Everyone wants their relationship to be the best it can be, and it’s a good thing when both of you are striving to be good partners for each other. Having a great relationship takes two people working to make it so.
And yet, it’s also possible to have too high of expectations for a relationship, and this can cause its own set of problems. One of the things I’ve learned as a marriage counselor, couples therapist and dating coach is that when people have unrealistic ideas about what their relationship “should” be like it can both sabotage new relationships before they get a chance to grow into something great, and it can also sink long-term relationships.
Unrealistic relationship expectations are often rooted in core beliefs about relationships that just aren’t true. Here are some of the most common misperceptions that many people have about what relationships “should” be, and why it can lead to relationship problems when you buy into them.
Relationship Misperception #1: “Chemistry” Is The Most Important Thing
Of course, you deserve to have a relationship where you feel attracted to your partner, you click intellectually, you feel compatible, you have fun together, and there’s a spark between you. However, successful long-term relationships require other things too, including trust, loyalty, commitment, communication, emotional maturity, team work, empathy, and much, much more. We all know this intellectually, but still, many people will overlook these other positive relationship attributes if they’re not feeling the “chemistry” they expect to feel.
This is unfortunate because feelings of “chemistry” (which is often simply a cocktail of sexual interest plus anxiety) generally has nothing to do with whether or not someone is compatible with you, or of good character, or is going to be a good choice for a long-term partner. As we all know, it’s possible to feel intense chemistry for a person who would make a terrible partner. Yet the belief that one needs to feel “chemistry” or “butterflies” in a good relationship persists… and creates enormous problems in relationships.
Overprioritizing chemistry can lead to people to become emotionally entangled with romantic interests who may not be compatible, reliable, or trustworthy — just exciting. Many people on a quest for chemistry have found themselves terribly hurt when the partners who they felt intense chemistry with wound up not being even remotely close to who they really wanted or needed to have in a healthy, long-term relationship.
For married or committed couples, a nasty consequence of getting stuck on “chemistry” (or lack of) is when people in long-term relationships don’t feel angsty butterflies for each other anymore… and take that to mean something is wrong with their relationship.
Actively remind yourself of all the positive qualities you want in a partner, above and beyond “the feels.” Especially if you’re dating, when you meet someone who’s kind, considerate, thoughtful, interesting and emotionally mature — but who maybe doesn’t inflame your passions — consider slowing down, and giving them a chance to grow on you. (I’ll have some advice for you committed couples in a moment — keep reading.)
Relationship Misperception #2: Imagining That Other Couples Are Happier Than You Are
Another misperception that can easily damage a relationship believing that you should be feeling happier and more satisfied in your relationship — and that other couples are having that experience. In our image-driven age, it’s very easy to scroll through Instagram and see posts about the peak moments that other couples are having: The vacations, flowers, gifts, and spontaneous declarations of love for each other look so great, don’t they?
No one posts selfies of themselves locked in the bathroom crying after a terrible fight, of their partners drinking too much and playing video-games until the wee hours, or failing to follow through on promises of unloading the dishwasher. [For more on this subject check out, “Stop Comparing Yourself To Others.“]
It’s therefore easy to imagine that other couples are always happy, in love, and doing interesting things together. Combined with what we’re led to believe good relationships should be through movies and shows, it distorts one’s sense of what the reality of a normal relationship is.
I recently met with a couple who I asked to rate their sense of how healthy and strong their relationship currently was. They both rated it as a “7.” I smiled and said, “that’s great!” They both looked at me like I was crazy. They said, “A seven? Isn’t that bad?” That led to an important conversation about their expectations for how their relationship should feel, as compared to the reality of what a healthy, happy, long-term relationship actually feels like when you’re living in it day-to-day.
What is true about all relationships is that they’re a mixed bag. Yes, a healthy relationship should have its share of positive, enjoyable moments and happy memories. And it’s also true that the day-to-day reality of a long-term relationship or marriage is largely based around the stuff of life: Running errands, schlepping kids around, making dinner, dealing with the stress of work, managing a home, and trying to fit fun into whatever time is left over. No couple is having meaningful, magical moments with each other all day every day. But if it’s pretty good, most of the time, that’s worth celebrating.
It’s also true that inevitably — even in fantastic relationships — there will be things about our partners that will be disappointing. There is conflict in all relationships. There are moments when you needed something and your partner doesn’t respond to you the way you want them to. There may be times when you feel bored, or annoyed. Your partner will fail you sometimes… and you will fail and disappoint them. You’re two imperfect humans, prone to moods, quirks, and your own baggage, both trying to have a relationship with each other.
But imagining that other couples don’t deal with the same things that you do can lead to feelings of dissatisfaction and anxiety about your relationship, and that can have a negative impact on your partnership.
A much better strategy is to turn your attention to all that is right in your relationship. Be generous with your praise, and actively appreciative of all the ways that your partner makes you happy. Recognize that you’re both human, and release the idea that either of you are going to be perfectly perfect all of the time. Also, don’t get tricked into believing that anyone else’s life or relationship is better than yours. Instead, remind yourself that there’s always more to the story than what you see on the surface.
Relationship Misperception # 3: Using Your Feelings As a Barometer Of The Relationship
I cannot tell you how many couples I’ve talked to who have arrived in couples counseling with this one chief complaint: “We don’t feel ‘in love’ anymore.” These are often people in 10+ year marriages who believe that something has gone terribly wrong because they do not the excited, tingly feelings they used to. (See “chemistry” above).
What many couples don’t understand is that early stage romantic love is a transient experience that usually lasts about a year or two. This is often experienced as a craving to be with your beloved, thinking about them all the time, seeing them in the best possible light, and feeling happy and excited when they are around.
Believe it or not, there is a biological basis for the “crazy about you” feeling. When romantic love does its job, it serves to bring people close enough together for a long enough time for a deeper kind of love known as “attachment” to grow.
Attachment is a more mature, enduring kind of love. It’s a secure, tranquil, peaceful experience that is characterized by a general sense of affection and a good feeling when you’re around each other. But secure attachment also makes it okay to be apart. A securely attached couple can have their own lives, and still be profoundly attached to each other.
The problems occur when people begin neglecting their relationship because they don’t feel the way the used to. Over time they can come to believe that they’ve grown apart, they have nothing in common, and that it’s never going to feel like it used to. Those beliefs can get in the way of couples rekindling the spark in their relationship, and creating pleasure, fun, and enjoyment with each other again.
Wise couples know that feelings of love come and go, and that the intense feelings of romantic love they felt in the first couple of years of their relationship are unique to that time of life. They don’t make the mistake of believing that because they don’t feel the way they did in the early stages of their relationship that something has gone wrong; they view it as evidence of a more mature, enduring type of relationship.
Understanding that allows wise, happy long-term couples to focus on the truth: That true love is not a feeling at all, but a choice. We don’t passively feel love. We act with love. And, paradoxically, our active, intentional acts of love can increase the positive feelings our partners have for us and vice versa.
Putting energy into your relationship, and finding ways of connecting meaningfully with your partner can help you both start enjoying each other again. Being generous and finding ways of actively showing your love are key. Doing new things together helps. Many couples also benefit from strengthening their long-term relationship by constantly finding ways to improve their communication, enhance their partnership, and most importantly, resolving hurt feelings misunderstandings quickly, before they evolve into resentments. That’s why you find the strongest, most successful couples have often had a course or two of couples counseling over the years.
Also, as you both evolve over the years, you might consider introducing yourselves to each other again by sharing your thoughts, your feelings and your world. Remember that over time, you’re not the same person that you used to be — and getting to know the new you can make things feel exciting all over again. [For more on this check out, “How to Feel In Love With Your Partner“]
Misperception # 4: Believing That Your Partner Should Be Your “Everything”
Another thing that can create problems in a relationship is having a belief that your partner should serve perfectly (or close to it) in many relational domains.
For example, we want our partners to be witty, pleasant and entertaining; emotionally mature; reliable and loving parents; good listeners; the best friend who always has our back and who will talk to us for hours; our charismatic, attractive and fun social partners; our enthusiastic traveling companions; motivators and accountability partners; excellent managers of time and money; to enjoy the same hobbies and activities that we do; our number one fan and supporter; always on top of things around the house; good providers and hard workers; perhaps our business partners; oh and intense and erotic lovers too.
No pressure, right?
These expectations can put a major strain on a relationship. When our partners fail to be what we believe they should be in one or more of these domains, as they invariably will, it can lead to perceptions that “something is wrong.” What is often the truth is that our partners will (and should) meet our needs in some, possibly even many, of these areas… but rarely all of them.
For example, I recently met with a couple who has so many strengths and a great relationship overall. And yet the female partner was unhappy that her husband was introverted in social situations and not more talkative and outgoing. They had many fights about this, and it was damaging to their relationship.
However, our discussion led to a productive conversation about how to shift away from focusing on how they were being “failed” by the other person, and instead, focusing on having love and respect for the person that their partners were instead of who they wanted them to be.
For her, it also led to an important shift away from, “What are you doing for me?” towards, “What does it feel like for you to be with me?” This allowed her to refocus on how she could be loving and supportive of her husband during social situations that were anxiety provoking for him. (Which, paradoxically, enabled him to feel more confident and safe in these situations… which helped him to open up and be more engaging socially!)
Considering that we’re all mere mortals, and it’s unrealistic for any of us to expect that our partner should be all things, a much better alternative is to instead put our energy into appreciating the unique strengths and gifts our partners bring to the relationship. This makes it easier to downplay some of the things that maybe your partner is not as gifted with.
Adopting an attitude of tolerance and acceptance towards them (as opposed to criticism) will help you build the kind of positive, mutually appreciative relationship that you want. It will also help you make emotional deposits that increase the likelihood that your partner will be more accepting of you, too. [For more on this, check out “How to Strengthen Your Relationship.“]
I hope that you experiment with some of the “fixes” I’ve shared with you in this article. Doing so will allow you to take some of the pressure off yourself and your partner so that you can both get more enjoyment from your relationship.
If you try any of these ideas, let me know how it goes!
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby