If you find yourself often thinking about whether or not your spouse is really the right person for you, as many married-with-children-types often do, I’ve got bad news: You’re already setting your marriage up for failure.
We tend to believe that our partners are either right for us, or completely wrong; our relationship is either “meant to be,” or it just isn’t; we’re with our soulmate, or we’ve totally “settled.”
This all-or-nothing model of relationships puts us in a Catch-22. We want to know whether we are with the right mate, but the very act of questioning whether they are either right or wrong sets us up to expect way too much from them. These crazy-high expectations lead us to believe that if we notice our partner’s flaws or incompatibilities with us, we must be in the “wrong” relationship. That evokes feelings of frustration, disappointment, and resentment—maybe even contempt, which is a real relationship-killer. These negative feelings aren’t trivial. They are cancers to relationships.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Here is how to release our unrealistic expectations and the toxic feelings they create in our relationships.
1. Stop thinking like Cinderella. You are not with your perfect soulmate; you are with a flawed human-being. The alternative to the all-or-nothing model of relationships is to see that your mate is BOTH ever-so-right for you, at least in some ways, AND at the very same time utterly wrong for you in other ways. Trading our spouses out for newer ones is often a matter of trading one person’s imperfections and irritating habits for another person’s.
I’ve found that releasing my fantasies around my relationship requires acknowledging a loss, and then grieving it. I really, really, really wanted to be with someone who was deeply romantic, in that poetry-writing and song-singing kind of way. But realizing that my romantic fantasies were created by the film industry (and perhaps the flower industry, and the greeting card industry—not to mention the diamond industry) and not by any actual needs of my own helped me release those fantasies. I felt saddened by the loss of my fairytale hopes for a little while. If you’re sad, grieve—but then move on.
2. Love the one you’re with. What would it look like if we truly believed that the grass were already greener on our relationship’s side?
For one thing, we would not compare our relationship to other people’s relationships. What we imagine other people have is pure fantasy, because we don’t really know what happens behind their bedroom doors (see No. 1 about letting go of fantasies).
These kinds of comparisons aren’t just delusional; they’re downright destructive. According to love lab researcher John Gottman, it starts a “cascade of not committing to the relationship; of trashing your partner instead of cherishing your partner; of building resentment rather than gratitude; of lowering your investment in the relationship; of not sacrificing for the relationship; and of escalating conflicts.”
3. Stop blaming your spouse. Although it is easy to blame our partners for our own unhappiness—they are the ones who have the irritating habits, after all—doing so won’t actually make you happier or make your relationship better. It is far more constructive to become what Christine Meinecke, author of Everybody Marries the Wrong Person, calls a “self-responsible spouse.”
Feeling disappointed or frustrated or resentful is a choice. The alternatives? Lower or change our expectations, or take responsibility for what we need and ask for it, even if it makes us feel vulnerable to do so. The key here is to do it in a positive way (see this post for tips). The upside is that successfully tackling a problem in a relationship with our partner, rather than letting resentment simmer, can make us feel far closer and loving than before the problem arose.
4. Focus on being the right partner instead of finding the right partner. Although it is almost always easier to focus on the ways our spouses should change, it is far less effective to put our energy into changing someone else than it is to change ourselves. How do you need to grow in order for your relationship to thrive? (Bonus Tip: the answer to that question often involves becoming more empathetic and grateful.) What can you do to be a better partner? To nurture the relationship? To build trust?
All of this isn’t to say that all relationship problems can be solved. Some people don’t make good partners to each other, or to anyone—addicts, for example, or multiple-offense cheaters, or violent people, to name just a few—and so lowering the bar, taking responsibility, and focusing on ourselves will not improve or sustain the relationship. Truly, not all spouses are meant to be together. Some people aren’t enough.
But, being the romantic that I am, I tend to believe that most people are good enough. And “good enough” isn’t an insult—good enough is a wonderful state of contentment and love.
© 2012 Christine Carter, Ph.D.