This is, by far, the most accurate account of marriage I have ever read. Alain de Botton’s most recent novel is not for those who want to maintain a fairy-tale version of marriage. It is certainly not for anyone who wants to cling to the idea of a soul mate, someone born to understand your every wish without you even uttering it. It is for those of us who seek to understand why so many marriages fail. Who seek to understand what marriage is really, truly about. (I say here marriage but really I am talking about any kind of long-term coupling). It is not a sad story by any means. It is a realistic story of two flawed people who build a life together. That life includes romance, but also children, mess, affairs, work and heartache. But in the end they continue to “choose each other” as Bruce Feiler would say in his recent book.
The book follows two characters as they meet and fall in love and continues on through their lives for the first few decades of their union. During this time they struggle, sometimes together and sometimes privately, with just what to expect of marriage. In the end they come to understand that with all its flaws marriage offers us something unique and valuable– the opportunity to truly put another’s needs first, over and over, which can only be done by growing as a person.
Of course like the rest of us the characters in de Botton’s book had no idea what marriage was at first. The soon to be husband reflects on his desire to propose and concludes that “He hopes through the act of marring to make an ecstatic sensation [falling in love] perpetual.” (p. 40) Not to be cynical here, I have been happily married for nearly two decades, but to think that by marrying as an act itself you can seal in that feeling of falling in love would be quite misguided. One has to work at continuing to fall in love like one has to work at staying in shape. Sadly if not properly guided many of us will eat too much cake, go to the gym too infrequently and then not recognize that person in the pictures from our 20 year high school reunion. Marriage is much the same. Many of us come to the institution poorly trained and somehow expect that following our instincts will lead us to the habits that build and sustain this marvelous partnership. Years or decades later when the union is on its last breath we wonder what happened.
The main characters also find that being coupled sheds light into areas of our lives that previously we had happily been spared. As de Botton puts it “The single state has a habit of promoting a mistaken self-image of normalcy…[our] tendency to tidy obsessively when …feel[ing] chaotic inside, [the] habit of using work to ward off…anxieties, the difficulty…in articulating what’s on [our] mind when…worried, [the] flurry when [we] can’t find a favorite T-shirt—these eccentricities are all neatly obscured so long as there is no one else around to see [them].” (p. 42) How beautifully this captures our own self-serving bias– that how we are, what we think, what we feel, what we prefer, how we operate, is normal. Forgetting all the while that we are just as weird, conflicted, inconsistent, hypocritical, defensive or even downright crazy as the next person. This self-serving bias leads us to the problem that “Without witnesses, [we] can operate under the benign illusion that [we] may just, with the right person, prove no particular challenge to be around.” (p. 42) Ah, the illusion that we are right and our partner SO wrong! That if only they would come to their senses and agree with us! Be like us!
De Botton also touches on the potentially tragic tendency of humans to move towards familiarity. We think we are searching for that perfect person who will complete us, who will overlook our bad habit of leaving the milk out or staying up until 3am on Facebook only to be obscenely grumpy the next day. But alas what we are actually searching for is a relationship “that it will be reassuringly familiar in its pattern of frustration.” (p. 44) He muses that when we do, accidentally, run into a person who is healthy and not inclined to replicate our painful childhood wounds we find ourselves “rejecting [them] 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 unearnt.” (p. 44)
This is where in working with couples I think it is important to point out the opportunities of what might seem like an unfortunate union. For when we partner with this person who is inclined to hurt us in ways that are similar to our original caregivers we also open up the possibility that these new attachment figures (our partners) can HEAL those old wounds. This is the type of work promoted by Dr. Stan Tatkin in PACT. Dr. Tatkin explains why relationships are so “hard” in his brief Ted Talk and helps us to understand how the things we bring to our relationships– our childhood wounds, our attachment styles, our nervous systems, can undermine our hopes for a perfect union. In working with couples using the PACT style I try to help partners heal each other’s wounds from childhood, which has the nifty benefit of not only freeing up more resources in the now-healed-person but also creates immense gratitude, love and appreciation for the partner-who-healed. It’s a beautiful gift that pays forward.
The characters of de Botton’s book also experience the sad phenomenon pithily described as “if it’s hysterical it’s historical”. Meaning, when you partner reacts hysterically (i.e. going WAY overboard) they are probably “triggered” into some childhood feeling being brought up by the present situation. This has the misfortune of causing a person to react like a lunatic given the current circumstances. When triggered by our spouse, de Botton says “we lose the ability to give people and things the benefit of the doubt; we swiftly and anxiously move towards the worst conclusions that the past once mandated.” (p. 84) The spouse that is 20 minutes late is confused with the father who abandoned us; the wife who circles the room chatting with everyone while her husband is left at the punch bowl becomes the mother who never had time for him. And on and on. These are the circumstances that, if misunderstood, can tank a marriage. But often it takes a professional to help the two lost souls embroiled in these patterns to see what is really going on.
And much to my surprise in reading de Botton’s book, his couple actually finds themselves in the office of an attachment-based couples therapist! I swear de Botton did not consult with me on this. Although if he had it’s certainly what I would have recommended. And as has been my experience for the past decade of using PACT, de Botton’s couple is able to heal what had previously been fodder for battles enumerable. They learn to see the wounded child inside of each other and minister to it. And their love grows immeasurably. It would sound like a fairy tale if I did not see this exact narrative play out so many times in my own practice. His couple learns that “Everyone is always impossible. We are a demented species.” (p. 182) De Botton goes on to show us how “The Romantic vision of marriage stresses the importance of finding the ‘right’ person, which is taken to mean someone in sympathy with the raft of our interests and values. There is no such person over the long term. We are too varied and peculiar. There cannot be lasting congruence. The partner truly best suited to us is not the one who miraculously happens to share every taste but the one who can negotiate differences in taste with intelligence and good grace. Rather than some notional idea of perfect complementarity, it is the capacity to tolerate dissimilarity that is the true marker of the ‘right’ person. Compatibility is an achievement of love; it shouldn’t be its pre-condition. “ (p. 216).
It’s a beautiful book with a real and honest look at marriage, warts and all. Some people ask me how you know if you are ready for marriage. My usual response is that no one can be ready for marriage because it calls you to be someone you are not yet ready to be. Your fullest, highest, most evolved self. But perhaps from now on I will recommend as an alternate answer that you are ready for marriage if you can read this book and still believe in love. If you can see it not as a tragedy but as a testament to the power of two people’s desire to overcome who they were and become better people within the bonds of a partnership that will push their every button. If you can see that as love, then maybe you are ready.
Wishing you health and happiness in all of your connections,