What We Really Talk About When We Talk About Love, with Alain de Botton

…is a lot of romanticism.

It’s in the movies we watch, the books we read, the music we listen to. From Disney “Princess” films to books and movies inspired by Nicholas Sparks, the irresistible charm of romance permeates our culture. It’s the nostalgia of the fairy tale, it is its allure that keeps us affirming star-crossed lovers (Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet to Meyer’s Edward & Bella).

We talk of love in its highest regard in romantic relationships — the chocolates and the flowers, the grand gestures, the undying affection that has taken over and shaped how our society at large sees relationships. We are enchanted by that initial “spark” and eventually find ourselves looking how to recapture it (as in, Rekindling the Romance: 9 Secrets to Keeping the Spark…).

The love stories we see and hear about are really only the beginning of those relationships, Alain de Botton argues, in his new book The Course of Love. What happens after the proposal, followed by the wedding, are the lives of two people bound not by romance alone but by the humbling reality of living with another person.


I’ve been reading de Botton for a while, in awe of his work on architecture, travel, philosophy and how Marcel Proust can change our lives. Reading fiction by de Botton was a first, and it proved to be delightful as it is revelatory as his previous books.

The book centers on the Lebanese-German architect Rabih Singh and Kirsten, the Scottish surveyor. Woven through their love story are philosophical musings — psychoanalytical insights of the characters’ most intimate thoughts, intentions and behavior. Spanning decades of their marriage, this book might as well have been called “A Crash Course on the Realities of Long-Term Relationships.”

Perhaps what is most affirming about the book is the way it mirrors most of our own struggles in relationships. From their first meeting to their first date, a quarrel over Ikea cups and whether the window should be open in the midst of a winter night, there are plenty of lessons in the book that offers all of us a chance to look at love, and how we love, a little more closely.


1. Love is a skill, not an enthusiasm.

I first heard about love other than being a feeling through bell hooks, in her book All About Love. She writes that love is a verb, not just a feeling. de Botton advises us to go beyond feeling, to look deeper into those “wordless intuitions” to really know love.

As Rabih discovers by the end of the book, it is destroying all his romantic notions of what love is, and struggling it out with Kirsten that he came to know what it really was all about.

2. What we look for in love unconsciously are patterns of childhood familiarity. 

We believe we are seeking happiness in love, but what we are really after is familiarity. We are looking to re-create, within our adult relationships, the very feelings we knew so well in childhood and which were rarely limited to just tenderness and care. The love most of us will have tasted early on came intertwined with other, more destructive dynamics: feelings of wanting to help an adult who was out of control, of being deprived of a parent’s warmth or scared of his or her anger, or of not feeling secure enough to communicate our trickier wishes. (Alain de Botton, The Course of Love)

3. One of love’s oddities: sulking.

When Kirsten becomes quiet after a particularly tense situation with Rabih, she turns inwards – withdrawn – leaving her husband wondering what he did wrong. Similarly, Rabih locks himself in a room and yells “Fuck you leave me alone” after a party with Kristen’s friends left him feeling vulnerable.

de Botton writes that at the heart of a sulk is “a confusing mixture of intense anger and an equally intense desire not to communicate with what one is angry about.” In individualist cultures like in the U.S., we expect our partners to communicate and let us know what they’re feeling, even at the height of emotional vulnerability. We get angry and frustrated when they don’t convey what they need from us. de Botton sees it from a different perspective:

…it is a privilege to be the recipient of a sulk; it means the other person respects and trust us enough to think we should understand their unspoken hurt. It is one of the odder gifts of love. (Alain de Botton, The Course of Love)

4. The opposite of nagging is negotiating and understanding patiently.


The underlying emotion behind nagging is bitterness, according to de Botton, an anger that has forgotten where it came from. It would do couples justice (and less nagging perhaps) if the nagger explains why something needs to be done, and the nagged to explain their resistance. Whether it be the dishes, laundry or other household chores, we should always make room for patience and what the writer calls as “forgivable flaws of character.”

5. Teaching our partners may be one of love’s greatest gifts.

Looked at through ancient Greek lens, when lovers point out what might be unfortunate or uncomfortable about the other’s respective character, they shouldn’t be seen as giving up on the spirit of love. They should be congratulated for trying to do something very true to love’s essence: helping their partners to develop better versions of themselves. (Alain de Botton, The Course of Love)

In an interview with Michael Krasny on KQED’s Forum, de Botton states that our levels of self-awareness may not really be what we perceive they are. For the most part, our partners / lovers / spouses are the people who know us better than anyone (even ourselves, at times), because they get a front seat of our most mundane but also most intimate characteristics.

It would do us well if we weren’t so self-righteous, he adds, and instead embrace opportunities for learning from our loved ones. The teaching has to be done in gentle ways though, filled with compassion and empathy, in order for it to work.

We have to accept our shortcomings, our weaknesses, as well as those of other people’s specially our partners. Perhaps it would be a good thing to take romance out of the love equation as immediately as we can, and dive into its realities instead.

We are only ever ready for a life of marriage if we are ready for a life of frustration.


* * *

This is first part of my book review post for Alain de Botton’s The Course of Love, with the second part coming out next Tuesday.


4 thoughts on “What We Really Talk About When We Talk About Love, with Alain de Botton

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