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A Point of View: What's in a marriage?

By Alain de Botton
Philosopher and writer


Expecting love, lust and a happy family from a marriage is almost asking the impossible.

I'd hate to cast any aspersions on marriage in the year of the delightful royal wedding and when the prime minister loses few opportunities to speak in favour of this noble and ancient institution. Nevertheless, it's worth just thinking about what we expect marriage to deliver for us in this day and age.

None of the emotions that we expect to find inside a good modern marriage are unusual in themselves. We find them well described in art and literature across all cultures and eras. What makes modern marriage extraordinary in its ambitions is the expectation that these emotions should reliably be entertained over a lifetime with the very same person.

The Troubadours of 12th Century Provence had a complex appreciation of romantic love: the aching generated by the sight of a graceful figure, the sleeplessness at the prospect of a meeting, the power of a few words or glances to determine one's state of mind. But these courtiers expressed no wish to combine their prized emotions with parallel intentions to raise a family, or even so much as to sleep with those they ardently loved.

Subversive thrill

The Libertines of early 18th Century Paris were comparably well-acquainted with the emotional repertoire of sex: the delight of unbuttoning someone's garments for the first time, the excitement of exploring one another at leisure by candlelight, the subversive thrill of seducing someone covertly at a Mass. But these erotic adventurers also understood that their pleasures had very little to do with setting the scene for a companionate friendship or the rearing of a nursery full of children.

As for the impulse to cluster into small familial groups within which to safely propagate the next generation, this project has been known to the largest share of humanity since our earliest upright days in East Africa's Rift Valley. And yet it has very rarely led people to think that it might be incomplete without ardent sexual desire or frequent sensations of longing at the sight of one's fellow parent.

image captionLibertines wrote about the delight of unbuttoning someone's garments

A belief in the incompatibility, or at least independence, of the romantic, sexual and familial sides of life was taken to be an untroubling and universal feature of adulthood until in the middle of the 18th Century, in the more prosperous countries of Europe, a remarkable new ideal began to form in one particular section of society.

This ideal proposed that married people should henceforth not only tolerate one another for the sake of children, extraordinarily they should also take pains to deeply love and desire one another at the same time.

They were to manifest in their relationships the same sort of romantic energy as the Troubadours had shown for their courtly ladies and the same sexual enthusiasm as had been explored by the erotic connoisseurs of aristocratic France.

The new ideal set before the world the compelling notion that one might solve one's most pressing needs all at once with the help of just one other person.

It was no coincidence that the new ideal of marriage was overwhelmingly created and backed by a specific economic class, the bourgeoisie, whose balance of freedom and constraint it uncannily mirrored.

'Salary was slavery'

In an economy expanding rapidly thanks to technological and commercial developments, this newly emboldened class no longer needed to accept the restricted expectations of the lowest orders. With a little spare money to provide for relaxation, bourgeois lawyers and merchants could raise their sights and hope for more from a partner than merely someone with whom to survive the next winter.

At the same time, their resources were not unlimited. They didn't have the boundless leisure of the Troubadours, whose inherited wealth meant they could without difficulty spend three weeks writing a letter celebrating a beloved's forehead. There were businesses to run and storehouses to manage.

image captionThe late 18th Century is when marriage became linked with desire

Nor could the bourgeoisie permit themselves the social arrogance of aristocratic Libertines, whose power and status had bred in them a confidence about breaking people's hearts and shattering their families - as well as the means to mop up whatever unpleasant consequences their antics might create.

The bourgeoisie was hence neither so crushed as not to believe in romantic love at all nor so liberated from necessity as to be able to pursue erotic and emotional entanglements without limit. The desire for fulfilment through an investment in a single, legally and eternally-contracted person represented a fragile solution to their particular balance of emotional need and practical constraint.

It cannot have been a coincidence that a very similar yoking together of necessity and freedom became apparent at around the very same time in relation to that second pillar of modern happiness - work.

For centuries, the idea that work might be anything other than suffering would have seemed wholly implausible. Aristotle had stated that all work entered into for a salary was slavery, a bleak assessment to which Christianity had added the thought that the arduousness of labour was an immovable penance for the sins of Adam.

Yet at the very time that marriage was being rethought, so too voices began to argue that work might also be more than just a vale of tears entered into for survival - it might be a route to self-fulfilment and creativity. It might be as much fun as something one did without reference to money.

The virtues which the aristocracy had previously associated only with unremunerative occupations came to seem available in certain kinds of paid employment too, one might turn one's hobby into a job. One might do for money what one would have wanted to do anyway.

Happy marriage myth?

The bourgeois ideal of work, like its marital counterpart, was an embodiment of an intermediate position. One needed to work for money but work could also be pleasurable - just as marriage could not escape the traditional burdens associated with childrearing - and yet it did not have to be without some of the delights of a love affair and a sexual obsession.

The bourgeois vision of marriage rendered a host of behaviours taboo that would previously have been tolerated, or at least not seen as a cause for the destruction of oneself or one's family - a merely tepid friendship with one's spouse, a sexual fiasco, adultery or impotence. The idea that one might break up one's family because one had had sex with someone else would have been as ridiculous to a Libertine as the thought to a bourgeois that they might marry someone they didn't passionately adore.

The progress of bourgeois romantic ambition can be traced in fiction. Jane Austen's novels still feel recognisably modern because her aspirations for her characters mirror, and helped to shape those, we have for ourselves. Like Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice or Fanny Price in Mansfield Park, we too long to reconcile our wish for a secure family with a sincerity of feeling for our spouses.

But the history of the novel also points to darker aspects of the romantic ideal. The two greatest novels of the European 19th Century, Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina, confront us with two women who, typical of their era and social positions, long for a complex set of qualities in their partners. They want them to be husbands, troubadours and libertines.

But in both Emma and Anna's case, life gives them only the first of the three. They are caged within economically secure, loveless marriages that, in previous ages, might have been a cause of envy and celebration - and yet that now seem intolerable. At the same time, they inhabit a bourgeois world that cannot countenance their attempts to conduct love affairs outside of marriage. Their eventual suicides illustrate the irreconcilable nature of the new model of love.

The bourgeois ideal is clearly not an illusion. There are of course marriages that perfectly fuse together the three golden strands of fulfilment - romantic, erotic and familial.

We cannot say, as cynics are sometimes tempted, that happy marriage is a myth. It is infinitely more tantalising than this. It is a possibility - just a very rare one. There is no metaphysical reason why marriage should not honour our hopes - the odds are just powerfully stacked against us.