I have lots of thoughts about love. Am I a relationship expert? no. Do I have much experience with romantic relationships? not really. But I’ve read an awful lot of books on relationships, written romances, talked at length with people who’ve had successful (and otherwise) relationships, and thought about it a great deal. In short, I fit David Keirsey’s description of NF personality types as people who are “in love with love.”
So of course when a friend shared a talk on Facebook called “Why You Will Marry The Wrong Person” by British philosopher and author Alain de Botton, I had to watch it. I think I skimmed de Botton’s article by the same name quite a while ago, but sitting down and listening to this talk prompted a whole lot of thoughts that I wanted to write about. Here’s the video:
“It is in fact hope that drives rage. … If we’re to get a little less angry about our love lives we will have to diminish some of our hopes.” — Alain de Botton
If you read the post from two days ago, then you know I already touched on unreasonable expectations in my post “5 Relationship Problems INFJs Often Struggle With.” Those of us (not just INFJ types) with particular romantic ideals and good imaginations might struggle with it more, but the issue of romantic hopes and dreams not matching reality affects everyone.
One of de Botton’s main points is that your will marry the wrong person because our idea of “the right person” doesn’t exist. By and large, we don’t have realistic ideas about what it means to find the right person or even how to love. We need to shift our expectations in the realm of romance. Maybe instead of looking for the ‘right’ or ‘perfect’ person, we should consider it a success when we, in de Botton’s words, “manage to find a good enough person.”
You Are Hard To Live With
“We are basically, psychologically quite strange. We don’t normally know very much about this strangeness. It takes us a long, long time before we’re really on top of the way in which we are hard to live with.” — Alain de Botton
As de Botton says, if you’re human you’re hard to live with. But he also says most of us are blind to the hows and whys. That might be true, but as someone who lives with anxiety I’m also quite certain I’m not easy to live with. I might not know everything that’s wrong with me. I’m probably missing some of the real reasons that I’m hard to live with and have blown other things out of proportion. But my anxiety tells me over and over again that there’s something wrong with me and people won’t, or shouldn’t, want to be around me.
“We tend to believe that true love means accepting the whole of us. It doesn’t. No one should accept the whole of us, we’re appalling.” — Alain de Botton
The way de Botton phrases this bothers me because I know that living with the idea “I’m appalling/ broken/ worthless” isn’t healthy, psychologically. I think the goal should be to arrive at a more balanced view of yourself. Maybe de Botton thought most of his audience needed to be told they’re appalling to help get them closer to balance, but I also think there are people who hear “you’re appalling” way too much (from self and others). What we really need to hear is that we’re worthy of love even though “in everyone, and of course in ourselves, there is that which requires forbearance, tolerance, forgiveness” (to quote C.S. Lewis in The Four Loves).
I’m a big fan of Brené Brown and love the work she does on shame and vulnerability. I know vulnerability is a vital part of human connection and I believe that it’s a good thing. Still, the part of de Botton’s talk where he discussed the vulnerability needed to create a good romantic relationship bothered me.
“We get into these patterns of not daring what we really need to do … [which is to say ] ‘I’m actually a small child inside and I need you.’ This is so humbling most of us refuse to make that step and therefore refuse the challenge of love.” — Alain de Botton
I’m not sure about this one. Yes, extreme vulnerability is needed to build relationships, but I’m also wondering isn’t it better to approach a relationship from a place of I could survive without you, but I really want you in my life rather than I desperately need you? Although, to be fair, he probably isn’t talking about the kind of “need you” that goes along with something like insecure attachment styles.
I also wonder if my qualms about this part of his talk might be more about some of my personal experiences and my fear of being seen as “clingy.” I don’t want to say ‘I need someone’ while I’m single because I don’t want to be that person who’s just all wrapped up in finding a relationship. Even in a relationship, though, I don’t want to say ‘I need you’ because it feels like weakness. I really do feel like I’m a small child inside and I need someone, but there’s also part of me that hates this side of myself.
But shouldn’t asking for what we want and need feel like (and be) something that’s okay to do? I suppose I’m going to have to (somewhat reluctantly) agree with de Botton on this point.
Learning How To Love
I do really like de Botton’s description of love as a skill that needs to be learned. It’s a sad thing that in the world today we’re constantly told love just “happens” or that it’s all about emotion. If that were the case, romance should be pretty easy but it’s not. And because we don’t think of love as a skill or something that requires hard work, we keep trying to find love that “feels good” or where we’re magically compatible. It’s no wonder that we’re continually disappointed.
“To love ultimately is to have the willingness to interpret someone’s on the surface not very appealing behavior in order to find more benevolent reasons why it may be unfolding. In other words, to love someone is to provide charity and generosity of interpretation.” — Alain de Botton
“True psychological maturity … is the capacity to recognize that anyone you love is going to be a mixture of the good and the bad. Love is not just admiration for strength. It’s also tolerance for weakness and recognition of ambivalence.” — Alain de Botton
Love is about so much more than just how we feel. It is an action and a choice. This reminds me of one of the questions that comes up quite often in the personality type community: “Which type is a good fit for me romantically?” The often unsatisfying answer is “any of them.” Oh, there are some types that tend to get along better with each other but type really isn’t a good predictor of which relationships will work out. It’s much more important to find someone who will work to understand you and whom you’re willing to work to understand than to find someone of a “compatible” type.
What We’re Really Looking For
“Quite a lot about our early experiences of love are bound up with various kinds of suffering. … We think we’re out to find partners who will make us happy, but we’re not. We’re out to find partners who will feel familiar. And that may be a very different thing. Because familiarity may be bound up with particular kinds of torture. .. [We may reject people because they will] not be able to make us suffer in the way we need to suffer in order to feel that love is real.” — Alain de Botton
I’ve been pondering this part of de Botton’s talk for days. Is it true in general? Is it true for me? It reminds me of something my ex-boyfriend said about what I think I “deserve” in love, which I don’t want to go into detail about but has been bugging me since he brought it up. I don’t have an answer as to whether or not we’re looking for lovers who will hurt us in all the ways that feel familiar from other people we’ve loved.
However, I do think that as a general rule often times what we’re looking for romantically isn’t necessarily what would be best for us. This goes back to the idea that we’re looking for someone who will just accept and understand us, when in reality we all have parts of ourselves that are hard to live with. We should really be looking for someone who will help us become a better person and with whom we can build compatibility (more on that in a moment).
“You probably believe that when somebody tries to tell you something about yourself that’s a little ticklish and a little uncomfortable that they’re attacking us. They’re not; they’re trying to make you into a better person. And we don’t tend to believe this has a role in love.” — Alain de Botton
I think you should look for someone who loves who you are so much that they want you to grow into an even better version of yourself. They’ll also want you to do that for yourself as much (or more) than they want you to do it for them.
I want to make sure and note, though, that this is a very different thing than someone who tries to manipulate and/or change you “for your own good.” No other human being has the right to decide what’s good for you or mold you into something you’re not. Someone who really loves you will help you grow as yourself, not make you change into what they want.
This is my favorite quote from the whole talk:
“You cannot have perfection and company. To be in company with another person is to be negotiating imperfection every day. … We are all incompatible. But it is the work of love to make us graciously accommodate each other and ourselves to each others incompatibilities, and therefore compatibility is an achievement of love.” — Alain de Botton
I absolutely love this perspective on love and compatibility. Love is so much more than something we find or fall into. If you want a “soulmate,” then you need to find one person who is “good enough” and commit to building a soulmate relationship with them.
“Compromise is noble. We compromise in every area of live, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t compromise in our love life. … Let’s look a bit more benevolently at the art of compromise. It’s a massive achievement in love.” — Alain de Botton