Alain de Botton The Age. July 8, 2016
It’s one of the things we are most afraid might happen to us. We know the horrors well enough and often devote inordinate efforts trying to skirt them. Yet, however hard we may try, it’s an error we’re highly likely to make all the same: we too will – almost certainly – end up marrying the wrong person.
Partly, it’s because we’re very strange people (especially from close up), but with a weak conscious grasp of further details and therefore not much of an ability to warn others about what to watch out for in their dealings with us. We have all emerged from childhood with a bewildering array of disturbances that come into play when we try to get close to others. We can only ever seem normal to those who don’t know us very well. In a wiser, more self-aware society than our own, a standard question on any early dinner date would quite simply be: “And how are you mad?”
Perhaps we have a latent tendency to get furious when someone disagrees with us or can only relax when we are working; perhaps we’re tricky about intimacy after sex or clam up in response to humiliation. Sadly though, prior to marriage, we rarely delve into our complexities. Whenever casual relationships threaten to reveal the awkward sides of our natures, we tend to blame our partners for being difficult – and call it a day. As for our friends, they don’t care enough about us to be interested in the project of enlightening us about the warps in our characters (that they see clearly enough). It isn’t that they are nicer than those we eventually marry: they just care a lot less. One of the privileges of being on our own is therefore the sincere impression that we would be really quite easy people to live with.
The risk of marrying the wrong person is compounded by the way that almost everyone else is comparably unself-aware and so cannot inform us about what is adrift in their characters either. Naturally, we make a stab at trying to understand them. We visit their families and perhaps the place they first went to school. We look at their photos, we meet their college friends. All this contributes to a sense we’ve done our homework. We haven’t. 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 omitted to investigate.
Amidst our ignorance of the other, we fill in the blanks in flattering ways. From a few cues, we anticipate years of happiness, buoyed by profound mutual sympathy. We plan never to be lonely again. The primary error of our passion lies in overlooking a central fact about people in general, not merely the example we are proposing to marry, but the species as a whole: that everyone has something very substantially wrong with them and that no one can fully understand or sympathise with anyone else. We can’t yet know what the issues and griefs will be, but we can and should be certain that they are there and will make the spouse much less than perfect and at moments, extremely hard to live with.
It doesn’t help that the level of knowledge we need for a marriage to work is higher than our society is prepared to countenance, recognise and accommodate for. We are collectively a great deal more interested in the wedding than the fifty years that might follow it.
For most of recorded history, people married for logical sorts of reasons: because her parcel of land adjoined yours, his family had a flourishing grain business, her father was the magistrate in town, there was a castle to keep up, or both sets of parents subscribed to the same interpretation of a holy text. And from such reasonable marriages, there flowed loneliness, infidelity, beating, hardness of heart and screams heard through the nursery doors. The marriage of reason was not, from any sincere perspective, reasonable at all; it was often expedient, narrow-minded, snobbish, exploitative and abusive.
Which is why what has replaced it – the marriage of feeling – has largely been spared the need to account for itself. What matters is that two people wish desperately that it happen, are drawn to one another by an overwhelming instinct and know in their hearts that it is right. The modern age appears to have had enough of ‘reasons’, those catalysts of misery, those accountants’ demands. Indeed the more imprudent a marriage appears (perhaps it’s been only six weeks since they met; one of them has no job or both are barely out of their teens), the safer it can feel as if it is, for apparent ‘recklessness’ is taken as a counter-weight to all the errors and tragedies vouchsafed by the so-called sensible unions of old. The prestige of instinct is the legacy of a collective traumatised reaction against too many centuries of unreasonable ‘reason’.
But though we believe ourselves to be seeking happiness in marriage, it isn’t that simple: what we really seek is familiarity – which may well complicate any plans we might have had for happiness. We are looking to re-create, within our adult relationships, some of the feelings we knew so well in childhood – but which were rarely limited to just tenderness and care.
The love most of us will have tasted early on was often confused with other, more destructive dynamics: feelings of wanting to help an adult who was out of control, of being deprived of a parent’s warmth or scared of his or her anger, or of not feeling secure enough to communicate our trickier wishes. How logical, then, that we should as grown-ups find ourselves rejecting certain candidates for marriage not because they are wrong but because they are a little too right – in the sense of seeming somehow excessively balanced, mature, understanding and reliable – given that in our hearts, such rightness feels foreign and unearned. We chase after more exciting others out of an unconscious sense that it will be reassuringly familiar in their patterns of frustration. We marry the wrong people because the right ones feel too odd; because we have no experience of health and because we don’t – whatever we may say – usually associate being loved with feeling hugely satisfied.
We make mistakes too because we are so lonely. No one can be in an optimal frame of mind to choose a partner when remaining single feels unbearable. We have to be wholly at peace with the prospect of many years of solitude in order to have any chance of being appropriately picky; otherwise, we risk loving no longer being single rather more than we love the partner who spared us being so. Unfortunately, after a certain age, society makes singlehood feel boundlessly unpleasant. Communal life starts to wither; couples are too threatened by the independence of the single to invite them around very often.
We marry, ultimately, to try to make a nice feeling permanent. We imagine that marriage is a guarantor of the happiness we’re presently enjoying with someone. We believe the union will make what might otherwise be fleeting forever available. It will help us to bottle our joy – the joy we felt when the thought of proposing first came to us: perhaps we were in Venice, on the lagoon, in a motorboat, with the evening sun throwing glitter across the sea, chatting about aspects of our souls no one ever seemed to have grasped before, with the prospect of dinner in a risotto place a little later… We got married to make such sensations permanent but failed to see that there was no solid connection between these feelings and the institution of marriage. Indeed, marriage tends decisively to move us onto another, very different and more administrative plane, which perhaps unfolds in a suburban house, with a long commute and maddening children (who kill the passion from which they emerged). The only ingredient in common is the partner. And that might have been the wrong ingredient to bottle.
The good news is that it doesn’t matter if we find we have married the wrong person. We mustn’t abandon them, only the founding Romantic idea upon which the Western understanding of marriage has been based for around the last 250 years: that a perfect being exists who can solve all our needs and satisfy our every yearning. We need to swap the Romantic view for a tragic (and at points comedic) awareness that every human will – of course – be guaranteed to frustrate, anger, annoy, madden and disappoint us – and we will (without any malice) do the same to them.
There can be no end to our sense of emptiness and incompleteness. But none of this is unusual or grounds for divorce. Choosing who to commit ourselves to is always merely a case of identifying which particular variety of suffering we would most like to sacrifice ourselves for, rather than an occasion on which to hope miraculously to escape from grief and melancholy.
A solution to a lot of distress and agitation around marriage lies in a curious area: with a philosophy of pessimism. It sounds odd, this usually being associated with failure and gloom. But when it comes to relationships, pessimism vitally relieves the excessive imaginative pressure that our romantic culture places upon marriage. The failure of one particular partner to match every ideal is not an argument against them and no sign that a union deserves to fail or be upgraded.
The person who is best suited to us is not the person who shares our every taste (they don’t exist), but the person who can negotiate differences in taste intelligently; the person who is good at disagreement. Rather than some notional idea of perfect complementarity, it is the capacity to tolerate differences with generosity that is the true marker of the ‘not-overly-wrong’ person. Compatibility is an achievement of love; it must not be its precondition.
Romanticism has been unhelpful to us. We have learned to judge ourselves according to expectations fostered by an erroneous and unwittingly harsh philosophy. It has made a lot of what we go through in marriage seem exceptional and appalling. We end up lonely and convinced that our union is not ‘normal’ in its imperfections. We should be gentler on ourselves, should learn to accommodate ourselves to ‘wrongness’, striving always to adopt a more forgiving, humorous and kindly perspective on its multiple examples in ourselves and our partners.
Alain de Botton is the author of The Course Of Love, published by Hamish Hamilton, and available in bookshops now.
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