Georgia Dixon


Why people usually marry the wrong person

Why people usually marry the wrong person

Most people marry the wrong person, and it doesn't matter, according to prolific London-based writer Alain de Botton.

The author, who writes on travel, architecture and literature, as well as love, is about to start a US tour promoting his latest book, a novel called The Course of Love.

According to de Botton's website, the story follows a couple "from the first flush of infatuation through to inevitable disenchantments and then onto the freedom and insights of maturity".

In a New York Times article, he skewers the notion of Romantic – from the movement that started in Europe in the late-1700s – love.

According to de Botton, we must abandon the "founding Romantic idea upon which the Western understanding of marriage has been based for the last 250 years: that a perfect being exists who can meet all our needs and satisfy our every yearning".

Instead a "tragic" awareness is needed, that every human will "frustrate, anger, annoy, madden and disappoint us", and we will do the same to them.

"There can be no end to our sense of emptiness and incompleteness," de Botton says, bleakly. But that is not grounds for divorce.

"The failure of one particular partner to save us from our grief and melancholy is not an argument against that person and no sign that a union deserves to fail or be upgraded."

De Botton suggests a "not overly wrong" marriage partner is someone who is good at disagreement, with a capacity to tolerate differences with generosity.

He proposes a question to be asked at an early dinner date with a prospective partner is: "And how are you crazy?"

"We seem normal only to those who don't know us very well," de Botton says.

"The problem is that before marriage, we rarely delve into our complexities." 

He believes people only think they are seeking happiness in marriage, but what they really want is familiarity.

"We are looking to recreate, within our adult relationships, the feelings we knew so well in childhood," he says. But in our early years love can often be confused with other, more destructive dynamics.

As a result, grown-ups often reject marriage candidates who are "too right" - too balanced, mature understanding and reliable.

"We marry the wrong people because we don't associate being loved with feeling happy."

Another reason people marry the wrong person is because "we are so lonely".

"We have to be wholly at peace with the prospect of many years of solitude in order to be appropriately picky; otherwise, we risk loving no longer being single rather more than we love the partner who spared us that fate," de Botton says.

Mistakes are also made because people marry because they want to make nice feelings permanent.

"Perhaps we were in Venice (when the notion of proposing first seemed like a good idea), on the lagoon, in a motorboat, with the evening sun throwing glitter across the sea, chatting about aspects of our souls no one ever seemed to have grasped before, with the prospect of dinner in a risotto place a little later," de Botton says.

The reality that follows "perhaps unfolds in a suburban house, with a long commute and maddening children who kill the passion from which they emerged".

Speaking on the Literary Hub website, de Botton says that for people to have good love lives there needs to be a good background culture that encourages us to have good habits. "I don't think that currently we have such a very helpful backdrop."

"Most of us don't understand the influence of the past on the present, that our childhoods are going to have an enormous impact on how we love, who we love, and how we respond in different situations," he says.

He took aim at the idea of soulmates – "someone to whom your own soul is connected through almost subterranean ways. That you don't even have to speak, the other understands you. It's a beautiful idea, very dangerous idea".

"The notion that someone can understand you without having taught them who you are is... catastrophic because most of the time we can't understand people."

The Romantics were guilty of the idea that love was divorced from practical life, de Botton says.

"Love as we've come to know it from the kind of 18th and 19th century heritage is really a kind of leisured activity that takes place on summer evenings when people are able to go for long walks, admire the sea, the cliffs, the underside of the clouds lit by the sun.

"We have a hard time marrying that up with what we sometimes call, in a slightly bad mood, reality. Many, many relationships kind of flounder on the contrast."

Jane Austen had said she wrote her books because she wanted people to become more mature about relationships, but nowadays there is a sense novels should not be prodding readers in certain directions, de Botton says.

"I'm more vulgar. I look back towards a more parable-based vision of fiction... I suppose I'm looking at people like Jane Austen or (Leo) Tolstoy as more moralising writers."

When he's not writing, de Botton is often working at The School of Life in London, which he started to put his ideas about education into practice.

Written by Michael Daly. First appeared on


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