Why You Won’t Necessarily Marry the Wrong Person

Recently, The New York Times published a wonderfully provocative piece by Alain de Botton, titled “Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person.” The article is a brief encapsulation of some of the illuminating insights in de Botton’s new book, The Course of Love, which I cannot recommend highly enough to anyone interested in better understanding the frustrations and emotional contradictions of married life. In the article, de Botton calls for rejection of the Romantic philosophy of marriage to which Western culture has subscribed for the last 250 years, the notion that “a perfect being exists who can meet all our needs and satisfy our every yearning.” He recommends replacing it with a philosophy of pessimism: “We should learn to accommodate ourselves to “wrongness,” striving always to adopt a more forgiving, humorous and kindly perspective on its multiple examples in ourselves and in our partners.”

De Botton’s clear-eyed analysis of the dynamics of married life is downright revelatory, but the notion that our marriages break down because our partners “fail to meet all our needs and satisfy our every yearning,” doesn’t ring true to me. I’ve had front-row seats for a few divorces now, and I have yet to see one caused by someone’s failure to live up to an impossible Romantic standard. When I see that dynamic, it tends to be in my single friends, whose idealistic ideas about marriage keep them constantly searching for a better partner instead of choosing one for better or worse and settling down. Far from being Romantic idealists, my divorcing friends have generally lowered their standards down to the ground in an attempt to save their marriages before finally giving up in despair. Also, if we’re all wrong for each other from the start, and we can address this wrongness by adjusting our expectations and attitude, then it would seem to follow that it doesn’t matter much whom we marry. In my heart I can’t believe this is true. It seems clear that some marriages are much happier than others, with the worst leading to emotional starvation and misery that no amount of forgiveness, humor, and kindly perspective on either side can remedy. If into every marriage some wrongness must fall, that wrongness lands along a broad continuum, ranging from tolerable to wildly unbearable. Some people appear much wronger for each other than others.

So if Romanticism isn’t the fatal flaw, the worm in the apple of marriage — what is? How else can we explain our sense that happy marriages are about as common as unicorns — and, as with unicorns, if you do spot one, it’s bound to be a hoax?

Here is my theory. We don’t marry our partners because we expect they will meet all our needs and satisfy our every yearning. We marry our partners because we expect they will do exactly one thing better than anyone else: Love us the way we most need to be loved. If they meet that one expectation, they can flunk pretty much all the others and we’ll still end up with a marriage that feels more happy than wrong. The people who make us feel deeply accepted and at peace and contented inside our own skins do not have to be perfectly beautiful, perfectly good at keeping the house, perfectly patient with the children, perfectly wealthy, well-groomed, fit, present, responsible, or interested in our favorite hobby. Those people can get away with any number of egregious failures, and, as long as they continue to make us feel loved, we will pour forgiveness and kindly perspective over them by the bucketful and never trouble them with a sense that we’re holding a reproachful measuring stick of expectation against their efforts in the world.

I think most marriages begin in this blissful state. We’re so deliriously full of passion and gratitude and delight that we are profligate spendthrifts with our love. We throw open the doors of the storerooms and shower our partners with all the goods inside — and because we give each other everything, we can hardly fail to give the one, key thing. Then, inevitably, the blockbuster giveaway comes to an end. The marriage settles into a more sustainable economy. We give and get, get and give. Since most of us have no idea what our key thing is, we don’t ask for it directly. If it’s a freely traded commodity in our marriage, we may never have to ask, or even know how much we need it. If not, the pain of missing it will help us understand our need, and we will ask to have it met. At that point, we’re very likely to hear from our beloved partner that the key item is on indefinite backorder. We’re told it’s overrated anyway, and we’d be happier with something else.

In other words, we have two problems. 1) We don’t know what we need in order to feel loved. 2) When we figure it out, our partners don’t believe us.

This all makes more sense with an example. Take me. I’m forty-one years old; I’ve been married for fifteen years; I’m a mother of two; I’m a writer of love stories. Up until a month or so ago, it had never occurred to me to wonder what I most need in order to feel loved, or what my husband needs. Asked point-blank, neither of us knew. It took some teasing out.

I asked myself, what kinds of interactions seem to untangle a knot inside me, smooth me out, make me put down all my defenses, trust someone completely, and feel so grateful I’d do almost anything for the person who made me feel that way? What makes me feel unloved? When a man desires me, what aspects of myself is it most important to me that he find sexy?

Here are my answers. I want to be admired for my mind, my insight, my articulateness, my wit. If someone wants to be my friend, I want it to be for those qualities. If a man desires me, I want it to be because he found me sexy in light of our conversation, not solely because he liked the look of my boobs from across the room. I feel most unloved when I lay out one of my newest and shiniest insights and the response is indifference or dismissal.

It was obvious to me the moment I thought about it that my husband does not need his mind, his ideas, his insight, admired in order to feel loved. I had no idea what he did need, though. Neither did he. I batted it around in my head for a few days.

“Something about physical presence?” I guessed. “Something about someone purely and simply wanting you around?”

“Don’t forget about sex,” he replied. “Sex is really important.”

My first reaction was to shrug sex away. Sex couldn’t be the actual thing he needed in order to feel loved. For me, sex is secondary — a thing that feeling loved makes me want. So what does it take to make my husband want to have sex?

Well…hardly anything, really. I mean, he’s a man.

I reframed the question. What does it take to make sex darned near impossible for my husband to resist?

A woman he desires, ready and willing to have sex with him.

At this point, a great many fights and fraught conversations that my husband and I have had around sex came flooding back to me in a new light. When we had breastfeeding infants and I was touched out and exhausted, he told me he needed, needed to have sex with me in order to feel loved, valued, connected to me. Over and over he’s told me that as long as we’re having sex — the kind I participate in with enthusiasm, not the grudging, getting-the-chores-done kind we have when I’m not in the mood — there is almost nothing I can do wrong in his eyes. The one thing that would end our marriage on the spot, he has said, is my telling him I will never have sex with him again.

He had been telling me for years what he needed to feel loved, and I hadn’t believed him. Why?

Two reasons. The first is that he needs something so different from what I need that I didn’t know how to believe him. The second is that I always heard him telling me he needed my desire in order to feel loved. And the only response I could give was despair, because my desire is a fickle diva on whom I cannot rely. I have never loved or helplessly depended upon my husband more than when our children were newborns, have never needed more to make him know how much I love him. I have also never been as alienated from desire as I was then. If that’s what it took to convince him, we were all doomed, the game was rigged against me, and it was fucking unfair.

Once I laid down my defenses and gave the issue some compassionate thought, I realized that my husband does not actually need my desire in order to feel loved. In some situations, he might even experience my proactive, take-me-now lust as unwelcome pressure. What he needs is my generosity and good-will, my pleasure in his pleasure, my desire, not so much for his body, but for his body’s satisfaction. When I feel truly well-loved by my husband, I don’t even have to reach to give him these things, which remain well within my grasp when full-on, selfish desire is beyond me.

What about my need, then? Had I ever asked him to meet it?

I had. Frequently, the outcome had been fights in which I’d been reduced to weeping, screaming, fleeing-the-room-or-the-house hurt and fury because no matter how many times I told him what I needed, what he needed, what our marriage needed — no matter how much intelligence and insight and articulateness I brought to bear on the problem at hand — he simply wouldn’t hear me. The only thing in the world I had wanted was for him to look at me and see a compassionate, wise, intelligent woman who loved him well enough to burrow deep into both our psyches and find honest answers to the recurring question of how we could make each other happy. I wanted him to understand me, thank me, and love me for helping. Instead, he’d all but hated me for being critical, and for asking him to say things he couldn’t for the life of him feel to be true.

I need something so different from what he needs that he didn’t know how to believe me, either. And he also felt despair because, no matter what I said, he couldn’t see me trying to help, trying to be loved for the very best thing I have to offer. He only heard me telling him he was wrong, and demanding that he thank me for it.

When I made this discovery I felt further despair, because this is precisely the sort of insight I hardly ever manage to sneak past my husband’s defenses. But the alternative was resigning myself to the marriage we had without hope of improvement, and that seemed like a poor option. My husband will tell you that he understood me just fine the first time I expressed myself clearly, and that he assimilated the information successfully within an hour or two. I could tell you a much longer and more dramatic story, but suffice to say it ends the same way: Glory hallelujah, he heard me! He really did! And then he actually started trying to do it. He has admired me in words more often in the last two weeks than in the last two years of our marriage, and I feel so much better.

The insidiously difficult thing about this give and get economy of love is that reciprocity is not built in. I can be incredibly generous to my husband with sex, and he can feel very happy and well-loved by me, and it might never cross his mind to compliment my wisdom and intelligence. Instead, he might try to reward me with more sex, and end up quite hurt by my it’s never enough with you response. He might pour words of admiration and praise all over me, and in my gratitude I might return the favor and wonder why he’s only getting sulkier the longer I talk. The golden rule is not just ineffective in this situation, it’s destructive. When we apply it, we’re likely to pave our way straight to marital hell on golden cobblestones of good intention. The golden rule assumes a single currency, but the marital economy has two. I have to love my husband in the coin of his realm. He has to love me in the coin of mine.

I’m sure that other people’s marriages look quite different from mine in their particulars. But here are some ideas that I believe apply generally:

  • Different people need different things in order to feel loved.
  • The things we need in order to feel loved are probably much simpler than we expect, given the sheer number of different things we’re capable of holding against our partners. Most of our grudges are red herrings. We can be angry for a hundred reasons at someone who doesn’t make us feel loved, ninety-nine of which we would forgive a person who does.
  • For a man, even if it doesn’t come down to sex, the need may often lie in the realm of physical pleasure and comfort. Men in our culture tend to lose access to all but the most limited forms of physical affection beyond little-boyhood, and are only able to regain it as adults in their most intimate relationships. And the love shown to boys as they get older often takes the form of attention to their physical comfort — food, laundry, transportation, housekeeping. When the men I know complain about their marriages, it often sounds like this: “She never wants to have sex.” “She’s home all day while I’m at work, but the house is always a wreck.” “She’s so picky about the decor that I don’t feel at home in my own house.” “She’s never around. She’s always off meeting her own needs and never home taking care of mine.” As a woman, I have tended to assume these were inarticulate expressions of a deeper-lying emotional need. But what if, as in my husband’s case, these are perfectly articulate expressions of the true complaint after all? When you don’t look after my physical pleasure and the comfort of my surroundings, I feel that you don’t love me.
  • For a woman, the need is more likely to be emotional than physical. It’s generally going to involve being admired for, desired for, supported in the pursuit of her best thing — the thing that sets her apart from other women — and that best thing is not likely to be her female anatomy. Nor is that thing likely to be her ability to keep a clean, comfortable house. When women say that they’d be willing to have more sex with their husbands if only those husbands did a little more housework, this probably is an inarticulate expression of a deeper-lying emotional need — namely the need to demonstrate and be admired for traits more uniquely their own, and more valued in our culture, than the skills of a competent housemaid.
  • A modern American woman is likely to possess a sense that catering to a man’s physical comfort and pleasure is not her job. A modern American man is likely to possess a sense that catering to the emotional needs of a woman is not his job. He may, in fact, have been led to believe that women’s emotional needs are a form of insanity, or, as my husband succinctly summarized from the zeitgeist when I ran this point by him, “Bitches be crazy, yo.” (He was lovingly validating my insight, not expressing his own opinion!) None of this helps.
  • When a marriage becomes unendurable, it’s likely that the partners need mutually incompatible things in order to feel loved. She needs to be desired for her ability to create beauty, but her aesthetic makes him feel uncomfortable in his own house. Or she needs to be loved for being a party girl who always knows how to bring the fun, but once they have a kid, her free-spirited impulsivity results in a lack of routine and a surrounding chaos that make him feel profoundly unloved and resentful of her best thing.
  • An affair — or the temptation to have one, even if resisted — is usually the consequence of a need to feel loved going unmet in the marriage. Men may be drawn to affairs with women who prioritize their physical pleasure. Women may to be drawn to affairs with men who admire them for virtues their husbands are unable to appreciate.

De Botton writes, “Compatibility is an achievement of love; it must not be its precondition.” When I look around me at the new territory my husband and I have discovered in the last month, this observation strikes me viscerally with its truth. Don’t get me wrong — I still sometimes offend my husband with my insight and shrug off his advances; he still sometimes annoys me by appreciating me with sex instead of words. But now, when we injure each other out of old habit, we’re more likely to skirt around the defensiveness and blame that used to derail us every time, and move straight to the apology and try-again. Compared to where we’ve been living, this looks like happily-ever-after. I don’t want to overstate the victory, though. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, in which the protagonist loses a rare and once-instinctive magical ability and in order to regain it must painstakingly rebuild through years of study and practice what she once possessed through grace. When I read the series in my twenties, I knew this was a metaphor for some heavy lesson of life, but I couldn’t puzzle out which one. Now it seems abundantly clear. Some days the work of love — the tricky diplomacy and delicate conversations resulting in improved but still noticeably flawed outcomes — seems a lot to ask for something that used to be such easy magic.

Nevertheless, I feel lucky to have a marriage that, upon examination, reveals itself as capable of compatibility. It might have gone another way. He might have said, “But I don’t love your mind. I’ve never respected your ideas, and I think your obsession with writing them down is a self-indulgent waste of time. I loved you for your passion but now it never seems to be focused on me.” I might have said, “I’m not attracted to you anymore. I don’t think I will ever be again.” If this had happened, we would have had two options: divorce, or hunker down for the long haul in a loveless marriage.

This is where the true meaning of Romanticism comes clear, and I see that de Botton is right: Romanticism is the reason we get divorced. But his definition is wrong. Romanticism is not the notion that a perfect being exists who can meet all our needs and satisfy our every yearning. It’s the conviction that the purpose of marriage is to love and be loved; that a marriage without love is no marriage at all.

Perhaps if we threw out Romanticism we’d get divorced less often. But avoiding divorce is not the goal. The goal, which de Botton’s writing beautifully seeks to facilitate, is to be happier in our marriages. And the way to do that is to take Romanticism for granted, and focus instead on learning how to better love, and be loved.