What We Really Talk About When We Talk About Love, with Alain de Botton (Part 2)

This is a two-part book review of Alain de Botton’s The Course of Love.
The first part can be found here

* * *

After listening to Michael Krasny’s interview of Alain de Botton on KQED’s Forum, I headed out to see him speak in Corte Madera that evening. The bookstore north of San Francisco was already filled thirty minutes before the event; I was pleased to see that there were other people of color there who were eager to hear about what he had to say about love.

But it all begins and ends with romance. As soon as de Botton took the stage, he started talking about romanticism right away.

All sorts of other notions run through romanticism: for all of us, there is a soul mate out there. Maybe we’ve met them, maybe we haven’t met them so we keep swiping left, right, left, right. When we find them, it will be delightful — we will never be lonely again. All of our questions, all of our doubts about our purpose, meaning and significance in life will be answered by someone who understands us totally and reconciles us in every way we exist.

Peals of laughter grew as he pointed out other notions of Romanticism that we’ve come to normalized, things we’ve never questioned before. Just like in the book, he launched into a clear-eyed examination of our feelings about love and the way we’ve related to potential partners or lovers on all aspects.

In the first part of my book review for The Course of Love, I wrote about five things that I learned:

  1. Love is a skill, not an enthusiasm.
  2. What we look for in love unconsciously are patterns of childhood familiarity.
  3. One of love’s oddities: sulking.
  4. The opposite of nagging is negotiating and understanding patiently.
  5. Teaching our partners may be one of love’s greatest gifts.

Just as I was talking about the book’s main characters Rabih and Kirsten in that post and ways of looking at love, I want to probe even deeper. I’m interested in  extending the conversation beyond what we already know and have come to accept. My goal is to understand the process that de Botton writes about:

It will take Rabih many years and frequent essays in love to reach a few different conclusions, to recognize that the very things he once considered romantic — wordless intuitions, instantaneous longings, a trust in soul mates — are what stand in the way of learning how to be with someone. He will surmise that love can endure only when one is unfaithful to its beguiling opening ambitions, and that, for his relationships to work, he will need to give up on the feelings that got him into them in the first place.

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6. We love because we search for completion.

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.

Call it a cliché, but de Botton takes this to a different level. Perhaps the saying “you complete me” has merit after all, but not the ways we’ve seen it used or manifested around us. Part of the completion that he writes about could include love as an antidote to loneliness, but also something more profound.

Love means admiration for qualities in the lover that promise to correct our weaknesses and imbalances; love is a search for completion.

It is being able to open ourselves up in ways we haven’t before, discovering parts of us we’ve never known existed. It is expanding our capacity to see ourselves beyond what we already know; it is allowing room for what we haven’t experienced before. The search for completion is not finding what we yearn for in other people, but exactly what de Botton writes about: a promise to be our better selves.

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7. Small issues aren’t really small at all.

Back at Book Passage in Corte Madera, de Botton brought up a point that we seem to miss as we go on with our lives “adulating.”

…when it comes to domestic existence, we tend to make a fateful presumption of ease, which in turn inspires in us a tense aversion to protracted negotiation. We would think it peculiar indeed to devote a two-day summit to the management of a bathroom, and positively absurd to hire a professional mediator to help us identify the right time to leave the house to go out for dinner.

Buried in the romantic rhetoric of love are the practicalities of everyday life that we don’t really talk about. Imagine going on a first date and asking the other: Do you like folding the laundry? Domestic duties are hardly sexy conversation topics, but are deeply essential to the coherence of each day and quite frankly, our collective sanity.

In reality, there are rarely squabbles over “nothing” in Rabih and Kirsten’s marriage. The small issues are really just large ones that haven’t been accorded the requisite attention. Their everyday disputes are the loose threads that catch on fundamental contrasts in their personalities.

These fundamental contrasts in personalities are precisely what we need to understand, if we ever want to co-exist harmoniously with our partners. Instead of seeing them as small issues, they are actually opportunities for understanding and negotiating.

8. The art of repatriating emotions, or how we can stop projecting our issues on to our partners.

Filipinos have a term for projections: “hugot.” Translated directly, it means “drawn from a deep place” or something that is “deeply emotional.” It is manifested in mostly tense situations, where the response to a current situation brings up the wounds of the past. This reminds me of when de Botton writes about repatriating our emotions, something that we can all learn how to do so we can respond to situations accurately – without bringing up old wounds. He writes that what we experience is something called “transference.”

When our minds are involved in transference, we lose the ability to give people and things the benefit of the doubt; we swiftly and anxiously move towards the worst conclusions that the past once mandated.

Instead of instantly assuming the worst conclusions, de Botton invites us to prioritize sympathy and genuine understanding over immediate irritation and judgment.

9. Honesty has its place in a relationship. Self-editing and a little bit of restraint are friends of love.

Some of the things I read in The Course of Love may seem counter intuitive, but that’s because we haven’t really investigated what seems to be normal now. Honesty is a trait valued in all relationships, whether platonic or non-platonic. We look for honesty from our partners because it helps us become more intimate with them and it helps us forge a closer bond. But do we need to be honest with our partners all the time, even in situations where what we want to relay may have no significance to their own growth or being? de Botton has a different perspective:

We are so impressed by honesty that we forget the virtues of politeness; a desire not always to confront people we care about with the full, hurtful aspects of our nature. Repression, a degree of restraint, and a little dedication to self-editing belong to love just as surely as a capacity for explicit self-confession. The person who can’t tolerate secrets, who in the name of “being honest” shares information so wounding to the other that it can never be forgotten — this person is no friend of love.

10. Maturity is acknowledging that we are not perfect, no one is.  

We enter relationships on the premise that we think we are compatible with the other person, that we both complement each other. While this lends affirmation to our partner’s character, it is also implicit that who we are is as close to perfect (in our own definitions) as we can surmise. This thinking can help us initially but in the long run, it can delude us into thinking that perhaps we’ve made the wrong decision about our partners.

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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 interest 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 national 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.

We’ve heard over and over again that relationships are work, although I came across an article once that argued the opposite: it stated that a relationship with someone you are truly compatible with should be as effortless as breathing. I believed this at one point when I was dating and sure enough, I’d stopped engaging with the other person as soon as problems arose. I didn’t realize then how flawed and assuming that logic was, when all I needed was a dose of reality from de Botton: only if we were already perfect could the idea of mutual education be dismissed as unloving.

* * *

There are so much more things in the book that I wasn’t able to touch on, that have revolutionized the way I view and understand long-term relationships and marriage.

Believe me when I say that The Course of Love should be required reading.

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