We love to make fun of the romantics, the magical thinkers who still idiotically believe in "the one"--the people who believe there exists "a perfect being who can meet all our needs and satisfy our every yearning" when there so obviously does not. This is why we're all so excited about Alain de Botton's viral NYT article, which succinctly illuminates the pressure and unrealistic expectations of romantic thinking that cause us to suffer unnecessarily in bad relationships or constantly move on to different people only to realize one day (with any luck) that we, ourselves, are the problem.
While the article helps us to see de Botton's healthy but pessimistic perspective on romance--that every person is "wrong" for us so who cares--it leaves us unclear on the topic of what to do about it. More importantly, he seems to imply that with that healthy but pessimistic viewpoint the best we can hope for in love is a humorous and light acceptance of a lackluster romantic relationship. (And if you thought that, hopefully it depressed you.)
The viral-ness of this article scares me because its implication of long-term relationship mediocrity is so wrong yet so easy to conclude when you read his compelling piece, which lead me to writing this.
The truth is that even in the midst of a "pessimistic" perspective about partnership, it remains possible to have a practical and grounded relationship with that wrong person that still feels magical--like that amazing romance we fantasize about in songs, movies, and novels where you love that person more than you ever thought you could love another human being. It's just harder and more complicated than we wish it was, and it doesn't just happen.
de Botton's right about many things. Because of media, or culture, or evolution, or upbringing or countless other factors, we've come to believe in something magical and false: that we can meet the right person and our doubt and misery and relationship frustration will fade away, as if the reason for our relationship failures are due solely to the inadequacy of the people we are meeting and not something that we ourselves carry into every romantic encounter. (And I've found that even those who intellectually know better than to believe this fairy tale concept still behave in a way that indicates that it's alive and well in their emotional world.) The crux of de Botton's point is the opposite of this false belief, and quite practical: that no one will be the right person, and that's exactly what's supposed to be the case, so just relax.
However, it's important to distinguish between practical and pessimistic. While we see the failure of our idealism every day, there is an equal failure that will arise if we take this new pessimistic perspective de Botton advocates to mean we should find "humor and forgiveness" at the lackluster relationship itself and believe that a general malaise in romance is all that is possible. While it's true that, if we get close enough, every person will "frustrate, anger, annoy, madden and disappoint us" in any given moment, that does not imply that our partner should always "frustrate, anger, annoy, madden and disappoint us". It doesn't imply that we should believe this to be the norm over the long term, or that just because we start here means it's all that can happen, because that view is just as impractical and extreme as the romantic view.
I can say with almost 100 percent certainty that the OHMYGODILOVEYOUSOMUCH! thing that we view as possible, or even necessary, from a romantic perspective--and de Botton implies is a bullshit fantasy--is actually is very much possible, but it's just not the type of romantic and magical we think it is, and it is a shit load of work, really messy, and intense. It's not two puzzle pieces dropping effortlessly into place, fitting together perfectly; it's two misshapen blobs, constantly and uncoordinatedly bashing into each other because of their gravitational pull to toward one another--due to the complementary nature of both their skills and their flaws--fumbling to understand how to thrive side by side. The point, however, is the thriving is absolutely possible and worth the effort.
I love my wife more and more every day, feel more attracted to her all the time, and feel there is no one else in the world I'd rather be with. While I get that these are all the types of ridiculous things that people say after being together for about two months, I feel that feeling of OHMYGODILOVEYOUSOMUCH! after being with Liz for five years. This is not a lifetime, of course, but I think it's significant.
The difference, I think, between my relationship and the romanticism that de Botton critiques is 1) I don't think Liz is perfect for me or the only person I could ever have a successful relationship with (I think we created our love), 2) she does piss me off and disappoints me as I do her, and we are well aware of it, 3) my incredible love for her feels grounded in reality--very different than other times I've felt romantically obsessed with someone--and it is time-tested, and 4) this love we have came from going deeply into our shit, our conflict, our own issues, and then through them. It's the magic and romance that comes from not going around de Botton's truth, but into it and through it. When we go into and through the issues of wrongness that de Botton talks about, we find that compatibility--but really the romance and real love--that is the achievement of a great relationship, which I've seen in my own life and many times with my clients, friends, and family, as well.
While de Botton is completely correct that you will never meet someone who is totally right for you, everything you want, or will meet every need you have, that's only part of the story. And more importantly, it's not an end; it's a beginning. Over the long term, with diligent work and honesty you can honor each other's shortcomings and wrongness, include them in your relationship, and create a better and more truly loving relationship than you ever dreamed possible.
If we learn to accept de Botton's perspective and use it as permission for admitting the flaws in ourselves and our relationships, we then have a starting point for leaving no stone unturned, no conflict uninvestigated, no question unasked or unanswered, no truth unshared. As a result, we will create the real version of the dream relationship that we hope for from a romantic perspective, and from a pessimistic perspective fear is impossible .