Has any other emotion inspired more philosophical inquiry or tormented heartsick sonnets than love and its loss? Love is the organizing principle of our lives: we do everything we do in hopes of attaining love. As exquisitely erudite British philosopher Alain De Botton once said, every adult life is defined by two great love stories: the story of our quest for sexual love and the story of our quest for love from the world. The fulfillment of the former, we believe, will finally make us whole. But if that’s the case, why is love so often disenchanting? How can love so unexpectedly mutate into hate? How can the flames of desire so cruelly cool? Why can our lover begin as an object of adoration but end as an object of ridicule? And why when a distant crush becomes a long-term partner does the thrill of longing transform into passionless boredom?
Mathematically speaking, almost all love culminates in heartbreak, nearly half of all marriages end in divorce. So if love is such a fundamental human yearning, if we all supposedly want to love and be loved, why can’t we sustain love over the long haul?
These are the questions the brilliant De Botton ponders in his marvelous masterpiece On Love, his best-selling part-novel, part-philosophical inquiry into the mysterious and maddening nature of romantic love. The story opens when our nameless narrator first meets Chloe on a Paris to London flight and immediately falls head-over-heels. On Love follows their affair from the ecstatic excitement of initial attraction to the torment of helpless obsession, from the bliss of reciprocation to the despair of rejection, from the hope of love’s beginning to the despondency of love’s inevitable demise weeks, months, sometimes years later.
On Love begins with romance’s first stage: idealization. Swept up by the giddiness of infatuation, we worship the beloved as if they were God, the alpha and omega, the beginning and ending of our existence. In our eyes, they are just as faultless. What would be an inexcusable flaw in someone else is somehow permissible in the beloved: the tendency to tell long, meandering stories is a charming quirk, not unforgivably eccentric, the gap between their two front teeth is attractive rather than repulsive. In the early stages of a relationship, our affection for a potential paramour is directly proportional to our ability (or, rather, inability) to see their flaws. This is certainly true in On Love. As the narrator’s interest in Chloe increases, his endearment for her grows exponentially:
“Chloe’s holiday story was dull, but it’s dullness was no longer a criterion for judgement. I had ceased to consider it according to the secular logic of ordinary conversations. I was no longer concerned to locate within its syntax either intellectual insight or poetic truth; what mattered was not so much what she was saying as the fact that she was saying it— and that I had decided to find perfection in everything she might choose to utter. I felt ready to follow her every anecdote, I was ready to love every one of her jokes that missed it punchline, every reflection that had lost its thread. I felt ready to abandon self-absorption for the sake of total empathy, to follow Chloe into each of her possible selves, to catalogue every one of her memories, to become a historian of her childhood, to learn all her loves, fear and hatreds— everything that could possibly have played itself out within her mind and body had suddenly grown fascinating.”
We’ve all known incurable romantics who are in love with being in love. From the time they hit puberty, they’ve always had a significant other. They’ve almost never had to suffer the existential loneliness of being single. Why do some people always seem to be one half of a couple? Do they possess some mysterious magnetism that eludes the perpetually single? Are they simply more irresistible?
Botton posits that the chronically in love are searching for something they perceive to be lacking in themselves. Embedded in the Platonic myth of our other half is the conviction that we are incomplete— we need someone else to make us whole. We are so quick to fall in love because we have so little love in our lives. It’s hard to love anything, most of all ourselves. Biologically, we’re hardwired to focus on the negative; culturally, we’re encouraged to endlessly criticize. Too often we regard ourselves with a dislike that borders on disgust; though we can readily forgive other’s faults, we find it impossible to forgive our own. Our relationship with ourselves is founded on the belief that we are fundamentally flawed. But intoxicated on the heady liqueur of love, we become drunk with delusion, convinced we’ve finally found a Platonic ideal instead of just another pitiful mortal with foibles and frailties of their own. As Botton’s analytically-minded narrator notes:
“I must have realized Chloe was human [with all the implications carried by the word] but could I not be forgiven— with all the stress of travel and existence— for my desire to suspend such a thought? Every love involves [to adapt Oscar Wilde] the triumph of hope over self-knowledge. We fall in love hoping we will not find in the other what we know is in ourselves— all the cowardice, weakness, laziness, dishonesty, compromise, and brute stupidity. We throw a cordon of love around the chosen one and decide that everything that lies within it will somehow be free of our faults and hence lovable. We locate inside another a perfection that eludes us within ourselves.”
And so we arrive at the age-old question: when we fall head over heels, are we really in love with the person themselves or just the experience of being in love? For many, the answer is the latter. Often times in love, the object of adoration is irrelevant. We’re not in love with the qualities of their character, the depths of their psyche, the particulars of their personality nor are we in love with the geography of their specific face or their specific body: we’re in love because we want to love. The longing to love precedes the beloved: because we want love, we find it. Why do you think love is so often equated to madness, to blindness, to intoxication? Because it robs us of our rationality and good judgement. In the heady days of first love, we cannot see the object of our obsession: our longing to love makes gods of men; our desire to love transforms their flaws and imperfections. If we’re interested in a man who is objectively only average looking, our love will render him as attractive and irresistible as Brad Pitt. And if we’re charmed by a woman who most would find loud and obnoxious, our love will paint only a flattering portrait, conveniently airbrushing her less than desirable characteristics:
“If the fall into love happens so rapidly, it is perhaps because the wish to love has preceded the beloved— the need has invented its solution. The appearance of the beloved is only the second stage of a prior [but largely unconscious] need to love someone— our hunger for love molding their features, our desire crystallizing around them. [But the honest side of us will never let the deception go unchallenged. There will always be moments when we will doubt whether our lover exists in reality as we imagine them in our mind— or whether the beloved is not just a hallucination we have invented.”
But after idealization must come love’s second, more disheartening stage: disillusionment. To some degree, attainment is always disenchanting. In the same way that Gatsby fabricates a grand, romanticized image of Daisy only to finally attain her and be disappointed, our fantasies of our lovers rarely coincide with their reality. The crush who at first showered us with compliments becomes mysteriously inattentive once he sweet talks us into bed. The debonair guy who was so irresistible at the beginning of our relationship eventually exchanges his impeccably tailored suits and Armani sunglasses for an unkempt beard and sweatpants. Like Daisy, our beloved was more attractive as the green light, a hazy, faraway ambition made appealing by its inaccessibility. As De Botton so eloquently writes:
“There is a long and gloomy tradition in Western thought arguing that love can ultimately only be thought of an unreciprocated, admiring, Marxist exercise, where desire thrives on the impossibility of ever seeing love returned. According to this view, love is simply a direction, not a place, and burns itself out with the attainment of its goal, the possession [in bed or otherwise] of the loved one…Montaigne had the same idea of what made love grow when he declared that, ‘In love, there is nothing but a frantic desire for what flees from us—’ a view echoed by Anatole France’s maxim ‘It is not customary to love what one has.’
According to this view, lovers cannot do anything save the oscillation between the twin poles of yearning for and annoyance with. Love has no middle ground. It is simply a direction, what it desires it cannot desire beyond its capture. Love should therefore burn itself out with its fulfillment, possession of the desired extinguishing desire.”
At first, love is the profound relief of discovering we are not alone. Our lover belongs to the same country as us: they find the same stupid things funny, they have the same preoccupations and predilections, they hold the same political views. Reflecting on him and Chloe’s first days of flirtation, the narrator recalls:
“When philosophers imagine Utopian societies, they rarely envisage melting pots of difference; rather these societies are based around like-mindedness and unity, similarity and homogeneity, a set of common goals and assumptions. It was precisely this congruence that made life with Chloe so attractive, the fact that after endless irreconcilable differences in matters of the heart, I had at last found someone whose jokes I understood without the need of a dictionary, whose views seemed miraculously close to mine, whose loves and hates kept tandem with my own and with whom I repeatedly found myself saying, ‘It’s amazing, I was about to say/think/do/tell you the same thing…’”
However, if love is enchanting, it’s just as often disillusioning. The trouble with romance is inherent in its very definition is a denial of reality. When we fantasize about a lover from afar, we can imagine they are who we want them to be. In the giddy first days of getting to know someone, we conceive we’re infinitely compatible, two indistinguishable circles of congruent circumference and length. But when a distant crush becomes a committed partner who unpacks their emotional baggage with the intent to move into our lives and stay, we realize relationships are more like Venn diagrams, a union of separate individuals who are similar but ultimately distinct. Tragically, the one we love is their own person with their own beliefs, their own philosophies, their own tastes— some of which will not correspond to our own. Botton handles this law of love comically. When Chloe buys a hideous pair of shoes, our narrator begins to question their compatibility:
“Chloe’s choice of shoe was an uncomfortable reminder that she existed in her own right [beyond fusional fantasies]…and however compatible we might be over certain things, compatibility did not extend indefinitely. It was a reminder that getting to know someone is not always the pleasant process that common sense makes it out to be, for just as one might strike on delightful similarities, one may also encounter threatening differences.”
A dazzling cartography of the human heart, On Love will console those who’ve been dopamine-drunk/devastated/otherwise driven mad by love. For more witty insights into this at times maddening aspect of the human experience, delight in De Botton on dating as a sort of performative play-acting, love as the origin of beauty, and the lover as a detective obsessed with decoding symbols and discerning meaning. If you’re more interested in his philosophical musings on success and status, revisit De Botton on status as the construction of culture, how gazing upon once great ruins can cure us of our status anxiety and how expectation causes anxiety, malaise and discontentment.