Affairs are not really about sex. Not according to best-selling author and philosopher, Alain De Botton. He covered everything from libido and friendship, identity and Instagram in a chat with Ray D'Arcy this week.
De Botton is the founder of The School of Life, an organisation that aims to help people live more fulfilled lives, starting with getting to know themselves better. It also aims to improve on the happiness quota in modern relationships.
De Botton says only about one-fifth of all marriages are truly happy, but he also says it doesn’t have to be that way. If we accept ourselves as flawed human beings and learn more about why we behave as we do in relationships our lives can be transformed.
"Can we teach love? Can we suggest that love isn’t just an emotion, it’s a skill. And is it a skill that we can learn? I think it is."
Alain de Botton says most of our ways of loving come from the way we were loved as children. The 'type’ of person who interests us romantically is something that, he says, is influenced by our childhood experiences of love and is not well understood:
"We are very bad at choosing partners because we insist on choosing them by instinct and we don’t understand how our instincts are formed because they are formed in childhood."
Generosity and tolerance are more useful in relationships than romance, de Botton explains. Parenting skills have led to a greater understanding of how to love children, but we don’t use the same skills with adults.
He says that if your toddler throws a tantrum, you don’t stop loving them: "You are going to be looking out for explanations that take the edge off difficult behaviour: that is love. Love is in a way the courage to look at the trickiest moments in other people’s lives and interpret them with generosity."
So when it comes to affairs, he says it’s about a breakdown in trust which eats away at feelings of connection to your partner. De Botton thinks it’s easier to have an affair with someone who you don’t know, precisely because you don’t know them. They haven’t had the same opportunities to hurt you emotionally that your partner has.
"People often think that what causes affairs is runaway horniness; that people have affairs because they are sexually wanton and out of control. It’s not true. People have affairs 99% of the time because they feel disconnected from their partner… it looks like it’s about sex, but it’s not."
And finally, in passing, Alain touched on humanity’s age-old best buddy when he says:
"We need dogs more than ever before."
When you’re straining to be generous and tolerant with the more difficult humans in your life, that’s an idea everyone can get on board with.
Alain de Botton has much, much more to say on love, friendship and loneliness, what makes some people so rude and why atheists should steal the best bits from religion in the full interview here.