Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person: Alain de Botton (Transcript)

Alain de Botton

This is the full transcript of British-Swiss philosopher Alain de Botton’s talk titled “Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person.”


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I have been asked to talk to you today about an essay that I wrote for “The New York Times” last year which went under a rather dramatic heading. It was called, “Why you will marry the wrong person

And perhaps we can just begin — we’re among friends — by just asking how many of you in the room do feel on balance that you have married the wrong person? I mean, where are my friends? Yeah, a lady there, a couple people there. Five, ten I see 30 people in the room, and so we always have to triple that.

So there’s a pretty hefty majority. But I’m here to give counsel and to give consolation for this situation. You know, there’s a lot of anger around our love lives privately held. But a lot of us go around feeling quite enraged, angry privately, about the way that our love lives have gone.

My task today is to turn that anger into sadness. If we manage to turn rage into grief, we will have made psychological progress. And this is the task today.

What lies behind rage very often is an unusual quality because we tend to think that very angry people are sort of dark and pessimistic characters. Absolutely not. Scratch the surface of any regularly angry person and you will find a wild optimist. It is, in fact, hope that drives rage.

Think of the person who screams every time they can’t find their house keys or every time they get stuck in traffic. These unfortunate characters are evincing a curious but reckless faith in a world in which keys never go astray, the roads to mysteriously traffic-free. It is hope that is turbo charging their rage.

So if we are to get a little bit less sad and — a little less angry about our love lives, we will have to diminish some of our hopes. It’s very hard to diminish hope around love because there are vast industries designed to inflate our expectations of love. There’s a wonderful quote from the German philosopher Theodor Adorno who in the 1960s said the most dangerous man in America was Walt Disney.

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And the reason for his attack on Walt was because he believed that Walt was the prime agent of hope and, therefore, of rage and, therefore, of bitterness. And he thought that it was the task of philosophy to let us down gently, which is what I’m going to be doing today.

So remember the theme of the talk, “Why you will marry the wrong person.” There are a number of reasons why this is going to happen to you or has maybe already in the privacy of your heart happened to you. I should say that it’s not that bad.

And the reason is that all of us will not manage to find the right person, but we will probably all of us manage to find a good-enough person. And that’s success as you will come to see.

One of the reasons why we are not going to be able to pull this one hope as successfully as we might have hoped at the early — at the outset of our teenage hurdle when we were contemplating love is that we are very strange. I’m very strange, and you’re very strange. You don’t let on.

We’re not going to do anything very dangerous, but we are basically psychologically quite strange. We don’t normally know very much about this strangeness. It takes us a long, long time before we are really on top of the way in which we are hard to live with.

Does anyone in this room think that they’re quite easy to live with on balance? Yeah? Oh, my goodness. Okay. I don’t want to be rude, but please come see me afterwards.

I know that you’re not easy to live with. And the reason is that you’re Homo sapiens and, therefore, you are not easy to live with. No one is. But there’s a wall of silence that surrounds us from a deeper acquaintance with what is actually so difficult about us.

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Our friends don’t want to tell us. Why would they bother? They just want a pleasant evening out. Our friends know more about us and more about our flaws. Probably after ten minutes’ acquaintance, a stranger will know more about your flaws than you might learn over 40 years of life on the planet. Our capacity to intuit what is wrong with us is very weak.

Our parents don’t tell us very much. Why would they? They love us too much. They know. They conceived. Of course, they followed us from the crib. They know what’s wrong with us. They’re not going to tell us. They just want to be sweet. And our ex-lovers, a vital source of knowledge. They know. Absolutely they know.

But do you remember that speech that they gave? It was moving at the time when they said that they wanted a little space and were attracted to travel and were interested in the culture of southeast Asia. Nonsense. They thought lots of things were wrong with but they weren’t going to be bothered to tell you. They were just out of there.

Why would they bother? So this knowledge that is out there is not in you. It’s out there, but it’s not in you. And so, therefore, we progress through the world with a very — a low sense of what is actually wrong with us. Not least all of us are addicts. Almost all of us are addicts, not injecting heroin as such but addicts in the sense we need to redefine what addiction is.

I like to define addiction not in terms of the substance you’re taking. In other words, I’m a heroin addict. I’m a cocaine addict. No. Addiction is basically any pattern of behavior whereby you cannot stand to be with yourself and sort of the more uncomfortable thoughts and, more importantly, emotions that come from being on your own.

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And so, therefore, you can be addicted to almost anything so long as it keeps you away from yourself, as long as it keeps you away from tricky self-knowledge. And most of us are addicts. Thanks to all sorts of technologies and distractions, et cetera, we can have a good life where we will almost certainly be guaranteed not to spend any time with ourselves except maybe for certain kind of airlines still don’t have the gadgets to distract us.

But otherwise, you can be guaranteed you don’t have to talk to yourself. And this is a disaster for your capacity to have a relationship with another person because until you know yourself, you can’t properly relate to another person.

One of the reasons why love is so tricky for us is that it requires us to do something we really don’t want to do, which is to approach another human being and say “I need you. I wouldn’t really survive without you. I’m vulnerable before you.” And there’s a very strong impasse in all of us to be strong and to be well-defended and not to reveal our vulnerability to another person.

Psychologists talk of two patterns of response that tend to crop up in people whenever there is a danger of needing to be extremely vulnerable, dangerously vulnerable, and exposed to another person.

The first response is to get what psychologists call anxiously attached. Attachment theory, some of you may know. So when you are anxiously attached to somebody, rather than saying, “I need you, I depend on you,” you start to get very procedural. You say, “You are ten minutes late,” or, “The bin bags need to be taken out.” Or you start to get strict when actually what you want to do is to ask a very poignant question: Do you still care about me? But we don’t dare to ask that question, so instead we get nasty. We get stiff. We get procedural.

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