Book review – The course of love

The course of love: Alain de Botton

I read this book recently following the recommendation of my own therapist, who herself found it beautiful, and very useful in her thinking about partnerships. The book is written as a novel, which is unusual for Alain de Botton, whose writings are typically not fictional. It tells the story of Rabih and Kirsten, a married couple journeying through their shared life, and engaging with the blessings and battles that accompany them as their relationship matures, breaks down, and matures again in cycles over time. As the two face the realities of life, at times alongside one another, and at times in a more estranged and secretive manner, their relationship is confronted with the ordinary challenges involved in learning how to withstand the relentless realities we face in our lives as human beings.

One of the central themes which this book explores which I found so helpful, and which I talk about often when working with couples, is the idea of shame. De Botton says that shame is the one emotion that keeps us from being able to live fully, and to share ourselves fully with those we love. He says that shame causes us to lock ourselves away from our partner, emotionally, sexually, intellectually and spiritually, because we are frightened of what they might think when they see all of our good, bad and ugly. For de Botton a sound relationship is one where both members of the couple feel safe enough to endure the feelings of nervousness which arise in us when we allow someone close to us to see those parts of us which we most fear will lead to our being rejected or abandoned. This kind of thinking links in with very early childhood development. If shame is an emotion which we feel too much in our first years of life, it becomes the feeling against which we are most likely to spend the rest of our lives defending. We protect ourselves from the feeling of shame by living inauthentically. De Botton shows in his story about Kirsten and Rabih how shame creeps into relationships through time, and begins to disrupt the possibilities for closeness inside relationship.

De Botton’s story explores the issue of reality, and how reality presses itself on romance, at times destroying it. In his story about the couple, he considers family life, children, work stress, infidelity, illness, money matters, and other key aspects of reality, weaving these into the story of a struggling couple. Reality, in his story, is something which must be faced, hopefully with both members of the couple being equally willing to shoulder the weight of reality. Reality cannot be shied away from, and must form part of what couples think about, talk about, argue about, and ultimately respond to in increasingly adaptive and creative ways over time. The struggle seems to be about finding a way to blend the life lessons which each member of the couple brings into the partnership. Life lessons often conflict, and so there is often a need to sacrifice what we believe to be correct, placing our faith instead in the creative potential of the partnership, to find new and alternative solutions to problems, which could replace our familiar madness. Often there is a defensiveness around this, which de Botton thinks about in terms of each person’s feelings of fear and anxiety, as opposed to their desire to dominate or control. Behind every defensive response there is a fear. This, for me, seems to be one of the central ideas which de Botton emphasizes in his consideration of the couple’s process of dealing with reality. The ways in which we may become controlling and dominant, or distant and detached, or actively aggressive, are always in some way linked with our feelings of fear about how we’re going to get through this difficult life. If we can find our way through this, we could become able to empathise with our partners, instead of being antagonised by their different ways of defending against pain. To reach deep down, behind what we see, and beyond what we faithlessly expect of our partners in the worst of times, and find a way to empathise with them; this is the challenge that de Botton asks us to consider. It is through the course of love that we are able to grow this possibility to empathise, or to lose it.

This book is way to rich to capture in one post, so I’m going to try again some time soon. 🙂

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