The philosopher Alain de Botton recently published a provocative article in the NYT titled, Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person, in which he argues that current marriages are ailing under the burden of unrealistic expectations.
According to de Botton the historical “marriage of reason,” motivated by pragmatic concerns such as tribal alliances, asset protection and the like, was generally miserable, which is why our current “marriage of feeling” system has been so readily and uncritically embraced. The marriage of feeling, in de Botton’s view, comprises our effort to “recreate, within our adult relationships, the feelings we knew so well in childhood.” Unfortunately our early love objects — our parents — were often hurtful, insensitive, or distracted. Thus as grown-ups we often pick troubled partners who match our early templates.
Lacking self-awareness, we nonetheless delude ourselves that we know who we are and what we need to be happy, and that a perfect partner is out there for us. Intoxicated by the euphoria of new love, we blithely neglect to investigate our partners thoroughly, preferring to feel good rather than know the truth. Marriage under these conditions amounts to a gamble “taken by two people who don’t know yet who they are or who the other might be, binding themselves to a future they cannot conceive of and have carefully avoided investigating.”
We’re also derailed by our searing loneliness. “No one can be in an optimal frame of mind to choose a partner when remaining single feels unbearable. We have to be wholly at peace with the prospect of many years of solitude in order to be appropriately picky;” beggars, in other words, are lousy choosers. Rushing to escape oppressive loneliness we forget that the good feelings of early infatuation have little to do with the reality of daily life with another person, what with the weight of children, mortgage, boredom and routine. As our loftily romantic expectations inevitably fail to materialize, we deem our partners wrong and call the lawyers.
The solution, per de Botton, is to shift away from the romantic view “that a perfect being exists who can meet all our needs and satisfy our every yearning” and toward a “tragic” view accepting that, “every human will frustrate, anger, annoy, madden and disappoint us.” Hence, our best move is to choose the “not overly wrong” person, who can “negotiate differences in taste intelligently.”
De Botton’s explanatory architecture here is familiarly Freudian: We are unaware of our true motives, which are shaped by early family drama and, in turn, determine our later preoccupations. Our suffering reflects neuroses — internal distortions creating a gap between reality and perception. To reduce our undue suffering we need to ratchet up our self-knowledge and moderate our expectations. It’s a pleasing work-up, albeit one that, as pertains to marriage, misdiagnoses the condition and then prescribes the wrong solution for it.
To start, de Botton links the rise of the marriage of feeling to the bitter failure of the historical marriage of reason, which was plagued by “loneliness, infidelity, abuse, hardness of heart and screams heard through the nursery doors.” Yet marriages of reason are in fact still widely practiced around the world. Rather, the marriage of feeling has emerged in places where the conditions that supported the marriage of reason — shorter life span, limited social mobility, sexism and dogmatic religious authority — have shifted, giving rise to a new, modern ethos of individual freedom and agency. The marriage of feeling is one social expression of this ethos. Far from being “the traumatized reaction against too many centuries of unreasonable reason,” the marriage of feeling is an adaptive reaction to changing social conditions. And it works quite well, unless you measure success by divorce rates.
Indeed, marriages of feeling and high divorce rates do go hand in hand. For many, including de Botton, this is a sign of trouble, proof of the folly of our lofty romantic expectations. But that view neglects to take divorce in context. In fact, the ethos of individual freedom from which marriages of feeling emerge requires a robust divorce option. Individual freedom means that our minds matter and that we can change them. Divorce is not a sign that the institution of marriage is in trouble. It is a sign that the institution is in place. If good hospitals exist, there will be more hospital visits. That is not a sign that the people are sicker.
In addition, those who see divorce patently as the failure of marriage neglect to acknowledge that people often divorce because the marriage had run its course. That doesn’t mean the course had been bad. Good things end, too. In addition, many of the those who leave unhappy marriages are not people who married wrong but ones for whom marriage is wrong. The fact that marriage of feeling doesn’t work for everyone does not mean it doesn’t work.
For de Botton, self-ignorance is one reason why we fail in the marriage of feeling. “The problem is that before marriage, we rarely delve into our complexities.” We don’t know ourselves, and we don’t really know our partners. How can we expect this to work?
The notion that deep self-knowledge is necessary for optimal functioning is, of course, a well-worn Freudian trope. In theory, self-knowledge solves most problems. In reality, self-knowledge solves mostly the problem of lack of self-knowledge. It does not necessarily solve the problems of lack of motivation, lack of resources, lack of skill or self-control or courage. Moreover, deep knowledge of things is often not required for things to work well — See under: your brain. When it comes to marriage, no compelling evidence exists that deep self-knowledge is either sufficient or necessary for success. To wit: Freudian therapy, which focuses on improving self-knowledge and making the unconscious conscious, has a dismal track record in saving or improving marriages.
In addition, discovering who we are often tells us little about who we are in a relationship. We learn who we are in a relationship only by relating. If seventy years of contextualist theorizing have taught us anything, it is that self-in-relationship is different than, and irreducible to, self-sans-context.
Per de Botton, we rush into ill-considered marriage not only for lack of self-knowledge, but also because we are too scared of loneliness. Granted, loneliness drives us hard. But loneliness is a feature of our hardware, not a bug in our software; it leads to bad marriages no more than hunger leads to food poisoning.
For the problem of loneliness-induced bad marriage, de Botton offers a remedy: we need to learn to tolerate solitude before we can achieve clarity in choosing a mate: “We have to be wholly at peace with the prospect of many years of solitude in order to be appropriately picky.”
This is, of course, a romantic view (insert irony here). It does not hold up well to reality. First, loneliness and solitude are not similar. Loneliness is imposed. Solitude is chosen. No healthy human being is wholly at peace with loneliness. And there is no compelling data to show that those who are good with solitude end up making better spouses. To the contrary, extraverts, who tend to loath solitude, routinely report happier marriages than introverts, as do their spouses.
Having misdiagnosed marriages of feeling as undermined by self-ignorance, pathological loneliness, and rampant perfectionism, de Botton prescribes a solution: lowered expectations. We must abandon the notion that “a perfect being exists who can meet all our needs and satisfy our every yearning” and choose instead “which particular variety of suffering we would most like to sacrifice ourselves for.”
Granted, a call away from perfectionism is a useful admonition. Perfectionists, after all, create a world in which the only options are ‘perfect’ or ‘failure.’ Since perfection is absent in human life (excepting, of course, Beyoncé), they end up residing in perpetual failure. Question: why would someone construct a distorted mental system that guarantees the experience of failure? Because they are terrified or feel unworthy of success. Hence when it comes to relationships, those who ostensibly seek the perfect partner conceal a secret, often unconscious, dread of an actual partner.
However, lowering expectations to avoid disappointment is at heart a defensive strategy that caters to our inherent risk aversion. As such it is (wait for it) risky. When it comes to marriage, reducing risk by curtailing ambition may short sell the potential rewards; and the potential rewards are, to reference the dark night of the zeitgeist, huge.
For all its peril and caprice, we continue to seek good, sustainable love in large part because we know from experience that it can be transformative. Love is suffering, to be sure, as Freud himself articulated when he wrote in 1929, “We are never so defenseless against suffering as when we love.” But love is also power: “How bold one gets when one is sure of being loved” Freud wrote to his fiancé in 1882.
And you don’t have to be a deep thinker to recognize the profound upside of good love. Even on casual introspection, most people realize correctly that feeling-based relationships are at the core of whatever strength, hope, and meaning they manage to summon in the world.
Given this knowledge, aiming high in marriage — looking for a compatible person with whom we can share intimacy, enjoy sex, build enduring trust, and find acceptance despite our mutual failings — is not romantic delusion, but existential courage. It is a worthy goal, and we can’t get there by lowering expectations.
In fact, perpetually rising expectations, in love and elsewhere, define our species. We are, if nothing else, apes with big dreams. For example, higher expectations about health drive us to seek new ways to fight disease. Aspiring creatively to defeat illness is quintessentially human. There is no surgery in nature.
Moreover, most of those in the marriage market today are far from plagued by perfectionism and far from naïve about what’s ahead. People are marrying older; they have witnessed the vagaries of marriage in their own parents, to whom they are, by and large, close. They are mostly wise to the fleeting nature of romantic passion. More than they hear from the culture that marriage is about romance they hear it’s about work and perseverance. They face less pressure to marry compared to the past, and they have more options as to whom to choose and how to structure their marital union. Abundance and freedom beget higher expectations, and rightly so.
Rather than signifying a blind, fusspot flight from lonely, marriage is casting a vote for a candidate who will help us create the kind of life we can enjoy and value. We don’t wait for the perfect candidate. We don’t assume the euphoria of election night will persist. We don’t expect that all campaign promises will be kept or implemented successfully. And we fully expect surprises, some of them bad. Yet candidate choice matters. And we’re right to have — and hold them to — high expectations.
Noam Shpancer is a professor of psychology at Otterbein University in Westerville Ohio and a clinical psychologist with the Center for Cognitive and Behavioral Therapy in Columbus, Ohio. Read more of his work at Psychology Today.