This is the full transcript of British-Swiss philosopher Alain de Botton’s talk titled “Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person.”
Listen to the MP3 audio while reading this transcript: Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person – Alain de Botton
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.
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.
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.
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.
The other thing — the other pattern of behavior, which psychologists have identified — and it tends to apply to people who are in this room, in other words, A types, very outgoing types, strivers — you become in relationships — tell me if I’m wrong, you become what is known as avoidant, which means that when you need someone, it’s precisely at that moment that you pretend you don’t. When you feel more vulnerable, you say, “I’m quite busy at the moment. I’m fine. Thanks. I’m busy today.”
In other words, you don’t reveal the need for another person, which sets them off into a chain of wondering whether you are to be trusted. And it’s then a cycle of low trust. So we get into these patterns of not daring to do the thing that we really need to do, which is to say even though I’m a grown person, maybe I have got a beard, maybe I have been alive for a long time, I’m 6’2″, et cetera, I’m actually a small child inside and I need you like a small child would need its parent. This is so humbling that most of us refuse to make that step and, therefore, refuse the challenge of love.
In short, we don’t know very much how to love. And it sounds very odd because imagine somebody said, look, all of us probably in this room would probably need to go to a school of love. We think, What? A school of love? Love is just an instinct. No, it’s not. It’s a skill, and it’s a skill that needs to be learned. And it’s a skill that our society refuses to consider as a skill.
We are meant to always just follow our feelings. If you keep following your feelings, you will almost certainly make a big mistake in your life.
What is love?
Ultimately love, I believe, is something — first of all, there is a distinction between loving and being loved.
We all start off in life by knowing a lot about being loved. Being loved is the fun bit. That’s when somebody brings you something on a tray and asks you how your day at school went, et cetera. And we grow up thinking that that’s what is going to happen in an adult relationship. We can be forgiven for that.
It’s an ununderstandable mistake, but it’s a very tragic mistake. And it leads us not to pay attention to the other side of the equation, which is to love.
What does it really mean “to love”?
To love ultimately is to have the willingness to interpret someone’s on the surface not very appealing behavior in order to find more benevolent reasons why it may be unfolding. In other words, to love someone is to apply charity and generosity of interpretation. Most of us are in dire need of love because actually we need to be — we need to have some slack cut for us because our behavior is often so tricky that if we don’t do this, we wouldn’t get through any kind of relationship.
But we’re not used to thinking that that is the core of what love is. Core of what love is, is the willingness to interpret another’s behavior. What we tend to be very bad at is recognizing that anyone that we can love is going to be a perplexing mixture of the good and the bad.
There’s a wonderful psychoanalyst called Melanie Klein, who was active in the ’50s and ’60s, originally from Vienna, active in North London studying how children learned about relationships from the parental situation. And she came up with a very fascinating analysis.
She argued that when children are small, very small, they don’t really realize that a parent is one character. They actually do what she called split a parent into a good parent and a bad parent. And so this is when a baby is really at an infant stage. So what you do is you split into the good mother or — and the bad mother. And it takes a long, long time.
Melanie Klein thought it might be until you are 4 until you actually realize that the good and the bad mother are one person and you become ambivalent. In other words, you become able to hate someone and really go off them and at the same time also love them and you are able not to run away from that situation. You are able to say, “I love someone and hate them and that’s okay.” And Melanie Klein thought this was an immense psychological achievement when we can no longer merely divide people into absolutely brilliant, perfect, marvelous and hateful, let me down, disappointed me. Everyone who we love is going to disappoint us.
We start off with idealization, and we end up often with denigration. The person goes from being absolutely marvelous to being absolutely terrible. Maturity is the ability to see that there are no heros or sinners really among human beings. All of us are this wonderfully perplexing mixture of the good and the bad. And adulthood, true psychological maturity — you may need to be 65 before it hits you; I’m not there yet — is the capacity to realize that anyone that you love is going to be this mixture of the good and the bad.
So love is not just admiration for strength. It is also tolerance for weakness and recognition of ambivalence. The reason why we are going to probably make some real mistakes when we choose our love partners, some of you in this room have made some stunning mistakes.
Now, why is this?
The reason is that we have been told that the way to find a good partner is to follow your instinct; right? Follow your heart. That’s the mantra. And so we are all the time reminded that if we stop reasoning, analyzing — By the way, are there people in this room who think that you can think too much about your emotions? That sort of view people get you can think too much. A few people. Okay. You can’t think too much.
You can only overthink badly. But there is no such thing as thinking too much about emotions. But the problem is that we live in a romantic culture that privileges impulse. Now, when it comes to love, something tricky occurs because you don’t have to be a paid-up believer in psychotherapy or psychoanalysis to realize that the way we love as adults sits on top of our early childhood experiences.
And in early childhood, the way that we learned about love was not just via experiences of tenderness and kindness and generosity. The love that we will have tasted as children will also be bound up with experiences of being let down, being humiliated, maybe being with a parent who treated us very harshly, who scolded us, who made us feel small in some way. In other words, quite a lot about our early experiences of love are bound up with various kinds of suffering.
Now, something quite bad happens when we start to go out into the adult world and start to choose love partners. We think we’re out to find partners who will make us happy, but we’re not. We’re out to find partners who will feel familiar. And that may be a very different thing.
Because familiarity may be bound up with particular kinds of torture. And this explains why sometimes people will say to us, “Look, there’s a wonderful person. You should go and date them. They are good looking. They’re charming. They’re all sorts of thing.” And we go out with them and we date them. And we do recognize that they are really wonderful and amazing. But we have to confess to our partners that — to our friends that actually we found this person — often we struggle with the vocabulary.
We say maybe not that exciting or maybe not sexy or a bit boring. But really what we mean is that we’ve detected in this really quite accomplished person someone who will not be able to make us suffer in the way that we need to suffer in order to feel that love is real. And that’s why we reject them. So we are not merely on a quest to be happy. We are on a quest to suffer in ways that feel familiar, and this radically undermines our capacity to find a good partner.
Here’s another reason why we are going to come unstuck in the field of love. We tend to believe that the more a lover is right for us, the less we’re going to have to explain about who we are, how we feel, what upsets us, what we want. We believe, rather as a young child believes of its parent, that a true lover will guess what’s in our minds. One of the great errors that human beings make is permanently to feel that other people know what’s in their minds without us having said what’s in our minds. It’s very cumbersome to use words. It’s such a bore.
And when it comes to love, we have this deep desire that will simply be understood wordlessly. It’s touching. It’s a beautiful romantic idea, but it also leads to a catastrophic outbreak of sulking.
Now, what is sulking?
Sulking is an interesting phenomenon. We don’t just sulk with anyone. We sulk with people who we feel should understand us and, yet, for some reason have decided not to. And that’s why we tend to reserve ours sulks for people who we love and who we think love us. And they tell us something — they unwittingly will trigger a negative reaction in us and we’ll sulk. And they will say, “What’s wrong with you, darling?” And we’ll say, “Nothing.”
And they’ll say, “Come on, you’re upset” We’ll go, “No, I’m not I’m absolutely fine.” It’s not true. And we’ll go upstairs and we’ll shut the door and we won’t tell them what’s wrong with us.
And then they will knock at the door and they will say, “Please, just tell me.” And we’ll say no because we want them to read our souls, because we expect that a true lover can understand what we feel and who we are without us speaking. This is a catastrophe for our capacity to form lasting relationships. If you do not explain, you can never be understood. The root to a good marriage and to good love is the ability to become a good teacher.
Now, teaching sounds like a narrow profession, those guys in tweed jackets and fusty with a chalkboard, et cetera. I’m not talking about that kind of teaching. All of us, whatever our job aspirations, whatever it is we do, have to become teachers. Now, teaching is merely the word that we give to the skill of getting an idea from one head into another in a way that it’s likely to be accepted. And most of us are appalling teachers.
Most of us teach when we’re tired, when we’re frightened. What are we frightened of? We are frightened we’ve married an idiot. And because we are so frightened, we start screaming at them: “You’ve got to understand!” And the thing is that, unfortunately, by the time you have started to humiliate the person you want to understand something, lesson over. You will never get anyone to understand what you want them to understand so long as you make them feel small.
In order to teach well, you need to be relaxed. You need to accept that maybe your partner won’t understand. And, also, you need a culture within a couple that two people are going to need to teach each other and, therefore, also learn from one another.
And this brings me to the next reason why you are going to have a very unhappy relationship, probably. And that is because you probably believe that when somebody tries to tell you something about yourself that’s a little ticklish and a little uncomfortable, they are attacking you. They’re not. They are trying to make you into a better person. And we don’t tend to believe that this has a role in love. We tend to believe that true love means accepting the whole of us. It doesn’t.
No one should accept the whole of us. We are appalling. Do you really want the whole of you accepted? No. That’s not love. The full display of our characters, the full articulation of who we are should not be something that we do in front of anyone that we care about.
So what we need to do is to accept that the other person is going to want to educate us and that it isn’t a criticism. Criticism is merely the wrong word that we apply to a much nobler idea, which is to try and make us into better versions of ourselves. But we tend to reject this idea very strongly.
Is there any hope?
Of course, there’s hope. Look, I mentioned the word “good enough.” It’s a phrase taken from a wonderful English psychoanalyst called Donald Winnicott. He had a lot of parents who would come to him and say things like, “I’m so worried. I’m not a good parent.” My child has this problem or that problem, et cetera. And he came up with a wonderful phrase.
He said, “You are most likely to be a good-enough parent” And it’s a relief from our otherwise punishing perfectionism. The good thing is that none of us are perfect and, therefore, we don’t need perfection. And the demand for perfection will lead you to only one thing, loneliness. You cannot have perfection and company.
To be in company with another person is to be negotiating imperfection every day. Incompatibility, we are all incompatible. But it is the work of love to make us graciously accommodate each other and ourselves to each other’s incompatibilities. And, therefore, compatibility is an achievement of love. It isn’t what you need from the outset.
Of course, you’re not going to be totally compatible. That’s not the point. It is through love that you gradually accept the need to be compatible. We probably can’t change our types; right? So all of us — many of us have got types who are going to cause us real problems. They may be too distant. They may be arrogant. They’re going to torture us in some way.
Now, friends say casually say to us, “Chuck them. Get out of the relationship,” et cetera; right? No I don’t — we’re realists here at Google, and I’m giving you realistic advice. You’re not going to manage to change your type. Let’s get that for granted. What you can do — and this is a big achievement — is to change how you characteristically respond to your tricky type. Most of us have formed the way that we respond to tricky types in early childhood. So we had a distant parent.
We have now chosen a distant lover. When we were very young, we responded to that distant parent by attention seeking. We rattled and banged. And now we are adults, we rattle and bang in our own way. We think that’s going to help. It doesn’t. It creates a cycle that’s going to be a vicious cycle. It is not going to get us anywhere. It is open to us at any time to have a more mature response to the challenges that the types of people we’re attracted to are going to pose for us. And that is an immense step forward, an immense achievement.
The other thing we should do is recognize an ability of compromise. One of the most shameful things to ever have to admit is to say, “This is my partner I’ve compromised. In choosing them, I’ve compromised.”
“Why have you compromised?”
“Well, I’m not that attractive myself. I have got lots of problems. I’m a bit nutty. Frankly I couldn’t pull anyone better but they’re very nice. They’re okay.”
You would think, loser, it’s not true. Compromise is noble. We compromise in every area of life. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t compromise in our love life. Maybe we’re sticking around for the children. Good! People say, “Oh, they are only sticking around for the children.” That’s a wonderful reason to stick around. Why else are you going to stick around? Okay.
So let’s look a bit more benevolently at the art of compromise. It’s a massive achievement in love. I’m going to end with a quote from one of my favorite philosophers.
Danish, 19th century, very gloomy philosopher called Kierkegaard. And Kierkegaard in his book “Either/Or” had a wonderful outburst where he basically said, “Of course, you’re going to marry the wrong person and make the wrong decisions in a whole row of areas. And the reason you’re going to do this is that you’re human. Therefore, do not berate yourself for doing what humans do.”
This is what he says, “Marry, and you will regret it; don’t marry, you will also regret it; marry or don’t marry, you will regret it either way. Laugh at the world’s foolishness, you’ll regret it; weep over it, you’ll regret that, too; laugh at the world’s foolishness or weep over it, you will regret both. Hang yourself, you will regret it; don’t hang yourself, you will regret that, too; hang yourself or don’t hang yourself, you will regret it either way. Whether you hang yourself or don’t hang yourself, you will regret both.”
This gentleman is the essence of all philosophy. Thank you very much.