No one can or will live up to our expectations. And we will certainly fall short of theirs. (See Brad and Angelina).
Because we have been taught by our culture (see Brad and Angelina) that we “can have it all”, many enter intimate relationships with unrealistic expectations about having our every need met. That puts enormous pressure on both to “measure up” to unrealistic romantic ideals. And that can create secret fears and shame that we “aren’t good enough.”
But that doesn’t mean we should totally give up on the idea of a satisfying relationship. Instead, we need to realize that the error often lies more in our expectations than in our choice of partner. Hence, we must give up expecting our relationship to be something it can and never will be: perfect.
And there are plenty of incentives to make our imperfect relationship work.
Couples in good relationships enjoy better physical and emotional health and suffer less illness. They usually acquire greater wealth together and are more content and happy with their overall lives.
Those in conflicted, tense, dysfunctional relationships suffer the opposite results. Poorer health, more illness, less wealth, and less happiness.
It makes sense that two people working cooperatively together will feel less stress and accomplish more than they might have apart-and enjoy better health. While those in a conflicted relationship will suffer continuous stress, always on edge, waiting to be attacked by each other. Their focus will be on self-protection not on attaining mutually agreed upon goals-because they may not even have that level of agreement. They surround their hearts with “barbed wire” and are unable to work together or feel love.
We have choices. It doesn’t have to be this way.
How Do We Get To A ¨Best Possible¨ Although Imperfect Relationship?
Begin by asking: Have we married the “wrong person” or do we have the wrong attitudes about making a successful connection?
It’s wrong to expect perfection. Wrong to fail to regularly strengthen our relationship.
And wrong to neglect preparing for the inevitable bad times.
The Problems With Perfection
Not only is perfection impossible to achieve, such an expectation can RUIN A GOOD RELATIONSHIP. A negative result of unreasonable expectations is NEGLECTING TO REGULARLY STRENGTHEN OUR CONNECTION. We assume, ¨if it ain’t broken now,¨ why should we make it better? And the focus on perfection can produce other problems, like a FAILURE TO PREPARE FOR THE CERTAIN BAD TIMES. Why anticipate problems when everything’s going to be absolutely fabulous?
Admittedly, it’s great fun to fantasize about how OUR relationship will be the exception, be the one to attain ideal levels of love and happiness. These dreams do enable us to express and determine if we really do share the same life goals. But beyond the benefits of brainstorming, actually expecting perfection will only produce a perfect storm of disappointments, hurt, conflicts and anger. No one can long withstand feeling they are a failure, a disappointment to their partner.
Defiance or passive-aggressive resistance are more likely than love and bliss. Especially when part of the perfect relationship dream is to be accepted as we are. A basic, non negotiable human need.
The Mistake Of Taking The Relationship For Granted
We may have heard that “love is all we need”. But what do we need to do to preserve that love?? A good relationship IS based on love. As is love dependent on a good relationship.
It’s becoming clearer to researchers and therapists that solid, satisfying, safe relationships are important not only during infancy and childhood, but throughout adulthood and all life.
It’s easy to see why infants need good connections. They’re totally dependent on others for absolutely everything. The feeling of being firmly bonded (a feeling they can’t express, but which they deeply sense), gives them safety, security, and the faith that they’ll be cared for no matter what occurs, no matter who they are. Securely bonded children feel much less anxiety about their survival and being themselves because they are loved.
Love means we matter so much to someone that they will guarantee our well being and that’s because they need us as much as we need them.
In childhood (even though we’re unable to express it), we all want to feel “loved no matter what”, truly accepted as we are. We need to feel that, regardless of the dumb stuff we do, regardless our repeated mistakes, and regardless of our obnoxious actions, we are loved unconditionally. To lack such love leaves us insecure and doubtful of our basic worth. Without that unconditional love we are left feeling that “there must be something wrong with me. I must be defective. Not good enough the way I am. Why else would my parents love me ‘only if…’ I’m someone else?”
Loved conditionally, loved only if we measure up to certain EXPECTATIONS, leaves us with constant anxiety and nagging inadequacy. Such children fear they will fail to measure up and will be abandoned and unwanted. This puts enormous pressure on such children to perform well in school, be obedient, and make their parents proud. “Or ELSE…”. Some become overly pleasing, unable to risk being themselves. Others isolate themselves in a total rejection of social life.
Does any of this feel familiar? Not only in your youth but also now in adulthood?
How we were treated in childhood, leaves lasting impacts on how we feel about ourselves now. The way we were treated is not only our youthful experience, but may also be felt in our current sense of who we are. The world’s treatment of us-and especially that of our parents’-conveys “messages” about our who we are and what we’re worth.
If our parents neglected or abused us, it was hard to feel that we had importance, or that we were lovable. We may come to feel instead like permanent “outsiders”, unwanted by anyone. Never to feel loved
Those blessed with unconditional love, those loved no matter what, enjoy a lifetime membership in good standing in the Club of Valuable Humans. They feel confident that wherever they go, they will be accepted and seen as OK.
Perhaps surprisingly, even such graced beings need their partner’s reassurance of their enduring value. (See Brad and Angelina). No matter how idyllic our childhood, we continue need a partner’s lasting love. We all need to feel loved regardless, accepted as we are, indispensable. Not seen as “broken, damaged, irreparably screwed up.”
So how we treat each other determines not only the quality of our relationship, but also how we feel about ourselves.
It’s a major mistake, then, to not REGULARLY ATTEND to how our partner is feeling about themselves a “mistake” to not reassure our partner of our love for them. Because love needs to be nurtured, renewed, strengthen. Our bond needs to be continuously reinforced-not taken for granted.
But, What If Our Partner Is A Wrong Choice?
“Surely,” you ask, “not everyone is ‘good marriage material’. Just think about those difficult people we see on the TV every night. How could they NOT be a mistaken relationship choice?”
You have my total agreement on that. Not everyone is right for us by any stretch of the imagination. And no amount of work will change that,
But if our partner has been difficult LATELY, we must ask: What happened to that lovable person I couldn’t live without? What’s changed?
Has that wonderful person that I married successfully concealed their “dark side” until now? That does happen, of course.
Or could it be that our partner responding in difficult ways to a very difficult relationship climate?
Sometimes the tensions, disagreements, fights and fears present in our relationship force us to “get ugly”. We often go to extremes to protect our sense of self when we feel it’s under attack. But once those disputes have been resolved and those threats removed, we return to our caring selves.
Has that ever happened to you two?
So be careful about “diagnosing” your partner as a “psychopath” or as a “fatal attraction”. Such people do exist. But so, too, do good people corned in contempt and criticism and impossible expectations who lash out in self-defense by attacking back.
Do you not recall fights that seemed catastrophic, that seemed unresolvable, and the certain death of the relationship? But you both stepped back from the abyss. Saved face and made unacknowledged concessions. Life moved on leaving the ugliness behind? And gradually joy and love returned?
And The Relationship Is More Quickly Restored When We’ve “Purchased Love Insurance”
We see more clearly now why it’s wrong to not prepare for the bad times.
When the essential, critical connection of our life is at risk, we are rarely rational. We really believe that “giving them a taste of their own medicine” will have positive results. We attack thinking our partner will see the light and treat us the way we deserve, the way desperately need. We’re too upset to see that such actions produce not a restored secure bond but a bond weakened by our assault.
Who wants to be a killjoy and admit that there MAY be some rough spots ahead for us? But waiting for the bad times to create an “insurance plan” is like waiting until the house is ablaze to purchase disaster coverage. It ain’t gonna happen.
Even the most loving, cooperative, conflict adverse couple will have hot and heavy disagreements. So the rest of us must anticipate how we will “put out the fires”.
We must become GOOD at handling the bad times. Good at listening when we hate what we are hearing. Looking for the truth in what feels like an unfair attack on us. Accepting our contribution to the problems and being willing to make some reasonable changes for the sake of our partner AND the well-being of the relationship.
Maybe even putting our partner’s needs above our own this time. Maybe even looking at the “other side of the coin”.
Their Anger May Be A Good Sign!!
As impossible as it may seem at the moment of our partner’s maximum fury, that rage MAY be a sign of their need for us.
Yes, screaming, cursing, calling us ugly names hardly seem like signs that they fear losing us. It looks like they really do hate and reject us. Again, few of us very thoughtful or effective under severe duress. But ask yourself, does my partner really mean “I HATE you”? Or might they mean instead “I HATE it when you don’t treat me lovingly… When I fear I’m not important to you. When my bond with you is at risk.”
Such needs are not childish or signs of weakness. Even though we may revert to the “playground” way of conveying them. Those needs and fears are fundamentally human and present throughout life, no matter how accomplished or confident we may be in the wider world.
The next time you and your partner are totally losing it, try looking at the situation differently.
Try hearing the HURT, not just the intense anger, in “I HATE you.” Try hearing instead the possibility of “you hurt me and I want you to see how that feels so you’ll STOP.”
Sounds far fetched? Recall that infant SCREECHING in frustrated fury at being neglected. Do you think it’s saying “I hate you. Go away. Never darken my door again, mommy”? Or “I’m terrified that you have gone away for good. I’m screaming my little head off to get you attention, damn it!!”
Is it so far fetched that adults also have such deep needs for secure connection?
From one perspective, every choice of partner will be a mistake because no partner can possibly be perfect. From another perspective the mistake is in how we understand and handle the most painful moments of our lives together. The correct “answer” is not in demanding our partner to achieve the perfection we initially expected. It lies instead in being good at handling the bad times and routinely strengthening our bond.
So if all relationships are “mistaken” when we unreasonably expect perfection from each other, how we fail to handle things after reality intrudes can be an even bigger error. We always have a choice in how we treat each other. Truly conssidering that our partner is actually hurt when they’re furious, addressing that injury, and showing genuine concern can be the perfect answer to a very imperfect human reality. And a way to make the relationship the best it can possibly be.
Written by Tony Johnson is a retired university mental health center psychologist. He has lived, learned and enlarged his happiness in the Costa Ballena for over three years. He has the curiosity of a coati about all things life! These articles are his best shot at answering those “Life Questions”. Hopefully, you will find them informative and useful.
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