Happiness is Overrated

asian young Couple not talking after  fight  in living roomThere seems to be a huge focus on happiness these days, specifically in relationships.

I’m at an age now where a lot of long term relationships/marriages are failing, or people are starting new relationships (after their marriage has failed).  And in these failed relationships, unhappiness is almost always cited as the main reason.

I hear things like:

  • I just want to be happy
  • Everyone deserves to be happy
  • Lifes too short to not be happy
  • I’m happy now (in the new relationship)

This focus on happiness worries me a bit, and in fact I think happiness is kind of a dangerous and even subversive concept.  And although I understand what people are getting at, I think they’re often missing the point.

Of course people “want to be happy”.  Really, does anyone actually go around and claim the opposite?  Unless you’re Grumpy from the seven dwarves, I don’t think anyone really wants to be unhappy (though I will admit there are some people who almost seem to thrive off negativity).

Yes, there are different emotions and generally the positive emotions are seen as preferable experiences to negative emotions (which is probably why some are classified as positive and others as negative).

I totally get all that.

Here’s my problem – what exactly is happiness?

Do you know?  Because I sure don’t; and I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about this stuff.  I do however know that happiness is more than just a feeling.  Further no one is always happy, and even when someone IS happy, they aren’t going to be happy in every aspect of their life.

Happiness is not like a light switch that is “on” or “off”.  You can be happy at home, but not in your job.  Or happy when you get a bit of down time, but feel overwhelmed when faced with all the things that need to be done as part of domestic life.

Happiness is complex, and the aspects and levels of it aren’t consistent over time.

 

“Unhappy” Relationships

So what does this really mean to relationships?

When people leave (or thinking about leaving) a relationship because “they aren’t happy”, I don’t think it’s really about happiness.

Instead, I think it’s about conflict that a couple has been unable to resolve.

Over time, unresolved conflict creates an environment of hurt, and likely resentment.  That in turn creates tension in the relationship, as one or both members feel their needs aren’t being met and they aren’t being heard.  A few posts ago I talked about connection, and a big component of connection is feeling valued, heard, and seen.  So if you feel you aren’t being heard, this will cause the connection to break down.

Over time this leads to a perpetual state of tension within the relationship, which is emotionally draining.

With broken connection and a state of tension, a couple will have a harder time finding joy even in the good parts of the relationship and instead will often focus more on the problems as they become magnified.

And THIS will result in…

(ready for it?)

…unhappiness.

 

I know what you’re thinking –“but ZombieDrew, isn’t that the same thing?  Doesn’t it still boil down to the couple being unhappy?

Nope, and the distinction here is really important.

 

First, it’s important to remember that having conflict doesn’t mean you have a bad relationship.  It means you’re normal.  Conflict is as unavoidable as death and taxes, and is a byproduct of two different people building a life together.  You won’t always agree and you won’t always get along, and that’s alright.

Another important thing is unhappiness isn’t the problem, it’s a SYMPTOM of a different (and truly, a larger) problem.

And understanding that?  THAT really matters.

Because you can’t solve a symptom, you can’t solve unhappy.  You need to understand the actual problem.  And if you can understand the actual problem, THEN you can do something about it!!!

 

The Search for Happiness

My issue with people leaving relationships because they are unhappy (or searching for happiness) is that often they don’t really know WHY they were unhappy.  They stopped at the symptom, the feeling.

They knew they were “having problems”, and found themselves in a situation where they were unhappy for so long they believed the only way out was to leave the relationship.

They want to be happy again (after all, everyone “deserves” to be happy, life is too short to not be happy, blah blah blah).  So they leave, in order to find that feeling again.

(Actually often they go in search of the feeling before leaving the relationships, having emotional and or physical affairs that provide the “feeling” of happiness, which only solidifies their belief that there was something wrong with the relationship they are/were in.  But that’s a topic for another day.)

In any case, pursuit of a feeling leaves them looking for something they will likely never find.

 

Building Relationships

One of the big fallacies of relationships is that you just need to find the right person.  I absolutely hate this thinking, because it absolves people of responsibility in relationships.

Oh, our relationship failed because he/she wasn’t the right person.  I just need to find someone more compatible.

Sorry, that’s a load of crap.  Don’t get me wrong, there is an element of compatibility involved in relationships (though I believe it’s a much smaller factor than most people would think).

But here’s the thing – relationships are a skill.  And like any other skill, we can always improve the skill side of a relationship.  No matter how bad (or good) your relationship is right now, it can get better.

And THAT should be good news.

The catch is, you need to be willing to work to develop that skill.  And both parties need to be willing to do this.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be equal (no relationships are), but both people need to be trying.  And if they are?  Then ANY issue can be improved upon.

Notice I didn’t say fixed, some things can’t be fixed.  But all problems can get better.

 

Believing Change Can Happen

Its really important to believe that all problems can get better, because sometimes a couple DOES look at why they are having issues, they start to understand the problems; and then they give up.  They feel overwhelmed by the issues and take the attitude that they are “too big to fix”, or they can’t be changed because “this is just the way I am”.  And as a result they don’t really try.

This approach of quitting without really trying is called Learned Helplessness, and unfortunately it is a common approach for people who struggle with conflict resolution, people with mental health issues, as well as people who just aren’t very happy.

It’s a belief that someone has no control over the situation they are in, so why bother trying.  But it’s a broken thinking pattern, because people ALWAYS have control over their own choices and their own actions.  As I said, ANY issue can be improved.  But you have to be willing to put in the work.

learnedHelplessness

 

Going back to the “unhappy relationship”, this is almost always a question of conflict resolution.  Problems can’t be ignored, avoidance never works.  And you are NEVER helpless to make change.

It’s may seem easier at first to ignore things and avoid them, because dealing with things has an emotional cost.  But avoidance is a short sighted approach, because nothing gets resolved and the long term emotional costs of trying to deal with things when they’ve hit a critical mass are always higher later.

Plus, even when you are “avoiding” issues, they are always there.  These issues find ways to come out, normally through passive aggressive behavior by one or both parties, and that will only deepen the environment of hurt and resentment (making things worse).

 

The way out of this mess is through communication.  REAL communication.

When people talk about communication being the key to successful relationships, they aren’t just referring to talking.  Communication is about actually listening, trying to understand each other, and dealing with conflict in ways that are beneficial to the team.

If you aren’t actively working on making things better, then you aren’t really communicating.

CommunicationIssue

 

 

Happiness is Mostly About You

One thing I don’t like about this focus on happiness is, it’s an individual act.  It’s a focus on what a relationship does (or doesn’t do) for YOU.  While that is obviously important, I personally don’t think any relationship can thrive if that’s the focus.

Relationships should never just be about what one person is getting out of it. Both people’s needs and wants have to be respected and valued, even when they don’t completely match up. There has to be compromise.

For relationships to be successful the focus needs to shift from what the relationship does for me to what it does for us.  It needs to be a partnership that is mutually beneficial; and where people are just as interested in what they can add to it as what they get out of it.

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Communicating and building your relationships skills is difficult, because it can’t just be about you.  It requires facing the mirror and accepting your own part in the relationship issues.  It also requires truly letting go of past hurts and resentment in order to move forward.

But although these skills are difficult to build, they are the most important skills you will ever build in your lifetime.  They are worth the effort, and worth the stumbles that will happen along the way.

In my mind, as long as both partners are showing consistent effort towards building them, and being conscious about sliding back into avoidance and passive aggressive behavior, ANY relationship can not only succeed, but thrive.

 

Built to Last?

Happiness is a feeling, and feelings come and go.

Healthy relationships on the other hand have a number of components to them; pleasure, joy, appreciation and contentment.

And importantly, an acceptance that negative emotions are normal, and that conflict is a natural and even needed part of trying to grow both individually and as a couple.

Sometimes happiness is missing, and that should be alright.  Because if you can communicate, and resolve conflicts together without holding on to anger and resentment you will always find it again.  In fact it’s working through these difficult times that ultimately brings a couple closer.

 

So when people leave a relationship because they aren’t happy, I think it’s a cop out.  An excuse.

I understand leaving the relationship because you had communication issues and unresolved conflicts that were creating a toxic environment, and you reached a point that you gave up hope that things would ever improve.

I even understand leaving a relationship because you realized that addressing the issues was scary, and you weren’t prepared to do the work to make things better.

At least those reasons are honest.

They involve a level of self-awareness, and a realization that there is no magic wand or perfect person out there.  That those issues will still come up again, and will need to be addressed in the future or they could happen again.

 

But simply saying it’s because you were unhappy without understanding why, and chasing that feeling?  That simply sets you up to repeat the same mistakes again, and all but guarantees more unhappiness in your future.

 

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Avoiding Life

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Over the last few years I’ve spent a lot of time trying to grow and improve as a person.  I would like to think I understand certain things a bit better, but for the most part I haven’t really changed that much.  There have been some changes I suppose, but they are largely small tweaks and refinements.

Really, the “new” me isn’t that different from the “old” me.

There is however one area where my outlook has changed considerably, and that’s in how I look at and approach conflict.

 

Conflict has become an area of interest for me, and it’s something I’ve written about in the past.  A few years ago I viewed conflict as a bad thing.  It was a sign that something was wrong.  And that’s bad, right?  Well, if that’s right then the absence of conflict must be a good thing.

That was how I viewed the world.

And that’s a viewpoint I’ve come to believe was completely wrong (like, totally and completely wrong).

 

You Aren’t Me And I’m Not You

Each person is an individual, with their own wants, needs and interests.  And this uniqueness is a part of our beauty.  However, because we have differences there are times our differences will collide.

My new(ish) viewpoint on conflict is that it is a natural and unavoidable part of any relationship.  Conflict is simply the collision of our differences and can actually be a very positive thing; as the process of learning to accept each other and work together in spite of these differences (because let’s face it, they aren’t going away) is the key to a healthy relationship.

So although there can be issues in how we “deal” with conflict, conflict itself isn’t bad.

 

Problem?  What Problem?

Currently I’m back in school, taking courses that will in theory help advance my career; and if not at least keep me somewhat current.  And one of the courses I’m taking has a section on conflict.

Reading over the course materials, I came across the following:

Of all the issues that people tend to avoid, managing conflict ranks at the top of the list, along with public speaking and swimming with sharks.

Most people see conflict as indicative of a problem because disagreement feels uncomfortable and threatening.

When there’s no open conflict we can carry on as though things are all right even if, really, we know they aren’t.

 

It’s the last line that really stands out to me – open conflict is the key.  If there is no  open conflict we all can carry on as though things are alright even when we know they aren’t.

People can be kind of stupid at times.  For whatever reason, sometimes we don’t see things that are right in front of our faces.

Sometimes its ignorance, or we misjudge the severity of something.  Or maybe we simply lack the context to truly understand what we are seeing.  For example I have a buddy that almost died from a heart attack a few years back, when he thought he had the flu.  That stuff happens, and is largely understandable.

It’s a VERY different scenario though when there is a problem and we KNOW it.  But we pretend it isn’t there.  When we ACT as though things are fine as long as we aren’t talking about it, and it’s not out in the open.

That approach is very destructive, to everyone involved.

 

When to Deal with Issues?

Conflict isn’t fun, and I think it’s safe to say most people don’t want to deal with it.

Imagine you’re at home and you notice a drip in your bathroom faucet.  Let’s imagine the progression of this problem faucet looks something like this (with some sort of time lapse between steps):

  1. We see the faucet dripping for the first time.
  2. We realize the faucet is still dripping over a period of time.
  3. We notice the drip is getting worse.
  4. Instead of a drip, we see that there is now a steady stream of water coming out of the faucet
  5. We notice that the room underneath the bathroom has water stains in on the ceiling.
  6. We notice that there is water streaming down the walls of our house.
  7. Sections of the ceiling below start to crumble and collapse
  8. We can no longer open the bathroom door, because the flow of water has gotten so strong that the water pressure is holding the door closed

Let’s face it, problems suck.  However although we don’t want to, most of us recognize that there comes a point in time when we HAVE to deal with them.

WHERE we draw that line differs from person to person.  For example, some people will get on an issue as soon as they see the first sign of trouble.

Personally, I would find that exhausting.  I would rather wait a bit to determine if it was an actual (recurring) problem.  If something happens once and then not again?  Well, it might not be worth worrying about.

Thing is, when small problems aren’t addressed in time they have a tendency to grow into much larger issues.  I would like to think though that most people wouldn’t allow the leaky faucet to get to step 8.  Hopefully somewhere between step 2 and step 5, people will accept that there is an issue and be willing to put in whatever work is necessary to address it.

 

Avoidance

Unfortunately some don’t accept that issues need to be dealt with – ever.  In fact some people will walk around their house in rubber boots with a diving mask and snorkel insisting that there’s no problem and everything is alright; as the faucets are pouring water and their house is rotting and crumbling around them.

In psychology this is known as Avoidance.

Psychology Dictionary defines avoidance as:

the practice or an instance of keeping away from particular situations, activities, environments, individuals, things, or subjects of thought because of either (a) the anticipated negative consequences of such or (b) the anticipated anxious or painful feelings associated with those things or events. Psychology explains avoidance in several ways: as a means of coping- as a response to fear or shame- and as a principal component in anxiety disorders.

 

Avoidant people are masters at pretending that things are fine, because as long as they don’t acknowledge a problem openly they can tell themselves everything is alright.

Thing is, avoidance brings with it a slew of problems.  Stealing another section from my course materials:

There is one main reason to engage in conflict, and that’s to reach a resolution. Without resolution, conflict merely becomes an opportunity to recycle old arguments, disagreements and opinions: nothing moves forward, feelings get stirred up and reinforced.

 

By denying problems and refusing to deal with them avoidant people actually make things worse.

They allow small problems to grow, and ensure there is never a resolution.  Nothing ever moves forward, and they end up stuck.

 

Misdirected Effort

One of my sons hates cleaning his room.  And when I ask him to, it always turns into a big production.  He talks about how he doesn’t want to, and how he thinks “it’s not that bad anyhow”.  Then he complains about how much time and effort it would take to clean it.

Usually it turns into some sort of power struggle where he refuses, and I’m forced to come up with some sort of consequence for not doing it as a way of getting him to clean it.

When he finally gets to cleaning it, I’m always struck by the fact that he will have spent WAY more time arguing over and fighting against cleaning his room than it actually took him.  He expends all this energy “refusing” to clean his room.  And if he would just DO it, a lot less time and energy would be wasted.

He’s 9, and I’m optimistic/hopeful that this is just a stage he’ll grow out of.

 

In many ways, his behavior is similar to avoidance.

An avoidant person will expend a tremendous amount of effort ignoring a problem, pretending it’s not there, and refusing to deal with it.

And to a non-avoidant person faced with this, often it feels as though the issue at hand (whatever it is) is actually resolvable.  And likely could have been easily resolved with considerably LESS effort than there seems to be spent ignoring the problem and maintaining a (broken) status quo.

It’s like they are trying to talk to someone while the other person is walking around with their hands over their ears chanting “la la la la la, not listening”.

 

Relationships with avoidant people can be difficult, because couples often get stuck with issues that often seem normal, or manageable.  However because the avoidant partner won’t acknowledge the issue they are unable to move forward and improve.

So every leaky faucet has the potential to cause the whole relationship to crumble down around them.

And let’s face it, we all have leaky faucets.

 

Admitting to issues in your relationship is never easy, but if you don’t you can never, EVER resolve them.  And you can never improve.

For any avoidant people, I ask you this – what is your goal?  What is more important to you?

Is it more important to create the illusion of a perfect relationship and not have to deal with issues (even when you know that the issues are there)?

Or it is more important to have the best relationship you can?

 

A while back I read an article on couples counselors, and in it the counselors talked about how their ability to help a couple is often hampered because couples frequently come to them YEARS later than they should have.  I suspect this is often due to avoidance, where a couple is refusing to deal with their faucets until the relationship is crumbling around them.

People can talk about priorities, but actions are much more important than words.  So if someone “says” they want their relationship to be better but they refuse to work to improve it?  Well, they are showing that they find the pain of a broken relationship to be less than the pain of trying to work on things.  THAT shows true priority.

And if pretending things are good even when you know they are not is more important that improving, remember that if the rot sets in too deeply there will be no way to pretend any more.

 

 

Conflict comes from differences and differences are just part of who we are.  Having a relationship with another person means there WILL be conflict.  And accepting that conflict as normal allows you to deal with it proactively, and make your relationship the best it can be.

Strength in a relationship isn’t built through the absence of conflict, it’s built through encountering obstacles and getting through them together.  So although we should never want conflict, we should always see it as an opportunity to improve on where we are.

A perfect relationship will never exist, no matter how much you pretend it does.  But your relationship CAN always get stronger.

IF you accept that there are issues.

IF you accept that conflict is an opportunity for improvement.

And IF you are willing to face your issues and work on them.

If you can do those things?  Then your relationship will never be perfect, but it will be as strong as you make it.

The Best of Both Worlds

easybutton

One of my co-workers is a first time grandfather, and recently spoke on how much he’s been enjoying the experience. In his words:

Being a grandfather is great, I get to have all of the fun but I have none of the responsibility.

It was said in humor, but there’s a lot of truth to this.

A grandparent is able to have a small window into the life of their grandchildren. They only see them occasionally, so it’s easier to make those limited moments special. It’s much easier to put in the energy to keep things special when the grandkids are only there for an afternoon, or maybe overnight and then they are back to their parents. And in those limited moments the grandkids are more likely to be on their best behavior.

Parents still have fun moments, but they also have to worry about all the little things. Food, care, homework, discipline, etc. And they need to do this on a consistent basis. Parents have all the little tasks that can be exhausting and thankless. As my co-worker said, grandparents get the fun parts and have the knowledge that they can return the grandkids when things get hard.

Think about that for a moment.

All of the fun with none of the responsibility.

In some ways, isn’t that the holy grail in life? At some level, aren’t we are all looking for the big “Easy” button?

Look around today, and you see all sorts of advertising that preys on this. Everywhere you turn you can find testimonials like:

  • my friend earned (insert some crazy amount of money) last week while working from home
  • This diet pill will let you lose weight fast (likely while still eating whatever you want)
  • Build muscle fast with this product
  • Make someone fall in love with you with these quick easy steps

Even politicians sometimes provide some variation on this, with platforms like “I’m going to decrease taxes, while increasing social services.” Which sounds great, until you take into account the fact that social services cost money, and if you decrease taxes you have less money to pay for things.

All of the fun with none of the responsibility.

We would all love to have a job where you can come and go as you want, have no responsibilities, and get great pay and benefits. We would all love to eat whatever we want without putting on weight. We would all love to look like models or athletes without having to exercise.

But that’s not how things work.

Usually higher pay is reserved for jobs that have higher responsibilities and educational requirements. Cheeseburgers and Doritos are delicious, but if you eat too many of them you WILL gain weight. And looking athletic and fit requires a combination of diet and hours of dedication to exercise.

Sure, there are some cases where people are just lucky. They are in the right place at the right time, or are they hit the genetic jackpot. It does happen sometimes.

Hell, the whole lottery industry is built on the idea that if you make the cost of entry small enough, a LOT of people will take a chance in the hopes of winning the big prize.

But the odds are astronomically stacked against you. In the real world there are no short cuts, no easy buttons and no magic wands.

When something seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Responsibility in Relationships

If you take the premise of “All of the fun with none of the responsibility” and apply it to the world of relationship, you know what you get?

Dating.

Isn’t that really what dating is? It’s the early stages, where everything is new and exciting. You get to go out and just “have fun” – which can mean anything from a walk through the park to dinner and movie to casual sex. There are hopes and expectations on the part of both people, but there is no pressure on anyone to meet them. If you don’t feel like going out you don’t have to. And if things aren’t going well you can just walk away. No commitment, and no responsibility.

When things start to get more serious, two individuals start to become an “us”. Suddenly it’s not just about you any more. Responsibility starts to come in. The needs and wants of your partner have to matter as much as your own. Plus you are usually building towards something, which involves having to make some sacrifices in the short term for long term game.

Now when conflict occurs you can’t just walk away. Commitment forces you to work on issues – hopefully addressing them and sometimes acknowledging them as simply differences between people that you need to accept.

Add managing a household, a budget, maybe a couple of kids; and suddenly, it’s not all about “fun”, and doing what makes you happy.

And this is where the challenge comes in.

Stuck in a Rut

People often talk about wishing that things were “like they used to be”. They want to recapture those feelings of the early days of a relationship.

In long term relationships it’s easy to get so caught up in day to day life that we take each other for granted and lose track of what brought us together in the first place – things like fun, attraction and excitement. In fact, this is probably one of the biggest issues with long term relationships. So I understand wanting to recapture the early days, and think it’s understandable and even admirable.

It’s a positive thing when you realize you are in a rut where you have lost sight of each other as a couple, and you want to work to rebuild that connection and spark. This is a time when some couples start carving out more time for each other, maybe plan some date nights, try to have fun together again and reintroduce an element of romance that has been lost.

Unfortunately, some people take different approaches.

Instead of working to improve the relationship, some people look for easy ways to find that excitement again, so they look for it outside the relationship.  Some have affairs, others propose things like “open relationships” (which to me is simply an affair where you have asked permission first).

These are simply escapes. Ways of trying to escape from the pressures of life into an imaginary world where they can have all the fun without any of the responsibility.

Best of Both Worlds

I don’t think people who have had affairs are necessarily bad people. But they are people who have made bad choices.

Selfish choices.

In my last post, I listed 3 keys for a successful relationship. Love each other, don’t be selfish, and communicate.

I think affairs (or pushing for open relationships) pretty much lead the pack in selfish behaviors.  Often the people who do these things DO actually love their partner/spouse. It’s the selfish part they struggle with (and probably the communication).

So they try to have “the best of both worlds”. The comfort and stability of home and family, while also having the freedom to do what they want.

Instead of putting the effort into improving their relationship they take the easy route and look for the fun and excitement on their own terms. They want the relationship, but they also want to be able to act like they are single.

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When you take the easy way out, you are escaping into an imaginary world, and one that is not built to last.

Most affair relationships last less than two years. When they fall apart it’s usually because the imaginary bubble has been burst. They realize that the new person also has flaws. They were exciting and new, but now they are known.

Their escape may have started as all fun, but it started to have responsibility, problems and expectation as well.

Some people are serial adulterers, because they are always searching for the easy way out. The quick fix, the easy thrill.

But eventually most people realize there are no magic wands. There are no easy buttons.

Putting in Effort

Success in life isn’t an accident. It takes planning, and dedication.

People seem to understand that to get a good job they (usually) need to put in time to get schooling or learn a trade. They understand that if you want to excel at a sport or a musical instrument, you need to put in time to learn. And the more time you put in, the better you get. Olympic athletes don’t achieve that level by chance. Sure, they may have good genetics but it still requires dedication and sacrifice.

It’s a pretty simple formula – what you get out of something is dependent on what you put into it. You may not be able to guarantee your level of success, but you CAN guarantee that additional effort improves your chances of success.

Yet many people seem to believe that a successful relationship should “just happen”. That you shouldn’t have to work at it. That if you simply love one another, everything should be rainbows and butterflies.

I think that’s insanity.

A relationship is no different than anything else – shortcuts don’t work.

So if your relationship is in a rut or in a bad spot, it’s up to you to decide how you want to proceed. You can wait, and hope it magically gets better. You can check out on the relationship and start living largely independent lives (pretty much assuring things never get better). You can tell yourself that “this is just what happens in long term relationships”, and accept it as normal. You can escape the relationship issues by having an affair. You can even end the relationship, and tell yourself that things will be better in the future if you just find the “right person”.

There are all sorts of paths you can take.

And one of those paths is to work on things. To focus on the three keys – love each other (even when it seems hard), don’t be selfish, and communicate.

There are no easy buttons.

You only get out what you put in. If you work at your relationship, it can improve. So instead of trying to have the best of both worlds, work to make the world you do have the best it can be.

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Passive Aggression

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In my last post I talked about Avoidance, and how avoidance is one of the most destructive things you can do. It limits quality of life and personal happiness while also doing damage to relationships.

Relationships require communication – even (perhaps especially) about the difficult things in life, while avoidant people withdraw or check out when confronted with anything difficult or uncomfortable.

The avoidant approach is, why deal with something if you can ignore it? After all, if you ignore something long enough it will just go away on its own right?

Spoiler alert – it doesn’t. Actually, things just get worse. And here’s one of the main reasons why…

Avoidant people may do their best to avoid conflict, and they may “think” they are succeeding. But everyone has emotions, and feelings; and eventually these frustrations find a way out. But since they have never developed healthy ways to express and deal with emotions and feelings, they find “subtle” ways to express them.

Ways that are very, very damaging.

The Four Horsemen

In his book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work John Gottman says he can predict with a fairly high degree of accuracy whether or not a couple will succeed or fail. And one of his beliefs is the existence or amount of conflict itself has nothing to do with the success of a relationship.

What matters is HOW a couple fights.

He describes the following “corrosive negative behavior patterns” as being the strongest predictors of divorce, or as he put it – “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”.

  • Criticism: No relationship is perfect, and we all have things about our partners that make us unhappy. Complaints are fine and are about behaviors you want to change. A criticism is a way of expressing the complaint that becomes an attack on the other person. With criticism, the issue isn’t the behavior – it’s the other person.
  • Contempt: This is the use of things like threats, name calling and insults. Contempt is when there is an air of superiority, and the offending person focuses on their partners mistakes instead of appreciating them and seeing the good. The existence of contempt is the highest predictor or divorce in a marriage
  • Defensiveness: This is when any attempt at discussion of issues becomes interpreted as an attack. When people get defensive, they attempt to “protect themselves” by doing things like counter-attacking, denying, or re-directing the conversation away from the topic at hand. There is no acceptance of the issue, or acceptance of responsibility. If you think back to my post on accountability, defensiveness is the first few steps – denial, blaming/justifying
  • Stonewalling: This is when in a discussion the listener emotional withdraws or “checks out” on the discussion. They likely are feeling emotionally overwhelmed, or flooded by the discussion; so they don’t engage. They may listen, but they don’t focus or give any clues they are actually paying attention. For the person trying to have a discussion, they feel ignored.

The first two are predictors of early divorce (supposedly 5.6 years after the wedding), while the next two predict later divorce (16.2 years after the wedding). Defensiveness and Stonewalling are the hallmarks of avoidance, and they are classic signs of passive aggressive behavior.

 

What is Passive Aggression?

Passive aggression is perhaps the worst thing you can do in a relationship. If you aren’t familiar with passive aggression, here’s another term for it – treating your partner like crap (I’m not sure if that’s the official scientific term. If not it probably should be).

What does passive aggression look like?

I found a great description of it at this site:

Passive Aggressive behavior can be defined as conduct which is conflict avoidant. Anger is not openly expressed but manifests itself by way of covert resistance, procrastination, withdrawal, sarcasm and more.

Broken agreements, withholding emotional support and/or sex, sabotage, sulking and silent treatment are all common features of passive aggressive behavior.

Many Passive Aggressive people simply refuse to contemplate that they might be doing anything wrong and simply do not believe their conduct to be anything untoward.

Basically it’s “conflict avoidant” behavior, where the real feelings of conflict (anger/frustration/resentment) leak out in other ways.

Passive Aggressive Behaviors

Here are a number of common passive aggressive behaviors (cobbled together from a number of sources):

Refusing to say what you mean. This is when someone will say one thing (usually what they believe the other person wants to hear) even when they don’t actually mean it. Sometimes they will say Yes when they really mean No. Or they will say “We’ll See” instead of saying No outright. But then they show what they “really mean” through their behavior.

Putting on a false face. This is similar to the previous one, but at a bit different. Passive aggressive people will often appear to be kind and agreeable, while inside they are actually hurt, angry or resentful.

Afraid to be alone, but also afraid of being dependent. There are difficulties with communication due to a fear of rejection that make relationships difficult. At the same time emotional walls are built to keep close relationships at a distance because there is a fear of dependence. Passive aggressive people do want relationships, but only on their terms. There is a strong need for control.

Learned Helplessness/Victimization. When conflict arises (which it will), the inability to deal with it often leads to anger and resentment. However instead of recognizing the problem is due to a lack of communication, it is perceived as being the other persons fault. “They” did this, or that. They caused the conditions that led to the anger (which of course is seen as justified). There is no ownership by the passive aggressive person. They are a victim of others being hard on them, unreasonable or expecting too much.

Resenting Demands/Expectations of others. Relationships have expectations, and these expectations form the boundaries of relationships. Passive aggressive people will often view others demands/expectations as unfair or unjust. But rather than expressing this and trying to find a path that works for both people they will hold things in and allow resentment for the other person to build.

Procrastination. Everyone procrastinates sometimes, but for a passive aggressive person procrastination is a form of control and punishment. They don’t like “having” to do things, especially when this is related to the expectations of others. So they won’t. But instead of saying they won’t, they make them wait and come up with excuses on “why” they haven’t been able to. When someone calls them out on their lack of follow through on things they either promised of agreed to, the passive aggressive person will often find ways to turn it around and blame the other person for why things aren’t done.

Not giving honest answers. When dealing with uncomfortable topics passive aggressive people will usually try to change the subject. When they can’t, they often say a lot of things without actually saying anything. Often no real answer is given. Or instead of being truthful, they will withhold information, and be selective in what they say and how they respond. They may not “lie”, but honesty is not just about the words you say. The ones you don’t say are often just as important.

Sulking/Withdrawing/Pouting. When things aren’t going their way, or they are unhappy about a situation passive aggressive people will shut down emotionally and withdraw. They will withhold affection, kindness (and empathy really) as a way of “showing displeasure”. Again, this is about punishment and control. Silent treatment and “walking away” are common ways of “dealing” with issues. This may sound a lot like tantrums. Well guess what, they are. This sort of behavior is basically an adult tantrum by someone who has never learned to communicate and deal with emotion in a healthy way.

Keeping Score. Passive aggressive people have a very difficult time letting things go. We all have times people hurt or disappoint us. Instead of confronting the issues, dealing with it and letting it go; passive aggressive people will hold onto things. Not only do they not let go, they also often feel someone doing something to them entitles them to do something in retaliation/response. In relationships (especially ones that matter to us) taking this approach is destructive, and will only escalate things.

Silent Treatment. This is one of the hallmarks of passive aggression, as well as being one of the great killers of relationships. When someone is upset they withdraw – emotionally and/or physically. Passive aggressive people often tell themselves they do this to ensure they don’t “say something they will regret”, and there is some truth to that. But they never return, and never deal with the issue at hand. They avoid it, and this becomes both a way of dealing with things as well as a form of punishment and control.

passiveaggressivequote

Take a good look at the items in the above list.

I’m pretty sure any rational person will accept these are all COMPLETELY TERRIBLE things to do to your partner. Hell, they’re terrible ways to treat people who you DON’T like; never mind ones you are supposed to be building a life with.

That said, we ALL do these things once in a while. But people with healthy communication and conflict skills realize they are being an asshole when they do it, while passive aggressive people don’t seem to see a problem with it – or they have a long list of excuses and reasons (usually someone elses fault) as to “why” they are doing it.

At least at some level though, even the people exhibiting these behaviors have to KNOW these are self-destructive behaviors that are damaging their relationships; as many of these behaviors are selfish, petty and cruel. These behaviors don’t belong in a “loving relationship”.

So why?

Why willfully engage in behaviors that at some level they know are destroying their relationships?

Why do it?

An Inability to Cope

There are two main reasons people are passive aggressive.

  1. They don’t realize they are doing it
  2. They don’t know any other way.

One thing to be clear on…

…when you look through these behaviors it can make it seem like passive aggressive people are horrible monsters. They’re not.

Often they are good, kind people “most” of the time. They simply been taught conflict is bad, so they have spent their lives repressing feelings and negative emotions, and have never learned how to effectively communicate and deal with conflict. As a result they are emotionally crippled, and shut down in the face of negative emotions.

Passive aggressive behavior often goes hand in hand with anxiety and avoidance, because at it’s root it is about a fear of conflict, and a feeling of powerlessness and helplessness that comes with being unable to deal with conflict.

Conflict happens though. It’s a natural (and needed) part of life. So passive aggressiveness is really about an inability to cope with the reality of life. This is why many passive aggressive people try to present an image of perfection. It allows them to create and escape to a fantasy world where conflict doesn’t exist.

Healthy Conflict

At the beginning I talked about John Gottmans book, and how he believes there are behaviors that are good predictors of divorce. Passive aggression is one of the biggest ones.

Well, what does a “healthy” relationship look like according to him? Gottman says the signs of happy couples are:

  • Couples who behave like good friends and handle their conflicts in gentle, positive ways.
  • Couples who are able to repair negative interactions during an argument, and are able to process negative emotions fully.

See the key words in those two things?

Handles conflict.
Deal with negative emotions.

These are things the avoidant and passive aggressive person either can’t or won’t do.

There is good news though.

People are not avoidant or passive aggressive by nature. It is a communication and coping style that is learned. Because of this, it is also something that can change.

I’ve written on change in the past, and although it’s not an easy thing to do is CAN happen. But for it to happen, the person making the change needs to truly understand how their behavior is hurting them. They need to face the mirror, and realize the way they have approached things has not been working.

If you are someone who defaults to avoidance or passive aggression as your default coping mechanisms, here’s something to consider:
Avoidance and Passive Aggressive behavior are among the most damaging behaviors one can have. When you look up “Toxic Behavior” the behaviors listed are usually lists of both passive aggressive and avoidant behavior.

If having your default coping mechanisms defined as “toxic” doesn’t convince someone to try and change, I not sure what will. However avoidance and passive aggressive behavior ARE toxic. They are behaviors we all should be aware of, try to recognize when we do, and try to minimize.

For our relationships, our happiness and for those around us.

Avoidance

AvoidanceHeader

Do you like horror movies? Some people do, others don’t. Some people love romantic comedies, others hate them. Movies, hobbies, foods, styles. It doesn’t matter what it is; we all have our own interests and preferences – things we like and things we don’t.

A natural result of this is putting our energies towards those things we enjoy (and not towards things we don’t).

Sure, there are benefits in expanding our horizons and trying new things. But if we don’t like something or we decide it makes us uncomfortable, it’s alright to avoid these things.

When things are just personal tastes and preferences, it really doesn’t matter if you like them. You can choose to ignore them without doing any harm to yourself or those around you.

But not all of life is like that.

Sometimes there are things we need to deal with, whether we like it or not. No matter how awkward or uncomfortable it makes us feel.

 

Responsibilities

It’s easy to say “I don’t like horror movies so I won’t watch them”. It’s a bit tougher to say “I don’t like paying bills so I won’t pay them”. I mean, you can, but over time there may be some impacts of making that choice.

Bills are just one obvious example of things we can’t ignore.

The fact is, there are a lot of things we have to do. If we live on our own, we need to pay rent or a mortgage. Which means we need some sort of income – which usually comes in the form of a job. Which means we need to show up at work and put in enough consistent effort to hold a job.

We need an income to live. And we need to both manage our income and live within it.  At the very least, jobs and bills are something we need to deal with.

We may not like the restrictions this places on us, and we may feel uncomfortable when we look at our bills and our account balance.

But it’s not something we can ignore.

Well, that’s not entirely true. I CAN ignore things that make me uncomfortable. That won’t make them go away though, and has consequences of it’s own.

In fact ignoring problems tends to backfire over time, as small problems often grow into something much larger when they are not addressed.

avoidance3

Avoidance in Relationships

If life were just about me, it would be easy to do what I want and avoid the things that make me uncomfortable. Yes, this is unhealthy and there are usually negative consequences for doing this. But if I choose to do this, hey, it’s on me.

However most people don’t want to be alone. There is a natural tendency to seek relationships with others, both as friendships and intimate relationships. With friendships you can still get away with avoidance to a degree, as your friends only see you sometimes. In intimate relationships however this will ultimately cause problems.

Intimate relationships can be wonderful and rewarding. But they can also be challenging.

Life doesn’t always go down a happy path, sometimes things don’t go the way we want. Because people are different all relationships occasionally run into conflict, and some of the most common conflict areas are the following:

  • Money/Finances
  • Children (can be whether to have, or child rearing once you have them
  • Chores/Domestic Work
  • Sexual Expectations
  • Family (dealing with extended)
  • Elderly Parents (care of)
  • Life Priorities

None of these are fun, or easy topics to deal with.  And yes, at times it would be easier to just ignore them.  But for a relationship to thrive (or even just survive) the couple needs to find a way to navigate these in some way.

Navigating them involves accepting the each member of the relationship may have different ideas, accepting each persons opinion as valid, and working through the problem to find a common ground.

When something affects the couple and has impacts on them, the issue NEEDS to be addressed and dealt with.

It doesn’t matter if we like dealing with the problem or not, if we feel it’s an issue for us personally or not, or if it makes us uncomfortable.  If it’s a problem in the relationship, it’s a problem.

This isn’t like choosing not to watch scary movies. These things matter.

In life, we can’t just pick and choose the parts we want to deal with and ignore/avoid the rest.

Avoiding problems puts stress on the individuals, on the relationship, and over time it will threaten to destroy the relationship if a different path is not found.

avoidance1

 

When Avoidance Becomes a Problem

No one likes to deal with difficult or uncomfortable issues, and unless you love conflict (which some do) everyone will try to avoid things sometimes.

However when avoidance becomes a pattern of behavior, or a default ways of “dealing” with issues and conflict then it has become a problem.

According to Merriam-Webster avoidance is an act or practice of avoiding or withdrawing from something.

As noted, we all do this sometimes. But why does it become a (very broken) method of coping for some people?

One explanation for this can be found in the Fear Avoidance Model.

This is a psychological model that believes avoidance is driven by pain, and fear of pain. Conflict and dealing with conflict comes to be associated with discomfort, which can be physical or psychological.

Due to this fear, over time people start to avoid situations associated with this pain in the belief that doing so will “protect” them from it. However this same act of avoidance over the long term does more damage than good – as people will increasingly restrict their life to only include things that are “safe”, resulting in disability and depression.

Fear-avoidance_model

Avoidance is strongly linked to anxiety, as anxiety is based on fear. So an anxious person will often avoid situations that make them uncomfortable, even to their own detriment.

In extreme cases, anxiety can cause people to avoid life; and they end up trapped in a cage of their own making.

These extreme cases are often referred to as Avoidant Personality Disorder. Wikipedia describes this as being characterized by the following traits:

  • Hypersensitivity to rejection/criticism
  • Self-imposed social isolation
  • Extreme shyness or anxiety in social situations, though the person feels a strong desire for close relationships
  • Avoids physical contact because it has been associated with an unpleasant or painful stimulus
  • Feelings of inadequacy
  • Severe low self-esteem or Self-loathing
  • Mistrust of others
  • Emotional distancing related to intimacy
  • Highly self-conscious
  • Lonely self-perception, although others may find the relationship with them meaningful
  • Feeling inferior to others
  • Uses fantasy as a form of escapism to interrupt painful thoughts

Communication and Avoidance

It is often said that communication is the most important thing in a relationships, and there are a number of quotes like this:
communication1

Communication builds closeness and mutual understanding. You build intimacy through letting the other person in and being vulnerable around them. This doesn’t happen without communication. In fact, in its purest for physical intimacy (sex) is really just a form of communication.

But we are all different, with different ideas and beliefs. And these differences provide the potential for conflict – especially in areas that make us uncomfortable.

I’ve written in the past on conflict, and how dealing with it is one of the most important relationship skills you can have. Conflict allows us to improve our mutual understanding of each other, and understanding is important to the long term success of any relationship.

Well what happens when you don’t communicate well, or perhaps not at all?

Avoidance is really the complete opposite of communication. Indeed, it is a refusal to communicate.

If communication is the lifeblood of a relationship, then avoidance is one of the biggest roadblocks to a happy relationship.

Avoidance often goes hand in hand with silence, or the silent treatment. What is often overlooked is that silent treatment is a form of punishment and control. In fact avoidance/withdrawal and the silent treatment are leading form of emotional abuse.

Avoidance2

A Better Way

I believe avoidance is one of THE biggest killers of relationships. But instead of ending relationships, it often leads to couples being “unhappily married” or in “bad relationships”. Because problems happen, and not only are they never addressed, but they are also never discussed and never out in the open.

Tension and body language makes it obvious problems exist, but they are avoided, leading to unhappiness and resentment.

We all have things that make us uncomfortable, and dealing with problems is never easy. But if you are someone who falls back on avoidance as way of “dealing” with issues, then your happiness and potentially your relationship depends on your ability to learn a different way.

As shown in the fear-avoidance model, avoidance is a destructive coping mechanism. By using avoidance to cope, people end up shutting down and withdrawing. As the model shows, the avoidance is due to fear. Fear of rejection. Fear of consequences.

Guess what? Life happens. And yes, things DO have consequences. This doesn’t mean you can’t deal with them and get past them though.

Avoidance goes hand in hand with anxiety, and one of the main components of anxiety is this fear of what “could” happen. Effective anxiety treatment is all about showing that yes, things can happen, and yes actions have consequences. But the consequences are almost always much less than the anxious person believes. Anxiety is about irrational fear (though it seems very rational at the time).

Like anything else in life, the only way to improve something is to do it. Avoiding is the opposite – it involves not doing. So it also involves never improving.

Take a chance, and try to overcome your fears. Try to actually tackle issues head on instead of avoiding them. Start small, and hopefully you will find the fear is greater than the reality.

Over time you can take your life back, and instead of avoiding you can start living.

avoidance5

Dealing with Emotions

Anger

Of the many roles I play in life, one of the most important is that I’m the father of two young boys. Being a parent is hard, harder than I ever imagined. And one of the hardest parts (in my opinion) is trying to teach my children to manage and regulate their emotions.

It’s easy to say that emotions are normal when we are dealing with positive emotions. Joy, laughter, curiosity, excitement, anticipation etc. But you can’t have positive emotions without also accepting the negative ones – things like anger, fear, guilt, despair, grief, shame and apathy.

We aren’t all one thing. We can’t always be happy, and we can’t always be positive. We need to accept all parts of ourselves, and be able to express them.

Recently I came across the following quote about anger:

AngerAristotle

I think this quote is perfect. Everyone gets angry sometimes. Anger is a normal and natural response to some sort of external stimuli. But having your level of anger be appropriate for the situation at hand? That’s a lot harder. And directing your anger at the right person, to the right degree, for the right reason? Much, much harder.

Emotions and Mental Health

A while back I came across this video, and it’s probably one of the most powerful 3 minutes you can spend (seriously, if you haven’t seen it check it out). It’s described as an exploration of masculinity, but to me it’s really about emotion, trying to learn and conform to what is considered “acceptable” emotion; and the problems people encounter when they try to suppress emotions and feeling that aren’t seen as acceptable.

Emotions are natural responses to external stimuli. When we try to suppress them, we are trying to deny part of what makes us who we are. And when we suppress them over an extended period of time, we do considerable harm to ourselves. The result of trying to suppress emotion is found in pain, misdirected anger, fear and loneliness. Over time this can even lead to depression.

So no, we should never try to repress emotions. Crying, anger, sadness – these are all normal, and acceptable. Going back to the Aristotle quote, the key is to be able to have an appropriate level of response.

The video above is focused on boys and men and notions of masculinity, so it applies to me as a father of two boys. But the suppression of emotions or treating emotions as “bad thing” is a wider problem. One that affects everyone – man or woman, young or old.

Emotions and Relationships

Which brings me back to my normal topic – relationships. Relationships are supposed to be a place of safety – both physically and emotionally, and emotions are also a big part of what brings us together initially. One of the key aspects of a relationship is how the other person makes us “feel”, and how we feel about ourselves around them.

I believe that when relationships struggle and/or fail often it is not due to a lack of love, but rather because of an inability to regulate emotions.

Our physical and emotional health are linked. Most people are more irritable when they are feeling stressed, or even if they are just tired or hungry. And I suspect we all know that when we are irritable we are prone to take out our emotions on others.

When this happens, our response is no longer in line with the event.

We are all human, so at least at some level we get it, and are normally willing to accept it from our partners. But it becomes an issue when it is a pattern of behavior. When the other person is frequently irritable, easily angered, and directs the anger at other people, or at inappropriate levels for the issue at hand.

We need to recognize when this is happening, recognize when it has become a problem, and take steps to prevent it.

Some people will claim “This is just how I am”, but that is absolutely the wrong approach. Yes people are different. Some are more sensitive than others, and yes we change over time.

But when your ability to regulate emotions is affecting your life and spilling out into your relationship, it’s a problem.

Often people have excuses. Yes, I lashed out – but I was having a bad day. But the baby was crying, but I was hungry, but…

There is always a reason, and taken individually they are usually valid. It’s not about specific incidents though, it’s about patterns of behavior.

Even the best of people have times when their tempers are short, and they take that out on someone they shouldn’t. The question is, how frequently does it happen (better not be often), and after it does what is the response. Does someone own the action and show remorse? Or do they just try and pretend it never happened?

Patterns of negative emotions or patterns of anger where we take out our frustrations at the wrong person or to the wrong degree over a period of time has a name.

Emotional Abuse.

Emotional Abuse

Everyone has moments where they say things they “didn’t mean to”. Guess what, when you lash out at someone, whether you meant to or not doesn’t change what has happened. It’s one thing when these are rare moments that are out of character for someone, and they are genuinely apologetic or embarrassed afterwards. Then perhaps you can chalk it up as a poor response to external stress. But when outbursts become more common, all the apologies in the world don’t matter. It is the behavior that matters, not the words.

brokenPlate

To put this in perspective, in physically abusive situations the abuser will often claim they “didn’t mean” to hit their partner. And maybe they didn’t. Commonly they will say (or think) it happened because “you made me do it”. They believe that they wouldn’t have hit the other person if their partner hadn’t done something to make them angry enough to do it. In truth, there probably was some incident – but the response was completely unacceptable and out of line with the actual issue.

Emotional abuse is based on the same premise. But the scars that it leaves aren’t as easily seen.

Letting Emotion In

I don’t profess any expertise here, but I suspect in cases of physical and emotional abuse, the abuser is like the boys from the video. They are people who have never learned to accept their emotions, and as a result they have never learned to regulate them.

Maybe they were told “not to cry” because crying is for sissies. Maybe they were punished for showing emotions, or they felt that emotions made them weak.

As father of two young children, I will admit to moments of frustration when my children are having tantrums, or crying over “silly things”. I try to teach them that all emotions are fine, and acceptable.

I don’t want them thinking that it’s wrong to cry, or that they have to “be strong” all the time. I want them to express life the way that is right for them. To love, laugh, and cry. To accept that anger is natural, but to not let it poison them and their relationships. And to not be ashamed of who they are.

I have no idea how I’m doing, and I probably won’t know for many years to come. But that’s my goal, and it’s something I will always strive towards.

Misdirected Anger

As I said above, we all have moments that we inadvertently (hopefully) take our anger and frustration out on those we love. If you are someone who struggles with anger, and find that this has become a pattern I have one question for you.

Why?

Why would someone stay with me if I was always irritable or angry? And more importantly, if I frequently direct anger towards them with inappropriate levels or at inappropriate times?

In relationships, conflict happens. It’s natural, and can actually be very healthy. After all, if there is no conflict how are you learning? How are you growing as a couple? Encountering and overcoming obstacles together is probably one of the greatest ways to bond as a couple.

So don’t try to suppress conflict. Accept it, and allow it in. And allow all the emotions that comes with it to come in as well. But try to do this in a healthy way.
Although anger is natural and should not be held in, it needs to be directed at the right person, and at the right level. In accepting our emotions we still need to be respectful of those around us. And learning to do this consistently is something that can take a lifetime.

Expectation vs. Entitlement

entitlement_header
Expectations seem to be getting a bad rap these days.

In recent posts I’ve discussed the idea of expectations in relationships (yes, they exist – and I would argue that’s a good thing). I’ve also discussed the idea that expectations are a part of setting goals, and having a vision for yourself and what you want in life.

Yet I continue to read things like “I just want people to love me without expecting anything from me”. There’s this idea that in unconditional love expectations are bad and people should just be satisfied with anything.

When exactly did “expectations” become demonized, and why? I suspect it’s due to a sense of confusion between expectation and entitlement.

Expectations are tied to our needs and wants. We need food and shelter to survive, so in the modern world some form of income is a need. Sex is a basic human instinct, and there is no clear consensus on whether it is truly a need or a want, but the fact that the argument even exists tells me that at least in some capacity sexual fulfillment is a need. The lines between needs and wants blur, and it’s pointless to try to differentiate the two; but expectation is a belief that our needs and wants are important and that we will attempt to fulfill them and that those around us will care about them.

However an expectation of something doesn’t mean it “will” happen, and periodically we find that our expectations are adjusted when reality doesn’t line up with them. But expectations are important, and there is nothing inherently wrong with them.

Life is an Exchange

When looking at expectations and needs in a relationship, I think you can draw many parallels to the world of work.

When looking at a prospective partner we are like a company doing interviews. We have a wish list of criteria and we are looking for someone that meets as many of those criteria as possible.

Depending on what you are looking for in a relationship these criteria will vary, but they usually include things like physical attraction, common interests, similar outlook or goals in life, sense of humor, reliability, sexual compatibility etc. If the relationship is serious things like outlooks on kids, responsibility and some degree of financial stability are also important. Criteria of a desirable partner is pretty subjective, but we all have *something* we are looking for which provides a perceived benefit to the relationship.

Finding someone who meets your criteria fairly well doesn’t mean you have a relationship though. Your partner has things they are looking for too. Their criteria may not be the same, but they also have to see value in what you bring to the relationship. It’s not a relationship unless both parties see some sort of benefit.

Even if the exchange is simply the enjoyment of each other’s company, both people must see some sort of value in maintaining and growing the relationship. If only one person sees value, the relationship won’t last – to suggest otherwise seems foolish to me.

Beyond criteria of what we are looking for in a partner, we also have some sort of vision of what we want our relationships to look like – with upper and lower boundaries of what is “enough”. Most people probably have not actually thought through what these boundaries are, they only know when expectations are not being sufficiently met.

I suspect most people understand that their partner could better match their “ideal” standard, but they could also be a lot worse. So this question of “what is enough” is central to determining the viability of the relationship. Relationships struggle when needs are no longer being sufficiently met on one or both sides. When this happens, each partner is really evaluating “is this still enough for me”? If not, some leave. Others believe it can it be better, and look for ways to improve things.

It is when relationships are struggling that resentment about “expectations” arise, but the expectations in question have likely always been there. It’s only now that they have become an issue.

My belief is, expectations are natural and we all have them. They are actually positive, because if we didn’t have them then how could we judge if our relationship was still working? Would we just have to put up with anything?

Entitlement

Instead of expectations being a problem, the REAL problem is entitlement.

Entitlement is all about a sense of ownership or a belief that you *deserve* something. I see entitlement as having two main forms:

  1. I should get this because I want it, “no matter what”
  2. because I have done this you now have to do that

It is fine to have expectations of someone else – but that doesn’t mean you are entitled to anything. The other person matters here, and what you want doesn’t matter if they don’t also want the same thing.

I don’t care how nice someone is, how pretty/handsome they are, how much money they have, how many people they know or how educated they are. Sure, some of those things influence the opportunities you have, but that doesn’t mean a damn thing.

entitlementowesnothing

Fulfilling Expectations

If expectations are fine and are the criteria for relationship satisfaction, but the fulfillment of those expectations is not guaranteed; how should people best position themselves to ensure their expectations are met?

The answer to that is, the only thing you truly have control over. You. Your choices, communication, and your behaviors.

This is where the golden rule comes in. People should try to live their lives in a way that their choices and behaviors are in line with their expectations.

If you want someone to treat you with love and kindness, *maybe* it would be a good idea if you were to treat them that way. If you are hoping to have your needs met in a relationship, you had better be working to understand your partners needs and trying to meet those. And it shouldn’t be a calculated “hmm, if I do this for him/her then they will do something for me” – this isn’t a financial transaction. You need to be doing it because you genuinely want to meet their needs – because you care about them and want to see them happy.

You also need to communicate your needs and wants. Many people hold resentment for unmet expectations, when they were never clearly understood by their partner in the first place. As I’ve said before, guys are dumb. Sometimes what one person thinks is clear is not clear to the other person.

So communicating expectations and reciprocating for your partner puts you in the best position for your expectations to be met. But that’s all it means. It doesn’t guarantee anything, and it doesn’t mean you will get what you want when you want it.

You may end up disappointed in some circumstances but over a period of time hopefully you will find that you and your partner are meeting each other’s expectations. In doing so, you should both find you have a high degree of satisfaction in the relationship.

When Expectations are not Met

Entitlement is believing your expectations will be met when and how you want them, or that others should conform to your needs. Yet expectations and needs are real.

If you find yourself unsatisfied in your relationship, then chances are your expectations also are not being met in some way. If this is happening in individual cases it’s not an issue. But when it becomes a pattern over extended periods it can become a significant problem. When this occurs, it’s important to understand what the problem actually is.

Are specific expectations that are not being met? If so, take a good look at them and ask yourself if they are fair expectations to have. Maybe they aren’t, and you would be best served by adjusting your expectations. If you look at your expectations and feel they are fair, then it’s important to discuss this with your partner.

Let’s look at one of the most common issues in a relationship – sex. I’ve written about sexual issues in the past, and the reality is that due to differing drives sex is always a potential source of conflict.

To be clear, no one is entitled to sex.

Entitlement is when someone expects sex “on demand”. Or believes that if they do something for their partner, they should get sex in return – regardless of what their partner wants. This is wrong.

However another version of entitlement is that if someone is not interested in sex they should not have to have it – regardless of what their partner wants. Due to the nature of a monogamous relationship I see this as equally wrong. This may not be a popular view, and I’m not saying someone should ever “have to” have sex when they don’t want to. But although a sense of entitlement around sex is wrong, an expectation of sex in a relationship is not wrong.

Entitlement says “I need sex, and it doesn’t matter what you want”. Or “I’m not interested in sex, and it doesn’t matter what you want”.

Expectation says “I need sex as part of this relationship, and I am not satisfied without it”.

These are different.

People need feel fulfilled sexually, and this requires communication. To have a successful relationship, both partners need to care about what the other one wants. Nothing should ever be entirely on one person’s terms. As discussed earlier, for all needs people have upper and lower boundaries of what is “enough”, and every couple needs to find a way to navigate these boundaries that works for them.

I use sex as an example because this is the one situation in a relationship where someone’s level of satisfaction is completely dependent on their partner (which is probably why it is a source of conflict). Most other needs can be satisfied individually or with other people. But these ideas of boundaries apply to all needs. In a relationship your partners needs should be important to you, and you should get satisfaction and enjoyment from seeing them met.

For some needs, one persons lower boundaries may be the upper boundaries the other, and this is natural. As long as their needs are still being met enough to meet the lower boundaries, there is no conflict. But when the upper boundary for one person doesn’t even approach the lower boundary for the other, over time conflict will arise.

With healthy communication, a couple will try to work on things and see if they can improve the situation. Maybe there are reasons, and if those reasons are understood there is often a willingness to adjust expectations and change these boundaries accordingly.

If the lower boundaries of needs aren’t met however, eventually this will start to poison the rest of the relationship. Expectations form our measures of success. It’s pretty simple – If expectations are being met we’re happy, and If they aren’t we aren’t

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Changes Over Time

Learning to communicate and adjust expectations is important for the success of any long term relationship.

People change, and the things we are looking for may also change over time. People also go through different life events, so even if your criteria don’t change your partner may no longer meet them in the way they once did. Plus relationships start as “new and exciting”. Passion is based on this excitement, but it can be hard to maintain that when you know the other person so well that there isn’t really anything new left to say.

Due to these things all relationships will struggle at times. During those times, if you truly want to weather the storm you need to be able to deal with difficult issues. You need to communicate with each other honestly and openly, addressing problems and working through them together. This is the hardest part in any relationship, and it is something that can definitely feel like work.

When I compare relationships to work, what I am saying is that you NEED to actively work on them. And if you don’t, there is a very good chance that you will either be unhappy, or it will fail (or both).

So accept that both you and your partner have expectations of each other, and communicate those. Your expectations will differ, and this can cause conflict – but it’s important that you work to addressing these conflicts in a way that is satisfactory to both. No one is ever entitled to having their expectations met, but finding a middle ground that works for both people is needed in order for any relationship to succeed.