Thursday, March 9, 2017

Book Review: The Course of Love

The Course of Love by Alain De Botton

I've been trying to write this book review since I read it at the beginning of January. Partly, I blame the delay on the new baby. But partly, I've just had a hard time figuring out exactly how I feel about this book.

I picked up this book because Modern Mrs. Darcy raved about it last summer. I knew nothing about De Botton before reading this book (and still know relatively little, other than that he's a philosopher who usually writes nonfiction philosophy), but I found it to be a book that inspired pretty polarizing emotions in me. There were parts I LOVED with all the emotions those capital letters can convey. And there were parts that, while hate may be too strong a word, I completely disagreed with and found flawed and frustrating. At points this book resonated so deeply with me I felt like De Botton had been a fly on the wall of my marriage, and at other times I felt so completely different from the couple in this book that I was sure we must be a separate species. I wanted to recommend this book to everyone, and at the same time recommend it to no one because I felt I would have to explain the flaws that I did not agree with. I really wanted to bring this book up in our Book Blab on romance, but my thoughts on this book could more than fill an entire episode alone, so I felt it best not to mention it at all.

So this post may a bit meandering as I try to work through my thoughts about this book.

First, what is this novel about? Well, it's about love in general, marriage more specifically. But it's not the kind of love story we are used to. It's mostly about what happens after the happily-ever-after. It's about the years and decades of mundane, every-day, rather not-so-happy aspects of love and marriage. As De Botton comments about the state of love stories in general: "We have allowed our love stories to end way too early. We seem to know far too much about how love starts, and recklessly little about how it might continue."

I loved that about this novel. I loved that this was the story of how love continues, day in and day out, over the course of years. I completely agree that our society has been reckless in presenting love and romance only at it's inception, rarely venturing beyond the wedding day (and often not even that far) in presenting what it means to be happily in-love. But the love story certainly doesn't end there! It is just the beginning!

Perhaps so many of our relationships and marriages fail because we know so little of how the rest of the love story plays out, and this is exactly what De Botton is trying to remedy with this book. He is trying to explain that love, over the course of decades, is not necessarily as glamorous and exciting as it is at the inception, but this is normal. This is the normal course of love! The glamour wears off, the excitement fades, the "happy ending" continues on to boredom, stress, anxiety, arguments, and mundane life. But that doesn't mean that love has "ended." Love can and should endure, but we fail to recognize all this as part of the course of love because our stories teach us nothing beyond the exciting beginning of love.

The couple in this novel begin their relationship in that wonderful, beautiful, heightened state of bliss we all associate with romance, but De Botton states from the beginning that they "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."

I loved De Botton's mission to tell "the rest of the story," as they say. I loved the way he was able to portray the mundane aspects of marriage and make it a compelling story. But I also hated the way he did it. This couple was so dysfunctional. They were so miserable for so much of their married lives. They made each other miserable in so many ways, and it was depressing.

My own experience with marriage has (thankfully!) been far more positive. Yes, there have been arguments. Yes, we've had our "passages of boredom" and our worries about money. But there has been so much joy too! There has been so much companionship, so much harmony, so much satisfaction. Sure, I don't get the same endorphin rush now at seeing my husband that I did when we were dating, but I can honestly say I'd still rather see him, rather spend time with him, than any other person in the world. He is my best friend, and life with him is generally a great pleasure.

So this book made me wonder, are we just the rare lucky ones? Or are we (more likely) just equipped with some basic skills that the couple in this book seemed to lack, like a little self-awareness, communication skills, and conflict resolution skills? Honestly, most of the problems this couple had stemmed from their own lack of understanding themselves and the ensuing lack of being able to communicate what they were actually feeling (a good dose of therapy at the end seemed to help).

Maybe these skills really are less common than I feel like they are. Maybe the average person really does struggle this much in relationships, and therefore De Botton's couple is a fair and average depiction of married life. But I did find myself wishing that De Botton's course of love wasn't so dark for most of the journey. It really wasn't very encouraging.

But despite my own feelings of relationship superiority while reading this book, there were a few lessons De Botton shared that I found downright insightful for my own marriage. The most profound of these came on the subject of "teaching" in a relationship. Occasionally, my husband will give a gentle suggestion or correction on some behavior of mine, and my immediate response is to bristle and become highly defensive and offended. De Botton points out this tendency in modern relationships to disdain any attempts from one side of a couple to correct or "teach" the other half of the couple. Doesn't love mean that we accept the other person completely as they are, flaws and all? Any attempt to to change or correct or "teach" a spouse means that the one does not fully accept the other as is, flaws and all, and this is hurtful.

But De Botton offered a different reflection on this point. I'm sorry this quote is so long, but it's so good I can't help myself:
"In their philosophy, the ancient Greeks offered a usefully unfashionable perspective on the relationship between love and teaching. In their eyes, love was first and foremost a feeling of admiration for the better sides of another human being. Love was the excitement of coming face-to-face with virtuous characteristics. It followed that the deepening of love would always involve the desire to teach and in turn to be taught ways to become more virtuous: how to be less angry or less unforgiving, more curious or braver. Sincere lovers could never be content to accept another just as they were; this would constitute a lazy and cowardly betrayal of the whole purpose of relationships. There would always be something to improve on in ourselves and educate others about."

Isn't that beautiful?

I've never, ever thought of love this way before. I've generally believed that my husband should love and accept me the way I am, flaws and all, and that I should offer him the same courtesy. But why should he accept my flaws? Why shouldn't he encourage my development and growth, especially in areas where he has strengths and knowledge from which he can advise me? Obviously there are some "flaws" that are unchangeable, or that don't reflect a lack of virtue (like changes in the body as one ages, or personal habits that are neither positive nor negative, etc.), and these things should be accepted whole heartedly by a spouse as simply part of the one they love. But areas where virtuous improvement is possible? In those areas we should look to our spouses first to be our teachers.

The problem is, it takes a great deal of humility to allow one's spouse to "teach" them. Humility has never been my strong suit. But I find this vision of love, where each spouse seeks to nurture virtues in the other, to be a beautiful vision of how a relationship could function.

There were so many other areas where I found myself nodding in agreement with De Botton, like when he talked about how children teach us how to love more freely and profoundly than any other source, or how we are always so terrible at judging just how unequal the shared load of work is in a marriage. We always think we do more work than our spouse, that we carry the heavier load, that we suffer more. I especially loved this quote (sorry again, another long one):
"The modern expectation is that there will be equality in all things in the couple-- which means, at heart, an equality of suffering. But calibrating grief to ensure an equal dosage is no easy task: misery is experienced subjectively, and there is always a temptation for each party to form a sincere yet competitive conviction that, in truth, his or her life really is more cursed--in ways that the partner seems uninclined to acknowledge or atone for. It takes a superhuman wisdom to avoid the consoling conclusion that one has the harder life."
Yes, and yes! I'm still working on finding that superhuman wisdom. He goes on to talk about some of the most major problems between spouses being caused by the way prestige is awarded in our society. We admire people for all their professional accomplishments, but no one ever praises the spouse who packs the lunches, picks the kids up from school, and otherwise endures the mundane-but-necessary parts of running a family. I simply loved this:
We seem unwilling to allow for the possibility that the glory of our species may lie not only in the launching of satellites, the founding of companies, and the manufacturing of miraculously thin semiconductors but also in an ability--even if it is widely distributed among billions--to spoon yogurt into small mouths, find missing socks, clean toilets, deal with tantrums, and wipe congealed things off tables. Here too, there are trials worthy not of condemnation or sarcastic ridicule but also of a degree of glamour, so that they may be endured with greater sympathy and fortitude.
But for every quote I furiously nodded my head to and scribbled down in my notebook, there were many others that I found myself scratching my head over, or outright disagreeing with, especially when it came to his discussions on sex. I'll refrain from going into too much detail but my biggest beef came after the (*spoiler*) husband has a one-night stand while away at a work conference. De Botton tries to explain away this unfaithfulness with the terrible argument that monogamy isn't natural, that attraction to multiple individuals is natural and acting on these impulses does not have to involve emotional infidelity and should not be taken as a breach of trust by the partner. Basically, he presents an argument for open relationships.

Um, no.

Then later, when the couple is in therapy, the husband comes to realize that the only reason he cheated on his wife was because he was angry with her at the time because of the lack of connection he was feeling from her. I don't understand how on one page De Botton can argue that infidelity is natural and shouldn't be viewed as hurtful, and then on another page admit the action occurred out of anger (not merely lust) and was meant specifically to hurt the wife. Maybe I'm missing a nuance, but I don't see how he can support both these arguments.

So yeah, I had some beef with that. There were several other things I had problems with too, but I've rambled on enough at this point.

In the end, I loved this book, but hated parts of it. I wanted to shove this book into the hands of all my marriageable age single friends and family (look! here is what a real love story looks like! learn all the lessons!) and at the same time, keep it as far away from them as possible (no, no, no, it really isn't this bad! don't ever read this book!). I wanted to recommend this book to all my married friends (look, here we are on the pages of a book!) and also never mention it to anyone (what if their marriages really are this terrible behind closed doors?).

I guess in general this book is a recommend, with the caveat that it is far, far from perfect. There are gems, there are words of wisdom, there is a lot of good, and then there are the bits that aren't good. There are so many things to relate to in the marriage presented in this book, and so many things I'm grateful I couldn't relate to.

Okay, have you read it? What did you think of it? Do you want to read it after my review?


  1. I did read this book. You did a great job reviewing it! I had a little different take on the part were the husband cheats on his wife. I thought those passages where De Botton tries to explain away this unfaithfulness with the argument that attraction to multiple individuals is natural and acting on these impulses does not have to involve emotional infidelity were the husbands thoughts and attempts of rationalizing his actions. I did not agree with De Botton's conclusion at the end, however, that it was better for the husband to never tell his wife of his unfaithfulness. But then I understand the power of repentance and forgiveness.

    1. Yes, I got that some of it was the husband rationalizing things, but I remember some of the argument being in the italics which, to me, meant it was de Boton's argument. I may have to go back and read it again to see if he was only presenting those ideas as the husbands, or as his own. But yeah, the secrecy thing didn't sit well with me either.