Romance has ruined us, says Alain de Botton—there's no such thing as a perfect match. A good partner is the one who's good at disagreeing.
In his op-ed this week for The New York Times, "Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person," Alain explains the secret to not breaking up. To making marriage work. In a time where more people seem to be divorced than married, this seems crazy optimistic. But actually, Alain's pushing for a "philosophy of pessimism." Or, to paraphrase a good friend, "It's time to lower your bloody expectations."
This, it's important to say, is very different to settling, or giving up. Because marriage used to be mercenary, patriarchal and kind of shitty, we're now obsessed with love. Romanticism, writes Alain, has set us up to think a partner should be everything with no downsides; that a relationship simply entails hanging out with our other, perfect half. We don't stop to think about how ridiculous this concept is, and the modern "marriage of feeling," as Alain calls it, gets a free pass. So romanticism, writes Alain, kind of sucks. "It has made a lot of what we go through in marriage seem exceptional and appalling." Because we think marriage should be perfect, our own imperfect marriages seem like catastrophic failures.
We don't find out the gnarly bits about our partner until we're pretty far down the line. Then they emerge in their horrible glory: intimacy issues, workaholism, insecurities of all stripes. So do our own: partners are like mirrors. "One of the privileges of being on our own is therefore the sincere impression that we are really quite easy to live with," writes Alain. "Marriage ends up as a hopeful, generous, infinitely kind gamble taken by two people who don’t know yet who they are or who the other might be."
Alain is my imaginary husband, by the way. I've called dibs. If you're wondering, our imaginary marriage is perfect. But someone very important to me recently went through a divorce. It's the most painful thing: the truth is some marriages, and some relationships, don't work. So how do you know if you're compatible? Why didn't you know you weren't? Why didn't the gamble pay off?
Here's where Alain's piece is a balm, to everyone questioning their relationships, and even questioning love. "Compatibility is an achievement of love," he writes. "It must not be its precondition." This is revolutionary to me. We shouldn't be looking for the "right" person, according to Alain. We want the "not overly wrong" one: "the person who can negotiate differences in taste intelligently—the person who is good at disagreement." Ugh, love you Alain. You're the best at disagreement, I can just tell.
To say, "We weren't compatible," feels like saying you made a mistake. To say, "Turns out we didn't go that well at building compatibility," is such a different thing. It honors the effort and the real connection of any relationship but acknowledges something important: "We didn't know how to disagree." And that gives us a way forward for future relationships. More tolerance; more generosity; more laughs: more disagreements.
Alain's point is not to give up when life feels like it's…lacking. "There can be no end to our sense of emptiness and incompleteness," he writes bluntly. Cool—thanks, Alain. "But none of this is unusual or grounds for divorce. Choosing whom to commit ourselves to is merely a case of identifying which particular variety of suffering we would most like to sacrifice ourselves for."
Someday my variety of suffering will come. And meanwhile I am very chuffed with my imaginary husband Alain. He's the best.