Note: This is part two in a three part series on finding lasting love, if you haven’t already read it, please see last week’s post. Each step builds upon the previous one
Roughly ten years ago, I was in a very bad place. My marriage was on the rocks and I was terribly unhappy in it. Whether or not my husband and I would stay together was, at least for me, a day to day question. Then I heard some advice I really took to heart and it changed our relationship for the better, forever.
I can’t recall whether it came from the pages of a book, the sounds of the radio, or if I overheard it in a conversation, but the advice was this, “Never let your idea of marriage, get in the way of your actual marriage.” This stopped me short. It was exactly what I had been doing, not just during this tumultuous period, but for our entire marriage.
I had all these ideas about what married life would or should be like and I constantly compared our marriage to them. When it became obvious our relationship was not going to be the idyllic love cocoon I’d imagined, disappointment, self-doubt, and depression set in.
I was angry with myself (Why wasn’t I attractive enough? Loveable enough?) and angry with him (Why did he act one way when we were dating, but differently now that we were together full-time?)
The ideas we have about love, or anything really, can become like filters. An applicable definition of filter here comes from the Merriam Webster online dictionary, “Something that has the effect of a filter (as by holding back elements or modifying the appearance…)”
We think love, a relationship, a marriage, should flow along particular lines and the occurrences and behaviors that align with those pass through the filter. Everything else positive is left at the curb. In contrast, we use the events, ideas, and occurrences that don’t align with our ideas as evidence for what is not working about the relationship.
This can be unhelpful for either finding a new partner or for the longevity of an existing relationship
The concept of clearing our filters builds on last week’s exercise in self-love. Not only do we have many fears and insecurities about ourselves in love and relationships (the focus of last week’s post), but we also have many ideas about how the relationship itself should be. Sometimes these can be completely independent of our fears and insecurities (although you’ll undoubtedly find some influence of your fears and insecurities on your filters).
Maybe we think our partner should do everything with us, or conversely, we think they should let us be free to live our own life and do many things without them. Maybe we think a good relationship is characterized by lots of sex, or copious cuddling, long walks on the beach, or lots of intelligent conversation.
Regardless of what we think, these are our ideas of what makes a good relationship and not objective truths. Any partner we meet is going to come to the relationship with their own ideas of what makes a good relationship. Many of these, on both sides, will be hidden from view until after the honeymoon period is over.
Get a Heart Exam
One thing we can do to combat the detrimental effects our ideas of relationships have on our actual relationships, is to start looking at those ideas with a clear mind and eye. Take a moment to write down everything you can think of that makes a ‘good’ relationship or an ‘ideal’ partner. I recommend avoiding generalities like “mutual trust and affection” and being as specific as you can.
For example, do partners in a good relationship share the chores? Do they avoid nagging each other about housework completely? Should your partner take care of all the housework? Should you? Do partners in a good relationship allow opposite sex friendships? Do they not? How are finances handled? Should you or your partner take care of making sure the bills get paid and the mail gets opened? What about cooking? Eating? Political alignment? Etc.
As you can see, there are lots and lots of ideas that one can have about what makes a ‘good’ relationship or an ‘ideal’ partner! Although you don’t have to get quite as specific as I have above, you probably have more specific ideas than you realize. The more of your specific expectations that you capture, the more your own filters will start coming into view.
For example, you may expect your partner (or potential partner) to ‘clean up after themselves.’ For you, this may be an obvious basic. Your partner on the other hand, may have grown up in a household where a parent always cleaned up after them, or maybe they had a maid, or maybe they’re happy to live in a total mess. Your partner may not-at-all see this as a ‘basic’ component of a healthy relationship.
You may feel (when your partner doesn’t pick up after themselves) that they don’t respect you or that they treat you like a maid. Meanwhile, your partner may be perfectly happy living in unkempt conditions – they didn’t ask you to pick up after them – and completely dumbfounded why you ‘freak out’ about this all the time. Which one of you is ‘right’?
Neither. You both have different expectations. Even if ten people agree with you and only two people agree with your partner, it doesn’t change the fact that you have different expectations. The gap will be easier to navigate, though, if you recognize that this is one of your filters.
Let it Go
Once you’ve written down everything you can think of (and you can always come back and add more), see if any clear patterns emerge. Take each idea (or relevant group of ideas) and ask yourself why you have this idea about an ideal partner or a good relationship.
Is this idea representative of how you were raised? Is it something you saw in your parent’s relationship? Maybe it’s the opposite of how your parents interacted (if their marriage ended in divorce, etc.)? Is this something you saw on TV? Or read about in a book? Advice from a Friend?
All of our ideas come from somewhere. When we allow ourselves to see that, we may not feel so attached to them. It’s a bit embarrassing to admit, but many of my own deep ideas about romance and relationships came from fairy tales and, in my later teens, romance novels. When I was willing to see that about myself, it became easier to let those ideas go.
Unlike the subjects we study in school, our ideas about relationships largely come from our own life experience, making them especially subjective and especially entrenched. On top of that, we are all subjected to a fair bit of gender-based societal and media conditioning around relationships (although, thankfully, that is starting to ease up).
Bringing it back home
After you’ve explored where your ideas about relationships have come from, it’s time decide what you want to keep and what you want to let go. To be fair, this exercise will probably be an ongoing one, but it can be helpful to spend some time taking a first crack at it.
Recognize that it is entirely up to you which ideas about relationships (or an ideal partner) to hold on to. There is absolutely nothing wrong with having ideas about how a relationship or a partner should be. It is your awareness that these are your ideas and not “the gold standard” that will make it easier to deal with relationship interactions that don’t align with your expectations.
Practicing the self-love from last week, you can feel good about your willingness to take a look at this part of your life with a critical eye; it can be a challenging and emotional exercise.
Once you’ve gone through your list, you are ready to take a closer look at your relationship (assuming you are already in one). Pay attention to all the things your partner may be doing that are beneficial or positive in the relationship that you may not “count” because they didn’t necessarily “match” one of your ideas of how a relationship should be.
For example, maybe they make sure all the bills are paid on time. Maybe they warm up the car for you in the morning. Maybe they share cooking responsibilities or maybe they’re a really good parent. I had a co-worker who lost a dearly beloved husband and told me that one of the hardest things for her (practically) after he died was realizing all the things he just ‘handled’ that she never even knew or thought about.
Working on our filters is a continuous process throughout our lives. When we start this crucial work, though, we can look at our relationships, and our part in them, through a clearer lens. We may find unexpected elements that we really like and we may find the things we thought we didn’t like help us learn about ourselves, our partner, and relationships in general.
When we’ve started to clear our filters, we’re one step closer to finding lasting love! Check in next week for the final step in this series!