Thoughts from Alain de Botton about the nature of love.
Theme: Risk Assessment
Length: 1,500 words
Reading Time: 5 minutes + 22:19 minute video (Alternately, the transcript requires 20 minutes of reading time.)
This is the first post under the theme for March: Risk Assessment. Here, we cover a speech given by Alain de Botton that succinctly summarizes the basic ontology of love, as well as the challenges and hurdles of long term relationships from a mystical perspective. It is quite pertinent to the Red Pill wisdom we canvas here on Σ Frame.
This video was recommended to me through email by not just one, but two readers!
One reader wrote,
“I’m quite impressed with a particular philosopher who gets a lot of human psychology right: Alain de Botton. I’m sure anyone could find things we’d not agree with (as usual), but this one video captures and articulates so much of what my heart-led wisdom has taught me that it’s hard not to share it.”
I too don’t fully agree with all the nuances of de Botton’s perspectives, but on the whole, his insights reflect many epiphanies I’ve discovered in the past.
Underneath the video, Jack’s Notes extracts the major points of de Botton’s talk.
If you’d rather read the transcription than watch the video, then you’ll find a (slightly) abridged transcript after Jack’s Notes.
Some links to related posts as well as some additional resources have been added to Jack’s Notes and the transcript of de Botton’s speech below.
Alain de Botton: Why you will marry the wrong person (2017-08-13) Length: 22:19
Alain de Botton outlines many of the reasons why love is difficult to attain. In doing so, De Botton gives us a succinct summary of the many oddities of human nature and how this sets the stage for love and creates opportunities for showing love to one another – opportunities which we are wont to miss if we are not sufficiently self-aware. Here, I’ve collected all the major insights from his speech that answer the titular question and summarized them into the following areas.
We are all psychologically unique, “strange” as de Botton says, and thus difficult to understand, much less live with.
Communicating through words is cumbersome and awkward. Often times we don’t know what we are feeling, much less able to put it into words.
There is a wall of silence and propriety that separates us from a deeper acquaintance with others.
There is a wall of ignorance that blinds us from seeing ourselves clearly. We are uncomfortable, or perhaps even deeply afraid of self-knowledge.
We are addicted to distractions, entertainment, pleasures and the like, anything which might serve to displace any moment of authentic introspection. This further confounds the challenge of knowing our selves.
Love requires our humility, but we all struggle against a strong impulse to hide our needs and protect our vulnerabilities. People have many different defense mechanisms to prevent themselves from being humble in an effort to protect their vulnerabilities against the inherent risks and defilements of being humble.
We are deeply frightened by the prospect that the other person will not understand, or misinterpret what we say, or become offended. This fear leads us to attack and humiliate the other, which ruins the efficacy of our communication.
Because we are uncomfortable, or perhaps even deeply afraid of self-knowledge, we are prone to misinterpret good-willed honesty from others as criticism. We fail to recognize this as having a role in love. We fail to use such opportunities to advance our knowledge of ourselves and others, and instead we take offense.
When we cannot avoid facing our own imperfections, inadequacies, and shortcomings, such as when we are raising a child, then we are prone to feel hopeless, worthless, and like a failure.
Intrinsic Human Nature, Self-Centeredness, and Solipsism
We have a lopsided approach towards love that caters to our own self-centered interests. We want and expect to be loved, but we neglect the skills and habits necessary to show love to others, resulting in a stalemate.
We often call out for love through attention seeking behavior, and this is often detrimental to actually securing the love we desire.
We expect that those we love should be able to accept us, farts, warts, quirks, and all, so we do not think it should be necessary to protect others from the uglier aspects of our character. But this is not loving to others.
We have unrealistic expectations for love. We expect perfection and immediate compatibility, but striving for perfection always and only leads to disappointment, frustration, and loneliness.
Worse, we have the subconscious desire for a soul mate. We carry the belief that the more a lover is right for us, the less we’re going to have to explain about who we are, how we feel, what upsets us, what we want, and so on. We believe, rather as a young child believes of its parent, that a true lover will guess what is in our minds without us having to say it. We have this deep desire that we’ll simply be understood wordlessly. When we are not, then we feel let down, we feel resentful, and we sulk.
Ignorance of What Love is All About
The essential habit of loving others is to have the willingness to interpret unappealing behaviors from others in order to find more benevolent reasons why such behaviors may be unfolding. In other words, to love someone is to interpret their words and behaviors with good will, charity, generosity, and understanding. So love is not just admiration for strength, it is also tolerance of weakness and a recognition of their ambivalences. But we avoid this habit because it is difficult and risky.
Instead, we avoid difficult individuals and choose certain others to be the objects of our love. We idealize them, thinking them to be perfect, and we then become disappointed, hurt, and indignant when they fail us in some respect. True psychological maturity is the capacity to realize that anyone you love is going to be a mixture of both good and bad traits and accepting this as a part of human life.
We have the idea that compromise (e.g. “settling”) is a failure, not an achievement. We think “staying together for the sake of the children” is an excuse for apathy and inaction. We need to look more benevolently towards the noble art of compromise. It’s a massive achievement in love.
We must recognize that the work of love is to graciously accommodate each other, and ourselves, amid the incompatibilities we have with each other. Therefore, compatibility is an achievement of love.
We must teach others who we are. Teaching is the skill of getting an idea from one head into another in a way that is likely to be accepted. Both partners need to accept that they are going to need to teach each other who they are and what they want, and therefore also learn from each other.
Progressive Western societies embrace humanism as a whole. Self-centered individualism and solipsism are amplified and glorified.
We live in a romantic culture in which love is characterized by impulse and self-centered emotions. Impulsiveness is glorified and chance encounters are emphasized as divine and serendipitous. But without a solid familiarity with our self and without well-honed skills in love, these chance encounters inevitably lead to disappointment and heartbreak.
We’ve been told that the way to find a good partner is to follow our instincts. “Follow your heart!” is the mantra. But we fail to recognize this as a recipe for disaster.
Our culture refuses to consider that love is a two-way street, requiring skill, openness (vulnerability), honesty, and humility.
All of the above factors obscure and reinforce the stalemate in love resulting from Blindness, Fears, Solipsism, and Ignorance, as discussed before.
Formative Influences (Childhood)
In early childhood, the way that we learned about love was not just by experiences of tenderness, kindness, and generosity. The love that we would have tasted as children were also bound up with experiences of being ignored, let down, being humiliated, maybe being with a parent who treated us very harshly, who scolded us, who made us feel small in some way. In other words, quite a lot of our earliest experiences with love are bound up with various kinds of suffering.
We think we are out to find partners who will make us happy (or so we are led to believe by popular culture), but we’re not. We’re out to find partners who will feel familiar. That may be a very different thing, because that familiarity may be bound up with the particular kinds of torture which we grew accustomed to in childhood.
Thus, we are on a quest to suffer in ways that feel familiar. This radically undermines our ability to find a good partner. We reject suitable potential partners simply because they are not able to make us suffer in the way that we need to suffer in order to feel that love is real.
We all have a particular “type” of person whom we find attractive, which may be a result of formative experiences in childhood and adolescence. These “types” tend to instill those peculiar sorts of sufferings which we are most familiar with, although we remain ignorant of this and idolize the person instead. One’s own particular “type” invariably proves to be challenging for one to deal with and manage. We have the idea that we should try to change the “type” we are attracted to, or change a particular individual we are attracted to into being someone fundamentally different. But instead of doing this, it may be wiser to learn how to deal with our type in a more mature way.
No matter what choices you make, there will be a cost of opportunity. There will be regrets either way. We should accept the fact that we’re going to marry a person who is incompatible in some ways and do the work of love to achieve the compatibility we innately desire.
We should accept the fact that we’re going to make the wrong decisions in a whole row of areas. The reason we do this is because we are human. Therefore, we should not berate ourselves for doing what humans do.
- Σ Frame (Scott): We Marry Our Own Cross (2020-05-18)
- Σ Frame (Oscar): The Soul Mate Myth (2021-02-03)
- Σ Frame (NovaSeeker): The Cross of Our Age (2021-05-03)
- Σ Frame (Jack): It’s all about her Ego (2021-11-12)
[Alain de Botton] wrote an essay for the New York Times, entitled, Why You Will Marry The Wrong Person (2016-05-28).
How many of you in the room do feel, on balance, that you have married the wrong person? [Laughter] […] There’s a pretty hefty majority!
I’m here to give counsel and consolation for this situation.
There’s a lot of anger around our love lives, privately held. A lot of us go around feeling quite enraged, privately angry about the way that our love lives have gone.
My task today is to turn that anger into sadness. [Laughter] If we manage to turn rage into grief, we will have made psychological progress. […]
What lies behind rage very often is an unusual quality. We tend to think that angry people are dark and pessimistic people. Absolutely not! Scratch through the surface of any regularly angry person and you will find a wild optimist. It is in fact, hope that drives rage.
Think of the person who screams every time they can’t find their house keys, or every time they get stuck in traffic. These unfortunate characters are evincing a curious but reckless faith in a world in which keys never go astray, the roads are mysteriously traffic free. It is hope that is turbocharging their rage.
If we are to be a little less sad and a little less angry about our love lives, then we will have to diminish some of our hopes. It is very hard to diminish hope around love, because there are vast industries designed to inflate our expectations of love.
German philosopher, Theodor Adorno, said the most dangerous man in the entire world is Walt Disney. The reason for his attack on Walt was because he believed that Walt was the prime agent of hope, and therefore of rage, and therefore of bitterness. And he thought that it was the task of philosophy to let us down gently. […]
We are all Strange
Remember the theme of the talk, why you will marry the wrong person.
There are a number of reasons why this is going to happen to you, or has, maybe already in the privacy of your heart, happened to you.
I should say, that it’s not that bad. The reason is that all of us will not manage to find the “right” person, but we will, probably all of us, manage to find a “good enough” person. That’s success. […]
One of the reasons why we are not going to be able to pull this one off successfully as we might have hoped at the early outset of our teenage years when we were contemplating love, is that we are very strange. I’m very strange and you’re very strange. You don’t let on, and you know, we’re not going to do anything very dangerous, but 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 are really on top of the way in which we are hard to live with. […] If you think you are easy to live with, then you are somewhat deceived. The reason is because you are homo sapiens, and you are not easy to live with. No one is.
The Wall of Silence
There is a wall of silence that surrounds us from a deeper acquaintance with what is actually so difficult about us. Our friends don’t want to tell us. Why would they bother? They just want a pleasant evening out. Our friends know more about us, and more about our flaws, probably after a 10-minute acquaintance, than we do, but they don’t want to go to the trouble to deal with it. Even a stranger who talks with you for five minutes might know more about your flaws than what you could know about yourself in 40 years. Our capacity to understand what is wrong with us, our own weakness, is very weak. Our parents, friends, ex-lovers, know us very intimately, but they love us too much to take us to task. That knowledge is out there, but they’re not going to bother. […] The knowledge is out there, but it’s not in you. Therefore, we progress through the world with a very low sense of what is actually wrong with us.
We are Addicted to Avoiding Humility and Self Knowledge
We are all addicts… not to inject heroine and such. We need to redefine what an addiction is. We tend to think of addiction in terms of what we are addicted to. But an addiction is basically any pattern of behavior whereby you cannot stand to be with yourself and the uncomfortable thoughts and, more importantly, the emotions that come from being on your own. And so therefore, you can be addicted to almost nearly anything so long as it keeps you away from yourself, so long as it keeps you away from tricky self-knowledge.
Most of us are addicts!
Thanks to all sorts of technologies and distractions, etc., we can have a good life where we will almost certainly guarantee that we won’t spend any time with ourselves. […] You can be guaranteed that you don’t have to talk to yourself. This is a disaster for your ability to have a relationship with someone else, because until you know yourself, you cannot properly relate to another person.
One of the reasons why love is so tricky for us is because it requires us to do something we really don’t want to do, which is to approach another human being and say, “I need you. I wouldn’t really survive without you. I’m vulnerable before you.” There’s a very strong impulse in all of us to be strong, and to be well defended, and not to reveal our vulnerability to another person.
Attraction and Attachment
Psychologists talk of two patterns of response that tend to crop up in people whenever there’s a danger of needing to be extremely vulnerable, dangerously vulnerable, and exposed to another person. The first response is what psychologists call “anxiously attached” [or “Preoccupied” in the graph below], according to attachment theory. When you are anxiously attached to somebody, rather than saying, “I need you, I depend on you”, you start to get very procedural. We say, “You’re ten minutes late,” or “The bean bags need to be taken out,” etc. You start to get strict, when actually what you want to do is to ask a very poignant question, “Do you still care about me?” We don’t dare to ask that question, so instead, we get nasty. We get stiff. We get procedural.
The other pattern of behavior which psychologists have identified, and it tends to apply to people who are […] A types, very outgoing types, strivers… These people tend to become avoidant [or “Dismissing” in the graph below]. When you need someone, it’s precisely at that moment that you pretend you don’t. When you feel most vulnerable, you say, “I’m quite busy at the moment…”, “I’m fine, thanks…” […] You don’t reveal the need for another person, which sets them off into a chain of wondering whether you are to be trusted, and there is then a cycle of low trust.
So we get into these patterns of not daring to do the thing that we really need to do, which is to say, “Even though I am a grown person, […] I’m actually a small child inside, and I need you like a small child would need its parent.” This is so humbling, that most people would refuse to make that step and therefore refuse the challenge of love.
What is Love?
In short, we don’t know very much how to love. It sounds very odd, but look, all of us in this room would probably need to go to a school of love. You may think, “What? A school of love?!? Love is just an instinct.” No it’s not! Love is a skill. It’s a skill that needs to be learned. It’s a skill that our society refuses to consider as a skill. We are meant to just always follow our feelings. But if you keep following your feelings, then you will almost certainly make a big mistake in your life.
What is love? There is a distinction between loving and being loved. We all start off in life by knowing a lot about being loved. Being loved is the fun bit. That’s when someone brings you food on a tray, or asks you how your day at school went, etc. We grow up thinking that that is what’s going to happen in an adult relationship. We can be forgiven for that. It’s a very understandable mistake, but it’s a very tragic mistake, and it leads us not to pay attention to the other side of the equation which is to love.
What does it really mean to love? 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 apply charity and generosity of interpretation.
Most of us are in dire need of love. Actually, we need to have some slack cut for us, because our behavior is often so tricky that if we don’t do this, then we wouldn’t get through any kind of relationship. But we are not used to thinking that that is the core of what love is. The core of what love is, is the willingness to interpret another’s behavior.
The Complexing Nature of Love
What we tend to be very bad at is recognizing that anyone that we can love is going to be a complexing mixture of the good and the bad. There’s a wonderful psychoanalyst named Melanie Klein who was active in the 1950s and 60s… […] She studied children who learned about relationships from the parental situation. She came up with a very fascinating analysis. She argued that when children are very small, they don’t really realize that a parent is one character. They actually “split” the parent into a good parent and a bad parent. This is when a baby is in the infant stage. […] It takes a long time, Melanie Kline thought it might be until the age of four, until you actually realize that the good mother and the bad mother are one person, and you become ambivalent. In other words, you become able to hate someone… and at the same time, also love them. You’re able to not run away from that situation. You are able say, “I love this person, and I hate them, and that’s OK.” Melanie Kline thought that this an immense psychological achievement when we can no longer merely divide people into “absolutely brilliant, perfect, marvelous,” and “hateful, let me down, disappointed me.”
Everyone whom we love is going to disappoint us. We start off with idealization, and we end up often with denigration. The person goes from being absolutely marvelous to absolutely terrible.
Maturity is the ability to see that there are no heroes or sinners, really, among human beings. All of us are a wonderfully complexing mixture of the good and the bad.
Adulthood, true psychological maturity, and you may need to be 65 before it hits you — I’m not there yet — is the capacity to realize that anyone you love is going to be this mixture of the good and the bad. So love is not just admiration for strength, it is also tolerance of weakness and a recognition of ambivalence.
We are Drawn to the Familiar Tortures of Reliving Childhood Trauma, thinking it is Love
The reason why we’re going to probably make some real mistakes when we choose our love partner […] stunning mistakes […] is that we’ve been told that the way to find a good partner is to follow your instincts. Right? “Follow your heart!” That’s the mantra. And so all the time we are reminded that if we stop reasoning, analyzing… […] we think that we think too much about our emotions, We cannot think too much. We can only ever think badly. But there’s no such thing as thinking too much about emotions, but the problem is we live in a romantic culture that privileges impulse.
Now, when it comes to love, something tricky occurs, because you don’t have to be a paid up believer in psychotherapy or psychoanalysis to realize that the way we love as adults sits on top of our early childhood experiences. In early childhood, the way that we learned about love was not just by experiences of tenderness, kindness, and generosity. The love that we would have tasted as children were also bound up with experiences of being let down, being humiliated, maybe being with a parent who treated us very harshly, who scolded us, who made us feel small in some way. In other words, quite a lot of our earliest experiences with love are bound up with various kinds of suffering.
Now something quite bad happens to us when we start to go out into the adult world and start to choose love partners. We think we are out to find partners who will make us happy, but we’re not. We’re out to find partners who will feel familiar. That may be a very different thing, because familiarity may be bound up with particular kinds of torture.
This explains why sometimes people will say to us (when we meet a potential partner), “Look, there’s a wonderful person! You should go and date this person. They’re, good looking, they’re charming…” and all sorts of things. We go out with them and we date them. We do recognize that they are really wonderful and amazing, but we have to confess to our friends that actually we found this person… and often we struggle with the vocabulary… we say, maybe, “not that exciting,” or maybe “not sexy,” or “a bit boring.” But really what we mean, is that we’ve detected in this really quite accomplished person, someone who will not be able to make us suffer in the way that we need to suffer in order to feel that love is real, and that’s why we reject them. So we are not merely on a quest to be happy. We are on a quest to suffer in ways that feel familiar. This radically undermines our ability to find a good partner.
We Desire a Soul Connection
Here’s another reason why we’re going to become unstuck in the field of love. We tend to believe that the more a lover is right for us, the less we’re going to have to explain about who we are, how we feel, what upsets us, what we want… We believe, rather as a young child believes of its parent, that a true lover will guess what is in our minds. One of the great errors that human beings make is permanently to feel that other people know what’s in their minds, without us having said what’s in our minds. It’s very cumbersome to use words. It’s such a bore. When it comes to love, we have this deep desire that we’ll simply be understood wordlessly. It’s touching, a beautiful, romantic idea, but it also leads to a catastrophic outbreak of sulking.
What is sulking? Sulking is an interesting phenomenon. We don’t just sulk with anyone. We sulk with people who should understand us, but for some reason, have decided not to. That’s why we tend to reserve our sulks for people whom we love and whom we think love us. When they tell us something, they unwittingly would trigger a negative reaction in us.
We’ll sulk, and they’ll say, “What’s wrong with you darling?”
We’ll say nothing. They’ll say, “Come on! You’re upset!”
“No I’m not. I’m absolutely fine.”
And it’s not true! We’ll go upstairs and we’ll shut the door, and we won’t tell them what’s wrong with us. They’ll knock at the door and tell us, “Please, just tell me”, and we’ll say “NO” because we want them to read our souls, because we expect that a true lover can understand what we feel and who we are, without us speaking. This is a catastrophe for our capacity to form lasting relationships. If you do not explain, you can never be understood.
You Must Teach Others Who You Are
The root to a good marriage, and to good love, is the ability to become a good teacher. Now, teaching sounds like a narrow profession — those guys in tweed jackets, dusting with the chalkboard, etc. I’m not talking about that kind of teaching.
All of us, whatever our job aspirations, whatever it is we do, have to become teachers. Teaching is merely the word that we give to the skill of getting an idea from one head into another in a way that is likely to be accepted.
Most of us are appalling teachers! Most of us teach when we’re tired, when we’re frightened. What are we frightened of? We’re frightened that we’ve married an idiot, and because we are so frightened, we start screaming at them! “You’ve got to understand!” The thing is, that unfortunately by the time you’ve started to humiliate the person you want to understand something — lesson over!
You will never get anyone to understand what you want them to understand as long as you make them feel small. In order to teach well, you need to be relaxed. You need to accept that maybe your partner won’t understand. Also, you need a culture within a couple, that two people are going to need to teach each other and therefore also learn from each other.
Intimate Honesty is Misinterpreted as Criticism
This brings me to the next reason why you’re going to have a very unhappy relationship. That is because you probably believe that when someone tries to tell you something about yourself that is a little ticklish and a little bit uncomfortable that they are attacking you. They are not. They’re trying to make you into a better person. We don’t tend to believe that this has a role in love.
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! Do you really want the whole of you accepted? No, that’s not love! The full display of our characters, the full articulation of who we are, should not be something that we do in front of anyone that we care about!
So what we need to do is to accept that the other person is going to want to educate us, and that it isn’t criticism. Criticism is merely the wrong word that we apply to a much nobler idea, which is to try to make us into better versions of ourselves. But we tend to reject this idea very strongly.
Our Imperfections Offer Opportunities to Love
Is there any hope? Of course there’s hope.
Look, I mentioned the word “good enough.” It’s a phrase taken from a wonderful English psychoanalyst called Donald Winnicott. He had a lot of parents who would come to him, and say things like, “I’m so worried that I’m not a good parent. My child has this problem…” […] He came up with a wonderful phrase. He said, “You are most likely to be a “good enough” parent.” It is a relief from our punishing perfectionism.
The good news is that most of us are not perfect, and therefore, we don’t need perfection. The demand for perfection will lead you to only one thing – loneliness. You cannot have perfection and company! To be in company with another person is to be negotiating imperfection every day.
Incompatibility. We are all incompatible, but it is the work of love to make us graciously accommodate each other, and ourselves to each other’s incompatibilities. Therefore, compatibility is an achievement of love. It isn’t what you need from the outset. Of course you aren’t going to be totally compatible. That’s not the point. It is through love that you gradually accept the need to be compatible.
We probably can’t change our “types”. Right? So many of us have got “types” who are going to cause us real problems. They may be too distant. They may be arrogant. They’re going to torture us in some way.
Now, friends casually say to us, “Chuck them! Get out of the relationship!” Right?
No, we’re realists… and I’m giving you realistic advice. You are not going to manage to change your type. Let’s get that for granted. What you can do, and this is a big achievement, is to change how you characteristically respond to your tricky type.
Most of us have formed the way that we respond to tricky types in early childhood. So, we had a distant parent who matches with the distant lover. When we were very young, we responded to that distant parent by attention seeking. We rattled and banged, and now we’re adults, we rattle and bang in our own way. We think that’s going to help. It doesn’t. It creates a vicious cycle that is not going to get us anywhere. It is open to us at any time to have a more mature response to the challenges that the types of people we are attracted to are going to pose for us. That is an immense step forward, an immense achievement.
The Art of Compromise
The other thing we should do is recognize an innate ability of compromise. One of the most shameful things to have ever have to admit is to say, “This is my partner. I’ve compromised. In choosing them, I’ve compromised.”
“Oh, why have you compromised?”
“Well, I’m not that attractive myself. I’ve got lost of problems. I’m a bit nutty. Frankly, I couldn’t pull anyone better… But they’re very nice! They’re OK.” [Laughter]
You would think, “Loser!”
It’s not true! Compromise is noble! We compromise in every area of life. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t compromise in our love life. Maybe we’re only sticking around for the children. Good! That’s a wonderful reason to stick around! Why else would you stick around?
Let’s look a little bit more benevolently towards the art of compromise. It’s a massive achievement in love.
I’m going to end with a quote from one of my favorite philosophers, Danish, 19th century, very gloomy philosopher called Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard, in his book, Either/Or, had a wonderful outburst where he basically said, of course, you’re going to marry the wrong person and make the wrong decisions in a whole row of areas, and the reason you’re going to do this is that you’re human. Therefore, do not berate yourself for doing what humans do.
This is what he says.
“Marry and you will regret it.
Don’t marry, you will also regret it.
Marry or don’t marry, you will regret it either way.
Laugh at the world’s foolishness, you’ll regret it.
Weep over it, you’ll regret that too.
Laugh at the world’s foolishness or weep over it, you will regret both.
Hang yourself, you will regret it. [Laughter]
Don’t hang yourself, you will regret that too.
Hang yourself or don’t hang yourself, you will regret it either way.
Whether you hang yourself or don’t hang yourself, you will regret both.”
This gentleman is the essence of all philosophy.
[End of Alain de Botton’s speech.]