Why Our Partners Drive Us Mad: Philosopher Alain de Botton to the Central Foible of the Human Heart and How to Heal It
“We believe we are seeking happiness in love, but what we are really after is familiarity.”
By Maria Popova
“To love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love,” wrote the great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh in his treatise on mastering the art of loving. But not knowing how to be loved equally wounds us, and wounds those who try to love us.
Philosopher Alain de Botton has devoted the lion’s share of his life to exploring the complex psychoemotional machinery that, despite our best intentions, inflicts the wounds of love upon us and our partners. Decades after Willa Cather termed romantic relationships “the tragic necessity of human life,” De Botton writes in The Course of Love (public library) — his stunning meditation on the fragilities of the human heart, the source of his insight into the psychological paradox of sulking in intimate relationships and what makes a good communicator:
We 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 came entwined 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 unearnt. 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.
De Botton explores this central foible of the heart in a wonderful short visual essay for his School of Life project, with lyrical animation by Kathrin Steinbacher — an inquiry into how our early family dynamics shape our adult patterns of love, why our partners often drive us mad in consequence, and how to handle this inescapable fallibility of the human heart with gentleness and self-compassion.
The romantic story of love tells us that our search for a partner is inspired, above all else, by a desire to find someone who can make us happy. But the truth is a little more confused and peculiar, for one of the oddest aspects of love is that in tracking down a mate, we don’t, in fact, look out for just anyone who seems kind, good, and attractive. We look out for someone who can fulfill a number of pre-existing psychological requirements — which could include a subterranean appetite for frustration and humiliation.
We are constrained in our love choices by what we learned of love as children. Adult love is in central ways a search for rediscovery of emotions first known in childhood. In order to prove exciting and attractive, the partner we pick must re-evoke many of the feelings we once had around parental figures, and these feelings, though they may include tenderness and satisfaction, are also likely to feature a more troubling range of emotions.
Without being fully aware of our wish, we need our partner to have a failing that our parents once had, so that we can repeat a flawed but potent dynamic we once experienced as children.
It seems we are fated either to seek out the fault of a parent in a partner, or to mimic the fault of the parent with a partner. Either way, the fault of the parent remains central to our love choices. Without it, we may simply not be able to feel passionate and tender with someone. We might imagine we would only be attracted to admirable traits — to perfection, to very positive things about another — yet just below the conscious radar, it is the failings that lure us in.
In The Course of Love, De Botton offers a deeper dive into those complicated and frequently frustrating dynamics, as well as their most promising frontiers of redemption. Complement it with philosopher Skye Cleary on why we love, psychoanalyst Adam Phillips on why frustration is necessary for satisfaction in romance, and psychologist Erich Fromm on what is keeping us from mastering the art of loving, then revisit The School of Life’s wonderful animated meditations on the difficult art of self-compassion and how to stop letting habit blunt your aliveness.
Published December 9, 2016