This story begins where the fairy tale left over. You know the one, where the prince and the princess gets married and lives happily ever after. This book is an examination of that ‘happily ever after’.
- 14 We have allowed our love stories to end way too early. We seem to know far too much about how love starts, and recklessly little about how it might continue.
- 39 To a shameful extent, the charm of marriage boils down to how unpleasant it is to be alone.
- 43 Marriage: a hopeful, generous, infinitely kind gamble taken by two people who don’t know yet who they are or who the other might be, binding themselves to a future they cannot conceive of and have carefully omitted to investigate.
- 61 At the heart of a sulk lies a confusing mixture of intense anger and an equally intense desire not to communicate what one is angry about. The very need to explain forms the kernel of the insult: if the partner requires an explanation, he or she is clearly not worthy of love. It is a privilege to the recipient of a sulk: it means the other person respects and trusts us enough to think we should understand their unspoken hurt. It is one of the odder gifts of love.
- 74 It is precisely when we hear little from our partner which frightens, shocks or sickens us that we should begin to be concerned, for this may be the surest sign that we are being gently lied to or shielded from the other’s imagination, whether out of kindness or from a touching fear of losing our love.
- 80 We too often act from scripts generated by the crises of long ago that we’ve all but consciously forgotten.
- 88 The world upsets, disappoints, frustrates and hurts us in countless ways at every turn. It delays us, rejects our creative endeavours, overlooks us for promotions, rewards idiots and smashes our ambitions on its bleak, relentless shores. And almost invariably, we can’t complain about any of it. It’s too difficult to tease out who may really be to blame; and too dangers to complain even when we know for certain (less we be fired or laughed at).
- There is only one person to whom we can expose our catalogue of grievances, one person who can be the recipient all our accumulated rage at the injustices and imperfections of our lives. Our lover. The accusations we direct at our lovers make no particular sense. We would utter such unfair things to no one else on earth.
- We place such demands on our partners, and becomes so unreasonable around them, because we have faith that someone who understands obscure parts of us, whose presence solves so many of our woes, must somehow also be able to fix everything about our lives.
- 96 When teaching students, only the utmost care and patience will ever work: we must never raise our voices, we have to use extraordinary tact, we must leave plenty of time for every lesson to sink in and we need to ensure at least ten compliments for every one delicately inserted negative remark. Above all, we must remain calm. And yet the best guarantee of calm in a teacher is a relative indifference to the success or failure of his or her lesson. But calm is precisely what is absent from love’s classroom. There is simply too much on the line.
- 99 The ancient Greeks offered a usefully unfashionable perspective on the relationship between love and teaching. In their eyes, love was first and foremost a feeling of admiration for the better sides of another human being. Love was the excitement of coming face to face with virtuous characteristics.
- In followed that the deepening of love would always involve the desire to teach and in turn to be taught ways to become more virtuous: how to be less angry or less unforgiving, more curious or braver. Sincere lovers could never be content to accept another just as they were; this would constitute a lazy and cowardly betrayal of the whole purpose of relationships. There would always be something to improve on in ourselves and educate others about.
- Looked at through this ancient Greek lens, when lovers point out what might be unfortunate or uncomfortable about the other’s character, they shouldn’t be seen as giving up on the spirit of love. They should be congratulated for trying to do something very true to love’s essence: helping their partners to develop into better versions of themselves.
- 108 Children teach us that love is, in its purest form, a kind of service.
- 110 The child teaches the adult something else about love: that genuine love should involve a constant attempt to interpret with maximal generosity what might be going on, at any time, beneath the surface of difficult and unappealing behaviour. The parent has to second-guess what the cry, the kick, the grief or the anger is really about.
- How kind we would be if we managed to import even a little of this instinct into adult relationships – if here, too, we could look past the grumpiness and viciousness and recognise the fear, confusion and exhaustion which almost invariably underlie them.
- 119 It’s not just children who are childlike. Adults, too, are – beneath the bluster – intermittently playful, silly, fanciful, vulnerable, hysterical, terrified, pitiful and in search of consolation and forgiveness.
- 125 The progress of human race is at every turn stymied by an ingrained resistance to being rushed to conclusions. We are held back by an inherent interest in re-exploring entire chapters in the back catalogue of our species’ idiocies – and to wasting a good part of life finding out for ourselves what has already been extensively and painfully charted by others.
- 134 We might imagine that the fear and insecurity of getting close to someone would happen only once: at the start of a relationship. Yet conquering distance and gaining assurances that we are needed aren’t exercises to be performed only once; they have to be repeated every time there’s been a break – a day away, a busy period, an evening at work – for every interlude has the power once again to raise the question of whether or not we are still wanted. We are never through with the requirement for acceptance.
- 139 Adultery: t is precisely the dispassionate separation of love and sex that may be needed to correct and relieve the burdens of intimacy. Using a stranger bypasses resentments, emotional vulnerability and any obligation to worry about another’s needs. We can be just as peculiar and selfish as we like, without fear of judgement or consequence. All emotion is kept wonderfully at bay; there is not the slightest wish to be understood, and therefore no risk, either, of being misunderstood and consequently, of growing bitter or frustrated. We can, at last, have desire without needing to bring the rest of our exhaustingly encumbered lives into the bed with us.
- 140 Masturbation: From one perspective, it can seem pathetic to have to concoct fantasies – rather than try to build a life in which daydreams can reliably become realities. But fantasies are often the best thing we can make of our multiple and contradictory wishes; they allow us to inhabit one reality without destroying the other. Fantasising spares those we care about from the full irresponsibility and scary strangeness of our urges. It is, in its own way, an achievement, an emblem of civilisation – and an act of kindness.
- 159 Adultery: through the lens of Romanticism there can be, quite simply, no greater betrayal.
- 173 Adultery: We should accept that we simply cannot stay sane on hearing that the person we love and rely on has touched the lips, or even so much as the hand, of another party. This makes no sense, of course – and runs directly counter to the often quite sober and loyal thoughts we may have had when we happened to betray someone in the past. But we are not amenable to reason here. To be wise is to recognise when wisdom will simply not be an option.
- 176 Our romantic lives are fated to be sad and incomplete, because we are creatures driven by two essential desires which point powerfully in entirely opposite directions: that the libertine might live for adventure while avoiding loneliness and chaos or that the married Romantic might unite sex with tenderness, and passion with routine.
- 179 We have not been singled out. Marrying anyone, even the most suitable of beings, comes down to a case of identifying which variety of suffering we would most like to sacrifice ourselves for.
- In an ideal world, marriage vows would be entirely rewritten. At the altar, a couple would speak thus: ‘We accept not to panic when, some years from now, what we are doing today will seem like the worst decision of our lives. Yet we promise not to look around, either, for we accept that there cannot be better options out there. Everyone is always impossible. We are a demented species.’
- We will endeavour to be faithful. At the same time, we are certain that never being allowed to sleep with anyone else is one of the tragedies of existence. We apologize that our jealousies have made this peculiar but sound and non-negotiable restriction very necessary. We promise to make each other the sole repository of our regrets, rather than distribute them through a life of sexual Don Juanism. We have surveyed the different options for unhappiness and it is to each other we have chosen to bind ourselves.
- 190 Those who have been let down by the early family environment will generally develop two kinds of responses when they grow up and face difficulties or ambiguities in relationships: first, a tendency towards fearful, clinging and controlling behaviour – ‘anxious attachment’ and second, an inclination towards a defensive retreating manoeuvre, ‘avoidant attachment’. Up to 70% of patients seeking couples’ therapy will exhibit either the anxious or the avoidant mode of behaviour. Very frequently, couple will contain one of each, with each set of responses aggravating the other in a spiral of declining trust.
- For the anxiously attached person, a silence, a delay or a noncommittal remark can be quickly interpreted in negative ways, as insults or malevolent attacks. An avoidant attachment style is marked by a strong desire to avoid conflict and to reduce exposure to the other when emotional needs have not been met. To escape, retreat, go cold.
- 202 Nature embeds in us insistent dreams of success. For the species, there must be an evolutionary advantage in being hardwired for such striving; restlessness has given us cities, libraries, spaceships. But this impulse doesn’t leave much opportunity for individual equilibrium. The price of a few works of genius throughout history is a substantial portion of the human race being daily sickened by anxiety and disappointment.
- 204 Few in this world are ever simply nasty; those who hurt us are themselves in pain. The appropriate response is hence never cynicism or aggression but, at the rare moments one can manage it, always love.
- Romantic ideology is a recipe for disaster because it is based on a quite different set of criteria to long-lasting relationships: a sense of having hit upon a soulmate, a faith in being perfectly understood, a certainty of never wanting to sleep with anyone else again.
- 211 Pronouncing a lover ‘perfect’ can only be a sign that we have failed to understand them. We can claim to have begun to know someone only when they have substantially disappointed us.
- However, the problems aren’t theirs alone. Whoever we could meet would be radically imperfect: the stranger on the train, the old school acquaintance, the new friend online…Each of these, too, would be guaranteed to let us down. The facts of life have deformed all of our natures. No one among us has come through unscathed. We were all less than ideally parented. We fight rather than explain, we nag rather than teach, we fret instead of analysing our worries, we lie and scatter blame where it doesn’t belong. The chances of a perfect human from the perilous gauntlet are non-existent. Choosing a person to marry is hence just a matter of deciding exactly what kind of suffering we want to endure, rather than of imagining we have found a way to skirt round the rules of emotional existence.
- 213 You are ready for love because you are prepared to love rather than be loved.
- We speak of ‘love’ as if it were a single, undifferentiated thing, but is comprises two very different modes: being loved and loving. We should marry when we are ready to do the latter and have become aware of our unnatural and dangerous fixation on the former.
- We start out knowing only about ‘being loved’. It comes to seem – quite wrongly – the norm. To the child, it feels as if the parent were just spontaneously on hand to comfort, guide, entertain,f need and clean up, while remaining almost constantly warm and cheerful.
- We take this idea of love with us into adulthood. Grown up, we hope for a re-creation of what it felt like to be ministered to and indulged. In a secret corner of our mind, we picture a lover who will anticsate our needs, read our hearts, act selflessly and make everything better. It sounds ‘romantic’; yet is is a blueprint for disaster.
- 214 Sex and marriage: The Romantic view expects that love and sex will be aligned. We are properly ready for marriage when we are strong enough to embrace a life of frustration.
- We must concede that adultery cannot be a workable answer, for no one can be its victim and not feel forever cut to the core. A single meaningless adventure truly does have a recurring habit of ending everything. It’s impossible for the victims of adultery to appreciate what might actually have been going through a partner’s mind during the ‘betrayal’, when they lay entwined with a stranger for a few hours. We can hear their defence as often as we like, but we’ll be sure of one thing in our hearts: that they were hell-bent on humiliating us and that every ounce of their love has evaporated, along with their status as trustworthy humans. To insist on any other conclusion is like arguing against the tide.
- 215 Differing interests: The Romantic vision of marriage stresses the importance of finding the ‘right’ person, which is taken to mean someone in sympathy with the raft of our interests and values. There is no such person over the long term. We are too varied and peculiar. There cannot be lasting congruence. The partner truly best suited to us is not the one who miraculously happens to share every taste, but the one who can negotiate differences in taste with intelligence and good grace. Compatibility is an achievement of love; it shouldn’t be its precondition.
- 215 Real love vs. films: By the standards of most love stories, our own, real relationships are almost all damaged and unsatisfactory. No wonder separation and divorce so often appear inevitable. But we should be careful not to judge our relationships by the expectations imposed on us by a frequently misleading aesthetic medium. The fault lies with art, not life. Rather than split up, we may need to tell ourselves more accurate stories – stories that don’t dwell so much on the beginning, that don’t promise is complete understanding, that strive to normalise our troubles and show us a melancholy yet hopeful paths through the course of love.
- The Ending – a brief moment on the slopes of a Scottish mountain in the late-afternoon summer sunWanting to capture this moment, Rabih calls them to gather for a photo. He knows that perfect happiness comes in tiny, incremental units only, perhaps no more than five minutes at a time. This is what one has to take with both hands and cherish.
Struggles and conflicts will arise again soon enough: one of the children will become unhappy, Kirsten will make a short-tempered remark in response to something careless he has done, he will remember the challenge he’s facing at work, he will feel scared, bored, spoilt and tired.
No one can predict the eventual fate of this photo, who knows: how it will be read the future, what the view will look for in their eyes. Will it be the last photo of them all together, taken just the crash on the way home, or a month before he found out about Kirsten’s affair and she moved out, or the year before Esther’s symptoms started? Or will it merely sit for decades in a dusty frame on a shelf in the living room, waiting to be picked up casually by William when he returns home to introduce his parents to his fiancee?
Rabih’s awareness of the uncertainty makes him want to hang on to the light all the more fervently. If only for a moment, it all makes sense. He knows how to love Kirsten, how to have sufficient faith in himself and how to feel compassion for and be patient with his children. But it is all desperately fragile. He knows full well that he has no right to call himself a happy man; he is simply an ordinary human being passing through a small phase of contentment.
Very little can be made perfect, he knows that now. He has a sense of bravery it takes to live even an utterly mediocre life like his own. To keep all of this going, to ensure his continuing status as an almost sane person, his capacity to provide for his family financially, the survival of his marriage and the flourishing of his children – these projects offer no fewer opportunities for heroism than an epic tale.
The courage not to be vanquished by anxiety, not to hurt others out of frustration, not to grow too furious with the world for the perceived injuries it heedlessly inflicts, not to go crazy and somehow to manage to persevere in a more or less adequate way through the difficulties of married life – this is true courage, this is a heroism in a class all its own. And for a brief moment on the slopes of a Scottish mountain in the late-afternoon summer sun – and every now and then thereafter – Rabih Khan feels that he might, with Kirsten by his side, be strong enough for whatever life demands of him.