In a provocatively titled presentation Alain du Botton addresses 'Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person'. But, rather than suggesting that we should not marry, he approaches it in a balanced way and attempts to explain the challenges of long-term romantic relationships. For instance, we have particularly high (and possibly slightly unreasonable) expectations for our love lives.
Why such high expectations? Well, for a start we have been sold a story of romantic perfection – where we will live happily ever after and the day-to-day challenges of commitment are erased from the Disney edition of relationships.
Another question.... what makes us challenging partners? We all have our peculiarities (some that we are not even aware of) and these traits can make us tricky to live with. However, efforts to sustain relationships can make it difficult for friends and family to be totally honest with us which limits our self-awareness. We also have a tendency to dislike or minimise our vulnerability, and so when we need reassurance from our partners, we can fall into patterns of, for example, becoming distant and unavailable, or picking fights.
Moreover, we don't always hone our skills in loving another person. An example du Botton gives is our lack of understanding or charitable interpretation of a lover's unpalatable behaviour. In other words, cut your partner a little slack when you are frustrated with him / her. We need to accept and integrate the good and the bad in others; a concept examined in psychoanalytic theory (Melanie Klein) on the infant's relationship to his mother. We all have the capacity to be terrible and wonderful and this is important to recognise (we like to see others in black and white terms because complexity can be so hard to understand).
Psychology and psychoanalysis have taught us that our early infantile bonds actually shape our relationships as we go through life. Not only does it impact our choice of romantic partners, but we also tend to repeat the patterns that feel familiar. We have learned as children how love looks and feels. For example, a coordinator on a marriage guidance course talked about how his wife would get out of bed in the early hours to see him off to work, despite his protests. For him this was totally unnecessary, but for her, to stay in bed would show neglect. Unfortunately, we often miss loving gestures and equally, we often fail to meet our partners' needs or desires, because we misinterpret these little actions or quirks. We can also fall into the trap of expecting complete understanding from partners when we are frustrated or disappointed with them (despite our own limited understanding of his / her inner world). Open and honest communication, du Botton suggests, is the solution to this (no room for sulking!).
With all this mind, du Botton references Donald Winnicott (a famous psychoanalyst who published extensively in the 20th century). Winnicott had lots of little gems of wisdom and he talked about the 'good enough parent' rather than advocating for perfect parenting. Du Botton suggests that what we might look for is, not the perfect partner, but the good enough partner who (crucially) is willing to work towards compatibility. This does not mean settling for the next man or woman to walk through the door! Instead it can mean accepting that there will be strengths as well as flaws in the partner you select. Du Botton emphasises the need for compromise and the recognition that there is a possibility of regret no matter what we choose in life. My conclusion from all of that …… love is a challenge and it should be met with enthusiasm.