The Course of Love - Alain de Botton Flashcards Preview

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Flashcards in The Course of Love - Alain de Botton Deck (7):


The certainty that another human being is a soulmate comes very fast. Objective knowledge does not come into it. What matters instead is intuition: a spontaneous feeling which bypasses the normal processes of reason.

He teases out an entire personality from the details.

He will continue to trust in the possibility of rapid, wholehearted understanding and empathy between 2 human beings and in the chance of a definitive end to loneliness.

For the Romantic, a soulmate may constitute a comprehensive answer to the unspoken questions of existence. Only in the past few centuries has the Romantic faith been judged anything more than an illness; it has taken on the status of something close to the purpose of life. This is an idealism freighted with forbidding and brittle consequences.

The things we consider romantic - wordless intuitions, instantaneous longings, a trust in soulmates - are what stand in the way of learning how to sustain relationships.

We need to learn that love is a skill rather than an enthusiasm.

The Sacred Start

The start receives such disproportionate attention because it isn't deemed to be just one phase among many; for the Romantic, it contains in concentrated form everything significant about love as a whole. What we typically call love is only the start of love.

"What's it like to have been married for a while?" - a very rare question.

He notes a range of traits, psychological and physical, to whose appeal he is susceptible.

Unruffled - not agitated or disturbed; calm. "He seemed unruffled by her words"

Cynics are merely idealists with unusually high standards.

He feels certain that he has discovered someone endowed (blessed/graced/equipped) with the most extraordinary combination of inner and outer qualities.

Solicitude = care, concern, attentiveness

It only amplifies his enthusiasm that...

His clumsiness is an incidental sign of his sincerity: we tend not to get very anxious when seducing people we don't much care about.


He appreciates the lack of any good reasons why she would ever bestow her affections upon him.

Detailed psychological conjecture (speculation) - a conclusion formed on the basis of incomplete information.

Such doubts only inflame (arouse, intensify, ignite) desire

Our understanding of love has been hijacked and beguiled by its first distractingly moving moments. We have allowed our love stories to end way too early. We seem to know far too much about how love starts, and recklessly little about how it might continue.

In Love

Irremediable blow - impossible to cure or put right

Love reaches a pitch at those moments when our beloved turns out to understand the chaotic, embarrassing and shameful parts of us.

Propriety - conformity to conventionally accepted standards of behaviour or morals.

There is, in the early period of love, a measure of sheer relief at being able, at last, to reveal so much of what needed to be kept hidden for the sake of propriety (decorum, respectability, decency).

Sex and Love

Sexiness is not so much about sensations but about ideas - foremost among them, the idea of acceptance, and the promise of an end to loneliness and shame.

That respectable-looking people might be inwardly harbouring some beautifully carnal and explicit fantasies, while outwardly seeming to care only about friendly banter - this strikes him as an entirely surprising and deeply delightful concept, with the immediate power to soothe a raft of his own underlying guilty feelings about his sexuality.

Shame and repression of impulse aren't just things that our ancestors and certain religions latched on to for obscure and unnecessary reasons: they are fated to be constants in all eras.

Primal self-disgust

Deep in his unconscious, in some dark recess immune to logic...

Interlude - break, respite, recess, intermission, break, interval

The Proposal

There is no one more likely to destroy us than the person we marry.


It is considered un-Romantic and even mean to ask an engaged couple to explain in any depth, with patience and self-awareness, what exactly had led them to make and accept a proposal. There is usually no rationally founded, coherent set of motives. Instead of a rationale there are feelings.

There is virtually no serious thought underpinning his certainty about marriage. He has never read any books on the institution, he has never cynically interrogated a married couple let alone spoken in any depth with a divorced one. He would be at a loss to explain why the majority of marriages fail, save from the general idiocy or lack of imagination of their participants.

The marriage of feeling has largely been spared the need to account for itself. The modern ages appears to have had enough of 'reasons'.

That it is 'unnecessary' in the practical sense to marry serves only to render the idea more compelling emotionally.

He proposes because he want to preserve, to 'freeze'. what they feel for each other. He hopes to make an ecstatic sensation perpetual.

But there are many aspects which marriage is not able to 'freeze' or preserve: the absence of responsibility; the indolent Sunday that lies before them; her buoyant mood and his sense of gratitude.

He loves her deeply, but he hates the idea of being on his own with almost equal force.

To a shameful extent, the charm of marriage boils down to how unpleasant it is to be alone. Society appears determined to render the single state as nettlesome (causing annoyance or difficulty) and depressing as possible. Loneliness can provoke an unhelpful rush and repression of doubt and ambivalence about a potential spouse.

Without witnesses, he can operate under the benign illusion that he may just prove no particular challenge to be around.

Marriage: a hopeful, generous, infinitely kind gamble taken by 2 people who don't know yet who they are or who the other might be, binding themselves to a future they cannot conceive of and have carefully omitted to investigate.

Silly Things

Romanticism is a philosophy of intuitive agreement. In real love, there is no need tiresomely to articulate or spell things out. Both parties see the world in precisely the same way.

When it comes to domestic existence, we tend to make a fateful presumption of ease, which in turn inspires in us a tense aversion to protracted negotiation. We think it peculiar to devote a 2-day summit to the management of a bathroom.

Bedevil - torment or harrass

With their respective needs contextualised, with each side appreciating the source of the other's beliefs, a new flexibility might have ensued.


Relationships involve a constant rotation of moods.

The ordinary challenging relationship remains a strangely and unhelpful neglected topic. It's the extremes that repeatedly grab the spotlight - the entirely blissful or murderous catastrophes. Ideally, art would give us the answers that other people don't. This might be one of the main points of literature. The important books should be those that leave us wondering, with relief and gratitude, how the author could possibly have known so much about our lives.

Too often a realistic sense of what an endurable relationship is ends up weakened by silence, societal or artistic. We hence imagine that things are far worse than they are for other couples. Our marriages are essentially going entirely according to plan.


At the heart of a sulk lies a confusing mixture of intense anger and an equally intense desire not to communicate what one is angry about. It is a privilege to be the recipient of a sulk: it means the other person respects and trusts us enough to think we should understand their unspoken hurt. It is one of the odder gifts of love.

Sulking pays homage to a beautiful, dangerous ideal that can be traced back to our earliest childhoods: the promise of wordless understanding. In the womb we never had to explain. Our every requirement was catered for. This continued into our first years. Large kind people saw past our tears, our inarticulacy, our confusions; they found the explanations for discomforts which we lacked the ability to verbalise.

We do our sulking lovers the greatest possible favour when we are able to regard their tantrums as we would those of an infant.

Sex and Censorship

Our age has strikingly maintained the essential drift of an earlier religious position: the belief that true love must entail wholehearted sexual fidelity.

Although it often struggles to be heard in respectable circles, there is an alternative to the Christian-Romantic tenet that sex and love should always be inseparable. Sex doesn't always have to be bound up with love. It can sometimes be a purely physical, aerobic activity engaged in without substantive emotional meaning. However, this remains, in the current age, the minority view by a very wide margin.


What makes people good communicators is, in essence, an ability not to be fazed by the more problematic or offbeat aspects of their own characters. They can contemplate their anger, their sexuality and their unpopular, awkward or unfashionable opinions without losing confidence or collapsing into self-disgust. They can speak clearly because they have managed to develop a priceless sense of their own acceptability.

We must be truthful correspondents of the reality of our inner lives.

Good listeners are no less rare or important than good communicators. Here, too, an unusual degree of confidence is the key - a capacity not to be thrown off course by, or buckle under the weight of, information that may deeply challenge certain settled assumptions.

It is precisely when we hear little from our partner which frightens, shocks or sickens us that we should begin to be concerned.


When our minds are involved in transference, we lose the ability to give people and things the benefit of the doubt; we swiftly and anxiously move toward the worst conclusions that the past once mandated.

To accept the risks of transference is to prioritise sympathy and understanding over irritation and judgment. Two people can see that sudden bursts of anxiety or hostility may not always be directly caused by them - and so should not always be met with fury or wounded pride. Bristling and condemnation can give way to compassion.

We don't need to be constantly reasonable in order to have good relationships; all we need to have mastered is the occasional capacity to acknowledge with good graces that we may, in one or two areas, be somewhat insane.


Universal Blame

The accusations we direct at our lovers make no particular sense. We would utter such unfair things to no one else on earth. But our wild charges are a peculiar proof of intimacy and trust, a symptom of love itself - and, in their own way, a perverted manifestation of commitment. Whereas we can say something sensible and polite to any stranger, it is only in the presence of the lover we wholeheartedly believe in that we can dare to be extravagantly and boundlessly unreasonable.

Teaching and Learning

Few of us ever grow more reasonable or more insightful about our own character for having had self-esteem taken down a notch, our pride wounded and our ego subjected to a succession of pointed insults. We simply grow defensive and brittle in the face of suggestions which sound like mean-minded and senseless assaults on our nature, rather than caring attempts to address troublesome aspects of our personality.

Love Lessons

Maturity means acknowledging that Romantic love might constitute only a narrow, and perhaps rather mean-minded, aspect of emotional life, one principally focused on a quest to find love rather than to give it; to be loved rather than to love.

Children teach us that love is, in its purest form, a kind of service. The word has grown freighted with negative connotations. An individualistic, self-gratifying culture cannot easily equate contentment with being at someone else's call.

The child teaches the adult something else about love: that genuine love should involve a constant attempt to interpret with maximal generosity what might be going on, at any time, beneath the surface of difficult and unappealing behaviour.

The parent has to second-guess what the cry of anger is really about. And what marks out this project of interpretation - and makes it so different from what occurs in the average adult relationship - is its charity.

Irreconcilable Desires

Our romantic lives are fated to be sad and incomplete, because we are creatures driven by 2 essential desires, which point powerfully in opposing directions. What is worse is our utopian refusal to countenance the divergence, our naive hope that a cost-free synchronisation might somehow be found: that the libertine might live for adventure while avoiding loneliness and chaos. Or that the married Romantic might unite sex with tenderness, and passion with routine.

Infatuations aren't delusions. 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 strike us as normal are those we don't yet know very well.


Ready for Marriage

Pronouncing a lover 'perfect' can only be a sign that we have failed to understand them. We can claim to have begun to know someone only when they have substantially disappointed us.

The chances of a perfect human emerging from the perilous gauntlet are non-existent.

We should look for ways to accommodate ourselves as gently and as kindly as we can to the awkward realities of living alongside another fallen creature. There can only ever be a 'good enough' marriage.

Maturity begins with the capacity to sense and, in good time and without defensiveness, admit to our own craziness. If we are not regularly deeply embarrassed by who we are , the journey to self-knowledge has not begun.

Love comprises 2 very different modes: being loved and loving. We should marry when we are ready to do the latter and have become aware of our unnatural and dangerous fixation on the former.

The Romantic view expects that love and sex will be aligned. We are properly ready for marriage when we are strong enough to embrace a life of frustration.

We are ready for marriage when we accept that in a number of significant areas our partner will be wiser, more reasonable and more mature than we are. We should want to learn from them.

The Romantic vision of marriage stresses the importance of finding he 'right' person, which is taken to mean someone in sympathy with the raft of our interests and values. There is no such person over the long term. We are too varied and peculiar. There cannot be lasting congruence.