ALAIN de BOTTON: We marry the wrong person because we fail to focus on excellence in resolving conflict
Alain de Botton has written an extremely insightful article at the NYT on why we marry the wrong person.
What do we traditionally look for: During a perfectly romantic date, we propose marriage as an attempt to bottle up romance forever. Or we act Machiavellian, seeking to find someone for strategic advantages. There’s nothing bad about any of this, but it leaves out a critically important area of concern.
Alain de Botton urges that we not overlook that we are all dysfunctional, and that dysfunction often is left unexplored until after the vows are uttered.
We seem normal only to those who don’t know us very well. In a wiser, more self-aware society than our own, a standard question on any early dinner date would be: “And how are you crazy?” Perhaps we have a latent tendency to get furious when someone disagrees with us or can relax only when we are working; perhaps we’re tricky about intimacy after sex or clam up in response to humiliation. Nobody’s perfect. The problem is that before marriage, we rarely delve into our complexities. Whenever casual relationships threaten to reveal our flaws, we blame our partners and call it a day. As for our friends, they don’t care enough to do the hard work of enlightening us. One of the privileges of being on our own is therefore the sincere impression that we are really quite easy to live with.
For instance, we tend to seek those things that traditionally make us happy, but many of those things are things from our dysfunctional childhoods:
What we really seek is familiarity — which may well complicate any plans we might have had for happiness. We are looking to recreate, within our adult relationships, the feelings we knew so well in childhood. The love most of us will have tasted early on was often confused with other, more destructive dynamics: feelings of wanting to help an adult who was out of control, of being deprived of a parent’s warmth or scared of his anger, of not feeling secure enough to communicate our wishes. How logical, then, that we should as grown-ups find ourselves rejecting certain candidates for marriage not because they are wrong but because they are too right — too balanced, mature, understanding and reliable — given that in our hearts, such rightness feels foreign. We marry the wrong people because we don’t associate being loved with feeling happy.
What are our childhood needs? We often don’t know, but we sure as hell feel their transgressions, meaning that a fight precedes and illuminates clues to the reason for conflict, but often at a stiff price. Eric Barker put it this way:
I have a list of rules. But I’m not going to tell you what they are. If you violate them, I’m allowed to get angry. Also, even though I’m not going to tell you what the rules are, not knowing the rules is also a violation and I’m allowed to get angry at you for that too.
Many of us leap into long term relationships because we are unhappy and lonely. That is a prescription for reckless choosing. Only after the long-term commitment are we forced to do the hard work:
Indeed, marriage tends decisively to move us onto another, very different and more administrative plane, which perhaps unfolds in a suburban house, with a long commute and maddening children who kill the passion from which they emerged.
The article takes a pessimistic turn. I do love de Botton’s wry writing:
We need to swap the Romantic view for a tragic (and at points comedic) awareness that every human will frustrate, anger, annoy, madden and disappoint us — and we will (without any malice) do the same to them. There can be no end to our sense of emptiness and incompleteness. 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.
Therefore, we should not seek merely to choose someone with interested in common (though this is to a bad idea, in my experience). Rather, given that we are ALL dysfunctional, we should focus hard on finding a partner who is really good at navigating our differences:
The person who is best suited to us is not the person who shares our every taste (he or she doesn’t exist), but the person who can negotiate differences in taste intelligently — the person who is good at disagreement. Rather than some notional idea of perfect complementarity, it is the capacity to tolerate differences with generosity that is the true marker of the “not overly wrong” person. Compatibility is an achievement of love; it must not be its precondition
This makes perfect sense on many levels for me. People are not driven from marriages by being less than ecstatic with each other. They are driven away from each other because they feel each others sharp barbs and slashes. Minimizing the hurt would seem to be an excellent way to removing all incentive for leaving. From Aaron Beck’s Love Is Never Enough: How Couples Can Overcome Misunderstanding:
The power of the negative is shown in a number of research studies. What most of all distinguishes distressed marriages from satisfactory marriages is not so much the absence of pleasant experiences but that interpretation. The improvements that couples show in counseling are accompanied more by a reduction in unpleasant encounters than by an increase in pleasant events. Happiness seems to come more naturally when the negative experiences and negative interpretations are diminished.
Reading this article by de Botton reminded me of work by John Gotten. One of his gems is that 69% of a couple’s problems are perpetual. These problems don’t go away yet many couples keep arguing about them year after year:
Most marital arguments cannot be resolved. Couples spend year after year trying to change each other’s mind – but it can’t be done. This is because most of their disagreements are rooted in fundamental differences of lifestyle, personality, or values. By fighting over these differences, all they succeed in doing is wasting their time and harming their marriage.
Which segues back to Alain de Botton’s advice. Given that we are fundamentally wired to disagree, what we should look for in a mate is someone who is an expert at defusing and resolving these ubiquitous disagreements. It would also seem, then, that choosing a partner who tends to pour gasoline onto moments of conflict is a terrible idea.
That said, a great partnership will need far more than excellent conflict resolution (e.g. intelligence, good with finances, sense of humor), but de Botton has convinced me that finding a person who smoothly navigates conflict might be one of the most important traits to seek in a mate.