Newsflash: none of us are the right people.
I recently took a road trip with an older relative of mine, who’s been very happily married for a long time.
When you’re stuck in a car with someone for hours on end, you get to know a lot about them; there’s not a lot to do besides tell each other all your stories. By the end of the second day, we’d shared plenty of laughs, and shed some tears too.
After he told me the story of how he knew he wanted to marry his wife (which is very sweet, and which I’m not sharing) a question kept nagging at me, so I asked him the next day. Did he think he just ‘got lucky’ enough to meet the one perfect person for him, or did he think he’d have met someone else who could have been right for him, if he and his wife had never crossed paths?
He thought about it a while before answering, and eventually said he thought none of us is so unique, and there are plenty of people who could technically be ‘right’ for each other. I’m not so sure about that; I think he’s a pretty one-of-a-kind guy, and he got pretty lucky. I don’t know very many happy couples, so he seems like a unicorn to me. But maybe he’s right.
The writer and philosopher Alain de Botton, author of a viral essay for The New York Times called Why You Will Marry The Wrong Person, has another take: he says most of us marry the wrong person, and that’s okay. Could this be true? Could our obsession with finding the perfect match be totally wrong-headed?
Love is a skill, not an instinct
The first thing de Botton points out is that most of us have no idea how to love someone. We go around thinking we can just trust our feelings, and everything will be okay. We want to follow our hearts and believe we’ll know it when we meet the perfect person. But, says de Botton, “if you keep following your feelings, you will almost certainly make a big mistake.”
One reason for this is because our parents taught us what love feels like, and in many cases, that early love felt bad. To oversimplify it – if our dad had a terrible temper but we knew he really loved us, we look for someone with a terrible temper. We might not like it, but it feels like home. “We aren’t on a quest to be happy; we’re on a quest to suffer in ways that feel familiar,” explains de Botton.
If we want to overcome that, we need to learn what love really is. And de Botton says it’s a skill, not an instinct. It has to be learned. So, how do we learn to love someone? “The core of love,” says de Botton, “is the willingness to interpret someone’s behavior…to apply charity and generosity of interpretation.” To paraphrase a talk he gave, we’re all terrible and impossible to live with. So we need to cut each other some slack. “Love isn’t just admiration of strength, it’s also tolerance of weakness and recognition of ambivalence.” In order to love and be loved in return, we’ve got to allow ourselves to be vulnerable. We’ve got to admit we need someone, even when it goes against all our instincts to be strong and protect ourselves.
Compatibility isn’t a prerequisite
Another problem is that we think we’ve got to find someone who’s compatible with us in order to make our relationship work – the ‘right’ person. We go on dating apps and answer personality questions, hoping to find someone who thinks the way we do and enjoys the same activities we do. We want to find that perfect match. But de Botton says this is wrong, too.
“Compatibility is an achievement of love,” he says. It’s not what we need from the beginning. We don’t need to be compatible to fall in love; we need to work to be compatible once we are in love. And this makes sense: how many times have you gone out with someone who ticks all the boxes and seems like they should be right for you, but not felt anything for them? And how many times have you fallen for someone who seems totally wrong for you?
None of us are perfect, says de Botton. So why should we expect our partners to be perfect? “The demand for perfection will only lead you to loneliness. You can’t have perfection and company. To be with someone is to be negotiating imperfection every day.”
The right person vs the good-enough person
There’s good news, though, says de Botton. “All of us will not manage to find the right person, but we will probably all manage to find a good-enough person, and that’s success.”
What does this good-enough person look like? They’re going to be a mix of good and bad, like we all are. We’re going to love them sometimes, and other times we’re going to hate them. “People go from being marvelous to terrible,” says de Botton. “Everyone who we love is going to disappoint us.” But, he says, the mark of true psychological maturity is the capacity to stop seeking perfection, and to accept the reality that we’re all strange and annoying, and we’re just as hard to live with as our partners are. “No one is easy to live with.”
Becoming good teachers
To have a good marriage with our good-enough, but still wrong-for-us partners, we’ve got to become good teachers, de Botton explains. We’ve got to teach our partners how to treat us and teach them what we need, without humiliating them and making them feel small – because no one learns anything when they feel bad about themselves.
And we’ve got to become good learners, too. When someone tells us something about ourselves that makes us uncomfortable, we feel attacked. That’s often because they’re trying to get their message across by screaming or sulking, which is not the way to do it. “Most of us are terrible teachers,” says de Botton. “We teach when we’re tired, when we’re frightened.” Also, we sulk. We want our partners to read our minds; we don’t want to explain what we want or how we feel. “We reserve our sulkiness for people we love, who are supposed to love us,” he says. But, “if you don’t explain, you can never be understood.”
So maybe my happily-married relative didn’t just luck out. Maybe he’s actually really good at love: good at teaching, good at learning, good at accepting imperfection and giving the benefit of the doubt. And maybe it’s okay if we’re married to the wrong people, because we’re all the wrong people. Maybe as long as we’re willing to try, we can all be the right people.
Images via youtube.com, tumblr.com.
Comment: Do you think there’s a ‘right’ person for you?
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