What is the most generous and honest way to begin a relationship? Alain de Botton makes a surprisingly humble suggestion.
How Are You Crazy? Asks Alain de Botton.
Connection would be easier if, when we met someone new we began with “And how are you crazy? Because I am crazy like this.” Authentic perhaps. Romantic? Decidedly not. It’s the right modest mindset for the true hard work of love though, says Alain de Botton. He is the author of “Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person,” the most read piece in the New York Times in 2016 (a year that saw a presidential election, BREXIT and a refugee crisis). This past week the popular On Being podcast hosted by Krista Tippett re-released one of their most listened to podcasts ever, also starring de Botton. It is an addictive, eye-opening listen.
“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’ll] do our best.” Humorous in its seemingly absurd modesty, but that is, de Botton argues, a much more generous (and honest) starting point for any relationship (romance, friendship, partnership). It begins with being humble about our own limitations, open to living with another's limitations and realistic about the limitations of the human condition. Love is not an enthusiasm. “It’s a skill. It is something we learn, and make progress with."
So often we blame our lovers when things get rocky, de Bottom says. What we should be doing is reconsidering our view of love itself. This is a realization he came to honestly. He had, he says, genuinely thought problems in love were the result of being with people who are in one way or another defective, a [view] that was fiercely tested when he met someone who was wonderful in every way. He married her. And then discovered something surprising. There were all sorts of problems. “And I learned that they had to do with the challenges of being a human being trying to relate to another human being in a loving relationship.” By accepting a more measured understanding of our humanity, we can then get to the hard work of love. Picking up the skills. "Forbearance, generosity, imagination and a million things besides."
And it’s not for everyone, coupling up. Another thing we should reconsider is a definition of love that makes partnership primary, he suggests. Love is really simply about our hardwired need to be connected. We would all feel a lot more loved if we consider more deeply and take more seriously all the many forms of love in our lives besides romantic love. I realized in my own life that when I am not coupled up, I have more time and freedom for a greater range of deep and quite meaningful connections. I have begun to wonder if that make for a more meaningful life. Even though my last relationship ended with the onset of Covid, this realization also made me feel very connected while flying solo through this bizarre pandemic geography. I no longer think of myself as solo, but rather as a "connected solo". Content with my solo status; very connected to a web of loves - family, friends, community, lovers (if I'm lucky). (The Crush Letter will have more on the good life of being what I call a "connected solo" as I tell you about Peter McGraw, an advocate for solo life and host of the podcast “SOLO: The Single Person’s Guide to A Remarkable Life.)
Silicon Valley, of course, seems to be obsessed with bringing people together romantically. (Wall Street too. Yo, Bumble!) Or at least with dating apps that facilitate the romantic spark of love. We want our love (however we structure it) to survive and thrive, though. And that requires the work of love. One of the very kindest things we can do with our partners is to be incredibly generous in the way we interpret their (seemingly sulky) behavior, says de Botton. Can we get an app for that? Or an app that reminds us how truly difficult it is for people to change. That will tell us how to read a lover’s confused signals of distress. That reminds us that some of the problem might actually be us. That there is just a lot of mundane shit in life; it’s not our partner’s fault. That we will never fully be understood by someone else, really. And switching partners won't change that. How to live comfortably with our existential loneliness. Artificial intelligence will allow us to make a lot of advances in predicting, interpreting (and manipulating) human behavior for sure. But all that work of love? It is asking a lot of an app.
For Founding Subscriber’s only: if you would like to receive my personal notes on this On Being episode, send me an email at Dish@primecrush.com
Here’s the On Being podcast. And also an animated short illuminating some of de Bottom's "darker truths" about love.
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