We have this picture in our heads that true love is free of conflict. Swiss-British philosopher and author Alain de Botton tells us it’s not. True love simply involves two humans trying to connect with each other the best way they can, flaws and all. It takes hard work and effort. In that sense, love isn’t just an emotion. It’s a skill, one that has to be learned and practiced over time.
Read this if…
- You’re in a relationship
- You want to learn how long-term relationships last
- You want to learn more about how love works
Alain de Botton is the founder and chairman of The School of Life. It’s a gathering of courses, workshops, and talks on meaning and wisdom for modern lives. He first became known for his book How Proust Can Change Your Life. His essay “Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person” was the most-read article in The New York Times in 2016.
the distilld lessons
We have a picture in our heads that true love is free of conflict. This isn’t true. There’s no such thing as ‘conflict-free’ love. Love is actually about two humans trying to connect with each other the best way they can, flaws and all.
Loving someone takes hard work and effort. Love isn’t all emotion, but a skill. This means we can learn to love and improve how we love over time. In this episode, Alain de Botton talks about what we think of love and what love should truly look like.
Here are the distilld lessons inspired by “The True Hard Work of Love and Relationships” episode of On Being with Krista Tippett:
1. Love is understanding we can never know our partners completely
The kinds of love we see in movies and TV shows are always exciting. They seem beautiful and picturesque, or thrilling even in their drama. These depictions of love have influenced us to strive for similar picturesque love lives. More often than not, however, we fail to replicate the love we see on our screens. This is because the fictional love we see—or hear about in love songs—are simplistic, highly fantasized, and unrealistic.
In reality, love is an attempt made by two flawed individuals to understand and accept each other. They do this despite the fact that they will never fully know each other. In fact, in a study published in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, having a long relationship with someone doesn’t even mean that our perception of them will be accurate. Accepting that we’ll never fully know our partner can be how we start forming a good relationship with them.
2. Love is being open and straightforward about our weaknesses
Often, we tend to latch on to the positive aspects of a person, especially when we’re attracted to them. We magnify those traits in our minds. We start crafting an image of them around those traits. This isn’t fair to them and nor is it fair to us. We impose on them an idea of who we think they should be instead of who they really are. As a result, we become blinded by their good traits that we forget they have flaws, too. In a 2017 article, Alain wrote that we are all flawed and we have bad days. Accepting this early on can help us understand our partners better.
Asking our partner about their weakness can also be a good way to know them better. We can ask them, “What annoys you?”, “What scares you?”, or “What are your weaknesses?” These questions will give us a sense of our partner’s true selves. This may sound too straightforward, but this can save us time and avoid misunderstandings down the line. As we continue the relationship, we don’t have to keep guessing what the other person is really is like.
These kinds of conversation can be tough, but the knowledge we get about our partner will be valuable in the long run. When we allow them to be open to us, and we are similarly open to them, we can realize that we don’t need to be perfect for each other.
3. Love is knowing our partner through communication
We expect that the people we love to understand us without needing to explain. We require intuitive understanding from them. If we have to say it, it means they don’t understand us at all. It’s extraordinary to demand another person that they understand us intuitively. We see children do this. Their moods and behavior change with no clear reason. When they do this, we are patient with them and remind them to “use their words” to communicate their feeling.
We can take a similar approach with our partners. If they are not able to communicate their feelings, tell them to use words. When we encourage communication, we can know their thoughts and feelings without having to guess.
This also shows patience in the relationship. We don’t immediately react with our intuitive understanding of our partner. We create a dialogue with them so we can work out issues together. When we are patient with our partner, we give show them support. This can increase self-improvement and the overall quality of the relationship.
4. Long-lasting love isn’t built on emotion, but hard work
Love is about connection. All of us are hardwired with the need to connect with others. But moments of connection don’t just happen in a relationship. They’re not also constant. That’s why we need to work on it.
Take marriage, for example. People marry each other, but tying the knot doesn’t mean forever. Relationships and marriages can end for a variety of reasons. While some reasons are valid, most of them boil down to our unrealistic idea of marriage.
We imagine that marriages will be perfect. We expect our partners to understand us completely. We think that we will never be lonely again because we’re married. These are the images of love and marriage films impart upon us. We build expectations as a result, and these expectations are not what marriage is.
In reality, marriages have a lot of mundane moments. Once the honeymoon stage is over, couples need to get down to the nitty-gritty of marriage. The practical, everyday things that need to be sorted out can result into conflict. Little things like splitting chores can spiral into big fights. What we initially dismissed to be trivial might cause ripple effects in our relationships.
Day-to-day decisions are the stuff of life. We need to give them more attention and importance. According to Alain, these everyday humdrum activities are the “bedrock of a successful relationship”. No matter how well-matched two people are, problems will come up. Anything we love require hard work like our careers, health, and of course, personal relationships.
5. Love doesn’t always start with compatibility
Many people believe that compatibility is essential before we start romantic relationships. For Alain, compatibility is an achievement of love, not a precondition of it. Compatibility is not simply having the same views or interests. It is also about how two people compromise about their preferences. Compatibility is a matter of tolerance, and not about being identical.
Take our families, for example. We don’t choose the families we’re born into. Fights are common, but we still love them. This shows that we can grow to compromise and be compatible with people despite our differences.
We can mirror this in our other social circles. Love doesn’t just stay within the confines of our homes. Love flows into the public space, into civil society. Love in the public space mean empathizing with people who are different from us. It’s giving them the benefit of the doubt when they don’t share the same beliefs and ideas as us.
At the end of the day, love is both an emotion and a skill. There’s no exact science to it. As we continue to understand love, making mistakes is inevitable. And when we do make these mistakes, we should also remember that love is compassion, for others and ourselves.
For a shorter conversation, the distilld lessons summary are here.