Pick up any magazine or turn on any entertainment news show and it’ll take no time to hear about the latest celebrity breakups. I love to listen to the armchair psychologists pick apart these failed relationships and try to uncover the reasons that Gwyneth and Chris or Robin and Paula have split up. While so much of celebrity life seems unrelated to our own daily existence there is one theme that almost always emerges that I think most of us can relate to - the pressure these couples feel to live up to an unrealistic standard and its impact on their relationships.
Granted, most of us are not being photographed on a daily basis or having our every move questioned but celebrities aren’t the only ones whose relationships face the pressure to be perfect. We live in a society that continually upholds unrealistic and unhelpful expectations of what a “good” relationship should look like.
In fact, before they come tumbling down, many of these Hollywood romances are held up as examples of what the rest of us should be striving for. Beautiful people, smiling brightly, in exotic locations or on romantic dates are put on display for us as a visual reminder of what the “perfect relationship” looks like. And for those of us grounded enough to realize that our lives are never going to involve dinner dates in Paris or month-long family vacations with three nannies in tow, there is the more subtle pressure that surrounds us.
We look at our neighbors and co-workers and it seems as if they have the perfect marriage. They always look happy or if they do disagree, it’s the mild-tempered scuffle of sitcoms. Because we rarely share the inner turmoil of our family life with anyone (including extended family) we’re often left living with an unrealistic image of a good marriage as one in which everything is wonderful.
The truth is that marriage, or any long-term committed relationship, is both dreadful and wonderful most of the time. And even when we accept that there will be challenges, many of us cling to the idea that if we just weather these storms, at some point our relationship will become perfect. Once we reach this perfection then we can stop working at things, stop trying so hard to get it right. And after years of ups and downs many couples begin to get weary of working toward a goal that never seems to get any closer.
The issue is that they’re working toward the wrong goal. A good relationship is never done; it’s always going to be a work in progress rather than a perfectly finished project.
The goal is to always keep moving in the direction of the ideal while accepting that the joy is in the process. A “perfect” relationship simply does not exist but it is OK to move in the direction of a “perfect” love. In his book, Being Peace, Thich Nhat Hanh says “If I lose my direction, I have to look for the North Star, and I go north. But that does not mean that I expect to arrive at the North Star.”
That is how we must learn to see our relationships, not as drudgery that we endure so that one day we will arrive at this relational perfection but as a shared journey toward an ideal love that meets both of our needs, most of the time. No relationship will ever meet the needs of both partners perfectly but we can choose to consistently move in the direction of this relationship nirvana. And the closer we follow that path, the more clearly we will begin to see that the most wonderful part of marriage is in sharing the journey together, not the final destination.