8 Reasons Why Alain de Botton Thinks Our Understanding of Love is Deeply Flawed

Josephine Parsons went to see renowned philosopher, Alain de Botton, discuss love at the Sydney Opera House. This is what she learned.

We’ve always been suspicious of Julia Roberts’ romantic ease, and we don’t embark on relationships scored by an upbeat pop song that eases us into the credits with the promise of ‘happily ever after’. Modern romance is not like the movies.

Acknowledging this fact makes me feel like I have all this love business under control. Of course, real life does not reflect perfectly timed meet cutes and stirring declarations in the rain. I know this.

I’m happy to dismiss the unlikely nature of these overly dramatic romantic situations because they would never occur in real life. But there’s still a part of me, a not-so-tiny place in my subconscious, that hopes for these portrayals to be a possibility regardless. But why?

Why we think about love like we do

Speaking at the Sydney Opera House as part of Ideas At The House, philosopher Alain de Botton explained to a sold-out crowd that we are shaped by the love narratives we read (or watch or listen to). Little do we realise, these tropes were introduced to us in the Romantic era by the great writers and poets like Keats, Tolstoy and Austen, and they remain the stories we reference as an idyllic version of our own relationships. He says that, “when we love, we are taking a lot of our cues from the outside world”.

IMG_2551 credit Yael Stempler

Alan de Botton. Credit: Yael Stempler

“We are nowadays firmly in a very distinctive era in the history of love. We are living in the era of Romanticism,” Alain explains. Even if you’ve never heard of these writers, and you thought you were just minding your own business, enjoying your love in Modern-day Australia, “you are influenced – because we all are – by Romanticism”.

When those catchy credits inevitably roll or the Keats poem comes to a close, all we’re left with is the ideal of ‘happily ever after’ – and the skewed notion of love that comes with it.

The Romantic view of love, Alain explains, has “a very distinctive set of arguments about what love is like, what we should expect from love, and how relationships should go” – and considering these views are so deeply embedded in our historical and social understanding of relationships, the results can be, frankly, disastrous. A Romantic approach to love “has spelt trouble for our capacity to endure and thrive in long term relationships”.

Alain challenged my ingrained perception of love, or rather, catalysed the epiphany that everything I thought I knew about true love is actually not true.

IMG_2279 credit Yael Stempler

Alain speaking at The Sydney Opera House. Credit: Yael Stempler

Here are some of the things I learned at the talk, with Alain’s explanation of how a Romantic understanding of love has set us up for disappointment and failure:

#1 Absolutely nobody is perfect

The rise of romanticism came at a time where religion was beginning to decline. Therefore, Alain explains, we shifted our recognition of the divine from the Gods to the people walking around us. That lady you clumsily ran into in the supermarket with the great green eyes? Otherworldly! The cute barista who writes love hearts on your cup? An angel!

I am so guilty of this, walking into bars or sitting down in my airplane seat, assuming that anyone could be my soul mate. Alain urges that we place too much emphasis on the meeting, on the “love at first sight”. This is why apps like Tinder have grown in popularity.

The idea of crushes, of falling in love before getting to know someone, he says, basically needs to die: “we need to stop focusing on the idea of a crush”. The best way to get over a crush on someone is to get to know them better and realise they’re not divine. They’re just as normal as you and I.

#2 We’re all deeply, deeply bonkers

Alain said that when we get married, the most decent thing to do is to give our partner a book of our flaws labelled, ‘My Insanities’.

The problem with the Romantic idea of love is that the person you love is supposed to be perfect, no matter what; that they’ll complete you. When the cracks start showing in the façade – and they inevitably will – we feel unfulfilled. Then we go looking for someone else to fill them.

If we’re upfront with our “insanities” and how we deal with them, it’ll make it so much easier in the long term.

#3 You don’t have to be compatible

Alain explains, “Compatibility should be an achievement of love, not it’s precondition.” This is a line I desperately needed before breaking up with one too many men who thought Jon Krakauer was a city in Poland.

Think of how Seth and Anna in The OC seem so perfect for each other until they actually dated and found out there was no chemistry there. Liking the same stuff shouldn’t be the only reason you want to get romantically involved with someone. You should instead judge how you navigate these differences, how conversations are handled and what interest develops out of them.

#4 We look for the love we were shown as children

Depending on your family’s situation, it’s most likely that when growing up, your parents were the most loving, perfect, protective beings you had and will ever know. They shielded you from all the sad stuff (bankruptcy, heartbreak, the cancellation of cult TV shows) and focused on your achievements and developments. They were always reliable and kind.

As you grow older, you forget that your parents are regular people too and all people, as mentioned in point #2, are crazy in some way. You’ll never really find that perfect, supportive and reliable relationship you had with your parents –because that’s not your partner’s job.

#5 Sulking is poisonous

One of our most common ideas is that “true love is wordless”; that if our partner truly loved us, they would know why we’re storming off in a huff to the bed without speaking to them. The thing is, they truly have no idea. How could they? They weren’t paying attention to every move we made at the party and would have no idea that Rob from work made a snarky remark about our salary.

Communicating does not take the mystery out of love. Actually, scratch that, it does. But mystery is not sustainable and it is definitely not helpful in a healthy, long term relationship. Communication is the core of a relationship.

#6 You have to factor in the laundry

In all of the great Romantic texts in modern and contemporary times, very little is said about laundry. Alain explains that the Romantics were “above that”, that they were “too clever” to engage in meaningless housework because they had serious plans to stroll around the British countryside.

In our modern times, of course, having a relationship means inevitably negotiating whether to put the whites in with the rest of the wash. If we hold on to the idea that our relationship is too special to stoop so low as to discuss laundry, then we end up engaging in bitter arguments. And as Alain explains, a bitter argument evolves when both sides assume they are “too clever” for it.

#7 ‘Till Death Do Us Part’ means nothing when you die at 30

Think of the era that Romanticism originated in: “Till Death Do Us Part” is totally easy if you’re married at 25, get tuberculosis at 31 and die at 32.

Take that rose-coloured look of relationships, and then multiply it in length by three. See how unrealistic that statement now is? You need work, commitment and strategy to actually get you to the finish line together.

#8 You don’t have to love all of someone

So often, we assume that to love someone is to love all of them; their wit, their charm, the infuriating way they slurp their soup. All of it. But this can cause serious problems when we discover a “deal breaker” in our partner (again, because we’re all crazy, remember?) and assume that it’s all over.

The Romantic era wasn’t our first introduction of love. Each phase in history had their own social understanding of what it meant to be in a happy, successful relationship. The Ancient Greeks, Alain tells us, were committed to only loving the virtues in their partner. They allowed themselves to be okay with not liking those gritty parts they didn’t agree with, and instead helped their partner work through them. The Ancient Greek approach is to develop a kind of mutual teacher-student relationship, or “a process of mutual education”.

So love is not as consistently magical as I thought it was, Julia Roberts aside. As Alain de Botton so eloquently put it, “Love is a skill, not an enthusiasm.”

Watch his full talk here:

Lead image: Pretty Woman

Josephine is a writer from western Sydney who likes to blatantly lie on her bios. She played the youngest sister in 80s sitcom Family Ties and looks fantastic running with a backpack on.