How many of us have had some sort of failed relationship in our lifetime?
Probably most, actually.
Popular culture’s extreme romanticism and encouragement of instant gratification make it difficult to imagine a life where we aren’t continuously wanting more or imagining the “perfect’ life. It’s not just our mental health that carries the burden of constant comparison and wildly unrealistic expectations – it’s also our relationships. So how is it that we manage to continuously write-off, abandon, “ghost,” reject, or find some fatal flaw in so many of our potential partners?
Well, a few reasons.
Most relationships fail because we expect the unattainable. To be fair, who could blame us after years of indoctrination that tells us to be single is to be a complete failure in love, that we are undesirable, unreliable, or “crazy” if we can’t nurture long-term commitments, or that we’re someone to be pitied by our peers. Unfortunately, our prolonged exposure to the media’s ridiculously impractical views of love and marriage convince us that it’s perfectly reasonable to expect that our own lives follow the charming and idealistic storylines of the cinematic narratives we eagerly consume. Comedian Bo Burnham’s hilarious skit about expectations in love nails it.
Yet, we are flawed creatures, which inherently makes the way we love and relationships we partake in flawed as well. Contrary to the overwhelmingly popular belief, there is no perfect love story or such a thing as the “perfect” partner.
This is not to suggest that we are doomed to unhappiness and disappointment with a partner we resent. Trust me, I’m not that morbid. The suggestion here is that we reimagine the way we look at our romantic relationships. We must remove our rose-colored glasses long enough to grieve and accept that the majority of the representations we’ve witnessed in film and television have offered us one-dimensional and often misdirected, inaccurate perspectives on the realities of love.
Inflexibility in Communication
Instead of endlessly seeking the “perfect” partner, what if instead we were to release our need for neurotic perfectionism and pursue the “imperfect yet pretty compatible” partner?
Like brilliant thinker and founder of The School of Life, Alain de Botton makes note of in his lecture, Why You’ll Marry the Wrong Person, “You cannot have perfection and company. To be in company with another person is to be negotiating imperfection, every day.”
He notes that we assume the more a partner is “right for us” the more they should inherently understand us and the less we should have to explain about who we are, how we feel, and why we experience the world the way we do. “…a true lover will guess what is in our minds. One of the great errors that human beings makes, is permanently to feel that other people know what’s in their minds without us having said what’s in our minds.” This is unfair and leaves us only with disappointment and feelings of loneliness.
It’s important that we learn to be flexible. When we approach love with uncompromising rigidity, we are condemning ourselves to a life of multiple, failed relationships. The sooner we can accept that even the most loving and loyal of partners will at various times annoy, irritate, offend, repel, betray, misunderstand, and hurt us, the sooner we can begin to dismantle resentment, disappointment, sadness, or regret surrounding the unmet expectations we’ve imposed on our relationships.
Confusing Unrealistic Expectations with Standards
Of course, there is a notable difference between lowering our unrealistic expectations and forgoing standards entirely. The trick is to find a happy medium between the nonnegotiable characteristics we are unwilling to compromise on for our own mental health and well-being, versus the smaller and harmless, yet strangely maddening habits and idiosyncracies a partner may possess. Nonnegotiable traits and behaviors may appear as conflicting values, sobriety, emotional abuse or neglect, career focus, direction, or a desire to forgo children or to build a family. It is then our responsibility to discern between the muddled gray area of our own legitimate needs and limitations and the more self-righteously shallow and romanticized expectations it would benefit us to surrender.
In order to be successful in love, we must consistently be honest with ourselves about our own limitations and flaws, as well as the limitations of others. We must accept that can be difficult, cold, immature, and a whole list of other unfavorable behaviors at any given moment. We cannot demand perfection of others yet expect endless empathy and compassion for ourselves. We need to remember that we always have room to grow and that in healthy relationships, our partner will offer us constructive criticism with the intention of helping us facilitate that growth.
We must also change the way we look at compromise. We tend to feel that compromise is the antithesis of love and to “settle for good enough” is somehow a shameful form of resignation to a life or partner we don’t actually want. However, compromise in its many forms seems to be one of the only ways to make any relationship long-lasting.
We become obsessed with this idea of “happy endings,” which in fact, aren’t actually endings at all. They’re continuous and oftentimes relentless efforts to work within the confines of our collective emotional and intellectual abilities and limitations in order to reach longer stretches of joint happiness and contentment.
To love another is to understand that we will be consistenly challenged to develop boundaries and practice empathy in every situation. That lasting love is a continuous workshop on how to be a better version of yourself and is built, not simply granted.