“The only people who can still strike us as normal are those we don’t yet know very well.”
“An honorable human relationship … in which two people have the right to use the word ‘love,’” the poet Adrienne Rich memorably wrote, “is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other.” But too often, we mistake for love feelings rooted in the pleasant untruths of delusion — about ourselves, or the other, or the possibility that exists between the two. Anyone who has ever been vitalized by the electricity of infatuation has also burned with disappointment as the fantasy of the idealized beloved has crumbled into the reality of a living and therefore flawed person. And yet one of the great paradoxes of the human heart is that we go on falling in love — or in what we think is love, or hope might be love — anyway.
Nearly two centuries before the French philosopher Alain Badiou examined the delicate psychoemotional machinery of why we fall and stay in love, his compatriot Stendhal set out to outline the dark side of life’s most radiant experience in his “crystallization” theory of the seven stages of infatuation and disillusionment. But infatuation, argues Alain de Botton in a portion of The Course of Love (public library), isn’t a maladaptive mutation of our love-faculty — rather, it is an essential feature of it.
De Botton writes:
Infatuations aren’t delusions. That way they have of holding their head may truly indicate someone confident, wry, and sensitive; they really may have the humor and intelligence implied by their eyes and the tenderness suggested by their mouth. The error of the infatuation is more subtle: a failure to keep in mind the central truth of human nature: that everyone — not merely our current partners, in whose multiple failings we are such experts — but everyone will have something substantially and maddeningly wrong with them when we spend more time around them, something so wrong as to make a mockery of those initially rapturous feelings.
The only people who can still strike us as normal are those we don’t yet know very well. The best cure for love is to get to know them better.
Though De Botton is being, of course, at least semi-facetious in this last sentiment, it does raise one inescapable question about the tradeoffs between normalcy and desirability, for in the desired stranger of our fantasies the abnormalities we witness are charming quirks, whereas in the partner of our reality they are flaws so alarming as to be feared fatal.
In this sense, there might be no “cure” for love, but there is one mighty defense against the pathology of continual disappointment that can plague our intimate relationships — an unbegrudging acceptance of imperfection and frequent low-level letdown between even the most well-intentioned of partners, which works much like a vaccine enlists a small dose of the weakened microbe in fortifying the larger organism against the disease.
What makes infatuation so intoxicating is precisely its imperviousness to disappointment, for it is rooted entirely in a chimera of the other, enshrined in the illusion of perfection. What makes love so rich and rewarding is the moving frontier of mutual discovery and understanding with each experience of disappointment, as we continually calibrate our flat fantasy of the idealized beloved to an ever-expanding reality of a dimensional person.
Complement the immensely and at times heartbreakingly insightful The Course of Love — which also gave us De Botton on what makes a good communicator and the paradox of sulking — with the humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm on what is keeping us from mastering the art of loving, the great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh’s simple, profound treatise on how to love, and psychoanalyst Adam Phillips on the paradoxical psychology of why frustration is necessary for satisfaction in romance.
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