My father-in-law regularly tells a joke that used to grate my last nerve to shreds. “Your mom and I have a great relationship. Want to know the secret?” he’d ask my husband and me with a smirk. “Low expectations.”
As a woman of exceedingly high expectations for myself and my relationships, I’d snort, roll my eyes, and think, “How sad!” Twenty-five years of marriage and about a decade of personal soul searching have changed my view of the joke, however. My father-in-law is on to something.
I was the woman who dragged a whole train of expectations down the aisle with my white dress, and it hasn’t served me well. For about five years, I’ve been breaking up with expectations, lies, and mental pictures of perfection, and my marriage is the happiest it’s ever been.
Here are four relationship-crushing lies we believe, along with opposite truths that can restore joy to our love life.
Lie #1: I need to present my most perfect self.
Goodness knows we all start the dating process with our best face—lipstick, mascara and all—before us. We’re looking good and behaving well. That’s not a bad way to start, but it’s exhausting and soul-draining to maintain since it usually involves a degree of mask wearing.
Instead of shaping ourselves into the “perfect girlfriend/boyfriend” or the “perfect husband/wife”, what if we just committed to being our truest self? In my own experience, as I allow the layers of my self-created image to be stripped away and ruthlessly fill my own skin instead, the loneliness of hiding my flaws behind an image of perfection turns into the intimacy of authenticity.
Lie Buster #1: Authenticity is the antidote to isolation.
Lie # 2: I can help him live up to his potential.
We go into a relationship because of admiration, but somehow a certain level of commitment flips us into improvement mode. She’s wonderful, but… he’s almost perfect, if only… When I met my husband Barry, I was attracted to his bold speaking of his mind, but after we married, I thought I could make him even more wonderful by refining his verbal filter. That belief wasn’t very popular. The truth is that relationships shatter when we value perfection over people.
I asked Barry recently what expectations he brought of me into our marriage, and he almost seemed puzzled. “I expected to love you and for you to love me,” he replied simply, and I realized he was being honest. That’s a shocking statement for a woman who believes in the power of a life-changing tweak! He truly lets me just “be” without an agenda to improve me, and it’s been his greatest gift to our relationship. The trick for us reforming perfectionists is to learn to return the gift.
Lie Buster #2: Prioritizing people over perfection builds relationships.
Lie #3: I can make the pictures in my head a reality.
One of the strongest childhood memories of my parent’s happy marriage was the two of them making the bed together every morning. Somehow that picture of domestic partnership perma-linked in my brain and heart to the perfect marriage. When I imagined a happy home, the vision included cheerful morning conversation over smooth sheets.
Unfortunately, Barry doesn’t like conversation preceded by coffee, and he loves the feeling of soft, rumpled sheets as he crawls into bed at night. I know it’s ridiculous, but I let the absence of conjugal bed-making fuel a low-level discontent for over a decade. (And I didn’t even tell Barry. He was just supposed to know the prerequisites for a blissful union, right?) Finally, I began reminding myself of all his other fine attributes and contributions instead of rehearsing this one “fatal flaw,” and my happiness quotient increased exponentially. Only as we give up our secret pictures of perfection will we be able to celebrate the strengths of our own relationship.
Lie Buster #3: When we prioritize others, pictures of perfection fade and common ground emerges.
Lie #4: I can measure the success of my relationship by comparing it to others.
His girlfriend cooks gourmet meals every night. Wow. Her husband brings her flowers on Fridays. Sigh. He/she/they have the perfect relationship. I’m sure of it, because I saw it on Facebook. More than ever before in history, we’re able to measure our relationship against all others by spying on—I mean following—people on social networking.
Don’t get me wrong. I love most aspects of social networks, but there’s a major flaw in all observed comparisons. My friend Renee explained it best when she said, “I compare everyone else’s outsides to my insides.” Only two are really inside a relationship, and those two are the only ones who know the truth. When we watch other relationships, we most often only see what the couple wants seen.
Focusing on what’s important in the interactions between you and your honey instead of comparisons with others builds a happier romance. There are definitely some deal-breaking rights and wrongs in relationships, but most issues need to be negotiated in light of the uniqueness of the individuals.
Lie Buster #4: The perfect relationship doesn’t exist, but ours is perfect for me.
I’ve become convinced. Low expectations are key to a loving, happy relationship. When unconditional love is elevated and perfectionism is banished, two individuals experience the freedom to grow into a bonded unit where joy thrives. That’s even better than perfect, so maybe next time I’ll have to genuinely laugh at my father-in-law’s joke.