"In the dance of infatuation, we see others not as they are, but as projections of who we want them to be. And we impose on them all the imaginary criteria we think will fill the void in our hearts." — Neil Strauss
Beginnings of relationships get all the attention. They comprise the core bundle of exhilarating romantic firsts: touching, kissing, sex, the feeling of falling in love, the proposal… They lay the groundwork for our love stories, and are seen by the Romantic as a condensed form of all that is important in a relationship.
Yet philosopher and School of Life founder, Alain de Botton (pictured), suggests something so obviously overlooked in our Romantic era:
"What we typically call love is only the start of love."
In his novel-meets-philosophical essay, The Course of Love, Alain introduces us to a fictional couple, Rabih and Kirsten, and we follow the arc of their relationship from day one, up to—and well beyond—“I do.” Through their story, Alain is able to carefully explore the more nuanced aspects of life: infatuation, love, marriage, children, infidelity, and trust.
The first of those, infatuation, is central to the beginning of all relationships. It can be triggered by something as simple as the sight of an attractive stranger — someone at a work conference, or the person across the aisle on a flight to O’Hare. One might observe and arm themselves with just a few details — the way they hold eye contact when they speak, their sparse choice of jewelry, the curve of their neckline — and allow these to create a story of who the person is before we know anything concrete about them.
This carries over, all the more intensely, when it comes to actually getting to know that person. Take, for example, early on in The Course of Love, when we find an elated Rabih just after he’s kissed Kirsten for the first time:
"On his walk home from Quartermile, wending through the Saturday crowds, Rabih is thrilled enough to want to stop random strangers in order to share his good fortune with them. He has, without knowing how, richly succeeded at the three central challenges underpinning the Romanitc idea of love: he has found the right person; he has opened his heart to her; and he has been accepted.
But he, of course, is nowhere yet. He and Kirsten will marry, they will suffer, they will frequently worry about money, they will have a girl first, then a boy, one of them will have an affair, there will be passages of boredom, they’ll sometimes want to murder one another and on a few occasions to kill themselves. This will be the real love story."
Anyone who’s experienced this type of intoxication understands what Rabih feels, and how easy it is to avoid considering what is written in the second paragraph. Instead we hum along blissfully as we see this phase of our relationships through to their inevitably disappointing conclusion: our partners, the ones who could once do no wrong, now appear maddeningly defective.
Harsh as this sounds, it's unavoidable that no matter how wonderful someone is, they will never seem as perfect as they did when we once knew so little about them. And if we dig a bit deeper we find that the error in our infatuations isn't necessarily that they blind us to the more flawed sides of our partners, but that they then cause us to feel that we’ve ended up with the wrong person because they are flawed at all. Alain would swiftly dissuade this line of thinking:
"Infatuations aren’t delusions. That way they have of holding their head may truly indicate someone confident, wry, and sensitive; they really may have the humor and intelligence implied by their eyes and the tenderness suggested by their mouth. The error of the infatuation is more subtle: a failure to keep in mind the central truth of human nature: that everyone—not merely our current partners, in whose multiple failings we are such experts—but everyone will have something substantial wrong with them when we spend more time around them, something so wrong as to make a mockery of those initially rapturous feelings.
The only people who can still strike us as normal are those we don’t yet know very well. The best cure for love is to get to know them better."
The “cure” suggested by Alain is from thinking the grass is greener elsewhere; from that tendency to think that the error is in the object, not the faculty; from systematically classifying all partners into the "right" and "wrong" columns based on limited criteria.
One of the main criteria in which we divide our partners into "right" or "wrong" is by how compatible they are with us. The Romantic vision of love insists on the "right" person being someone with whom we share much of the same interests, tastes, and world views. Just ask any dating website: compatibility is the key to love.
This may be a successful strategy in the short term: to spend time with someone who's likeminded and shares our taste in bad pop music and love of camping, but in the long-term we must also regularly deal with the things we don't like or share interest in. The danger this presents early on is when a couple hits a hurdle, sensing they might be 'incompatible', they panic.
Alain would calmly remind them, as Rabih realizes much later in his marriage to Kirsten:
"The partner truly best suited for 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."
Indeed, we can begin to love the 'right' kind of people once we accept these two things: 1. We will never find a totally 'compatible' human being for us in the longterm, and 2. no matter who we end up with, we'll eventually be made a bit miserable. It would be in our best interest then if we'd adopted a more enlightened, pessimistic view of Romantic love, one which Alain says, begins with giving up on the idea of perfection: