A Love Letter to Alain de Botton
By Alana McConnell (she/her), illustrated by Yi Jong (she/her)
Like many of us who grew up in a family with two seemingly happy parents, I formed very specific beliefs and ideas about what love and relationships should look like. My parents had the occasional fight but appeared to be happy and content together. At least I thought so. My parents split up when I was around seventeen.
The illusion of their perfect marriage was shattered, and it further shattered my views on relationships, marriage, and love. It affected me more than I knew at the time, and I coped with it through excessive drinking and partying, bad decisions, and chaotic behaviour when I left home. Any time I got close to being in a relationship and letting someone get close to me, I freaked out and sabotaged the relationship. I longed for a relationship but was also incredibly terrified of everything that it entailed. That was until a Swiss-British modern-day philosopher known for his pessimistic but enlightening views of love, relationships and life changed all that. Alain de Botton’s work is almost single-handedly responsible for changing my beliefs around love. He has prepared me for relationships and given me the confidence to navigate the world of dating. He allowed me to be gracious to myself when I felt like I wasn’t doing it right, and also connected me to others around me. Alain de Botton, this is for you.
The early years.
By the time I reached my adolescence, it seemed like everyone was dating. People in my class seemed like they were always in relationships, and it looked so easy for them. I didn’t understand it, but I felt pressure to do what everyone else was doing. So when a boy had a crush on me and asked me to the movies, I said yes. I didn’t know how I was supposed to feel and what was normal, which made me anxious and uncomfortable. I had conflicting ideas about what things were supposed to feel like, so I went deeper into my own head and ended up going along with things for the sake of it. This resulted in a pattern of going on a few lukewarm dates followed by the eventual rejection of boys who I didn’t like but didn’t want to upset, stringing them along and only hurting them more.
My ideas of relationships were formed through the relationship of my parents, but also what I saw around me in the form of the media, society, and those in my life. That Disney-Hollywoodified version of love was so pervasive. I was also raised Christian and had this idealistic belief that I would find my one true love and be with them until the day I die, an unexpected overlap between Christianity and Hollywood romcoms. The older I got, the more I realised that not everyone will get married. This flawed belief system left out those people who may not have linear or traditional love (which is most of us). Even if you do get married, the chance of divorce is high, and the chances of it eventually deteriorating over time is even higher.
I was confused when I didn’t have this overwhelming feeling of love and chemistry with a boy, and I felt slightly broken because of that. It felt like this math equation that I somehow didn’t learn but everyone else did. It was agonising being so deep inside my head, pulling apart interactions and trying to figure out what was right and wrong. My beliefs and expectations about love were so unrealistic and not rooted in reality. I put so much importance into the idea of chemistry and connection but I didn’t know how to quantify it. I was going out with boys but not actually feeling any of those things I thought I was supposed to feel. When it comes to love, I feel like a bit of a late bloomer. Only now, at 22, am I beginning to go through those natural stages of making any sense of dating.
If you want to understand others, look inwards at yourself.
For a long time, I felt like I would never be in a relationship. I invalidated all my past experiences, telling myself they didn’t ‘count’ because they were too short, too far in the past, too ‘not official’. I created an arbitrary number of months for how long a legitimate relationship should be, more than six, and if I had anything less then I disregarded it. It was a deep fear within me. The math equation had grown into a whole relationship handbook that I had missed ordering. My singleness felt like a scar on my personality. The world seemed to define people through their relationships. Single vs. taken, alone vs. partnered up. I didn’t feel like I had the right to talk about relationships, as silly as that sounds now. I thought that relationships had to be this unsaid act and if you talked about them then it would be painfully obvious you just didn’t get it. People who were in relationships appeared, on the outside, to have it all figured out, which made it so confusing when a long term couple broke up. Seemingly out of the blue.
We naturally edit ourselves to the world around us. I have full access to my brain and inner thoughts, which at times made me feel weird and defective and different from everyone else. But after listening to Alain de Botton, I learned that if you want to understand people around you more, you can use yourself as the clearest indicator of what other people are like. We are all made up of the same stuff, and we are all censoring and projecting different bits and pieces. I didn’t realise that even those who are in those ‘perfect’ long term relationships, may feel imperfect or like failures in their own way too. We all have hang-ups that we derive shame from.
The end of a relationship is not a failure.
The one thing I did feel like an expert in was first dates. When lockdown lifted, I had been asked on dates from a number of guys on dating apps, and I decided to be open to experiences and say yes if it felt right. A dating spree appeared inadvertently, and I was going on date after date, on one occasion accidentally organising two dates in one day. There were a few instances where I asked the dreaded question. “Where is this going?” to which I got; “I’m not ready for a relationship,” “I just broke up with someone,” “I’m not looking for anything serious” etc. I got pretty jaded as it only fed into my pervasive narrative that something was wrong with me and dating wasn’t ever going to work out. I deleted Tinder and Bumble and decided to give myself a break. Soon afterwards at a party I complimented a boy on his rings, which he admitted buying off Ali Express, and from there a really natural and beautiful relationship formed.
We ended up calling it off after around five months of dating. We had core differences and incompatibilities. Even when we ended it, we still had a deep care and desire towards each other, which made it an extremely difficult decision. I didn’t see the end of the relationship as a failure. I was much less punitive and self-blaming. My old belief of what quantified a ‘real’ relationship wasn’t relevant. In less than six months I had still built real intimacy with someone. It proved to me I was capable of being in a relationship, of allowing myself to open up and share moments of life together.
I used to associate a relationship's end with shame, but I’ve come to realise that measuring a relationship's success based on longevity is an incredibly flawed tool, one which we don’t apply to other experiences. If we expect successful relationships to last forever, then nearly all of our relationships are considered failures. An unhelpful and damaging lens to have. I didn’t invalidate my relationship because it didn’t last. It had beautiful moments and it taught me what I needed to learn for the future. Though breakups can be heartwrenching and awful, they aren’t tragedies.
Love is a striking example of how little reality means to us.
The above line is a quote by Marcel Proust, a French novelist who is frequently quoted and praised by de Botton.1 We’ve all experienced the honeymoon period of a relationship where everything is fleetingly blissful and perfect. It’s impossible to find any flaws in the other person because we want to believe that love is this easy and that we’ve found it. But it's a delusion. Real love is understanding that someone has imperfections and weaknesses and things that just make them quite odd, but loving them regardless of that. I wouldn't want to be with someone who viewed me as a perfect being incapable of doing no wrong because that wouldn’t be seeing me for who I truly am and still choosing to love me and be with me. De Botton says “every fall into love involves the triumph of hope over self-knowledge. We fall in love hoping we won’t find in another what we know is in ourselves, all the cowardice, weakness, laziness, dishonesty, compromise, and stupidity... we locate inside another a perfection that eludes us within ourselves, and through our union with the beloved hope to maintain a precarious faith in our species”. Alain de Botton’s pessimism actually set me free in a way. I thought I wanted that honeymoon period forever, an example of what I thought real love was for my whole life. That’s what I saw falsely mirrored to me by my parents. My beliefs about love were false, and I’ve begun to unpack the ones which don’t serve me and replace them with new beliefs.
Release expectations of a perfect partner.
Alain de Botton’s perspective on love can be viewed as inherently pessimistic. But in doing so he dismantles the common and unrealistic expectations we have, the ones that result in us feeling like failures. Alain de Botton looks for the universal in the particular, where the listener can apply their own unique situations. De Botton explains the great deal of expectation we put onto our romantic partners. How we expect them to be our ideal sexual partner, friend, confidant, roommate, travel partner, and co-parent. This expectation of course can be crippling, especially if we feel like our partners are not ticking all of these boxes. It doesn’t allow room for imperfection or ambivalence, the ability to freely express disappointment or dissatisfaction without the risk of dismantling the whole relationship. If we can’t freely express our disappointment, then we will never be able to repair the ruptures in a relationship, which will then build up and result in a relationship breakdown. De Botton says “we cling to ruptures because it confirms a story which, though deeply sad at one level, also feels very safe: that big emotional commitments are invariably too risky, that others can’t be trusted, and that we are basically all alone.” My expectations of a relationship before I actually had any experiences were wildly impossible to attain. Viewing the other person as a human being instead of a magical saviour who will complete and understand you, will set you up for a relationship with healthy expectations and standards.
At the heart of it, relationships of all kinds are what make up the fabric of our lives. But we aren’t born with all the answers. If you look at history, and at the people around you, we are all pretty terrible at them. They aren’t easy. It is the coming together of people who are deeply flawed, not fully accepting of themselves, and with the unrealistic hope they can find someone who is perfect for them, whatever that means. We are never explicitly taught how to love, so it comes as no surprise that I felt utterly lost for a long time.
Alain de Botton may not have all the answers either, but because of him I have more grace for myself and more self-compassion for my attempts, no matter how miserable or commendable, at navigating relationships.