Alain De Botton on the great loves of his life.
I'm an unashamedly girlie sort of man, never more comfortable than when discussing something emotional, unlikely to pick a physical fight and hopelessly lost when the conversation shifts to football or golf. This has naturally made a number of Australian friends suspicious about my proclaimed heterosexuality.
Yet I remain a heterosexual man who has much more in common with the average member of the opposite sex. At root, the issue comes down to machismo. Unfortunately, being a man seems to hang on the ability to disguise fear: fear of being weak or ridiculous, penniless or humiliated ... This makes male company quite boring (until a lot of alcohol has been consumed) because so much of what we all are - day to day, beneath the surface - is anxious, and if this can't be confessed then one is really just skating on the surface.
The first woman I hit it off with was my sister, two years older than me. My parents weren't interested in their children, so we were left to our own devices with the close relationship that kids can apparently only develop when they aren't fighting for their parents' attention. She was easily my closest friend until I was a teenager, and this background has given me a lifelong feeling that one can be close to women and can expect warmth and complexity from them.
Nevertheless, not having a good relationship with my mother was a problem. She had a hard time being a maternal figure and wasn't able to give me the confidence that I believe a boy needs to succeed with women in adolescence. So I was cripplingly shy in the seducing role till quite late on in my teens, and worried far too much about being rejected. Even now, the sort of women who remind me of my mother - glamorous, high maintenance - put me off. I have two sons, five and seven, and my wife and I are both constantly aiming to give them confidence, with my own cautionary tale in mind.
I have a clearly defined type of woman that I like: practical, down-to-earth, intelligent women who aren't necessarily intellectual, but have a great deal of common sense. This is, no doubt, to counter my tendencies to abstraction and over-intellectualisation. Physically and mentally, I like boyishness (shortish hair, no make-up, courage, endurance) to contrast with my own girlishness. It seems strange but apt that what we're aiming for in love is to find someone complementary to make up for the missing bits of us.
From early adolescence through to my early 30s, my most intense feelings of love were towards women who had no interest in loving me back - girls who already had boyfriends or preferred not to let sex spoil a valuable friendship. Far from deserving pity for my fate, I was strangely blessed, for my apparent misfortune put me in touch with the most intense variety of love: the unrequited kind.
University was all about longing, and reading literature and philosophy to try to make sense of my melancholic feelings. It was pathetic in a sense, but women should be grateful for the despair of unattached men, for it is the foundation of future loyalty and selflessness. It's a reason, perhaps, to be suspicious of the romantically successful types, whose charms leave them unacquainted with the tragi-comic process of aching for a woman they were too shy to address in the library. Not least, all this pain directly led to writing my first book at the age of 22, Essays in Love, which was a best seller around the world and made it possible for me to make it as a writer. I wrote the book not out of lots of experience with women and love, but an immense amount of curiosity and longing.
When I was 31, I met my wife, who outwardly conformed to my ideal type in every way. But, of course, nothing is ideal in the real world. Once I was in a big relationship, literature ceased to be a useful guide to what to expect. All it prepared me for was an image of continuous, unreal perfection, a "happy love" - essentially without any movement or action.
But marriage is rarely dull and never simple. My wife and I are devoted to each other, yet drive each other crazy. The word "marriage", suburban and colourless in its connotations, hides a welter of intensity and depth that puts to shame the most passionate works of literature.
I remain deeply interested and curious about women. It seems fitting that the majority of my readers are women, though I have a particular gratitude for the minority of men, types who've made friends with their girlie sides, as I long have.
Alain de Botton will be speaking at Melbourne Town Hall on February 21 and the Sydney Opera House on February 23. His latest book, Religion for Atheists (Penguin), is out now.
From: Sunday Life