Have you heard of Philosophers' Mail? It's a news outlet run by philosophers instead of journalists, and it comes to us from Alain de Botton's School of Life. Fun fact for those of you who recognize de Botton.
I learned all this because a few months ago I stumbled upon an essay on Philosophers' Mail titled When is one ready to get married? It proposes 8 tempered alternatives to the romantic criteria we're accustomed to hearing.
One of them has stayed with me so I’ve pasted it below in its entirety.
We are ready for marriage when we are ready to love rather than be loved
Confusingly, we speak of ‘love’ as one thing, rather than discerning the two very different varieties that lie beneath the single word: being loved and loving. We should marry when we are ready to do the latter and are aware of our unnatural, immature fixation on the former.
We start out knowing only about ‘being loved.’ It comes to seem – very wrongly – like the norm. To the child, it feels as if the parent is simply spontaneously on hand to comfort, guide, entertain, feed, clear up and remain almost always warm and cheerful. Parents don’t reveal how often they have bitten their tongue, fought back the tears and been too tired to take off their clothes after a day of childcare. The relationship is almost entirely non-reciprocal. The parent loves; but they do not expect the favour to be returned in any significant way. The parent does not get upset when the child has not noticed the new hair cut, asked carefully-calibrated questions about how the meeting at work went or suggested that they go upstairs to take a nap. Parent and child may both ‘love’, but each party is on a very different end of the axis, unbeknownst to the child.
This is why in adulthood, when we first say we long for love, what we predominantly mean is that we want to be loved as we were once loved by a parent. We want a recreation in adulthood of what it felt like to be ministered to and indulged. In a secret part of our minds, we picture someone who will understand our needs, bring us what we want, be immensely patient and sympathetic to us, act selflessly and make it all better.
This is – naturally – a disaster. For a marriage to work, we need to move firmly out of the child – and into the parental position. We need to become someone who will be willing to subordinate their own demands and concerns to the needs of another.
There’s a further lesson to be learnt. When a child says to its parent ‘I hate you’, the parent does not automatically go numb with shock or threaten to leave the house and never come back, because the parent knows that the child is not giving the executive summary of a deeply thought-out and patient investigation into the state of the relationship. The cause of these words might be hunger, a lost but crucial piece of Lego, the fact that they went to a cocktail party last night, that they won’t let them play a computer game, or that they have an earache…
Parents become very good at not hearing the explicit words and listening instead to what the child means but doesn’t yet know how to say: ‘I’m lonely, in pain, or frightened’ – distress which then unfairly comes out as an attack on the safest, kindest, most reliable thing in the child’s world: the parent.
We find it exceptionally hard to make this move with our partners: to hear what they truly mean, rather than responding (furiously) to what they are saying.