Context: Finished this off as we ploughed through torrential rain and whiteout cloud on our flight back to the Highlands of Papua New Guinea.
I rarely read non-fiction of the philosophical nature. But while back in the UK, I got hooked on the psychology sections of my local bookshops. While there, I came across this and a few others on love which I’ll read in the coming months. It was a remarkable read, filling in many of the blanks I had about what love really is. So many of us struggle to both give and receive love. This is partly because we have serious misunderstandings about what it is. Seeing as how it is central to a happy life, I feel this is regrettable and wanted to redress the balance in my own life.
If you’ve read any of Alain de Botton’s books, you’ll recognise the style straight away. Armstrong uses literature and art as well and references spanning everything from Socrates to soap operas to shine a light on the elusive concept of love. He does it extremely well.
The starting point is romance and the fallacy that falling in love means you are in love. Not true, he argues. Falling in love is the first step in a relationship which must move on to maturity. If it does not, the loss of the feeling stage of being in love will not sustain the subsequent relationship and allow the couple to move on into a deeper more stable love. In addition, he argues, that unless the individuals in a relationship do not face their own personal issues, this stability will not be achieved as each or one partner uses the other to make up for their character deficiencies.
He challenges the notion that compatibility is a precursor to a successful relationship by informing us that compatibility is something that a couple achieve, not something they bring into the relationship. This is a very liberating concept if you can grasp it because it means you can always work to be compatible with your partner rather than wishing you had married Mr Right rather than the Mr Not Quite Right you’re with. In fact, he blows the cover of those who try to coerce their partner into being more like they want them to be
The search for compatibility can be a highly respectable way of not loving.
In my own marriage, this is something that I really do need to take on board. I’m no stranger to the fact that I can be quite demanding on others to behave the way that I expect, my wife especially. This is extremely important to bear in mind also considering that
Deep love might attach us to someone who in the end is highly suitable but who doesn’t, superficially, offer us what we want.
Neither is Armstrong under any illusions about how tough love can be. Take this quote for example:
One of the ordinary tragedies of love occurs when one person is well-intentioned and well-disposed towards another, but has no adequate idea of how to make the other person happy. It is one thing to feel loving towards someone, another to translate this feeling into words and actions which make the other person feel loved.
In the end, for those of us committed to long term relationships, Armstrong’s book offers some great encouragement, particularly in giving us a realistic perspective of the problems of love which we should anticipate and work through. For example:
The point is that even within a good relationship there are continual sources of hurt and disappointment which have to be overcome if love is to survive; their overcoming is actually the growth and development of love. It is therefore extremely important that we work with a vision of love which sees problems not as the end of love, not as a sign that love is over, but as the ground upon which love operates. This is why a forgiving attitude to another person is an essential element of love. Love is destroyed when we hold on to the image of the other as blameworthy, as guilty of having wronged us. Forgiveness relies upon adopting a point of view from which their actions or words can be seen as expressions of their own suffering rather than just as malicious.
While I found the whole book refreshingly sensible, have to disagree strongly with him on just one point. He says that "according to the Christian view, sex played an important part in the fall of man from God’s grace." This is absolutely not true and, for a man who is obviously well-read and very scholarly, this is a stunning misconception. The closest the Biblical account comes to anything like what he says is that Eve desired the fruit she was forbidden to eat. and this desire might be equated with lust. Sex however had absolutely nothing to do with it at all.
This is a great book to read, exceptionally thought provoking and, particularly if you are in a long-term relationship, or hope to embark on one, a good book to read and discuss with your partner.