Near the start of The Course of Love, the new novel by bestselling author and everyday philosopher Alain de Botton, Kirsten McLelland and her new husband Rabih Khan find themselves in the kind of argument that could only take place in that graveyard of modern relationships – IKEA. Kirsten, a level-headed surveyor from Inverness, insists that they buy a set of decorative glasses from the Fabulos range while Rabih Khan, a Lebanese-born urban designer, is adamant that that the simpler Godis version would work better in their home. They abandon their mission to drive home in angry silence, in a scene plucked from the lives of married couples around the world.
“When people are learning about love, they are reading novels but I’ve always wanted to write a novel about love that actually wasn’t a romantic novel,” laughs de Botton, who’s speaking to me from London. “Although novels often explore many different kinds of relationships, the narrative – unless it’s a murder narrative! – is about the question of whether or not a couple will be together. But I wanted to say right at the beginning that my characters are going to stay married and no one is going to get killed. The challenge was: how do I keep the reader from falling asleep while exploring the kind of relationship that most of us actually have?”
The magic of a relationship is limited to the beginning and that learning how to live a life with someone is less interesting than finding someone to be with.
Like Essays in Love, the debut novel that de Botton wrote nearly two decades ago (a permanent fixture on my bookshelf and my only reading recommendation for friends going through heartbreak), The Course of Love is less interested in girl-meets-guy theatrics or proposals that go viral than he is in the mundane rituals, secret vulnerabilities and inevitable betrayals that define long-term relationships as time goes by. The novel -- which follows Rabih and Kirsten through the intensity of sexual attraction, the monotony of marriage and children, the consequences of cheating and the comforts of growing older with someone who knows you -- is a corrective to a culture that tells us that the magic of a relationship is limited to the beginning and that learning how to live a life with someone is less interesting than finding someone to be with.
“Asking people why they fixate on beginnings is like asking why someone likes chocolate – it gives you a pickup and it’s great fun,” says de Botton, who thinks that our addiction to apps such as Tinder have created countless opportunities for beginnings and allow us to experience those first three months again and again. He also adds that investing too heavily in a soulmate can set us up for lifelong disappointment. The urge to cheat – such as in the case of Rabih who has an affair with an attractive colleague at a conference before acknowledging the meaning of his life with Kirsten – is linked to our inability to reconcile our need for loyalty with the thirst for adventure that’s often a hangover from our youth.
“If you’ve been promised a soulmate and then you end up with someone who has different taste in films, disagrees with your taste in music, doesn’t like your mother and has a different view of exercise to you it can seem like a betrayal of love,” de Botton says. “But the truth is, if we can find someone who understands 70 per cent of us then we’re doing pretty well. Rabih has an affair but he can see things all ways – on one level, what he’s done is so much fun but on the other, he’s endangered everything he cares about. But there isn’t really a right answer because there is a cost in both directions. It’s an area of sacrifice.”
In a way, overt cultural differences dramatise something that’s already valid in a relationship which is that you’ve married a very different person.
For interracial couples, who may have grown up with different cultures, traditions and influences, marriage can exacerbate the fact that you’ve committed to someone whose experiences and points of reference vary wildly from your own. “In a way, overt cultural differences dramatise something that’s already valid in a relationship which is that you’ve married a very different person,” he says. “The thing that poisons relationships is believing that our partners are just like us and should always agree with us. In some ways, overt cultural differences make this less possible because it forces us to acknowledge that we’re always coming from different worlds.”
When I quiz de Botton about his thoughts on the relevance of an institution that actively excludes the LGBTQ community and whose symbols and structures were conceived by straight people, he says that our attraction to marriage – in whatever form it takes – points to a profound desire for long-term love.
“I’ve always been struck by how the gay and lesbian population in the UK and Australia have been shut out of marriage historically and this has led to this outdated view that they’re not interested, that it’s all about sex and that the same things that drive heterosexual couples simply don’t exist,” De Botton says. “But what that’s telling us is that there might be a part of us that wants to change every five seconds but there’s another part of us that wants to resolve this issue until death do us part. We want to answer our emotional needs for the long term, whoever we are.”
The Course of Love is out at bookstores everywhere.
Alain de Botton will speak at the Sydney Opera House on July 9 and 10, 2016
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