The Course of Love: A Novel
Alain de Botton
Hardback: Simon & Schuster, 2016.
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Reviewed by Alden Bass
This is not Alain de Botton’s first attempt to write a book about love. Twenty years ago he wrote his debut novel Essays in Love, a story about a boy and a girl who meet on a plane and – you guessed it – fall in love. An essay is an attempt, a beginning, and in this more mature reflection on love de Botton determines to see love through to its end. Along the way, he speculates on what precisely is the end of love in a series of philosophical narratorial asides.
Rather unromantically, The Course of Love is a story about marriage. Specifically, two very average Edinburghers named Rabih and Kirsten who date, get engaged, marry, settle down, have kids, have affairs, and go to counseling. Their marriage is the Everymarriage. Which is precisely the kind of story de Botton needs to develop his thesis. (Yes, this is a novel with a thesis.) Namely, love is a sort of existential rootedness, a sense of security and familiarity which grounds one to love and serve others.
Psychologists have discerned in our use of the word “love” three distinct meanings. 1) Attraction, that magical feeling of falling in love which drives us made, but mercifully only lasts for a few months. 2) Lust or limerence, that occasional passionate desire for another person which can ignite at any time, regardless of attachment. 3) Attachment, the long-term committed love which binds people together even after the lust or initial attraction has simmered or burned out. De Botton explores all three phenomena, but focuses on the third meaning, love as committed relationship. “Love stories begin,” de Botton avers, when a partner exchanges “solemn vows promising to hold us, and be held captive by us, for life.”
Attachment theory holds that adult relationships reflect our childhood experiences with parents. While many if not most children experience some deficiency in their parental love leading to anxious or avoidant attachment, the best relationships are characterized by a total acceptance called secure attachment. As adults, we continue to seek that security which we had as children in romantic relations. Humans are fundamentally relational beings, and (he argues) we can only be complete with and through some other person. “True love should involve an acceptance of a partner’s whole being…to be properly loved must always mean being endorsed for all that one is.” True love does not just make us happy, it makes us confident.
This sort of relationship requires a great deal of intimacy and a good bit of time, which is why marriage is so important. Marriage is an opportunity to “study each other’s characters in exceptional detail,” which really means realizing how crazy and messed up our partner is. “The only people who can still strike us as normal are those we don’t yet know very well.” All of us have skeletons in the closet, mommy-issues, daddy-issues, histories of abuse and of abusing – none of us are perfect. Marriage is allowing another human to see the wreck and ruin of our inner lives. In so doing, we assume a huge risk: “there is no one more likely to destroy us than the person we marry.” With its lifelong vows, marriage mitigates the risk of total acceptance, sort of like a pact of mutually assured destruction. De Botton admits that marriage is “practically unnecessary” in the 21st century, yet marriage continues to be the best way to learn to love and be loved.
Readiness for marriage means “giving up on perfection.” We must see ourselves as we truly are – flawed, unreasonable, insane even. Being accepted by another helps us accept ourselves, and from that sense of security we learn to be better listeners and better communicators. In other words, better lovers. Sadly, such self-confidence is allusive. We need constant affirmation, sexual and otherwise. Marriages fall apart when spouses can no longer depend on one another for total acceptance; relationships have limits, which we all know, yet we spend our adult lives frustrated that we no longer have the complete affection known from childhood.
At one point in the book, such feelings lead both spouses into infidelity. The relationship had gotten boring and predictable. De Botton laments that the adventure of extramarital eros (sometimes called “need love”) and the security of domestic agape (“gift love”) are incompatible. To remain faithful is an act of heroic struggle to be met with “bravery and stoic reserve.” De Botton’s intuition that marriage alone is insufficient to complete us is correct. Even in the best marriages, we continue to struggle with acceptance. Is there no third party which could share some of the heavy-lifting of self-fulfillment? A friend? A community? God?
Much of what de Botton says (here and elsewhere) is compatible with Christianity, with this exception. In the Christian view, God alone can provide the ultimate ground of acceptance. It is God who loves us into being and continues to love us no matter what. Unlike spousal love, God’s love is perfectly free, requiring no love in return. God is perfectly secure in Godself and needs no affirmation. Divine love thus provides an anchor for all earthly loves, a solid mooring from which we can in turn love freely. De Botton recognizes this kind of love in the relationship of parent and child: “the only release from our longing may be to stop demanding a perfect love and noting its many absences at every turn, and instead start to give love away (perhaps to a small person) with oblivious abandon without jealously calculating the chances of it ever returning.” To expect a single person to be the ground of our being, our existential home, is beyond anyone’s capacity.
For de Botton, this is the tragedy of love. C.S. Lewis offers a different take. Toward the end of The Great Divorce, Sarah Smith stands as an exemplar of divinely secured attachment in the face of imperfect love. Trying to save her diminished husband she declares, “What needs could I have now that I have all? I am full now, not empty. I am in Love Himself, not lonely. Strong, not weak. You shall be the same. Come and see. We shall have no need for one another now: we can begin to love truly.” Or as de Botton puts it, we should marry when we are ready to love rather than to be loved. God help us.