The Course of Love by Alain de Botton: A Master Class on Marriage
Love is a skill rather than an enthusiasm.
Rabih Khan, an aspiring young architect, meets Kirsten McLelland, at a construction site on an overcast morning in early June. Lightning strikes; he is immediately attracted to her. It begins to rain so they take refuge in a nearby Indian restaurant. He admires her auburn hair, her slightly misaligned teeth, her habit of beginning sentences with, ‘here’s a thing...’
Rabih tries to read Kirsten’s signals, to measure her interest in seeing him again. He needn’t fret as Kirsten is enthralled by the ‘reserved sweetness and Levantine exoticism of the sad-eyed boy from Beirut.’
So far, so perfect love story but we’ve hardly reached the end of Chapter One.
Here, the author interposes a spoiler:
And yet he is, of course, nowhere yet. He and Kirsten will marry, they will suffer, they will frequently worry about money, they will have a girl first, then a boy, one of them will have an affair, there will be passages of boredom, they’ll sometimes want to murder one another and on a few occasions to kill themselves. This will be the real love story.
The Course of Love can be read as a novel , complete with copious notes from the author to explain what’s happening. The Course of Love is more succesful, however, when read as a marriage guidance course complete with a charming novel to elucidate every point beautifully.
In his first novel, Essays in Love (1993), Alain de Botton, dealt with the processes of falling in and out of love. In The Course of Love, the Swiss-born philosopher expands the timeline to explore the bigger picture of everything that leads up to and results from that first electric thrill of finding true love.
That first moment of infatuation, argues de Botton, is a matter of intuition rather than a real knowledge of a personality or their likely compatibility. What matters is ‘a spontaneous feeling that seems all the more accurate and worthy of respect because it bypasses the normal processes of reason.’
That intuition is rooted in everything we learn in childhood. We have expectations, an imagined journey of love, before ever we meet our partner. We judge the success of our relationship on how it conforms to our preconceived ideals.
A marriage doesn’t begin with a proposal, or even an initial meeting. It begins far earlier, when the idea of love is born, and more specifically the dream of a soulmate.
The author travels into Kirsten and Rabih’s childhoods and illustrates how they each formed their own package of expectations and how that luggage weighs on every choice they make further down the road.
Couples are so often asked, ‘So, how did you two meet?’ but surely somebody wants to know ’what is it like to have been married for a while?’ What ‘romantics’ typically call love is really only the start of love. It is difficult to accept that the things we consider romantic, ‘wordless intuitions, instantaneous longing, a trust in soulmates – are what stand in the way of learning how to sustain relationships.’
De Botton explores the reasons why a married couple will argue to the death over whether the bedroom window should be left open at night, or whose turn it is to set the table. He explains why the arrival of a new baby can transform a couple’s understanding of love but leave their sex life in tatters. He describes the many adjustments, both miniscule and massive, that are required by both partners to ensure the long term survival of their relationship. He gives reason to hope, not just for survival, but for success.
Rabih and Kirsten, stuck in the trenches of a perfectly average marriage, cannot admire their own valour in their everyday battles, ‘constantly buttoning coats and keeping track of hats.’ Their lives are complicated but their achievements modest. The simple, everyday fight to keep the show on the road will never earn them any great prize and yet, ’the good order and continuity of civilisation nevertheless depend to some tiny but vital degree on their quiet, unnoticed labours.’
Rabih and Kirsten, that very average couple, deserve a pat on the back, a quiet nod from some commander-in-chief to acknowledge their struggles. That is exactly what Alain de Botton has to offer in The Course of Love.
Were Rabih and Kirsten able to read about themselves as characters in a novel, they might –if the author had even a little talent – experience a brief but helpful burst of pity.
If you are newly married, or considering a proposal, or if you are knee-deep in the thick of it, don’t miss out on this entertaining and enlightening master class.