Is love just a selfish act?

Filosofen Alain de Botton funderar över moderna relationer och hur man överlever dem i sin nya roman ”Kärlekens väg”. Författaren och bloggaren Sandra Beijer fick chansen att ställa fem frågor om kärlek och spruckna relationer till honom.

/ 5.05.2017

Is love just a selfish act?

The adult longing for unconditional love like the one you received as a child is a recurring theme in The Course of Love (Kärlekens väg). Love as an idea appears to be purely selfish, where getting attention from your partner or perhaps the obvious understanding of one another is the primary thing; never having to address directly what you want, and still get it.

I have given this a great deal of thought, thinking about whether I agree or not. I partly understand it, but isn’t this the great thing about love not having to put yourself in the centre? The feeling that you are prepared to throw yourself in front of a lorry for another person? To put yourself aside in order to make sure that the person you love is always feeling better than you are.

The reason your words are making me anxious is that if the relationship first and foremost is about fulfilling your own needs, the actual person you are devoted to becomes unimportant. This means that you are only seeking attention to yourself, and not focusing on the peculiarities that make another person unique.

Confusingly, we speak of ‘love’ as one thing, rather than discerning the two very different varieties that lie beneath the single word: being loved and loving. We should marry when we are ready to do the latter and are aware of our unnatural, immature fixation on the former.

We start out knowing only about ‘being loved.’ It comes to seem – very wrongly – like the norm. To the child, it feels as if the parent is simply spontaneously on hand to comfort, guide, entertain, feed, clear up and remain almost always warm and cheerful. Parents don’t reveal how often they have bitten their tongue, fought back the tears and been too tired to take off their clothes after a day of childcare. The relationship is almost entirely non-reciprocal. The parent loves; but they do not expect the favour to be returned in any significant way. The parent does not get upset when the child has not noticed the new hair cut, asked carefully-calibrated questions about how the meeting at work went or suggested that they go upstairs to take a nap. Parent and child may both ‘love’, but each party is on a very different end of the axis, unbeknownst to the child.

This is why in adulthood, when we first say we long for love, what we predominantly mean is that we want to be loved as we were once loved by a parent. We want a recreation in adulthood of what it felt like to be ministered to and indulged. In a secret part of our minds, we picture someone who will understand our needs, bring us what we want, be immensely patient and sympathetic to us, act selflessly and make it all better.

This is – naturally – a disaster. For a relationship to work, we need to move firmly out of the child – and into the parental position. We need to become someone who will be willing to subordinate their own demands and concerns to the needs of another.

How do you know if you are making the right choice?

I come from a home with an absent father and all my life I have tried to shy away from men like him. I have tried to look for confident, calm men with healthy relationships with their parents, with their feet on the ground – good on paper – with sound values. Still, I have been left twice in very similar ways, exactly the same way my father left my mother. Is this a coincidence, or does one subconsciously look for something familiar, even if this is the opposite of healthy and sound? Is it even possible to choose your relationship, and how do you avoid stepping into a pattern? Are you doomed from the very beginning?

How do we choose the people we fall in love with? The Romantic answer is that our instincts naturally guide us to individuals who are kind and good for us. Love is a sort of ecstasy that descends when we feel ourselves in the presence of a benign and nourishing soul, who will answer our emotional needs, understand our sadness and strengthen us for the hard tasks of our lives. In order to locate our lover, we must let our instincts carry us along, taking care never to impede them through pedantic psychological analysis and introspection or else considerations of status, wealth or lineage. Our feelings will tell us clearly enough when we have reached our destiny. To ask someone with any degree of rigour why exactly they have chosen a particular partner is – in the Romantic world-view – simply an unnecessary and offensive misunderstanding of love: true love is an instinct that accurately and naturally settles on those with a capacity to make us happy. The Romantic attitude sounds warm and kind. Its originators certainly imagined that it would bring an end to the sort of unhappy relationships previously brokered by parents and society. The only difficulty is that our obedience to instinct has, very often, proved to be a disaster of its own. Respecting the special feelings we get around certain people in nightclubs and train stations, parties and websites and that Romanticism so ably celebrated in art appears not to have led us to be any happier in our unions than a Medieval couple shackled into marriage by two royal courts keen to preserve the sovereignty of a slice of ancestral land. ‘Instinct’ has been little better than ‘calculation’ in underwriting the quality of our love stories.

Romanticism would not at this point, however, give up the argument quite so easily. It would simply ascribe the difficulties we often have in love to not having looked hard enough for that central fixture of Romantic reverie: the right person. This being is inevitably still out there (every soul must have its soulmate, Romanticism assures us), it is just that we haven’t managed to track them down – yet. So we must continue the search, with all the technology and tenacity necessary, and maybe, once the divorce has come through and the house has been sold, we’ll get it right. But there’s another school of thought, this one influenced by psychoanalysis, which challenges the notion that instinct invariably draws us to those who will make us happy. The theory insists that we don’t fall in love first and foremost with those who care for us in ideal ways, we fall in love with those who care for us in familiar ways. Adult love emerges from a template of how we should be loved that was created in childhood and is likely to be entwined with a range of problematic compulsions that militate in key ways against our chances of growth. We may believe we are seeking happiness in love, but what we are really after is familiarity. We are looking to re-create, within our adult relationships, the very feelings we knew so well in childhood – and which were rarely limited to just tenderness and care. The love most of us will have tasted early on was confused with other, more destructive dynamics: feelings of wanting to help an adult who was out of control, of being deprived of a parent’s warmth or scared of his or her anger, or of not feeling secure enough to communicate our trickier wishes. How logical, then, that we should as adults find ourselves rejecting certain candidates not because they are wrong but because they are a little too right – in the sense of seeming somehow excessively balanced, mature, understanding and reliable – given that in our hearts, such rightness feels foreign and unearned. We chase after more exciting others, not in the belief that life with them will be more harmonious, but out of an unconscious sense that it will be reassuringly familiar in its patterns of frustration.

Do you ever really get over someone?

And by that I mean really, like 100 percent over. I am not so sure myself. I have had three relationships in my life, and sometimes, when the memory of one of them pops up, when I pass a certain bench in a specific park or the most obvious: when I run in to one of them, it is always with a sense of melancholy. I no longer want them, but the melancholy part of our lost twosomeness never seems to disappear. I know that most people say that they are over their former loved ones. But is it possible that the vast majority is lying?

Or do large pieces of melancholy and sadness take part of your emotional spectra the older you get, the more relationships you go through?

I agree that there will always be melancholy. In a way, one never quite gets over those we have loved.

But we can make it better or worse. One of the ways we do make it worse is to try to stay friends with our exes, in my view.

There are some very strong and socially-endorsed reasons why partners breaking up generally try to remain friends. To the person being – however nicely – rejected, the promise of friendship can feel like an emotionally-reassuring consolation prize. We may no longer be allowed to share their bed, have children with them or end our days in their company, but at least something can be rescued from the ashes: we will continue to be able to call them when we like, share our fears and go to the movies together. To the person performing – however nicely – the execution, the promise of friendship is equally attractive. We may be itching to eject the partner but we are not – for that matter – devoid of feeling. We are, as we might say in sentimental moments, extremely fond of the soon-to-be ex. We just don’t want to end our time on earth with them, let alone reject all sexual possibilities in their name. Furthermore, we are deeply attached to the idea that we’re not monsters. And as we know, nice people always try to be friends with their exes.

The arguments may sound wise but, from close up, they are deeply fraught and in their own way, a catastrophe for both sides. For the rejected party, the step from lover to friend is an eternally humiliating demotion. To go from the idea of a joint life-long future to a dinner every second Thursday is, to put it mildly, a come down. Worse, every sighting of the ex is guaranteed to re-ignite hope and then further insult. One isn’t acquiring a friend, more an unwitting torturer. As for the executing party, the ex is a constant reminder of one’s guilt and ruthlessness. One can’t even relax into being kind, lest one’s intentions be misread and, after a few drinks, they burst into tears or attempt to take one’s hand. The idea of trying to be friends constitutes a touching attempt to honour the best sides of a relationship in which two people invested heavily. Two lovers can’t, so the thought goes, simply vanish from each other’s lives after all that; a friendship is invoked to memorialise an episode of genuine importance. But, looked at more dispassionately, friendship isn’t in any real sense faithful to love. Friendship with an ex does a grave disservice both to the memory of the relationship at its height and the merits of intimate friendship. It’s at once a betrayal of everything a good relationship was and a slight on the ideals of friendship, which shouldn’t be built out of the remnants of another, more ardent condition. What we should replace love with isn’t friendship but that far more honest state: polite distance. That and a real assurance that the relationship, in its best and most enduring light, will always live on in the one place it can safely always do so: memory.

Is a writer someone who mourns deeper and longer?

My break-ups have been tremendously hard, both mentally and physically. Long lasting and draining, they have stayed with me and I have sometimes felt like I am dying from sorrow. Of course, you never do. I have a manic side making me feel like I have to save every memory in an archive, out of fear that they will dissolve into nothing if I don’t. Because, honestly, the small details in a lost relationship are utterly worthless when you no longer share a common future.

I have been thinking about this: am I like this because I am writing, or rather: do I write because am this way? My own emotions and experiences are a memory bank to look back to when I write my novels. For good and bad, obviously. What do you think? Is the creative mind a more nostalgic creature?

I think that clever and creative people are often more lonely than others. There are few more shameful confessions to make than that we are lonely. The basic assumption is that no respectable person could ever feel isolated – unless they had just moved country or been widowed. Yet in truth, a high degree of loneliness is an inexorable part of being a sensitive, intelligent human. It’s a built-in feature of a complex existence. There are several big reasons for this:

  • Much of what we need recognised and confirmed by others – a lot of what it would be extremely comforting to share – is going to be disturbing to society at large. Many of the ideas in the recesses of our minds are too odd, contrary, subtle or alarming to be safely revealed to anyone else. We face a choice between honesty and acceptability and – understandably – mostly choose the latter
  • It takes a lot of energy to listen to another person and enter sympathetically into their experiences. We should not blame others for their failure to focus on who we are. They may want to meet us, but we should accept the energy with which they will keep the topic of their own lives at the centre of the conversation.
  • We must all die alone, which really means, that our pain is for us alone to endure. Others can throw us words of encouragement, but in every life, we are out on the ocean drowning in the swell and others, even the nice ones, are standing on the shore, waving cheerily.
  • It is deeply unlikely that we will ever find someone on exactly the same page of the soul as us: we will long for utter congruity, but there will be constant dissonance because we appeared on the earth at different times, are the product of different families and experiences and are just not made of quite the same fabric. So they won’t be thinking just the same as us on coming out of the cinema. And looking out at the night sky, just when we want them to say something highbrow and beautiful, they will perhaps be remembering a painfully banal and untimely detail from an area of domestic life (or vice versa). It is – almost – comic.
  • We will almost certainly never meet the people best qualified to understand us, but they do exist. Probably they once walked past us in the street, though neither of us had the slightest idea of the potential for connection. Or maybe they died in Sydney two weeks ago or won’t be born until the 22nd century. It isn’t a conspiracy. We would just have needed a lot more luck.
  • The problem is sure to get worse, the more thoughtful and perceptive we are. There will simply be less people like us around. It isn’t a Romantic myth: loneliness truly is the tax we have to pay to atone for a certain complexity of mind.
  • The desire to undress someone is for a long time far more urgent than the desire for good conversation – and so we end up locked in relationships with certain people we don’t have much to say to, because we were once fatefully interested in the shape of their nose and the colour of their remarkable eyes.

And yet, despite all this, we should not be frightened or discomfited by our pervasive loneliness. At an exasperated moment, near the end of his life, the German writer Goethe, who appeared to have had a lot of friends, exploded bitterly: ‘No one has ever properly understood me, I have never fully understood anyone; and no one understands anyone else.’ It was a helpful outburst from such a great man. It isn’t our fault: a degree of distance and mutual incomprehension isn’t a sign that life has gone wrong. It’s what we should expect from the very start. And when we do, benefits may flow:

  • Once we accept loneliness, we can get creative: we can start to send out messages in a bottle: we can sing, write poetry, produce books and blogs, activities stemming from the realisation that people around us won’t ever fully get us but that others – separated across time and space – might just.
  • The history of art is the record of people who couldn’t find anyone in the vicinity to talk to. We can take up the coded offer of intimacy in the words of a Roman poet who died in 10BC or the lyrics of a singer who described just our blues in a recording from Nashville in 1963.
  • Loneliness makes us more capable of true intimacy if ever better opportunities do come along. It heightens the conversations we have with ourselves, it gives us a character. We don’t repeat what everyone else thinks. We develop a point of view. We might be isolated for now, but we’ll be capable of far closer, more interesting bonds with anyone we do eventually locate.
  • Even the people we think of as not lonely are in fact lonely. Years from now, members of that group who are presently out smiling and laughing may tell you, in a crisis, that they always felt misunderstood. The jovial camaraderie and laughter isn’t a proof that they have found an answer; it’s evidence of the desperate lengths some people go to hide the fact that we are all irremediably alone.
  • Loneliness renders us elegant and strangely alluring. It suggests there’s more about us to understand than the normal patterns of social intercourse can accommodate – which is something to take pride in it. A sense of isolation truly is – as we suspect but usually prevent ourselves from feeling from fear of arrogance – a sign of depth. When we admit our loneliness, we are signing up to a club that includes the people we know from the paintings of Edward Hopper, the poems of Baudelaire and the songs of Leonard Cohen. Lonely, we enter a long and grand tradition; we find ourselves (surprisingly) in great company.

Enduring loneliness is almost invariably better than suffering the compromises of false community. Loneliness is simply a price we may have to pay for holding on to a sincere, ambitious view of what companionship must and could be.

Why do we love?

Human beings are the only creatures (as far a we know) who fall in love. Who faint out of love, who can’t eat, sleep or work when love strikes. And in the same way, yet the opposite, we feel bad when the one we love chooses to leave us. Is it worth it? Wouldn’t we be better off living with our best friends, raise our children together and have sex with other people we are attracted to, whenever we feel like it? Is love a gift or a curse?

One of the haunting thoughts that can make us especially snappy and bitter in relationships is the idea that if only we were single, we would be a lot happier. In love, we are so conscious of the troubles of our present lives, we are naturally drawn to look back and remember the nicer aspects of solitude. We remember being able to get up whenever we wanted; we recall not having to fret about where we threw things. We remember how inoffensive our own bad habits were, when we were the only ones to witness them. We recall not having to justify our meal choices, however eccentric; we could go out somewhere and never tell anyone; we could (when we felt like it) work through till 2 a.m. without being accused of being obsessive or cold. We could have hope for a better future. It was all so nice in comparison with the life we live now.

But memory is a very unreliable instrument – which isn’t a small point, for this cognitive frailty has a huge impact on how we assess our lives in the present. It seems we are editors of genius and know just enough about how to romanticise our single days to poison our conjugal ones.

The ideal solution would be if, long before we met anyone, a talented film-maker were charged with making a close observational documentary about our single lives. They’d capture our face at 5.30pm on a winter Sunday afternoon, as the sun begins to set and we know we’ll be alone till we reach the office on Monday morning. They’d observe us looking across the room at someone at a party and not having the courage to do more. They’d capture us spending a lot of time at our parents’ house, and growing increasingly tetchy in their company. They’d show us struggling to know what to do when the fridge stopped working or we felt a terrible pain in our stomach. We’d then be required to view this documentary at regular intervals just after a bruising fight with our partner. It would provide crucial evidence – which our own memories are so good at strategically omitting – of how less than ideal being single can be and our resentment against our current state would be proportionally diminished.

We would realise that though we are sad now, we were also very sad then. We would accept, with good grace and a touch of dark humour, that life simply gives us few opportunities to be content.

Alain de Botton (UK) är författare, filosof och programledare. Han skriver om kärlek, resor, arkitektur och litteratur. de Botton är också grundare till Londonbaserade The School of Life, som vill öka den emotionella intelligensen i samhället genom kultur. Hans senaste roman Kärlekens väg har precis utkommit på svenska.

Sandra Beijer är författare till romanerna Det handlar om dig och Allt som blir kvar. Hon driver också en av Sveriges största bloggar, niotillfem