Relationships have been on my mind quite a lot lately. In the past couple of years, I went through two separations – a divorce and a regular ol’ breakup. These relationships did not slowly fade away nor did they meet an explosive end. Rather, we chose the long, hard road of analyzing the situation to death as we tried to fix our problems (read: fix the other person’s problems).
When making decisions about life and love, one typically hears the advice to “follow your gut.” But my gut’s broken. As a trained researcher, I tackle my personal problems the same way I do my work assignments – with lots of data and input from experts. I employed a three-pronged strategy:
1) Read lots of books about psychology, love, and relationships written by people with fancy degrees;
2) Get counseling – both the marriage kind (that’s right, we’re responsible) and the individual kind; and
3) Watch a lot of romantic movies. [Side note: Do not watch romantic movies when you’re going through a breakup. Especially the Notebook, Drive, Blue Valentine…basically anything starring Ryan Gosling. Comparing your current or ex-boyfriend to Ryan Gosling will not fix the fundamental problem at hand – that you are not and never will be dating Ryan Gosling. It’s better if you accept this fact now.]
Since I spent about a college tuition’s-worth of money on these things, I believe I’ve earned the right to call myself an expert. To those who say you shouldn’t take advice from someone who clearly sucks at relationships, I say, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, advise.”
When I think about the amount of time and energy I’ve spent thinking over these things, I want to drown in a puddle of my own humiliation. I could’ve conquered Spain in that time. Or at least learned Spanish. But then again, it wasn’t exactly time wasted. I feel good about the fact that I fought to keep those relationships together; it just didn’t work out. (Participation ribbons all around!) Also, I do feel that I learned a thing or two about this whole messy business of relationships. Not wanting this wealth of knowledge to go to waste, I plan on hammering out a few love lessons for you here.
To begin, I want to write about the unrealistic expectations we place on our partners. I’ll start by quoting two of my favorite celebrities, Dan Savage and RuPaul:
RuPaul: There’s also the idea that we humans, especially in our culture, think that one person is going to be everything for us, like a Walmart, where there’s a hardware department, there’s an automotive department, lingerie…In my experience, it’s not true.
Dan: It’s actually a very dangerous myth – that one person can be all things emotionally, sexually, intimately for another person. It leads people to be disappointed in their relationships, in all of them, because they believe that this person should exist to fulfill all of their needs, be their best friend, the best sex partner, the best this, the best that, to be everything. Be their fuckin’ Walmart….and one person can’t be your fuckin’ Walmart, and when you stop expecting that, you’ll be happier in that relationship.
(From episode 419 of the Savage Lovecast)
Now personally, I’d like to think that my partners treat me like a Target store, not a Walmart, but no matter. The point is that never before have we expected so much from our significant others. Maybe your spouse is a sexual gymnast, father of the year, and money-making machine. But he’s been emotionally distant lately, and by golly, right now that’s the only thing preventing you from true happiness.
If I’m reading these psychology texts correctly, they would summarize this impulse as such: we want our partners to be our parents. Wait, what? Ew. But think about it. In childhood, our parents were charged with meeting all of our needs and making us feel whole. As adults, we seem to expect our partners to take over that job.
As if this weren’t difficult enough already, each one of us has a unique set of expectations that is shaped by our culture, upbringing, and past experiences. Some of these expectations are based on gender roles like: Man fight bear, mow lawn! Woman wear lace, bake cake!
Others originate from one’s upbringing: what are you crazy, Sunday mornings are for pajamas and cartoons, not church! Some are related to childhood baggage: daddy never told me I was pretty, you tell me I’m pretty! And still others come from wherever the fuck: If you really loved me, you’d dress up like a naughty panda who escaped from the zoo to rummage through my dirty dirty garbage.
Do we communicate these expectations to our partners? Hell no! That’d be way too easy. Often they remain hidden even to ourselves. All of this makes getting into a relationship akin to signing an invisible contract. You’re expected to know and do X, Y, and Z. However, you won’t figure out what X, Y, and Z actually are until your partner is either burning with rage or withdrawing into cold silence. Most of us don’t react gracefully when our partners fail to meet our standards. We typically respond in one of the following ways:
- We condemn: “You’re such a sad dummy caveman for feeling the way you do.”
- We educate: “Aw sweetie, you’re a little slow, but when I explain it better, you’ll feel the way I do.”
- We threaten: “Think like me, or the puppy gets it.”
- We ignore: “What were you saying, let’s get back to that panda costume.”
- We analyze: “The reason you feel that way is because your mother was a rabid succubus who forgot to breastfeed you.”
These strategies are meant to invalidate your partner’s point of view, so that at the end of the day, it’s your needs that are getting met. What self-serving vampires we are.
How to avoid this maddening mind game? Two broad recommendations:
- Check those expectations: It’s impossible to have no expectations. If you have no expectations, you likely have no standards. I also believe it’s impossible to have only rational, reasonable expectations. You’re battling against years of conditioning and human nature here. However, maybe just remember to give those expectations a reality check. Ask yourself: is this expectation reasonable? Has boyfriend been pretty awesome in other ways? Can I get this need met somewhere else? Remind yourself that the task of making another person feel whole, fulfilled, and loved for years is no small matter. Hell, it’s hard to do for a whole day. So cut your spouse/boyfriend/girlfriend/dungeon slave a break. Don’t treat them like Walmart – treat them like your friendly neighborhood Goodwill. They got a lot of the stuff you need. Yes, some of it smells funny and doesn’t fit right, but they’re doing the best they can with what they were given. And you never know, maybe next week, they’ll get some new stuff.
- Communicate those expectations: While having unrealistic expectations is its own problem, expecting your partner to have telepathic powers certainly doesn’t help the situation. It’s just plain silly to criticize someone for letting you down when you’ve never told that person what it is that you want. You may think, “We’ve been dating a trillion years, they should know me by now,” or “it’s not the same if I have to tell him what I want, then it feels forced.” That’s not fair. Remember, you and your partner are not the same person with identical thoughts and needs (thank goodness, that’d be gross). No, you’re a special little snowflake with special little snowflake needs. What may seem obvious to you may not be obvious to someone else. Apply the lessons from Kindergarten: Use your words. Listen. Repeat. If you got no word skills but you really care about your relationship, go get counseling. Good counselors will know how to help you find those words.
While I did not flat out plagiarize, most of the ideas expressed above came from the book Getting the Love You Want by Harville Hendrix and Helen Lakelly Hunt. I don’t do it justice, the book goes much deeper into this and other topics. It discusses the drivers behind romantic love, the reasons it typically falls apart, and steps to take to try to make it last. There are even exercises you can do with your partner. The only caveat there is that some of the exercises are so painfully embarrassing that you may die trying them. For example, one exercise involves pretending to be yourself as a child while your partner pretends to be your parent. You then speak to your ‘parent’ about the ways that s/he hurts you, and healing ensues. See…awkward. But power to those who can power through that kind of stuff.
Good luck little love monkeys.
Featured image (shopping carts): By Jim (http://www.flickr.com/photos/alphageek/121953651) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons; Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/alphageek/121953651
Ryan Gosling Photo By Raffi Asdourian (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons; Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/46958049@N00/13522475605 – Text was added by me.