Dynamics seen repeatedly in struggling couples.
The many ways that people seek, build, or destroy their relationships, never cease to captivate me. After more than four decades and a hundred thousand plus hours of observing these interactions, I am still intrigued.
There are many relationship behaviors that undermine the chances of a relationship working. But, one of the most common is the cache of pre-set expectations that all people have as to how a relationship should function. These conscious or unconscious beliefs can bias their ability to see beyond them.
When relationship-seekers do not realize these potential fixed limitations, they are more likely to repeat behaviors that have not worked in the past. Gathered from childhood teachings and life experiences, these relationship-expectation-myths get in the way of more successful interactions.
There are countless examples of these internalized “lock-ins” and everyone enters relationships with his or her unique array of them. They are often invisible drivers that create unidentified expectations.
Following are eight of these myths that I’ve seen repeatedly in my work with couples. Using them as examples, ask yourself and your partner if any of them apply to your relationship, and what others exist. Then, ask each other how those beliefs have affected your partnership.
Myth 1: There is only one true love. There is rarely only one person you can love. The reality is that you can deeply and sincerely love many different people in different ways and at different stages of your life. What’s even more true is that the way you love and learn from those commitments will determine whether future “true loves” are even better than those of the past.
Some people don’t realize that they had found their “one” after they’ve both fought hard for their relationship to succeed. The bond they’ve formed together as willing partners in the emotional trenches of hard-earned, mutual respect, is stronger than when the relationship began.
I have seen people love and lose a relationship, go on to love others, leave those relationships, and eventually end up together again. Who was once dispensable now becomes “the one.”
Myth 2: Once you’ve found the perfect person, forever is guaranteed. Infatuation and passion are common in a new relationship. It typically lasts about six months even when the chemistry is unique. Love that lasts is a whole other animal, with many facets beyond the initial passion most new lovers experience.
Relationship partners who build a long-lasting, successful partnership have many solid connections and they work on increasing them.
If you and your partner have Interests in common, friends you both like, families that do not interfere, common dreams, financial agreements, physical enjoyment of one another, and a reasonable amount of resiliency, you will have the best chance to create that “forever.”
Successful, long-term partners never take their love, their availability, or their commitment lightly. They know those vows must be continually reinvented and re-promised.
Myth 3: Fighting is natural and good for a relationship. Though disagreements are part and parcel of every relationship, they are not always enhancing. To be helpful, they must be ultimately resolvable or they can damage the relationship.
Fighting is cumulatively negative when it consists of endless rehashing old disputes. Those repeated interactions rapidly lose any hope of resolution. They rapidly escalate into guilting, blame, invalidation, bullying, or threatening, to win.
Disputes can have an enhancing effect on relationships when both partners welcome each other’s views and strive to understand and accept them.
Myth 4: Sexual chemistry is a must for a relationship to succeed. Though physical attraction enhances any relationship, continued sexual passion is not always necessary for a relationship to be successful.
The way a person looks at life, his or her capacity to endure and bounce back from hardship and to accept and cherish the other’s assets and liabilities, are often better indicators of whether love will last and deepen over time.
An unfaithful partner may rationalize his or her behavior by claiming loss of physical attraction as the reason for straying. But that is rarely the true cause of the betrayal. Boredom, emerging deal-breakers previously ignored, family interference, financial stressors, unexpected losses or demands, or negative surprises of any kind, are often more the true reasons behind why one partner seeks a relationship outside of the relationship.
I have seen relationships break up when sexuality wanes unequally. But I’ve also seen people stay deeply in love when they are unable to maintain physical passion but have increased tenderness and affection.
Myth 5: Forgive and forget is the best way to get past difficulties. This requirement is one of the most misunderstood expectations of the response to a painful experience. The guilty partner who asks the other to simply forgive and forget may be truly asking that partner to just move on without a true resolution.
Successful relationship partners use mistakes and heartbreaks to explore what factors drove them to happen and to make plans to change behaviors in the future to avoid them.
A much better plan is to change the expectation of “forgive and forget” to “remember and let go.” That way a couple can use what they’ve learned to understand and evolve, paving the way for better resolution of future potential disappointments. “Letting go” can only happen when the partner who has caused the heartbreak feels true remorse.
Myth 6: It’s always better to solve a problem right away. My grandmother preached to me that couples should never go to bed angry. As a child, I didn’t take account her painful history of an uncertain future in her hometown in Ukraine. They never could count on there being a time when they could make up later, so they embodied the belief that getting things settled right away was always the right thing to do.
The reality is that many distresses may appear to be caused by the current relationship but are actually left-overs from past ones. When a dispute rapidly ramps up and neither partner can no longer hear the other, it is more often an unresolved conflict from the past projected on to the current experience.
In order to separate out the past from the present, the partners have to have time to cool down, to reflect on their own accountability, and to realize what they truly wanted out of their fight.
Myth 7: Don’t try to change your partner. People newly in love often are caught up in the romanticism of the other partner being perfect exactly as he or she is. “My Funny Valentine,” the classic song that instructs a new partner in that exact intention, is a fitting tribute to this myth.
In reality, most everyone wants to be loved exactly as they are, while simultaneously wanting to change the other person to be exactly who they want them to be. Of course, they would rather those changes come automatically and without a price, but that is rarely the case.
Most people who love each other do want to give the other whatever he or she may desire but, for many reasons, can’t or don’t always want to sacrifice themselves to do that. Quality negotiation capability has to emerge and their emotional flavorings respected, but, even with the best of intentions, the partners cannot always be or do what the other needs or requires.
If they can listen without judgment and not make the other partner feel inadequate when gaps occur that are no one’s fault, they can begin to embrace loving what is available, and to accept limitations with dignity and kindness.
Myth 8: The right kind of love can conquer all. What will be defined as right for one person may not be at all right for another. Love has so many actual and accurate definitions and even people who love each other deeply may not agree on them.
Some may define love as simply attachment, i.e., a loved one is someone you don’t want to be without. Others rely on the tenderness of ready affection and availability. Many people cannot love without feeling that fidelity, loyalty, passion, respect, and devotion are automatic parts of the package.
The right kind of love for one partner can be a reliance on security and forever commitment before he or she can even believe that love exists, where, for another, being able to forgive transgressions or welcome difficult family members might be the most important sign that kind of loving behavior is more than enough.
The right kind of love is love that works for both partners most of the time. It heals, regenerates, and promises what each needs to feel fulfilled and to maintain faith in the relationship.
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Every person has internalized some myths about relationships from the time they were children. If they are not aware of them, they will project those expectations onto their adult relationships without understanding what they are doing.
Together, you and your partner can explore those myths that each of you brought into your relationship, recapture and reinvigorate those that have worked, and let go of those that have led you astray and kept you from seeing beyond those limitations.