Over the course of a few days, finishing off Alain de Botton’s The Course of Love made me realize that his truly deep thoughts on relationships and love were remarkable. Remarkable and sobering and yet, not that dissimilar from those taught in Buddhist teachings such as those of Thich Nhat Hanh. True Love and How to Love both carry with them beautiful thoughts on love supported by the ideas of mindfulness and Buddhism. In the past I’ve talked about How To Love and decided to pull it off the shelf and relive some of the beautiful ideas presented while comparing those to Alain’s poignant and honest remarks on love.
Alain presents love in the context of two people’s relationship developing over time through many of the milestones and roadblocks we hit along the way. I wanted to spend a few minutes really focusing on the growth aspect of relationships however I encourage you to find this book and give it a read. The book is not only a relationship story, but interjects deep and meaningful thoughts on relationships and love from a philosophical and psychological context. If nothing else it will open up new ways for you to think about your own relationships, whether current or past.
This book was a reflection on my own past relationships and a failed marriage while also forcing me to revisit my own views on marriage and children. Seeing where I was and where I am now and realizing I have a much better sense of what will make my current relationship successful. Alain’s own thoughts on marriage get to the heart of what the collective we envision marriage to mean in today’s ‘romantic’ society and a more honest look at what truly means:
“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 precondition.” – Alain de Botton, The Course of Love
This “right” person in fact changes over time for many of us. The idea of compatibility being an achievement recognizes the need for us to be flexible and always recognizing that change in our lives is inevitable. The things we attempt to control in order to avoid change tend to force themselves to a point where they break. How about changing the message that compatability isn’t about recognizing a perfect match. Compatability is work and effort. It in fact becomes an even bigger challenge as our relationships mature and we are faced with someone who, like ourselves, changes. Recognizing this idea of compatability being an achievement in ourselves allows us to step back and identify areas where we are trying to exert too much control in our relationships. Exerting too much control and perhaps not being open enough to recognize that the other person will change over time as will we. As our comfort with not being in control grows in our own lives so does our ability to respect the change we see in our partners over time.
In many cases we are able to recognize these subtle shifts over time, however they can begin to manifest themselves in negative ways within us. We can easily fall victim to the notion that this person is no longer the person we love because we find ourselves holding on unable to accept change we see before us. Perhaps we see our partner struggling in their career and yet we feel inadequate to help out. Or the small things that we were willing to shrug off and accept early on slowly build into something that now unbalances us. The list is endless. Think of the small things you may have felt a twinge of anger or doubt about early in a relationship and years later have you built these into a small pile in the corner of your mind?
In the age of instant access to media and social media we are inundated with messages of what relationships should be. It feels natural to recognize these changes as something much greater than they are. Over time the idea of a perfect partner begins to wane as we, unbeknownst to them, begin to layer on our own baggage and those small nits become issue. Alain provides some inside into this notion of what we view as a strong relationship slowly being chipped away by external forces and our own inability to accept change:
“But too often a realistic sense of what an endurable relationship is ends up weakened by silence, societal or artistic. We hence imagine that things are far worse for us than they are for other couples. Not only are we are unhappy, we misunderstand how freakish and rare our particular form of unhappiness might be. We end up believing that our struggles are indications of having made some unusual and fundamental error, rather than evidence that our marriages are essentially going entirely according to plan.” – Alain de Botton, The Course of Love
Our struggles with change become errors as Alain describes. Errors that slowly build into something we view as irreversible and then we are left with nothing. These errors that we allow to build up are driven through our own insecurities and fears as Thich Nhat Hanh so eloquently puts it:
“One of the greatest gifts we can offer people is to embody nonattachment and nonfear. This is a true teaching, more precious than money or material resources. Many of us are very afraid, and this fear distorts our lives and makes us unhappy. We cling to objects and to people like a drowning person clings to a floating log. Practicing to realize nondiscrimination, to see the interconnectedness and impermanence of all things, and to share this wisdom with others, we are giving the gift of nonfear. Everything is impermanent. This moment passes. That person walks away. Happiness is still possible.” – Thich Nhat Hanh, How To Love
We see in Thich Nhat Hanh’s words that fear and attachment drive us into these struggles that Alain speaks too. Do you see the errors in your significant other building up and begin to fear that they are somehow worse than you first imagined? Perhaps you ask this question and think maybe they feel the same way. We become attached and unwilling to accept that our partner changes as do we. Moving towards the recognition that the person we are with will change and yet fundamentally still remain the person we fell in love is the path that Thich Nhat Hanh sees as the way. It’s the growth of compatibility that Alain speaks too. It becomes less important to believe we found the perfect person and more important to recognize that we can change in step with that person and not allowing external factors, such as television shows and the Internet, to drive fear and attachment into our lives.
Alain de Botton provides a real look into the inner workings of relationships through sharp philosophical teachings that cut to the core of many issues we face. Our inability to accept change while falling back on our own fears and attachments drives wedges into our relationships. Wedges that grow into errors that then morph into comparisons to what everyone else says a relationship should be. Alain points out that our struggles in relationships and marriages are in fact signs that we are right where we need to be relative to everyone else.
Mindfulness has been a way for me to approach those fears and attachments in such a way that over the past few years I’ve come to accept them and allow them to pass slowly by. I don’t grasp at them like I used too. There isn’t a pile of perceived errors sitting in the corner of my mind. Thich Nhat Hanh provides the true secret to finding this path to love and it begins within:
“The first element of true love is loving kindness. The essence of loving kindness is being able to offer happiness. You can be the sunshine for another person. You can’t offer happiness until you have it for yourself. So build a home inside by accepting yourself and learning to love and heal yourself. Learn how to practice mindfulness in such a way that you can create moments of happiness and joy for your own nourishment. Then you have something to offer the other person.” Thich Nhat Hanh, How to Love
Consider your path to self-love. Your own acceptance of change and how you view your own relationships. Remember that acceptance of change helps to dissolve the fears and attachments we have but true love comes first from love for ourselves.
Questions to consider on this path:
- Do you accept that you, as an individual, will change considerably over the course of your life and a relationship?
- Can you accept that change is completely natural and further, what are some of the ways, even in the past week or month, that you’ve seen change in yourself?
- Now consider what changes you’ve seen in your significant other or an important relationship and without attaching emotion to it, consider how you feel inside about those changes? Truthfully and honest. Have you shared those feelings?