Gentle humour and delicate truths underpinned Swiss-born, British philosopher Alain de Botton’s talk about love, marriage and long-term relationships at the Melbourne Town Hall last night. The everyday philosopher is in Melbourne to plug his new book The Course of Love – a fictional story about the intricacies of long-term relationships. He entertained the audience with his understanding of where we’ve been going wrong all these years in the pursuit of happiness via love and marriage. Here’s what we learned:
1. Fiction has ruined love for everyone
Still believe you’ll run into your soul mate while inter-railing through Europe? You could thank Richard Linklater for that one (thanks, Before Sunrise) but de Botton says it’s the Romantics we need to blame for our obsession with instant attraction leading to a lifetime of love and comfort. Fiction is where we learn about love, about having a crush on someone; about the fleeting moment that one’s eyes meet another’s across a room and how that leads to happily ever after. But, says de Botton, love isn’t an indescribable feeling – it’s a skill – and one that we have to work on. That’s why his latest book is a work of fiction, to offer an alternative story of the success of love and marriage (and the work that goes into it).
2. Love is a classroom
It turns out that the Ancient Greeks had a good understanding of input vs. output in a long-term relationship. Their view was that people in relationships should alter between teacher and student, student and teacher, in an ongoing pursuit of becoming the best versions of ourselves. You remember when your partner told you to take the bin out this morning? They were just helping you to be the best version of yourself.
3. We all need a ‘How I’m crazy’ instruction manual
Think you’re easy to live with? It’s an easy mistake to make. It turns out we’re all broken in some way. Be it that we’re broken from the way our parents loved us, or the way we understand love from Disney movies, we’re broken by the idea of what love should be. The problem is that we lack self-awareness about the many ways in which we are uniquely mad. Alain believes we should be swapping instruction manuals on the first date. Sadly, you can’t trust your friends to tell you the truth about your annoying ways; they just can’t be bothered to tell you. The best sources for information are your exes, or your parents.
4. We want to suffer a little bit
The philosopher proffers the advice: if you’re thinking of leaving a partner, ask yourself if things are bad because it really is all their fault? If it is: leave them. If it’s not, you may be experiencing the bitterness of life alongside another person, not because of another person. Can you be sure that your suffering won’t come with you into the next relationship or into your singe life? Look at the break up between Britain and the EU, for example. Will life be better for Britain once they’re single? Probably not.
5. Don’t be yourself
For Christ’s sake, don’t be you. You’re unbearable, remember? (See point 4). You might think that your partner is a little bit of an idiot, but you are too. Elevate yourself to being a loveable idiot. It’s the least you can do. Remember, compatibility is an achievement not an algorithm.
6. “They just get me” is creating an epidemic of sulking
You played Pokémon Go together all weekend – they get you. You went on a date and discovered you like the same band – they get you. In the dating days, it’s comforting to know you’re on the same page without having to say all that out loud to your new beau. That’s pretty cool. But, says de Botton, the idea that relationships can be built on the need to say very little comes from the Romantics. It creates problems later on when your partner does something you don’t like, and instead of talking about it, you shut yourself in the bathroom and wait till they guess what they did wrong.
7. Love is a skill
Imagine your partner as a two year old, says Alain de Botton. You might laugh, but the logic is that we’ve learnt to treat children with a degree of patience and understanding that we forget to use with our partners. For example, you might look for other reasons to justify a two year old’s behaviour like maybe they’re hungry, or maybe they need a nap. Grown-ups are just big versions of babies, and sometimes we act like it.
8. Have an expensive wedding
Alain de Botton is all for having expensive ceremonies. It makes it harder for you to quit your marriage and it’s embarrassing to quit if you spent all that money on cake – and aunty Jane travelled all that way – for your nuptials. It sets the bar high for your relationship and that’s a healthy thing. Perhaps Alain can loan us the cash?