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Relationship advice from agony uncle Alain de Botton

Need relationship advice this Valentine's day? No problem. Read on for our picks of the wisdom Alain de Botton has dispensed to lovestruck readers of his Five Dials agony column.   

Question

My boyfriend (Tom) is a kind and loving man, but often when he pays me a compliment I get upset, because of the way he does it. Last week he said he loved me and then added, almost immediately afterwards, ‘because your bottom is so pert.’ It’s true that my bottom is pert (I go to the gym a lot), but I’m uncomfortable with such remarks. Another time, he said that what he really liked about me was my breasts (they are quite large!). Am I being ungrateful, or is there really something to complain about?

Answer

Your question raises a profound philosophical issue, namely, ‘What do we want to be loved for?’ Though we all want love, we also recognise that there are better and worse things to be loved for. To take an example, if our beloved says they love us because we are ‘so old-fashioned’, when in fact we’ve never noticed we are old-fashioned and actually pride ourselves on being ‘modern’, we will feel perturbed, and perhaps more unhappy than if they’d never said anything in the first place.

So we don’t just want any kind of love - we want to be loved for being the person who we think we are. We want to see an accurate, albeit flattering, picture of ourselves emerging from within the comments of others. If a lover says they love us for our body or our car, our money or our cat, these elements may not constitute appropriate targets for love.

Women in particular are often disturbed by the idea of being loved for their bodies. They may spend a considerable amount of time thinking of their appearance (going to the gym, etc.), but when someone falls in love with them, they don’t wish these bodies to be the central focus of love. In fantasy - and this has nothing to do with prudishness - the body would be beside the point. They would be loved for the rest of what one is left with after that body is discounted: the habits, moods, history, and temperament that we tend to call ‘ourselves’.

Give a person enough beauty or success and sooner or later someone will fall in love with them. But love has as its idealised prototype; the unconditional love of a parent for their baby. Our earliest memory of love is of being cared for in a helpless and weak condition.

Some babies are notably cute, but they are by definition unable to bargain with the world on account of extrinsic characteristics. In so far as they are loved and looked after, they are therefore loved simply for who they are – which tends to be rather a messy business. They are loved for, or in spite of, their dribbling, peeing, vomiting, howling and selfish characters. 

Only as the baby grows up does affection become conditional on a number of achievements – saying thank you at the table, fetching mummy her glasses, scrubbing dishes and later, looking attractive, acquiring status, houses, etc.

But although these things guarantee the interest of others, the true desire is not so much to impress through one’s assets as to recreate the contract made by the parent with the child at infancy: a contract binding the parent to love and loyalty and fidelity, come what may. After all, if we are loved conditionally, what happens when the original conditions of love disappear – when the money goes and the body ages? 

In short, we want to be loved for simply existing, not for doing a certain thing or looking a certain way. Then again, this desire is somewhat unrealistic and many people - philosophers among them - have at times judged it wise to continue visiting the gym.


Rather than a restaurant invitation, send your friend a box containing the Pensees of Pascal, the aphorisms of La Rochefoucauld, the collected works of Chamfort, Schopenhauer and Cioran, and selections from the work of Seneca

Question

A friend of mine has recently been left by her boyfriend and is very upset. I’d like to cheer her up and thought of taking her out to dinner somewhere nice. I live in Grimsby, and wondered if you had any nice ideas for restaurants in the town or the vicinity?

Answer

I rarely dine out, but the greater question is whether you should be taking your friend out anywhere in the first place. Your intended goal is to make her feel better about the (unspecified) romantic disaster she has suffered. And if this is the goal, we must analyse what it is truly useful to say to someone who has been left in love.

Part of the pain of a sad experience in a love affair comes from the preconception, which is fostered in a thousand Hollywood films and in the generally optimistic atmosphere of the modern media, that love is a happy business. This optimism makes us suffer doubly when love goes wrong for us: we suffer not only from the pain of the loss of love, but also from the pain of being in pain when we are supposed to be happy.

In this situation, it is apparent that the most useful thing one can do with someone who has been abandoned is to provide them with evidence that life is not in fact a happy process, whatever the songs might say. This will appease their feeling of persecution and place their own pain in context.

Rather than a restaurant invitation, I therefore suggest that you send your friend a box containing: the Pensees of Pascal, the aphorisms of La Rochefoucauld, the collected works of Chamfort, Schopenhauer and Cioran, and selections from the work of Seneca. They may particularly appreciate the Roman philosopher’s remark: ‘What need is there to weep over parts of life? The whole of it calls for tears.’

You may even want to embroider this on a cushion or a bedcover for her.

 

If you found Alain's realistic advice helpful, why not download and print his candid Valentine's card? Its the perfect way to tell that special someone how you really feel.

Find out more about the author

The Course of Love

Alain de Botton

SUNDAY TIMES TOP TEN BESTSELLER

A brilliant new novel about love and marriage in the modern world - from the author the bestselling novel Essays in Love

Modern love is never easy. Society is obsessed with stories of romance, but what comes after happily ever after?

This is a love story with a difference. From dating to marriage, from having kids to having affairs, it follows the progress of a single ordinary relationship: tender, messy, hilarious, painful, and entirely un-Romantic. It is a love story for the modern world, chronicling the daily intimacies, the blazing rows, the endless tiny gestures that make up a life shared between two people. Moving and deeply insightful, The Course of Love offers us a window into essential truths about the nature of love.

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