“Love is a dividend of gratitude for our lover’s insight into our own confused and troubled psyche” (Alain De Botton, “The Course of Love”, p21).
I’m reading a book at the moment that attempts, through a fictitious tale of love, to unpack what is really going on when we court and choose a life partner. Along the way the author, Alain De Botton (who has written many philosophical books), inserts lots of pithy comments like the above, taking us underneath the veneer of the behaviour of two lovers. It’s very interesting, a bit unsettling and quite revealing.
Basically he wants to debunk the myths that surround love. He wants to show it for what it is. I am only part way through it so I can’t comment with the full benefit of his wisdom, but so far it seems about right.
Let’s understand that De Botton is trying to bring insight. At the end of the day, romantic love is unavoidable, and who would want to avoid it anyway? It is a wonderful thing. But whilst we can, and should, abandon ourselves to its joys, it behooves us to understand it a little.
According to De Botton it is our lover’s insight into and acceptance of our real self that draws us to respond with the emotion we call love. The idea that someone else ‘gets’ us is pretty potent stuff. I don’t think De Botton means that’s all there is to it, but that our feelings of love are at their strongest at such times.
If he’s right, then love is, at its base, gratitude. On some basic level most of us struggle to believe that anyone could ever really love us, and this person appears to, so we’re grateful (and relieved!). But early in a courtship most of us do all we can to hide the real us from our lover, or at least the parts we are ashamed of. We’re on our very best behaviour, because we’re terrified they’ll find something about us that’s unlovable. Perhaps the fact that they don’t is what leads us to be so grateful.
To feel truly accepted though, we first have to believe that the real us is understood. I remember Meg Ryan, in “You’ve Got Mail” jokingly stating that her phantom email lover had “152 insights” into her soul!
I know I certainly want to feel understood. I’m not sure how many people really understand what goes on in this brain of mine! Not to say that I am hugely different from everyone else – I seriously doubt that. But I have had my fair share of times when I’m pretty sure no-one had a clue what really going on inside me.
I have a friend that I respect, who once confided that he used to jokingly call me “The Sarge” behind my back. I asked him why, and was totally unprepared for his answer. He had known me, a long time ago, in the context of a leadership position. I was pretty young and green, and apparently I came across as a drill sergeant the way I issued orders or directives to the team. Yet that was not how I was feeling on the inside. If anything, I was the exact opposite – unsure, anxious at how to guide and motivate the team, pretty terrified of not succeeding, and that manifested itself in a somewhat rigid focus on outcomes rather than people.
Okay, enough reminiscing. But I’m trying to illustrate the fact that most of us have an inner self that wants, perhaps craves, for someone else to peek into it and say, I still like you.
So Alain calls love a dividend. A dividend is a payout – something that someone has earned and is entitled to receive. You like me, you accept me warts and all (at least I think you do) and it manifests in very strong feelings of closeness, connection, and passionate love.
Obviously there is more to love than just gratitude. If that was the case, I would fall in love with anyone who showed me they understood me. For example, I, as a heterosexual male, am not going to fall in love with another man. There must be qualities about the other person that cause our gratefulness to become romantic love – their sex, perhaps their looks, their personality, things we like about them (or perhaps even worship about them!).
But if we put romance to one side, I have had a few bromances over time, and there is still some truth to the concept of love as a dividend of gratitude. There is a greater sense of connectedness between me and a guy who understands me, someone who seems to be a bit like me and who I can trust to reveal more of myself to.
Is that gratefulness though? Yes, I think so, grateful that he is a part of my life and I don’t want to lose his friendship. Perhaps, just as in a romantic relationship, I might try harder from time to time to overlook his faults out of gratefulness for his perseverance with mine.
But what happens when a lover (back to romance now) eventually shows they’re not so enthralled with every aspect of us? That surely happens in any long-term relationship. Well, I haven’t gotten to that section of the book yet, so I await what Alain has to say, but from personal experience I can say we have to look for something more enduring than romantic love. I have said this in previous blogs, and I will say it again, romantic love is wonderful, but a poor basis for enduring relationships.
Romantic love, in the end, is all about us, and less about the other person. Any meaningful relationship ultimately has to have the other person’s wellbeing at heart as well, and once gratefulness has run its course, we need to dig deeper. Ultimately we need to like ourselves enough to be able to stand strong even if our lover doesn’t. Maybe then, when we let each other off the hook, a different, more relaxed kind of love can grow – one with the intimacy of simple companionship and affection, and less expectations that they meet our deepest needs.
But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Lets revel in the feelings of love. They are truly wonderful, and a necessary part of any courtship. Let’s be head over heels, giddy, and breathless, and full of longing. I dare say you couldn’t stop those feelings if you tried. But if you want to move ahead, it makese sense to understand what’s going on so that you can build a relationship, sooner or later, on a stronger footing. And then, when romantic love pops its head in from time to time (there’s no reason it can’t hang around!), then you can be in the enviable position of having your cake and eating it too.
I’m sure Alain has some other gems of truth waiting for me as I continue to read the book. If he does, I will gladly add a postscript – watch this space.