Alain de Botton
The True Hard Work of Love and Relationships
Krista Tippett, host: Alain de Botton’s essay “Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person” is one of the most-read articles in The New York Times of recent years, and this is one of the most popular episodes we’ve ever created. As people and as a culture, he says, we would be much saner and happier if we reexamined our very view of love. I’m glad to offer up the anchoring truths he tells amidst a pandemic that has stretched all of our sanity — and tested the mettle of love in every home and relationship.
Alain de Botton: Love is something we have to learn and we can make progress with, and that it’s not just an enthusiasm, it’s a skill. And it requires forbearance, generosity, imagination, and a million things besides. The course of true love is rocky and bumpy at the best of times, and the more generous we can be towards that flawed humanity, the better chance we’ll have of doing the true hard work of love.
Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoe Keating]
Alain de Botton is the founder and chairman of The School of Life, a gathering of courses, workshops, and talks on meaning and wisdom for modern lives, with branches around the world. He first became known for his book How Proust Can Change Your Life. I spoke with him in 2017.
Tippett: So we did speak a few years ago, but on a very different topic, and I’m really excited to be speaking with you about this subject, which is so close to every life. And as I’ve prepared for this, I realize that you’ve actually — I knew that you’d written the novel On Love a long time ago, but you’ve really been consistently attending to this subject and building your thoughts on it and your body of work on it, which is really interesting to me. You wrote On Love at the age of 23, which is so young, and you were already thinking about this so deeply. I think this is the first line: “Every fall into love involves the triumph of hope over knowledge.”
de Botton: Well, and I think what’s striking is that our idea of what love is, our idea of what is normal in love, is so not normal.
Tippett: Is so abnormal. Right.
de Botton: So abnormal. And so we castigate ourselves for not having a normal love life, even though no one seems to have any of these.
Tippett: Or not have been loved perfectly.
de Botton: Right, right. So we have this ideal of what love is and then these very, very unhelpful narratives of love. And they’re everywhere. They’re in movies and songs — and we mustn’t blame songs and movies too much. But if you say to people, “Look, love is a painful, poignant, touching attempt by two flawed individuals to try and meet each other’s needs in situations of gross uncertainty and ignorance about who they are and who the other person is, but we’re going to do our best,” that’s a much more generous starting point. So the acceptance of ourselves as flawed creatures seems to me what love really is. Love is at its most necessary when we are weak, when we feel incomplete, and we must show love to one another at those points. So we’ve got these two contrasting stories, and we get them muddled.
Tippett: And also, I feel like this should be obvious, but you just touched on art and culture and how that could help us complexify our understanding of this. And one of the things you point out about — I don’t know; When Harry Met Sally or Four Weddings and a Funeral — one of the things that’s wrong with all of that is that a lot of these take us up to the wedding. They take us through the falling and don’t see that — I think you’ve written somewhere — you said, “A wiser culture than ours would recognize that the start of a relationship is not the high point that romantic art assumes; it is merely the first step of a far longer, more ambivalent, and yet quietly audacious journey on which we should direct our intelligence and scrutiny.” [laughs]
de Botton: That’s right. We are strangely obsessed by the run-up to love. And what we call a love story is really just the beginning of a love story, but we leave that out. But most of us, we’re interested in long-term relationships. We’re not just interested in the moment that gets us into love; we’re interested in the survival of love over time.
Tippett: A lot of what you are pointing at, the work of loving over a long span of time, is inner work, right? [laughs] And it would be hard to film that. But I’m very intrigued by how you talk about the Ancient Greeks and their “pedagogical” view of love.
de Botton: That’s fascinating, because one of the greatest insults that you can level at a lover in the modern world, apparently, is to say, “I want to change you.” The Ancient Greeks had a view of love which was essentially based around education; that what love means — love is a benevolent process whereby two people try to teach each other how to become the best versions of themselves.
Tippett: You say somewhere, they are committed to “increasing the admirable characteristics” that they possess and the other person possesses.
de Botton: That’s right. That’s right.
Tippett: Your most recent book on this subject is The Course of Love, which is a novel, but it’s a novel that actually, I feel, you kind of weave a pedagogical narrator voice into it. Do you think that’s fair?
de Botton: That’s right. Absolutely.
Tippett: Woven into the narrative. And you say, at one point, this is the relationship between Rabih and Kirsten. And you said at one point, “Their relationship is secretly yet mutually marked by a project of improvement,” which I think we all recognize. And then there’s this moment where you say, “After the dinner party, Rabih is sincerely trying to bring about an evolution in the personality of the wife he loves. But his chosen technique is distinctive: to call Kirsten materialistic, to shout at her, and then, later, to slam two doors.” [laughs]
de Botton: That’s right.
Tippett: And we all recognize that scene. [laughs]
de Botton: [laughs] By the time we’ve humiliated someone, they’re not going to learn anything. The only conditions — as we know with children, the only conditions under which anyone learns are conditions of incredible sweetness, tenderness, patience — that’s how we learn. But the problem is that the failures of our relationships have made us so anxious that we can’t be the teachers we should be. And therefore, some often genuine, legitimate things that we want to get across are just — come across as insults, as attempts to wound, and are therefore rejected, and the arteries of the relationship start to fur.
Tippett: Someone recently said to me — and I’d be curious about how you would respond to this. It was a wise Jewish mother who had said to them, “Men marry women with the intention that they — with the idea that they will the stay the same. Women marry men with the idea that they will change.” Which is obviously a huge generalization, but gosh, it made a lot of sense to me, even in terms of my own life and in terms of what I see around me.
de Botton: I would argue that both genders want to change one another, and they both have an idea of who the lover “should” be. And I think a useful exercise that sometimes psychologists level at feuding couples is they say things like, “If you could accept that your partner would never change, how would you feel about that?”
Sometimes pessimism, a certain degree of pessimism can be a friend of love. Once we accept that actually it’s really very hard for people to be another way, we’re sometimes readier. We don’t need people to be perfect, is the good news. We just need people to be able to explain their imperfections to us in good time, before they’ve hurt us too much with them, and with a certain degree of humility. That’s already an enormous step.
Tippett: It’s a lot to ask, but it’s so — it’s also — it sounds reasonable, if we could really have that in our minds early enough on in a relationship.
de Botton: That’s right, and almost from the first date. My view of what one should talk about on a first date is not showing off and not putting forward one’s accomplishments, but almost quite the opposite. One should say, “Well, how are you crazy? I’m crazy like this.” [Editor’s note: Since this interview was recorded, the word “crazy” has fallen out of use as sensitivity to people who live with mental illness has grown.] And there should be a mutual acceptance that two damaged people are trying to get together, because pretty much all of us — there are a few totally healthy people — but pretty much all of us reach dating age with some scars, some wounds.
And sometimes we bring to adult relationships some of the same hope that a young child might’ve had of their parent. And of course, an adult relationship can’t be like that. It’s got to accept that the person across the table or on the other side of the bed is just human, which means full of flaws, fears, etc., and not some sort of superhuman.
Tippett: And I think that that question that you said could be a standard question on an early date — “And how are you crazy?” — there’s also something that you’re getting at that it almost seems like we must be hardwired to do this, although one of the wonderful things we’re learning in the 21st century is that we can change our brains. But a way you say it in On Love, in a scene in On Love, is, you start to be enamored in details of this new person and find things in common like, I don’t know, “both of us had two large freckles on the toe of the left foot,” [laughs] and then, you wrote, “Instinctively” — and this happens very quickly — “he teases out an entire personality from the details.”
But also, what I know from my own life is you tend to — when we fall in love with another person, we magnify in our minds those things that are immediately enrapturing and craft our idea of the other person almost exclusively around those wonderful qualities, which is not fair to them or to us. [laughs]
de Botton: That’s right. And we feel, in a way, that we know them already, and we impose on them an idea —
Tippett: And of course, we don’t. Right.
de Botton: And we don’t. We don’t. Which also explains another phenomenon that I’m fascinated by — you probably will have noticed in both novels — is the phenomenon of being in a sulk; of sulking, because sulking is a fascinating situation which takes you right into the heart of certain romantic delusions. Because what’s fascinating about sulking is that we don’t sulk with everybody. We only get into sulks with people that we feel should understand us but, rather unforgivably, haven’t understood us.
So in other words, it’s when we are in love with people and they’re in love with us that we take particular offense when they get things wrong. Because the kind of the governing assumption of the relationship is, this person should know what’s in my mind, ideally without me needing to tell them. If I need to spell this out to you, you don’t love me.
And that’s why you’ll go into the bathroom, bolt the door, and when your partner says, “Is anything wrong?” You’ll go, “Mm-mm.” And the reason is that they should be able to read through the bathroom panel into your soul and know what’s wrong. And that’s such an extraordinary demand.
Tippett: It’s so unfair. [laughs]
de Botton: We see it in children. This is how little children behave. They literally think that their parents can read their minds. It takes a long time to realize that the only way that one person can really learn about another is if it’s explained to them, preferably using words, quite calm ones.
Tippett: Yes, “use your words,” [laughs] which we say to children.
de Botton: [laughs] When people always say, “Communicate,” we have to be generous towards the reasons why we don’t. And we don’t because we’re operating with this mad idea that true love means intuitive understanding. And I go crazy when people say things like, “I met someone. The loveliest thing is, they understood me without me needing to speak.”
Tippett: [laughs] Right.
de Botton: So many alarm bells go off when I hear that, because I think, OK, well, good luck in this instance, but if you guys get together, that’s not going to go on forever. No one can intuitively understand another beyond a quite limited range of topics.
Tippett: Your children — how old are your children? They’re still pretty young, right?
de Botton: They’re 10 and 12.
Tippett: Oh, OK. So now that I have young adult children, when you hear that coming out of the mouth of your 21-year-old — “He should know. [laughs] He should just know” — and you just …
What I also know is that grasping this, what you’re talking about, it’s work. It is the work of life, right? It is the work of growing up.
de Botton: It’s the work of love. But it’s interesting that you mention your children and children generally, because I think — it sounds eerie, but I think that one of the kindest things that we can do with our lover is to see them as children — and not to infantilize them, but when we’re dealing with children as parents, as adults, we’re incredibly generous in the way we interpret their behavior.
If a child says — if you walk home, and a child says, “I hate you,” you immediately go, OK, that’s not quite true. Probably they’re tired, they’re hungry, something’s gone wrong, their tooth hurts, something — we’re looking around for a benevolent interpretation that can just shave off some of the more depressing, dispiriting aspects of their behavior. And we do this naturally with children, and yet we do it so seldom with adults. When an adult meets an adult, and they say, “I’ve not had a good day. Leave me alone,” rather than saying, “OK. I’m just going to go behind the facade of this slightly depressing comment…”
Tippett: And understand that that’s actually not about me; that’s about what’s going on inside them today.
de Botton: Right, exactly. We don’t do that. We take it all completely personally. And so I think the work of love is to try, when we can manage it — we can’t always — to go behind the front of this rather depressing, challenging behavior and try and ask where it might’ve come from.
Love is doing that work to ask oneself, “Where’s this rather aggressive, pained, noncommunicative, unpleasant behavior come from?” If we can do that, we’re on the road to knowing a little bit about what love really is, I think.
[music: “The Sick System” by Lambert]
Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, a conversation about love with writer and philosopher Alain de Botton.
[music: “The Sick System” by Lambert]
Tippett: I’d love to talk about your — you used this word “pessimism,” a little while ago, and I’d love to dig into that a little bit more. And what you’re really talking about is being reality-based as opposed to being ideal-based. There’s a beautiful video that I’ve shared that’s out there; I think it’s “The Darkest Truth About Love.” Is that right? That’s the title, isn’t it?
de Botton: Yes, that’s right. Exactly. Made that for YouTube.
Tippett: From The School of Life. I’d like to talk through some of these core truths that fly in the face of this way we go around behaving and that movies have taught us to behave and that possibly our parents taught us to behave — these core truths that can put us on the foundation of reality.
de Botton: Yes, that’s very useful. We could chisel them in granite. Look, one of the first important truths is, you’re crazy. Not you; as it were, all of us; that all of us are deeply damaged people. The great enemy of love, good relationships, good friendships, is self-righteousness. If we start by accepting that of course we’re only just holding it together and, in many ways, really quite challenging people — I think if somebody thinks that they’re easy to live with, they’re by definition going to be pretty hard and don’t have much of an understanding of themselves. I think there’s a certain wisdom that begins by knowing that, of course, you, like everyone else, is pretty difficult. And this knowledge is very shielded from us. Our parents don’t tell us, our ex-lovers — they knew it, but they couldn’t be bothered to tell us. They sacked us without …
Tippett: Well, by the time they tell us, we’re dismissing what they say anyway. [laughs]
de Botton: Well, that’s right. And our friends don’t tell us, because they just want a pleasant evening with us. So we’re left with a bubble of ignorance about our own natures. And often, you can be way into your 40s before you’re starting to get a sense of, “Well, maybe some of the problem is in me.” Because, of course, it’s so intuitive to think that of course it’s the other person. So to begin with that sense of, “I’m quite tricky; and in these ways” — that’s a very important starting point for being good at love.
So often, we blame our lovers; we don’t blame our view of love. And so we keep sacking our lovers and blowing up relationships, in pursuit of this idea of love which actually has no basis in reality. It’s simply not rooted in anything we know.
Tippett: This right person, this creature, does not exist.
de Botton: And is in fact the enemy of good-enough relationships. I’m really fond of Donald Winnicott, this English psychoanalyst’s term, which he first used in relation to parenting, that what we should be aiming for is not perfection but a good-enough situation. And it’s wonderfully downbeat. No one would go, “What are your hopes this year?” “Well, I just want to have a good-enough relationship.” People would go, “Oh, I’m sorry your life is so grim.” But you want to go, “No, that’s really good. For a human, that’s brilliant.” And that’s, I think, the attitude we should have.
Tippett: In this “Darkest Truth About Love,” you say the idea of love in fact distracts us from existential loneliness. You are irredeemably alone. You will not be understood. But also, behind that is the — as you say, these are dark truths, but it’s also a relief, as truth always ultimately is, if we can hear it. Again, that is the work of life, is to reckon with what goes on inside us.
de Botton: I think one of the greatest sorrows we sometimes have in love is the feeling that our lover doesn’t understand parts of us. And a certain kind of bravery, a certain heroic acceptance of loneliness seems to be one of the key ingredients to being able to form a good relationship.
Tippett: Isn’t that interesting? And it sounds paradoxical.
de Botton: Of course. If you expect that your lover must understand everything about you, you will be — well, you’ll be furious pretty much all the time. There are islands and moments of beautiful connection, but we have to be modest about how often they’re going to happen. I think if you’re lonely with only — I don’t know — 40 percent of your life, that’s really good going. You may not want to be lonely with over 50 percent, but I think there’s certainly a sizable minority share of your life which you’re going to have to endure without echo from those you love.
Tippett: You know, I debated over whether I would discuss this with you, but I think I will. I’m single right now and have been for a few years, and it’s actually been a great joy. Not that I think I will be single forever or want to be single forever, although actually I think I would be all right if I were, which is a real watershed. And also, what this chapter of life has taught me to really enjoy more deeply and take more seriously are all the many forms of love in life aside from just romantic love or being coupled. Do people talk to you about that?
de Botton: Well, it’s funny, because just as you were saying, “I’m single,” I was about to say, “You’re not.” Because we have to look at what this idea of singlehood is. We’ve got this word, “single,” which captures somebody who’s not got a long-term relationship.
Tippett: But I have so much love in my life.
de Botton: That’s right. And another way of looking at love is connection. We’re all the time, we are hardwired to seek connections with others. And that is in a sense, at a kind of granular level, what love is. Love is connection. And insofar as one is alive and one is in buoyant, relatively buoyant spirit some of the time, it’s because we are connected. And we can take pride in how flexible our minds ultimately are about where that connection is coming.
And I think it’s also worth saying that, for some people, relationships are not necessarily the place where they encounter their best selves; that, actually, the person that they are in a relationship is not the person that they want to be or that they can be in other areas of life; that they feel that there are other possibilities that they’d like to explore. And I think getting into a relationship with someone, asking someone to be with you is a pretty cruel thing to do to someone that you love and admire and respect, because the job is so hard. Most people fail at it.
When you ask someone to marry you, for example, you’re asking someone to be your chauffeur, co-host, sexual partner, co-parent, fellow accountant, mop the kitchen floor together, etc., etc., and on and on the list goes. No wonder that we fail at some of the tasks and get irate with one another. It’s a burden. And I think sometimes, the older I get, sometimes I think one of the nicest things you can do to someone that you really admire is leave them alone. Just let them go. Let them be. Don’t impose yourself on them, because you’re challenging.
Tippett: I want to read this definition of marriage that you’ve written in a few places — I think it’s wonderful — and just talk about this. “Marriage ends up as 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 avoided investigating.”
de Botton: Well, yes. [laughs] It’s challenging. And it’s certainly contrary to the romantic view. But again, this kind of realism or acceptance of complexity, I think, is ultimately the friend of love. I’m not — look, it’s also worth adding — I don’t believe that everybody should stay in exactly the relationship that they’re in, and that any relationship is worth sticking with, and that, in a way, the fault is always the fault of the lovers, if it’s not — both lovers, if it’s not happy. There are legitimate reasons to leave a relationship.
But when you’re really being honest, if you ask yourself, “Why am I in pain?” and you can’t necessarily attribute all the sorrows that you’re feeling to your lover, if you recognize that some of those things are perhaps endemic to existence or endemic to all human beings or something within yourself, then what you’re doing is encountering the pain of life with another person, but not necessarily because of another person.
Tippett: And, for example, you are in fact arguing — as you said before, some marriages are meant to end. And there’s certainly reasons for marriages to end or to end marriages. But you also point out this very contradictory fact that the thing that’s ultimately wrong with adultery as an easy out to what’s going wrong in the marriage is that it is based on the same idealism that certain ideas of marriages are based on that go wrong.
de Botton: That’s right, in a way that you’re just redirecting your hope elsewhere.
Tippett: Imagining this is the perfect one, right? This is the one person with whom you won’t ever be lonely again; who will understand you completely.
de Botton: That’s right. And so it’s — on and on the cycles of hurt continue.
Tippett: Something else you name about marriage that I feel is not often enough just named is that — we spoke a little while ago about children coming into a marriage. And of course, children teach us so much. One thing you say that’s beautiful, that “children teach us that love in its purest form is a kind of service”; that the love we have for our children — I certainly know this with myself — that the love I have for my children has changed me, and it is distinct from all the other loves I’ve ever known.
But also that children are hard on marriages, right? And I think, on a more complicated level, if there are problems in a marriage, that can get amplified when children are there. And it’s also partly because you just get — everybody’s tired. Right? [laughs]
de Botton: That’s right. It’s interesting; in a way, there’s a lot of mundanity in relationships. And one of the things that romanticism does is to teach us that the great love stories should be above the mundane. So in none of the great, say, 19th-century novels about love does anyone ever do the laundry, does anyone ever pick up the crumbs from the kitchen table, does anyone ever clean the bathroom. It just doesn’t happen, because it’s assumed that what makes or breaks love are just feelings, passionate emotions, not the kind of day-to-day wear and tear.
And yet, of course, when we find ourselves in relationships, it is precisely over these areas that conflicts arise, but we refuse to lend them the necessary prestige. There’s no arguments as vicious as when two people are arguing about something, but both of them think the argument is trivial. So they’ll say things like, “Oh, it’s absurd, we’re arguing over who should hang up the towels in the bathroom. That’s for stupid people.”
Tippett: [laughs] Right — “That has nothing to do with …”
de Botton: And you know that that’s going to be trouble. And so we need, in a way — one of the lessons of love is to lend a bit of prestige to those issues that crop up in love, like who does the laundry and on what day. We rush over these decisions. We don’t see them as legitimate. We think it’s fine to …
Tippett: But they are.
de Botton: But they are. As you say, there’s a lot of life that is extremely mundane.
Tippett: It is the stuff of life. Right. It’s the stuff of our days. There’s this wonderful line from The Course of Love about these two parents with children: “The tired child inside each of them is furious at how long it has been neglected and in pieces.”
de Botton: That’s right. And in a way — it’s so funny. If I can be indiscreet on air, my wife used to say to me, in the early days of our marriage, she sometimes would say to me things like, “My father would never have said something like” — and I would say something, “It’s not my turn to make the tea” or something. She’ll go, “My father would never have said it. He would always do this for us.”
And then I had to point out that there was really a — she wasn’t comparing like with like. She was comparing this man, her father, as a father, but not as a lover. And in the end, what I say to her, did end up saying to her was, “In a way, I’m probably behaving exactly like your father, but just not the father that you saw when he was around you.”
Tippett: The way he behaved towards your mother. [laughs]
de Botton: [laughs] That’s right. Exactly. And so one of the things we do as parents is to edit ourselves, which is lovely in a way, for our children. But it gives our children a really unnatural sense of what you can expect from another human being, because we’re never as nice to probably anyone else on Earth as we are to our children. I’m saying this is the cost of good parenting.
[music: “Red Virgin Soil” by Agnes Obel]
Tippett: After a short break, more with Alain de Botton. You can always listen again, and hear the unedited version of this and every conversation I have on the On Being podcast feed, wherever podcasts are found.
[music: “Red Virgin Soil” by Agnes Obel]
I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, we are exploring the true hard work of love with the writer and philosopher Alain de Botton. This is one of the most popular shows we’ve ever created. And it’s an offering of anchoring truths in a pandemic that has tested the mettle of love in every home and relationship.
Tippett: I’d like to go a slightly different place with all of this. The things you’ve been saying, pointing out about how love really works — that people don’t learn when they’re humiliated; that self-righteousness is an enemy of love — I’m thinking a lot right now, these days, about how and if we could apply the intelligence we actually have with the experience of love — not the ideal, but the experience of love in our lives — to how we can be, as citizens, moving forward. There’s a lot of behavior in public — I’m just speaking for the United States, but I think there are forms of this in the UK, as well — we’re kind of acting out in public the way we act out at our worst in relationships. [laughs]
de Botton: I think that’s fascinating; I think you’re onto something huge and rather counterintuitive, because we associate the word “love” with private life. We don’t associate it with life in the republic; with civil society. But I think that a functioning society requires — well, it requires two things that, again, just don’t sound very normal, but they require love and politeness. And by “love” I mean a capacity to enter imaginatively into the minds of people with whom you don’t immediately agree, and to look for the more charitable explanations for behavior which doesn’t appeal to you and which could seem plain wrong; not just to chuck them immediately in prison or to hold them up in front of a law court, but to —
Tippett: Or just tell them how stupid they are, right?
de Botton: Right. Exactly. We’re permanently — all sides are attempting to show how stupid every other side is. And the other thing, of course, is politeness, which is an attempt not necessarily to say everything: to understand that there is a role for private feelings, which, if they were to emerge, would do damage to everyone concerned.
But we’ve got this culture of self-disclosure. And as I say, it spills out into politics as well. The same dynamic goes on of, like, “If I’m not telling you exactly what I think, then I may develop a twitch or an illness from not expunging my feelings.” To which I would say, “No, you’re not. You’re preserving the peace and good nature of the republic, and it’s absolutely what you should be doing.”
Tippett: Yes. And I guess — I’ve been having this conversation with a lot of people this year — the truth is, more than ever before perhaps in our world, we are in relationship. We are connected to everyone else. And that’s a fact. Their well-being will impact our well-being; is of relevance to our well-being, and that of our children.
But we have this habit and this capacity in public — and also we know that our brains work this way — to see the other — to see those strangers, those people, those people on the other side politically, socioeconomically, whatever, forgetting that in our intimate lives and in our love lives, in our circles of family and friends and in our marriages and with our children, there are things about the people we love the most, who drive us crazy, that we do not comprehend, and yet we find ways to be intelligent, to be loving — because it gets a better result. [laughs]
de Botton: That’s right. And families are at this kind of test bed of love, because we can’t entirely quit them. And this is what makes families so fascinating, because you’re thrown together with a group of people who you would never pick, if you could simply pick on the grounds of compatibility. Compatibility is an achievement of love. It shouldn’t be the precondition of love, as we nowadays, in a slightly spoiled way, imagine it must be.
Tippett: Yes. Wonderful. I think this is deeply politically relevant.
de Botton: Totally. And I think if we just try and explore the word “political,” political really means “outside of private space.” And we’re highly socialized creatures who really take our cues from what is going on around us. And if we see an atmosphere of short tempers, of selfishness, etc., that will bolster those capacities within ourselves. If we see charity being exercised, if we see good humor, if we see forgiveness on display: again, it will lend support to those sides of ourselves. And we need to take care what we’re exposing ourselves to, because too much exposure to the opposite of love makes us into very hostile and angry people.
Tippett: Yes, and I think it’s also such an important thing to bear in mind, that the import of our conduct, moment to moment — that that is having effects that we can’t see.
de Botton: That’s right. We’re far more sensitive than we allow for. And we need to build a world that recognizes that if somebody goes “mm-hmm” rather than this, or “thanks” rather than “yes,” or whatever it is, this can ruin our day. And we should think about that as we approach not just our personal relationships, but also our social and political relationships. These things are humiliating. Little things can deeply wound and humiliate.
Let’s not forget that one of the things that makes relationships so scary is, we need to be weak in front of other people. And most of us are just experts at being pretty strong. We’ve been doing it for years. We know how to be strong. What we don’t know how to do is to make ourselves safely vulnerable, and so we tend to get very twitchy, preternaturally aggressive, etc., when we’re asked to — when the moment has come to be weak.
Tippett: And I feel like there’s almost this calling now, because the stakes are so high, for emotional intelligence in public, which of course, we don’t — none of us gets perfectly in our intimate lives, but we do know these things about people we love. And they’re also true of people we don’t know and don’t think we love.
But I want to return a little bit to love and sex and eros and all of this. I have to say, one thing I really love and appreciate and learned from in your writing is your reflection on flirting [laughs] as an art, the art of flirting; that it can be something edifying, a pleasurable gift. And you have this phrase, a “good flirt.” So would you describe what a “good flirt” is?
de Botton: Well, if you think about what flirtation is, in many ways flirtation is the attempt to awaken somebody else to their attractiveness. I think it would be such a pity if we had to drive something as important as validation and self-acceptance and a pleasant view of oneself through the gate of — the rather narrow gate of sex.
And flirtation is a kind of act of the imagination. And what’s fun about flirtation is that it often happens between really quite unlikely people. Two people meet, and maybe they’re both with someone, or there’s a difference in status or background, etc., and they can find that they’re in a little conversation about the weather, and both parties will recognize, there’s something a little bit flirtatious going on. And it’s got really nothing to do with sex, as such; it’s just two people delighting in awakening one another …
Tippett: It’s pleasant. Right.
de Botton: … to the fact that they’re quite nice people, and they’re quite attractive, and that that’s OK.
Tippett: You also have this lovely film, it’s one of these School of Life films, about this, a good flirt. You can make these assumptions that this other person maybe would love to sleep with us, won’t sleep with us, and the reason why they won’t has nothing to do with any deficiency on our part. But it’s also not, as you say, a deception. It’s a natural, pleasurable human experience.
de Botton: That’s right. The other thing that we get quite wrong in our culture is the whole business of what sex actually is, because we’ve come from a Freudian world. Freud has told us that there’s a lot more going on in sex than we want to believe and that a lot of it is quite weird, and darker than we’d ever want to imagine, and that sex is everywhere in life, even in places where we don’t think it is or perhaps should be.
But, in a way, I’ve got a sort of different view of this. I think that it’s not so much that sex is everywhere, it’s that psychological dynamics are everywhere, even in sex. And so often we think of sex as just a sort of pneumatic activity, but really, it’s a psychological activity. And if you try to imagine why people are excited by sex, it’s not so much that it’s a pleasurable nerve-ending business. It’s ultimately that it’s about acceptance.
If you think about, why is it exciting to kiss someone for the first time? It’s probably more fun eating an oyster or flossing your teeth or watching TV than kissing. It’s a bit weird. What’s this odd thing we call kissing? It’s like sort of trying to inflate somebody else’s mouth. It’s just odd.
de Botton: Nevertheless, we like it, not because of its physical feeling but because of what it means, the meaning we infuse. And the meaning we infuse into it is, “I accept you. And I accept you in a way that is incredibly intimate and that would be quite revolting with anyone else. I’m allowing you into my private space as a way of signaling, ‘I like you.’” And what really — we call it getting “turned on,” but what we’re really, as it were, excited by is that someone accepts us with remarkable — in all our…
Tippett: Takes delight in us.
de Botton: Right; takes delight in us. And that’s what’s exciting about it. In other words, sex is continuous with a lot of things that we’re interested in outside of the bedroom.
Tippett: And you say that flirting is one way to experience, in the course of ordinary life, in a way that’s completely nonthreatening to whatever your commitments are, what is enjoyable about sex that’s not necessarily the act itself: the fact that we are sexual beings.
de Botton: That’s right. That’s right. But we feel often conflicted about it. “I shouldn’t be flirting. I can’t flirt,” etc. So there’s a lot of fear of — there’s a lot of fear of slippery slopes. In many situations, we can hang on, on the slippery slope. It’s OK. We’ve got tools to hang on in there.
Tippett: I want to know — I don’t want to let you go before asking what you think about — what’s your view of online dating? Because this a new way that so many people, perhaps most people, moving forward, are meeting, are engaging this romantic side of themselves.
de Botton: Look, at one level, online dating promises to open up something absolutely wonderful, which is a more logical way of getting together with someone. The sort of dream is that the secrets of our soul and the secrets of somebody else’s soul will be sort of downloaded onto a computer and that we will find the best possible match for who we are.
The darker side of online dating is that it encourages the idea that a good relationship must mean a conflict-free relationship. And therefore, any relationship which has conflict in it, which has unhappiness and areas of tension in it, is wrong and can be terminated, because we have this wonderful backup, which is alternatives. So, like any tool, it’s got its pluses and minuses and has to be used correctly. And I think what I mean by “correctly” is, it has to broaden the pool of people from which we’re choosing our lovers, while not giving us the illusion that there is such a thing as a perfect human being.
Tippett: Right. So then you’re back to the basic truth, [laughs] the darker truth about love. Also, what online dating does is it introduces you to people, but then, really, the whole thrust of your thinking is that loving is really what comes next. That’s what comes after the meeting.
de Botton: That’s right. Silicon Valley has been incredibly interested in getting us to that first stage of meeting the person, and that’s great. But the next stage has been abandoned. Where is the app that will tell you how to read, how to interpret somebody else’s confused signals of distress or that will remind you, at a certain point, to look charitably upon someone’s behavior because you remember their childhood, etc.? So we have a long way to go.
Our technology is still — look, we’re still — it sounds odd, because it’s one of the sort of narcissisms of our time that we think we’re living late on in the history of the world. We think we’re sort of — we’re latecomers to the party. We’re still at the very beginning of understanding ourselves as human, emotional creatures. We’re still taking our first baby steps in the understanding of love, and we need a lot of compassion for ourselves. And no wonder we make horrific mistakes pretty much all the time.
[music: “Turquoise” by Mooncake]
Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, a conversation about love with writer and philosopher Alain de Botton.
[music: “Turquoise” by Mooncake]
Tippett: I happened to see your tweet at the end of 2016, when The New York Times released its most-read articles of the year, [laughs] and your “Why You’ll Marry the Wrong Person” was No. 1, which is really extraordinary; the most-read article in a year of the Brexit vote, the presidential election, war, refugee crisis. I wonder what that tells you about us as a species.
de Botton: Look, it was deeply fascinating and quite extraordinary. And apparently, it was first by a long way. It’s just peculiar. And I think that — look, first of all, it tells us that we have an enormous loneliness around our difficulties. One could write a follow-on piece — I may or may not — called, “Why You Will Get Into the Wrong Job,” which would probably score quite highly too, and “Why You’ll Have the Wrong Child” and “Why You’ll Go on the Wrong Vacation” and “Why Your Body Will Be the Wrong Shape” and “Why You’ll Think You Live in the Wrong Country,” etc. And in a way, we need solace for the sense that we have gone wrong in an area, whatever it may be, where perfection was possible.
And anyone who comes along and says, “You know, it’s normal that you are suffering. Life is suffering,” is doing a quite unusual thing in our culture, which is so much about optimism. It sounds grim; it is in fact enormously consoling and alleviating and helpful, in a culture which is oppressive in its demands for perfection. So I think a certain kind of pessimistic realism — which is totally compatible with hope, totally compatible with laughter, good humor, a sense of fun — it doesn’t have to be dour.
Tippett: It’s how comedy and tragedy belong together.
de Botton: Right. Exactly. So I’m a great fan of gallows humor. We’re all on our way to the gallows in one way or another, and we can hug and give each other laughs and point out the more pleasant sides as we head towards the scaffold.
Tippett: [laughs] That may be your last word. I just want to ask you, when we first began to speak about On Love, which you wrote — which was published when you were 23 in the late ‘90s — you’ve now been married for over a dozen years. What did you really not know? And that book was so wise. And in fact, that book that you published when you were 23, On Love, really presented a lot of the themes that you’ve carried forward in time. But I do wonder what you really did not know; what you’ve learned; what you continue to learn about love at this stage in your life.
de Botton: I genuinely thought at that time that problems in love are the result of being with people who are, in one way or another, defective. And in 2002, this belief was severely tested, in that I met someone who was really absolutely wonderful in every way. And through much effort, I pursued her and eventually married her and discovered something very surprising. She was great in a million ways. She was very right. And yet, oddly, there were all sorts of problems.
And I think it’s been the path that I’ve been on, to realize that those problems had nothing to do with her being a deficient person or indeed with me being a horribly deficient person. They were to do with the challenges of being a human being trying to relate to another human being in a loving relationship; that I was encountering some endemic issues that every couple, however well-matched — and there is no such thing as a perfect match, but however well-matched, every couple will encounter these problems; that love is something we have to learn and we can make progress with, and that it’s not just an enthusiasm, it’s a skill, and it requires forbearance, generosity, imagination, and a million things besides.
And we must fiercely resist the idea that true love must mean conflict-free love; that the course of true love is smooth. It’s not. The course of true love is rocky and bumpy at the best of times. That’s the best we can manage, as the creatures we are. It’s no fault of mine or no fault of yours; it’s to do with being human. And the more generous we can be towards that flawed humanity, the better chance we’ll have of doing the true hard work of love.
[music: “Semblance” by Auditory Canvas]
Tippett: Alain de Botton is the founder and chairman of The School of Life. His books include Religion for Atheists and How Proust Can Change Your Life. He’s also published many books as part of The School of Life’s offerings — there is a chapbook, for example, created from his essay “Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person.”
[music: “Semblance” by Auditory Canvas]
The On Being Project is: Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Laurén Drommerhausen, Erin Colasacco, Eddie Gonzalez, Lilian Vo, Lucas Johnson, Suzette Burley, Zack Rose, Colleen Scheck, Christiane Wartell, Julie Siple, Gretchen Honnold, Jhaleh Akhavan, Pádraig Ó Tuama, Ben Katt, Gautam Srikishan, and Lillie Benowitz.
The On Being Project is located on Dakota land. Our lovely theme music is provided and composed by Zoë Keating. And the last voice that you hear, singing at the end of our show, is Cameron Kinghorn.
On Being is an independent, nonprofit production of The On Being Project. It is distributed to public radio stations by WNYC Studios. I created this show at American Public Media.
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