Why we are miserable in love

Published August 25, 2020, 4:32 PM

by AA Patawaran

Because modern love was invented by the Romanticists ‘in the middle of the 18th century, who didn’t have a job or who only worked a little bit’—and other funny but maybe true revelations from philosopher Alain de Botton

In a talk he gave in a Google-organized conference in London, British-Swiss philosopher Alain de Botton shook up our notions of modern love. He spoke, representing The School of Life, an educational company he founded in 2008 along with several other intellectuals, which now has offices in various cities, from London and Berlin to Tel Aviv. I discovered Alain through his book The Art of Travel, although he now has so many, including the bestsellers How Proust Can Change Your Life and The Architecture of Happiness. Sometime in the late aughties, via Twitter, we were also able to get him to write an article on marriage for Style Weekend, one of the weekly publications under Manila Bulletin.

Alain de Botton (photo by Vincent Starr)


In London, during this talk, Alain opened the session by asking the audience if they were happily married. With so many hands in the air, he said, “Truly unbelievable when looked at in the context of world history. Because the notion that we would be not only married but happily married only dates back to roughly the middle of the 18th century. Until then, you tolerated your partner for the sake of domestic concerns or the children. You did not expect to love them.”

The idea of love being destiny, according to Alain, is fairly new, born of what historians now call Romanticism. “We are all heirs of Romanticism. The way we humans love is very dependent on context and society,” he said, explaining that Romanticism is a very particular ideology that tells us that “all of us have a soulmate out there.”

What is dangerous with this proposition is that we might think that once we found our soulmate, we would never be lonely again. Even more dangerous is that we think instincts play a big part in our search for love. “We might be in a bar, a nightclub, on a train. When we meet the soulmate, we will feel a very special feeling, a kind of instinctive attraction to this person, and we will know they are our destiny,” said Alain.

The philosopher is obviously a fan of neither Romanticism nor romance. He said in his talk that it was very likely that the people who invented Romanticism did “not have jobs or they only worked a little bit, [which is why] Romanticism is very tied up with long, balmy summer afternoons, walks in nature, lots of waterfalls and large watery expanses. Dusk was very important for the romantics, that moment when sunbeams lit up the underside of the clouds, turning them into a pinky hue.”

The other thing that Alain thought the romantics got wrong was the idea that love and sex go together. “Previously, people had sex and had been in love, they didn’t necessarily see them as entirely conjoined,” he said, citing that this was the reason that, after the ideas of Romanticism had spread far and wide, practically all novels of the 19th century, from Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary to Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, were about adultery or betrayal. “The romantics believe that sex is the ultimate expression of love.”

To Alain, romanticism is the single greatest enemy of love. “And if we ought to love better in the future, we should avoid all the feelings that got us into the kind of relationships that romanticism points us toward,” he explained.

But why the cynicism?


“Unlike what Romanticism tells us, we are not pure, kind, loving beings,” he said. “We are deeply dangerous and most of us are on the edge of insanity. It’s just what it means to be human. We have all sorts of impulses, feelings, desires, which make us great trouble to be around.”

He recommended a more open discussion on a dinner date, in which both parties could open up to their level of madness. Alas, it would not be considered polite to explore a possible relationship this way. “The only people we can think of as normal are people we’ve just met,” he sighed. “Once we meet them a little bit more, we’ll soon realize that they are not normal.”

If you wonder why your partner cannot accept parts of who you are that your parents or friends don’t mind, Alain had this to say, “Parents and friends don’t care enough. They don’t have to deal with you all the time, so they don’t give you the vital feedback that a lover, deep in a relationship, probably a marriage, will tell you.”

These expectations, of course, are grounded in how Romanticism changed the definition of love, imbuing it with the magic of two people meeting like the halves of a single soul, who would understand each other completely and without reservations. 

There are some people who would never have fallen in love if they had not heard there was such a thing.

Francois La Rochefoucauld

“In the olden days people used to get together according to a marriage of reason. Parents identify ‘reasonable reasons’ for getting you together, his plot of land is next to yours, the same religion, or the castle, or whatever… Nowadays, instinct should guide us to the person who will make us happy,” said Alain.

But again, he stressed, it’s wrong. “Psychoanalysis has taught us that when we fall in love we are essentially recreating a pattern in early childhood. The problem is when we love in adulthood, we are not necessarily drawn to people who will make us happy. We are drawn to people who will feel familiar. Very often, happiness and familiarity are drifted apart because the love we knew as children was not a love that was pure of certain unhealthy dynamics, like loving someone who was distant, or loving someone whose moods we couldn’t control, whom we were slightly afraid of.”

This is the reason some matches that we think are made in heaven on paper do not prosper. If you set up friends who seem perfect for each other and they don’t hit it off, it’s very likely that they do not satisfy each other’s requirement for suffering, or so said Alain, adding that in a potential partner, “we are looking for trouble that is beautifully familiar, from childhood.”


In romantic love, honesty is policy, especially when it comes to sex. It’s a disaster, according to Alain. Over time in a typical relationship, it becomes a choice between love and honesty and most will choose love, ditching honesty—and thus begins the return to alienation. In the same vein, the romantics gave us the notion that we should be ourselves in a relationship. “Being yourself in a relationship is a curse we should spare anyone we care about,” said Alain, that is until we learn to accept our flaws and whether or not we can do something about them.

He said we should learn from the ancient Greeks, to whom love was an attraction to perfection, virtue, and accomplishment. They were tolerant toward “the bad, the imperfect, the fragile, the vulnerable,” but they were not in love with any of it.” The ancient Greeks believed that two people were only truly in love if their relationship were a process of mutual education. Compare this to a modern relationship, in which we believe that someone who loves us should accept the whole of us and never try to change us. “We think that education is a breach of love,” explained Alain, adding that we do not give learning from each other a legitimate place in modern relationships.

So what would be his recommendation? Alain gave a checklist against which to check whether or not you are ready for love. It includes among other things that, in Alain’s words, “You have gently understood that you are crazy” and so is your partner and so you must understand that many things between you will drive you even crazier. It also includes that you have gently understood you do not know yourself, so how can you expect your partner to know you so well? It is just as important that you understand that love is going to be accompanied by a lot of practical details. “You won’t be on holiday, you won’t be with the waterfalls all the time or the lovely beautiful clouds. Love is a practical venture,” he said. And that you must accept that, even in the relationship, “you will be unhappy a great deal of the time.” And that’s OK.