The new year is peak time for breakups. But the emotional skills that help a relationship endure can be learned.
We expect love to be the source of our greatest joys. But, in practice, it is one of the most reliable routes to misery. Few forms of suffering are ever as intense as those we experience in relationships. An estimated 42% of marriages in Britain end in divorce; 30% of people in couples describe themselves as “actively unhappy but unable to leave”.
The New Year can be gloomy – one in five divorces are filed in January. But we can at least try to understand our sorrows. This does not magically remove problems, but it sets them in context, reduces our sense of isolation and helps us to accept that certain problems are normal.
‘Tis the season for divorce – but perhaps we should think twice – Daisy Buchanan
The problems begin because, despite all the statistics, we are inveterate optimists about how love should go. No amount of information seems able to shake us from our faith in love. A thousand divorces pass our doors; none seem relevant to us. We continue to think of love as an enthusiasm, rather than a skill that might be learned.
One of our gravest errors around relationships is to imagine that they aren’t things we can get wiser or better at. We might do well this new year to develop an emotional skill one could term “romantic realism”, defined as an awareness of what can legitimately be expected of love and the reasons why we will, for large stretches of our lives, be very disappointed by it for no especially sinister reasons. In fact, as in all areas we can improve how good we are at loving another person. We are ready for a relationship when:
1. We accept perfection is unrealistic
We should accept from the outset that anyone we could be with will be very far from perfect. We should also grasp the specifics of their imperfections: how they will be irritating, difficult, sometimes irrational and often unable to sympathise or understand us. However, we are a flawed species. Whomever one got together with would be radically imperfect in a host of deeply serious ways. One must conclusively kill the idea that things would be ideal with any other creature in this galaxy. There can only ever be a “good enough” relationship.
For this realisation to sink in, it helps to have had a number of relationships, not in order to have the chance to locate “the right person”, but so that one can have ample opportunity to discover at first hand, in many different contexts, the truth that everyone (even the most initially exciting prospect) really is a bit wrong close up.
2. We learn to blame love, not our lover
When difficulties strike in relationships, we often fall prey to the idea that we are going out with a particularly cretinous human. The sadness must be someone’s fault: and, naturally enough, we conclude that the blame has to lie with the partner. We avoid the far truer, darker, yet gentler conclusion: that we are trying to do something very difficult at which almost no one succeeds completely. At an extreme, we exit the relationship far too early. Rather than adjust our ideas of what relationships in general are like, we shift our hopes to new people who – we ardently trust – won’t suffer any of the problems we experienced with the last partner. We blame our lover in order not to blame love itself, the truer but more elusive target.
3. We realise that love makes irrational demands of our partners
The romantic ideal states that we will be nicer to our partner than to anyone in the world. We selected them because we liked them so much and will therefore bring our kindest and most gentle sides forward in the relationship. We will be a lot nicer with them than, for example, with any of our friends. We like the latter: we love the former.
But the reality is intriguingly and soberingly different. We tend to become, if things go to plan, something akin to monsters in love. We’re likely to be significantly less kind to our partner than towards almost any other human on the planet. What explains our bad behaviour? Firstly, there is so much at stake. Our whole life is on the line. Friends are with us for the evening; our mutual challenges may go no further than the need to locate a half-decent restaurant. But the person we love becomes, if things go well, involved in some of the grandest and most complex matters we ever undertake: we ask them to be our lover, our best friend, our confidant, our nurse, our financial adviser, our chauffeur, our co-educator, our social partner and our sex mate. Together with them, we may set up a house, raise a child, run the family finances, nurse elderly parents, manage our careers, go on holiday and explore our sexuality. The job description is so long and so demanding, that no one in the standard employment market could conceivably deliver perfectly on even a fraction of the demands. Asking someone to be with us turns out to be an impossibly demanding and therefore pretty mean thing to suggest that anyone we would really want the best for.
Love also lends us the safety to show a partner who we really are – a privilege we would, in truth, be wiser and kinder never fully to share with anyone. We are – naturally – appallingly difficult to live with; it’s just that no one ever cared enough about us to tell us. Our friends couldn’t be bothered, our exes wanted to be rid of us without hassle, our parents were blind to our faults. That realisation should breed extreme modesty.
4. We are ready to love rather than be loved
We start out knowing only about being loved. It comes to seem – very wrongly – like the norm. To the child, it feels as if the parent is spontaneously on hand to comport, guide, entertain, feed and clear up, while remaining almost always warm and cheerful. Plenty of parents don’t reveal how often they have bitten their tongue, fought back the tears and been too tired to take off their clothes after a day of childcare. We should renounce the desire to be loved and instead strive to love.
5. We accept that relationships require administration
The romantic person instinctively sees relationships in terms of emotions, But what a couple get up to together over a lifetime has much more in common with the workings of a small business. They must draw up work rosters, clean, cook, fix, throw away, mind, hire, fire, reconcile and budget.
None of these activities have any glamour whatsoever within the current arrangement of society. Those obliged to do them are therefore highly likely to resent them and feel that something has gone wrong with their lives for having to involve themselves so closely with them. And yet these task are what is truly “romantic” in the sense of “conducive and sustaining love” and should be interpreted as a bedrock of a successful relationship.
6. We understand that sex and love do, and don’t, belong together
The general view expects that love and sex will be aligned, But in truth, they won’t stay so beyond a few months or, at best, one or two years. This is not anyone’s fault. Because relationships in the long term have other key concerns (companionship, administration, another generation), sex will likely suffer. We are ready to get into a long-term relationship when we accept a large degree of sexual resignation and the task of sublimation.
7. We realise we’re not that compatible
The right person is expected to be someone who shares our tastes, interests and general attitudes to life. This might be true in the short term. But, over an extended period of time, the relevance of this fades dramatically; differences inevitably emerge. The person who is truly best suited to us is not the person who shares our tastes, but the person who can negotiate differences in taste intelligently and wisely. It is the capacity to tolerate difference that is the true marker of the right person. Compatibility is an achievement of love; it shouldn’t be its precondition.
We often complain, at tricky points in our relationships, that love have turned out to be too hard. Perhaps we are repeatedly arguing over small domestic details, perhaps it’s been a long while since there was some uninhibited fun and delight. The difficulties not only distress us in and of themselves, they can also feel illegitimate, contrary to the rules of love – and a sign that the relationship itself must be an error. This is a legacy of Romanticism, an ideology that lulls us into the unhelpful belief that love is not something to be worked at, because it is a feeling and not a skill. We need only surrender to our emotions, and our relationships will thrive. In fact, the contrary is true. We must study love the way we study anything else that matters. We should modestly accept the need to enrol at the school of love.
Alain de Botton’s The Course of Love is published by Penguin on 26 January 2017.