one’s desire should be focused exclusively on one person.”

The problem, suggests de Botton, is that, for many people, love is “a quest to find love rather than to give it, to be loved rather than to love”. We want to feel special, to be the sole object of our lover’s attention, not one of many. Romanticism tells us that we should be all our lover needs. This value is so deeply ingrained in us that most of us cannot feel loved if we know that our lover is sleeping with someone else.

What’s the answer? De Botton concludes that there isn’t one:

“Adventure and security are irreconcilable, he sees. A loving marriage and children kill erotic spontaneity, and an affair kills a marriage. A person cannot be at once a libertine and a married Romantic, however compelling both paradigms might be. He doesn’t downplay the loss either way. Saying good-bye to Lauren means safeguarding his marriage but it also means denying himself a critical source of tenderness and elation. Neither the love rat nor the faithful spouse gets it right. There is no solution.”

Douglas Hofstadter on Problem Solving

GodelWhen faced with a complex problem, we often set about solving it by breaking it down into smaller pieces, then solving each piece in turn. But as Douglas Hofstadter notes in Godel, Escher, Bach, a problem can often be decomposed in more than one way. Choose the wrong way and we may find ourselves unable to solve the problem at all:

“There is no guarantee that the method of problem reduction will work. There are many situations where it flops. Consider this simple problem, for instance. You are a dog, and a human friend has just thrown your favourite bone over a wire fence into another yard. You can see your bone through the fence, just lying there in the grass - how luscious! There is an open gate in the fence about fifty feet away from the bone. What do you do? Some dogs will just run up to the fence, stand next to it, and bark; others will dash up to the open gate and double back to the lovely bone. Both dogs can be said to be exercising the problem reduction technique; however, they represent the problem in their minds in different ways, and this makes all the difference. The barking dog sees the subproblems as (1) running to the fence, (2) getting through it, and (3) running to the bone - but that second subproblem is a "toughie", whence the barking. The other dog sees the subproblems as (1) getting to the gate; (2) going through the gate; (3) running to the bone. Notice how everything depends on the way you represent the "problem space" - that is, on what you perceive as reducing the problem (forward motion towards the overall goal) and what you perceive as magnifying the problem (backward motion away from the goal).”

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.”