The Course of Love

The Course of Love

After reading an extract in The Guardian a few weeks ago I immediately bought The Course of Love by Alain de Botton and started reading it. It’s a really clever book that speaks many great truths about long-term relationships through telling a story about one couple – Rabih and Kirsten. The italicised lessons are interweaved into the fictional tale but manage not to break up the flow – they just prevent you from having to try too hard to remember them as you get immersed in the story of Rabih and Kirsten and wonder how it is going to work out for them. It is beautifully written with what I would describe as patient clarity and is the wisest book I’ve read about relationships.

Near the beginning of the book de Botton lays out the three pillars of the romantic idea of love – finding the right person, opening your heart to them and being accepted. He then challenges this against reality in the rest of the book and shows how Romanticism harms relationships. For instance it means thinking that in real love there is no need to spell things out and that both parties will see the world in precisely the same way. Instead this fantastic quote beautifully summarises what de Botton argues that love is really all about:

He and Kirsten will marry, they will suffer, they will frequently worry about money, they will have a girl first, then a boy, one of them will have an affair, there will be passages of boredom, they’ll sometimes want to murder one another and on a few occasions to kill themselves. This will be the real love story.

Throughout the book there were a number of great insights. Here are my favourite 10:

  1. When we are searching for a partner we are unconsciously looking to re-create the feelings we knew so well in childhood, bad as well as good.
  2. We expect our partners to correctly guess what the problem is as people did to us when we were babies, when our ideas of love were first formed.
  3. We are woefully over-generous to ourselves and harsh to our partners, often believing ourselves to be a straightforward person to live with, what de Botton describes in the case of Rabih as ‘another tricky circumstantial result of having been on his own for a very long time’.
  4. There’s normally quite a good reason for the annoying and seemingly irrational habits of our partners.
  5. People have a tendency to imagine that things are worse in their own relationship than they are for other couples. They often think that any unhappiness is caused by having made an error of choice, rather than realising that this is what relationships are.
  6. It is tempting to contrast negativity from a partner with the encouraging tone of family or friends ‘on whom we’ve never made a comparable set of demands’.
  7. We don’t need to be constantly reasonable in order to have good relationships; ‘all we need to have mastered is the occasional capacity to acknowledge with good grace that we may, in one or two areas, be somewhat insane.’
  8. You’re ready for marriage (and I would add a long term relationship) once you realise it is you not your partner that is difficult.
  9. We need to ‘cherish the perfect happiness that comes in five minute units when, if only for a moment, it all makes sense.’
  10. It’s sticking around that is the weird and exotic achievement.

de Botton concludes that the fault lies with art not life. He argues that we need to tell ourselves more accurate stories that don’t dwell on the beginning of relationships, don’t promise us complete understanding, and that normalise our troubles and show us ‘a melancholy but hopeful path through the course of love’. He has certainly achieved that with this book.