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The Course of Love book summary

The Course of Love book cover


This book was written as a fictional story of a couple and charts their relationship from childhood to marriage and kids. It talks about the ups and downs of a long term romantic relationship, and interjects itself from time to time with philosophical thoughts in italics.

Personally, I think it's a great relationship "how to" manual. The author also has a beautiful way with words, and it feels at times like I'm reading poetry. I've listed below, some of my favourite thoughts, thought take note that some of these were written in the context of irony. With all of these notes therefore, I invite you to think about what feelings they invoke for you, rather than taking them as truth.


  • A marriage doesn't begin with a proposal, or an initial meeting. It begins when the idea of love is born, and more specifically, the dream of a soul mate.
  • The start receives such disproportionate attention because it isn't deemed to be just one phase among many; for the Romantic, it contains in concentrated form everything significant about love as a whole. What we typically call love is only the start of love.
  • Our understanding of love has been hijacked and beguiled by its first distractingly moving moments. 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.
  • Love means admiration for qualities in the lover that promise to correct our weaknesses and imbalances love is a search for completion. Love is also, and equally, about weakness...especially when we ourselves are in no danger of being held responsible for them. They are not alienatingly invincible. [...] reduces out sense of shame about our own inadequacies and draws us closer to each other around a shared experience of pain.
  • That someone else gets who we are and both sympathizes with and forgives us for what they see underpins our whole capacity to trust and to give. Love is a dividend of gratitude for your lover's insight into our own confused and troubled psyche.
  • There is, in the early period of love, a measure of sheer relief at being able, at last, to reveal so much of what needed to be kept hidden for the sake of propriety.
  • Sexiness might at first appear to be a merely physiological phenomenon... But in truth it is not so much about sensations as it is about ideas - foremost among them, the idea of acceptance, and the promise of an end to loneliness.
  • We call things a turn-on but what we might really be alluding to is delight at finally having been allowed to reveal our secret selves - ... far from being horrified by who we are, our lovers have opted to respond with only encouragement and approval.
  • The games of submission and domination, the rule-breaking scenarios... offer brief Utopian interludes in which we can, with a rare and real friend, safely cast off our normal defences and share and satisfy our longings for extreme closeness and mutual acceptance - which is the real, psychologically rooted reason why games are, in the end, so exciting.
  • For most of recorded history, people married for logical sorts of reasons. The modern age appears to have had enough of 'reasons'... The prestige of instinct is the legacy of a collective traumatised reaction against too many centuries of unreasonable 'reason'.
  • We believe we are seeking happiness in love, but what we are really after is familiarity. We are looking to re-create, within our adult relationships the very feelings we knew so well in childhood - and which were rarely limited to just tenderness and care. [...] We chase after more exciting others, not in the belief that life with them will be more harmonious, but out of an unconscious sense that it will be reassuringly familiar in its patterns of frustration.
  • Romanticism is a philosophy of intuitive agreement.
  • ... when it comes to domestic existence, we tend to make a fateful presumption of ease, which in turn inspires in us a tense aversion to protracted negotiation.
  • Without patience for negotiation, there is bitterness: anger that has forgotten where it came from. The two parties just hope the problems - so boring to them both - will simply go away.
  • The ordinary challenging relationship remains a strangely and unhelpfully neglected topic. We hence imagine that things are far worse for us than they are for other couples.
  • 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 sulker both desperately needs the other person to understand and yet remains utterly committed to doing nothing to help them do so.
  • Sulking pays homage to a beautiful, dangerous ideal that can be traced back to our earliest childhoods: the promise of wordless understanding. Only wordless and accurate mind-reading can feel like a true sign that our partner is someone to be trusted; only when we don't have to explain can we feel certain that we are genuinely understood.
  • Romanticism hasn't only increased the prestige of monogamous sex; along the way it has also made an extraneous sexual interest seem invaryingly foolish and unkind.
  • We don't need to be constantly reasonable in order to have good relationships; all we need to have mastered is the occasional capacity to acknowledge with good grace that we may, in one or two areas, be somewhat insane.
  • The most superficially irrational, immature, lamentable but nonetheless common of all presumptions of love is that the person... is responsible for everything that happens to us, for good or ill.
  • We place such demands on our partners and become 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.
  • Romanticism is clear on this score: true love should involve an acceptance of a partner's whole being. [...] a beautiful yet challenging and even reckless conviction develops: that to be properly loved must always mean being endorsed for all that one is.
  • Children teach us that love is, in its purest form, a kind of service. We are used to loving others in return for what they can do for us... Yet babies can do precisely nothing. We learn the relief and privilege of being granted something more important to live for than ourselves.
  • The child teaches the adult something about love: that genuine love should involve a constant attempt to interpret with maximal generosity what might be going on... How kind we would be if we managed to import even a little of this instinct into adult relationships. This is what it would mean to gaze upon the human race with love.
  • Childhood sweetness: the immature part of goodness, as seen through the prism of adult experience... substantial amount of suffering, renunciation and discipline.
  • We are never through with the requirement for acceptance. Insecurity may even be a peculiar sign of wellbeing. It means we haven't allowed ourselves to take other people for granted, that we remain realistic enough to see that things could genuinely turn out badly and that we are invested enough to care.
  • We may prefer not to entrust fantasies which we know can make us look ludicrous or depraved to someone before whom we otherwise have to maintain poise and authority... We might find it a lot safer to think about a complete stranger instead.
  • The modern expectation is that there will be equality in all things in the couple, which means, at heart, an equality of suffering. But calibrating grief to ensure an equal dosage is no easy task; misery is experienced subjectively...
  • The forthrightness of the middle-aged seducer is rarely a matter of confidence or arrogance; it is instead a specific of impatient despair born of a pitiful awareness of the ever-increasing proximity of death.
  • ... monogamy is the natural state of love. A sane person can only ever want to love one other person. Monogamy is the bellwether of emotional health. [Note: This was said in the context of irony.]
  • Our romantic lives are fated to be sad and incomplete, because we are creatures driven by 2 essential desires which point powerfully in entirely opposite directions... [...] the married Romantic might unite sex with tenderness, and passion with routine.
  • The only people who can still strike us as normal are those we don't yet know very well. The best cure for love is to get to know them better.
  • 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 rate moments one can manage it, always love.
  • Pronouncing a lover 'perfect' can only be a sign that we have failed to understand them. The chances of a perfect human emerging 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 ensure, rather than of imagining we have found a way to skirt round the rules of emotional existence. There can only ever be a 'good enough' marriage. For this realisation to sink in, it helps to have had a few lovers before settling down,... in order to have had ample opportunity to discover at first hand... the truth that there isn't any such [right] person.
  • If we are non regularly deeply embarrassed by who we are, the journey to self-knowledge hasn't begun.
  • 'Love' 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 are ready for marriage when we accept that in a number of significant areas our partner will be wiser, more reasonable and more mature than we are. We should want to learn from them.
  • The partner truly best suited to us is not the one who 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.
  • By the standards of move love stories, our own, real relationships are almost all damaged an unsatisfactory. 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.

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