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A better chance of happiness is possible

You love your children whatever they do, and they love you back

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I have been invited by the Oxford Union to debate the question “This house would abandon the ideal of true love”. I’m not sure why they invited me, a family columnist, but I suppose it’s because families usually begin with two people falling in love.

The only problem is that I’m not sure which side to take. Eventually, and somewhat reluctantly, I came to the conclusion that I should speak for the motion. True love unquestionably exists — between parent and child. But I assume they are referring to romantic love. And here, I am less sure.

I remember my father very clearly cautioning me against the idea of romantic love — at least when choosing a long-term partner. He believed one had to make a practical choice based on sensible propositions (my father was a thoroughgoing empiricist). I rejected his view at the time, despite the fact he enjoyed a long and happy marriage. I was all for passion.

Now, at 61, I have probably fallen in love at least half a dozen times. Two of the people I fell in love with, I married — and that didn’t end well. Falling in love, though real enough, does not guarantee success in a relationship. I suppose that’s what my father was trying to tell me.

What is the nature of the love between two people, anyway? Some would say it is something transcendental, a feeling of nakedness and connection — a connection so great that you can stare into each other’s eyes without embarrassment.

Others would say, “that’s all very well — but love is about behaviour”. You can say you love someone all you like, and you can feel that love as a sensation in the pit of your chest — but if it does not translate into loving behaviour, then it amounts to nothing much at all.

True love

Behaviour and loving are unlinked in the child-parent relationship. Both parties have no choice but to love one another. In that sense, the bond resembles the ideal of romantic love. You love your children whatever they do, and they love you back.

Those who believe that sort of thing can exist among adults hold that if you truly love someone, it doesn’t matter what they do — you will love them all the same. Although I think it is a theoretical possibility, I am not sure it is particularly desirable. People being who they are, such a love would be quite hard not to take advantage of.

I decided to speak in favour of the motion not because “true love” is unrealistic — I’m sure it happens — but because the idea of true love is dangerous, as it is popularly understood.

It’s dangerous because it sets up a whole battery of expectations, about bliss and unlimited goodwill, that are immensely hard to fulfil, and it downgrades the business end of love, certainly when you have a family — that of doing the groundwork, compromise and endless negotiation that love in-practice inevitably involves. The ideal of true love, then, should be abandoned because it is either unattainable or fundamentally misunderstood.

Like all ideals, it ultimately leads, if taken too literally, to disappointment, and that disappointment is lodged in the very kernel of the idea in the first place. True love may well exist, but it is best not at any moment to expect it, or define it in that way.

Take away the idea of true love and we would all have a better chance of happiness. And if you are one of those people who happen to stumble on it anyway, then you are lucky and you are blessed — but I suspect you are very far from typical.

—Guardian News & Media Ltd