“If we followed this ‘advice’ which is complete and utter rubbish (that has a pretty heavy sexist bent to it) to its logical conclusion and applied this line of reasoning to other aspects of life, where would it lead us?”—“Herbal Blogger,” commenting on this “Raising Happiness” post.

“I wonder if scoring compassionate on the quiz might equal being willing to sell out yourself to your partner’s happiness, thus creating the old fashioned loss of women’s self to the other.”—comment posted on Facebook regarding this Greater Good quiz.

All the February talk of love on this website has generated some controversy and confusion. Relationship advice is tricky; one shoe certainly doesn’t fit all. I’d like to answer a few questions.

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1. We are often unhappy in our relationships because we expect too much from them. Does this mean that we should simply lower our standards?

Happiness won’t come from lowering standards as much as assessing whether or not our expectations of our romantic partners are truly realistic. It is simply not realistic to expect a flawed human being to be your sole source of emotional, spiritual, social, practical, and financial support (and yet, as I write in this post, that is exactly what many of us have done).

The first question to ask yourself is this one: What do we need from the people around us? I don’t think it is weak or anti-feminist to propose that we all need others. Interdependency in our relationships is not just necessary, but desirable. Here are three of my (many!) needs:

1. To be treated with respect and dignity and love by those around me.
2. Emotional support: people to listen when I’m struggling with a problem, to have soul-searching conversations, to root me on and help me celebrate my successes.
3. Practical support, particularly with regards to childcare and housework.

The second question is: Who do we expect to fill those needs? When we expect our partner to fill all of our needs alone, our expectations are unrealistic.

That doesn’t mean our partners shouldn’t help meet our needs—it just means that our partners can’t be the only people filling them. My partner is my primary source of emotional support, for example, but I also couldn’t live without my girlfriends and my family.

To admit that there are other loves in my life is not to lower my standards for my main squeeze: I’m not saying that he doesn’t have to treat me with respect and dignity and love, for example, or that he doesn’t need to support me emotionally. He absolutely does. In rare cases he is the only person I lean on (e.g., for sexual intimacy). In other cases, I hardly rely on him at all (e.g., for spiritual support). Usually, he is one of many people I count on.

This is a long-winded way to say that we need to have many people on our team, helping us both get things done and feel fulfilled and connected—not that we need to lower our standards. This takes the pressure off of our relationship, and (theoretically) will reduce feelings of anger, disappointment, and resentment when we learn that our partner isn’t super-human.

Because my partner, like yours, is a flawed human being. He will not meet all of my expectations all of the time. This will still be very disappointing. Which brings me to my next question.

2. When people don’t meet our expectations—especially if they do something very bad—should we always forgive them? Doesn’t this then mean we’re lowering our standards? It seems like forgiveness might sometimes be degrading. How does a feminist forgive?

Forgiveness, in my mind, is a happiness technique that we can use to make ourselves feel better after a transgression. (We may also make others feel better, but in this case, that is not the point.)

Think about it: You can hold a grudge, or plot revenge, or continue to harbor ill will. All of these things will make you feel bad. OR, you can forgive—and feel better. Forgiveness rarely means forgetting, however.

No one here is advising you to forget what happened and put yourself back in the line of fire. (As my cowboy high school chemistry teacher said, after I’d been undermined by my lab partner not once, but twice: “Every cowgirl is thrown from her horse once. But only a damned fool is thrown twice.”)

Feminist forgiveness, as I conceive it, is a way to acknowledge our own self-worth and the value of our happiness. As in, “I care about myself enough that I am not going to continue to feel bad about what happened.” I’m also not going to let it happen again; holding a grudge rarely protects us from future events. For that, we need to take other types of—more effective—actions.

3. When is it important to acknowledge we deserve better—and turn away from a relationship?

A smart reader wrote this regarding the advice at the end of the compassionate love survey: “In the case of someone that is living in an abusive relationship, advice like ‘In moments of distress, look for ways to attune to your partner’s needs; don’t turn away or, worse, think you deserve better’ is very dangerous.”

I agree. It all depends on what type of distress you are experiencing.  If the distress is an ardent disagreement about what TV shows are appropriate for your 11 year old, for example, research shows that it will work better—you will make your relationship happier and healthier, and you’ll be better be able to resolve the disagreement—if you “turn towards” your partner.  This means that you do something that can be interpreted as compassionate love: expressing some form of empathy or gratitude, for example, or simply reaching out for a hug, rather than cultivating a vivid fantasy of that new partner you really deserve.  (You know, the one who can totally see that it is obvious that 6th-graders should not be watching Glee.)

On the other hand, sometimes loving compassionately means loving ourselves first. If the distress is actually abuse, it will take self-compassion—and courage—to see that turning towards an abusive partner is not compassionate love as much as it is fear. You really do deserve more. Sometimes to practice compassionate love for another before practicing self-compassion is, as the reader comments, dangerous. 

Which brings us back to marital bliss. None of this is about subverting our own needs or selling ourselves out to our partner’s happiness, or “creating the old fashioned loss of women’s self to the other,” as one reader wrote. Taken together, setting realistic expectations, practicing forgiveness, compassionate love, and self-compassion actually give us the foundation for our own bliss—both as individuals, and in our relationships.

© 2012 Christine Carter, Ph.D.

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