Each of us has an unwritten but deeply inscribed “book” inside that catalogs our insanities, insecurities, and imperfections… but when do you show your lover those chapters?
I’ve been enamored, of late, with The Course of Love, a book by Allain de Botton, and his other work exploring and exposing Romanticism. (He has books, videos, newsletters, and more, if the bug of debunking romanticism bites you too!)
He says in one of his lectures that “We don’t need people to be perfect, we just need them to have a handle on their imperfections.” As a dating coach, it’s actually helpful if my clients are straightforward and unabashed about their imperfections – that way we know what to package as “working on it” and what to package as “charmingly offbeat or eccentric.” We also know how to help you with the timing and revelation of those issues or eccentricities to a prospective relationship partner.
De Botton jokes that the perfect wedding gift one could give to one’s beloved is a large book entitled, “My Insanities.” Every one of us is a smidge disturbed. (OK, I know what you're thinking to yourself... "Have you met my ex?? More than a smidge! lol) Every one of us can drive or be driven mad. When we say, “Til death do us part” we’ve just claimed our ticket to a ringside seat on our partner’s insanities – and given them a backstage pass to our own.
Why would someone agree to occupy such a position in your life? Well, love (duh!), and because when you love someone, you usually want to lay claim to them. So, you stand up, you say the words, you move through the rituals, you stake your claim, and you hope that it’ll be so great those insanities and imperfections will go completely unnoticed.
There might be another reason though. Perhaps we intuit that there are aspects of our character that can only develop in a context where neither party can leave the room immediately. That’s the only way we’ll find the safe space for doing the work on ourselves that we need to. De Botton even nods to psychotherapy as the science that tells you how you love as an adult is how you were loved as a child.
You see, we think we’re searching for a romantic partner who feels magical. What we’re really searching for is one who feels familiar. “Does this person make me suffer in the way I’ve learned to expect to suffer in a romantic relationship?” de Botton quips. This must be why so many people “pass” on prospective partners who meet their so-called criteria but they just don’t click with . . . they don’t have that je ne sais quoi of familiarity that they’re unconsciously searching for.
Much of the time — especially in the early stages of dating – we have to little-white-lie a little about who we are. We don’t do so maliciously or with the intention to deceive. We gloss. We fluff. We skim. We pad. Certainly we are impressed by the “perfect” sides of a person. We fall for their virtues. But once fully penetrated, the drawbridge of the heart can come down.
De Botton warns us, though, that being fully yourself is probably a treat you should spare anyone you claim to love! Think about it: The full disclosure of who we are and what we are at any given moment to another human being would, well, probably destroy them! Do you really want your beloved to know the full extent of the neuroticism of your psyche? (Ever been on a first date where the person across from you emotionally purges or discloses TMI? This is where I work with my clients on the fine art of self-editing!)
Sure, curbing one’s neuroticism might require a little discipline and restraint, but when we foolishly believe that the practical perspective of life has no place in a romantic relationships, well, we are headed for disaster.
De Botton is considerably more practical than the Romantics who believed in the intuitive and wordless understanding of one person to another. They believed that a true lover should be able to sense your feelings and the contents of your soul. Romance novels, romantic comedies, and even some seemingly good sources of advice on the internet still perpetuate this myth. This essentially insists that we be mind readers in order to be in love. This is a pretty high expectation – and it gives us no reliable way to actually reach the one we love. (Romanticism is responsible for much of the pain I experienced in my 20's when I was too young to "know better!")
De Botton instead challenges us to think of love as a process of education wherein we are constantly trading roles: One day, I’m the teacher, another day, I’m the student. Given this viewpoint, maybe we’d be better served to see our relationship arguments not as wins or losses or moments of thwarted self-expression but as failed teaching moments. Mightn’t that be a more productive stance than, “I’ve married an idiot!” or “Why am I dating such a b*tch!” Perhaps you can see him or her not merely as an exasperation but as lovably infuriating.
This is probably not going to come naturally. But you can learn to be attentive of and in control of your mindset. Love is a skillset that needs to be learned. So, what skills, specifically, might we need to practice?
Well, first of all, learn to see your partner as a small child – a toddler even – who is forming all the psychological wounds and distortions that will follow them into adulthood and come out to play in the theatre of your relationship. Even the most appalling bits of behavior generally have fear beneath them, not nastiness.
Secondly, accept that compatibility is something that grows with time. It is, de Botton reminds us, an achievement of love. It is not necessarily a pre-condition to love. The difficulty is knowing how to signal these wounds to the ones we love. I’m asked this frequently by any client who has been previously married, divorced, addicted, failed, or ruined in some way. There is no easy way to cue our beloved to these broken places.
Thirdly, you can shift your emphasis from being right to being present and aware. There is such an emphasis on rightness in relationship conflicts that sets us up dangerously for disappointment.
And finally, accept that the idea that you will never be lonely within a relationship is a utopian fantasy. Loneliness is a human emotion that is universally felt at some time or another. It makes less sense to us when we experience it even as we’re in a relationship, but imagine how it would take the pressure off your partner if they didn’t have to be responsible 100% of the time for whether or not you felt lonely?
These aren’t actually so much love “skills,” so much as they are love mindsets. They exist at the level of attitude and belief. But we can make habits of attitudes and beliefs. Embracing them may help make your book of imperfections a little more reader-friendly for your next relationship.