In the posts I’ve made so far my focus has been on what causes relationships to break down. I don’t want to dwell on the negative, but understanding what we are doing wrong can help us understand how to be better. That’s how we learn. Make mistakes, try and figure out what we did, and do it differently the next time.
After spending a lot of time reading and thinking about this, I think I’ve figured out the largest cause of relationship breakdown. Are you ready for it? Alright, here we go…
Go get a mirror, and look into it? Do you see the problem? No? Maybe look a little harder.
Your biggest problem is yourself!!!
Before you start throwing things at me (virtually of course) let me explain this one a bit. This isn’t really a bad thing. Well, kinda, but it’s also natural and I suspect unavoidable. We all unwittingly sabotage our own relationship to varying degrees, and often we don’t even realize we are doing it.
How do we do this? I’m glad you asked. We do this through our expectations of what life and love should look like. In his book Love is Never Enough, Aaron Beck talks about these expectations as “shoulds”. We have an idea of what our idealized life “should” look like. When we act a certain way, we believe that our spouse “should” respond in a certain way.
Here’s why I think this is so subversive. This happens at a subconscious level, and often we aren’t even aware of it. We often can’t even articulate what things “should” look like, we don’t know what our expectations really are. But we sure know when those expectations aren’t being met.
We learn from what we see
In my first post, I talked about how for much of life and relationships we stumble about just figuring things out on our own. There is no class we take in school on relationships. Children don’t come with instruction manuals. When relationships start to falter, there is no handle with a sign that says “pull in case of emergency” (though how cool would that be. Mind you even they did exist where would you put it?).
When I said that there was no class on relationships that wasn’t entirely true. I’ve realized we do get a class on relationships, and it’s called our parents.
*** cue awkward pause ***
Think about this for a moment. How do we learn about relationships? Where do we get our concept of what a relationship “should” look like? It may happen at a subconscious level, but for regular interpersonal interactions we learn from what we see. And for many people the relationship we see modeled with the greatest frequency during our developmental years is that of our parents. This becomes our view of normal, and sets our expectations on what a relationship “should” look like.
Yeah, I’m sure some of you are now squirming, thinking something along the lines of “ewwww” or “Noooooo, my eyes, my eyes!!!” Maybe you are saying “my parents had a terrible relationship”.
When you’ve had bad experiences modeled to you, these may be things that you consciously try to avoid in your own relationships. We pick and choose the things that we saw that we liked, and try to exclude the things we didn’t. I’m not sure how well that actually works though. Look at cycles of abuse. You would think having terrible experiences as a child would make you do anything in your power to prevent that from happening in your life. But many studies have shown that being abused is often a strong predictor for future abuse. Cycles repeat. We tend to do what we know.
During our developmental years we are always observing and learning from what we see. It doesn’t matter how abnormal or dysfunctional our model may be – we are still learning. Just as some schools have better teachers than others, some models of relationships are better than others. What we learn may not always be great, and we are just as likely to pick up bad habits are we are good ones.
Our model of a relationship isn’t always from parents though. If you grew up in a single parent home maybe your model of a stable relationship was someone else; grandparents, or the parents of a close friend. Heck, maybe part of it came from watching The Cosby Show, or Rosanne on TV. It’s different for different people, and is probably even a collage of different influences. But chances are there was *something* you saw modeled in your childhood years that formed much of the basis for what a relationship “should” look like to you. And chances are you didn’t even realize it was happening.
What does this mean to me?
So we learn from what we see? Alright, if you can accept that, then what does that have to do with us subconsciously undermining our own relationships?
Here’s where I think we get ourselves in trouble:
We all have our own expectations, our own ideas of what life, love and personal interactions should look like. And we subconsciously judge things based on how well they meet those “shoulds”. These can be small or large. From my spouse should greet me in the morning with a hug and a kiss; to my spouse (usually wife for this one) should stay at home with the kids when/if we start a family.
Well guess what? Our spouses have their own “shoulds” as well, but their life experiences are different and their influences are different. So their “shoulds” are probably different as well. And where the “shoulds” don’t line up, one or both parties are bound to be disappointed.
If one spouse is expecting the other to stay home with the kids, but the other spouse plans on going the daycare route, you’ve got potential for trouble.
Your way isn’t necessarily the only way
Here’s an example from my own life. It involved a minor conflict between my parents and I, but it was the same collision of “shoulds” that I’m talking about.
While growing up, my family celebrated birthdays with the immediate family (parents and siblings), as well as a handful of friends. For my wifes family, birthdays included a much larger extended family (aunts, uncles, cousins, etc).
When my kids started having birthday, we went with the extended family approach. In some ways it was a blended approach I suppose, as I continued to invite parents and siblings while my wifes extended family was included. We did this for years. One day one of my parents made a comment something along the lines of the way we were doing birthday parties wasn’t what a kids party “should” look like – it was more of an adult party.
You know, I love my parents. They’re great. They are pretty open minded and understanding. But at that moment they were judging the way we chose to do things through their own lens of what a kids birthday party “should” look like. This was a collision between how my side of the family thought birthdays “should” look and how my wife’s side of the family “should” look. Who says what a kids party should look like? No one, we define that for ourselves.
If you run into conflict on your expectations try to remember that life isn’t like math – there is no right answer. When it comes to conflicting expectations between couples there is no right and wrong (well maybe in extreme cases, but for the most part our expectations are just differences). Be open minded. Try to understand your spouse. And be open to the idea that just because you’ve always expected something “should” be a certain way, that doesn’t mean it has to be that way.
Two common “Shoulds”
Here are two common “shoulds” that seem to cause conflict in couples. Read almost any relationship book, and you will see some variation of these.
I shouldn’t have to tell you what I want, you should know.
There’s this romanticized notion that when two people are really in sync, they just know each other. The idea that one person can start a sentence and the other person can finish it. And I do think there is some truth to this. I’m not sure if it’s a matter of being in sync, or if it’s a matter of being around a person long enough that you get to know them and how they respond to things, and therefore you can often predict their behavior. As for being in sync, it may be that both your “shoulds” and the other persons “shoulds” just line up really well.
The thing is, people are different. No one is exactly the same. Often in relationships there are many elements of our characters that are similar and that gives us common ground. But there are also differences, and those differences are a big part of what draws us together. When we talk of people complementing each other, or the idea of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts, we are talking about differences.
I’m not sure about you, but I can’t read minds. I’ve talked to a number of friends, both male and female, and none of them can read minds either. Well, one buddy claims he can but I’m pretty sure he’s crazy. For the people that are close to me, I can often predict how they will respond to situations. I can often make guesses as to the things they like and don’t. But guess what? Sometimes I’m wrong. And the better I know the person the more accurate I usually am.
So in response to “I shouldn’t have to tell you what I want, you should know”, I say no, I shouldn’t. Sometimes your spouse will know what you want and other times they will have some pretty good guesses. But if you *really* want something, it’s best to just tell them.
The other big one is:
We shouldn’t have to work on our relationship. If you need to work on things it’s not true love.
You know, I’m not even sure where to begin on this one. But I’m pretty sure I can blame Disney for this. Why do people not accept that relationships require work? Most wedding vows have some variation of “in good times and in bad”. Most people will acknowledge that everyone has good days and bad days. Also, think of anything that you’ve done. Chances are pretty good that the first time you did something was worse than the tenth, or twentieth. We get better at things over time. So yeah, you probably will need to work on things occasionally. You need to find out what you are doing wrong before you can improve on it.
It seems to me there are two choices. Say “hmm, my relationship has ran into trouble so it’s not true love”, and then move on to another one. Or try to find out what’s going wrong with the relationship you are in and see if you can improve it. If you walk away any time things get difficult, chances are you will go through a lot of relationships in search of the perfect one. You may also work on your current one and find out that no, this isn’t going to work. But you may also find ways to make your bond stronger.
Side note – In defense of Disney, they ARE getting better in their messaging. Movies like Enchanted, Mulan and even Frozen have done a lot to change up the old “princess is rescued by handsome prince and they live happily ever after” story line. But I digress. Anyhow…
What can you do?
As I said earlier, chances are we don’t know what our expectations really are. We only know that we are disappointed when those expectations aren’t being met. So a really important thing to do is try to understand ourselves and identify these expectations.
Take some time and think about some concepts in a relationship and what they mean to you. What do you want your relationship to look like? What does it mean to you to love someone and be loved? How do you express affection and how do you expect it to be expressed to you. What do you actually want from your relationship?
Major areas for conflict in relationships are how you spend time together, splitting of household duties, parenting, sexuality and finances. In all of these areas you probably have some “shoulds” that may conflict with your spouses.
All those things that are happening at a subconscious level. Think about times you have been disappointed or hurt. What happened, or didn’t happen? Try articulating why you were disappointed and what you expected. Try figuring out the specifics of what you think your relationship should look like (it’s largely that exercise that led me to writing this blog). My assertion is that before we can understand each other we need to understand ourselves. And I can guarantee that’s not an easy thing.
Once you have identified your own personal “shoulds”, ask yourself why is that the case? Why “should” you expect something to be a certain way? Are they really absolutes, or is there room for change? If your answer on why you expect something to be a certain way is just “because that’s how it’s supposed to be”, then maybe you need to re-examine that one. Most shoulds are actually wants, and some of them have no real basis beyond “that’s the way I learned something”.
You are a role model
As I got thinking about this I realized that if my parents were the primary model for what I believed a relationship “should” look like, then that means I’m a model for my own kids (hmm, kind of a scary thought sometimes). This brought two things to mind:
- Don’t hide natural parts of a relationship. Relationships are full of ups and downs, good times and bad. As parents I think it’s natural to try and shield our children from the negative sides of things. For example, many people try not to ever fight when the kids are around. I get the sentiment, and will admit to doing that myself. But I question if we are maybe doing more harm than good when we do this. Fighting happens. I’m not saying show the kids everything, but maybe let them see that conflict and more importantly dealing with conflict is a natural part of life. Just because mommy and daddy argue doesn’t mean they don’t love each other. As an adult I’m trying to learn how to deal with conflict now, and it’s not easy.
- Don’t ever stay just for the kids. I hear of couples who have let the spark die (and I use the word “let” intentionally, because I think that’s a decision), but they stay in the marriage so the kids have a stable home life. C’mon, what exactly are you giving the kids? What sort of life are you modeling to them? Do you really want your kids growing up in a cold environment where mommy and daddy never interact, never touch and don’t tell each other they love each other? Sorry, I think that’s probably doing more harm than good over the long term. Kids learn from what they see. Either put the effort in to make things work, or don’t and move on.
Change is hard
There’s a saying, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. You can, it’s just not easy. It can be difficult to unlearn years of learned behavior and expectation. Let’s say you’ve been able to identify some of your shoulds, and you have come to realize that they don’t necessarily have to be that way. Even then, in the heat of the moment when your “shoulds” are violated your default reaction will be one of hurt and disappointment. Be aware of that. Everything in life requires practice. There are all sorts of theories on how long it takes to form a habit. I don’t think there’s any real magic time or magic number. But the point is, things get easier over time.