People are complicated. Relationships are muddy. If you unknowingly cling to Hollywood fairy tales about love, you'll likely make bad choices, and you might end up denying yourself the chance to experience real love.
In working on a series of articles on heartbreak with Aimee Hartstein, LCSW, it's become clear to me how important it is to shed light on the falsehoods that leave people feeling like failures when it comes to relationships. With a more realistic set of expectations, you’ll make better choices and have a greater chance of building a productive and successful relationship.
So, before you start or end another relationship, or even engage in an argument, get familiar with the fictions that might be standing between you and a real, lasting relationship:
1. "I'll be happy once I'm in a relationship/married/pregnant."
Happiness is much less predicated on external circumstance than on a positive mental attitude (and gratitude for all of life’s blessings). Make a mental decision to find joy every single day. As said best by poet James Oppenheim, “A foolish man seeks happiness in the distance; the wise grows it under his feet.”
2. "I'll instantly know when I meet 'The One.'”
“People who look for ‘a sign’ often miss out on wonderful opportunities,” said Aimee. “Many happy relationships spring from unexpected circumstances, including long friendships in which chemistry was not immediately present. Remain open to possibilities and you might be surprised about the person with whom you fall in love.”
3. "The right relationship is easy."
No matter how wonderful your partner, good relationships require work. You will have to forgive big hurts. You will work to maintain romance and a connection in the face of a busy life and conflicting schedules. You will speak kindly when you might prefer to scream.
Growing in service to the relationship might mean exhibiting empathy, patience, and generosity when you feel like throwing in the towel. What is the payoff for all this diligence and self-sacrifice? You will grow spiritually by leaps and bounds.
4. "Happy couples don’t fight."
“This myth is incredibly damaging,” said Aimee. “The absence of disagreement means that either one or both people are swallowing their own needs, failing to set boundaries, and building resentment. A lack of disagreement should not be the goal. Instead, healthy couples must aim to fight fair. They do so to move the relationship forward and not for sport.”
5. "Love conquers all."
Plenty of people who are “in love” are also completely mismatched. A relationship with the right person is much better than one with any person.
First and foremost, pick a partner who is kind and generous. Make sure you have compatible values and financial habits. Watch for red flags — untreated addictions, character flaws, or a propensity toward jealous and controlling behavior. Love grows when each person recognizes that they are responsible for their own individual happiness.
6. "My partner is my world. We spend all our free time together."
All too often, couples disappear into a black hole. Before long, their obsession with each other turns into dissatisfaction.
Conversely, happy couples create a vibrant world filled with friends, family, and outside hobbies. When you have a variety of sources to fill your emotional needs, you’ll be much less likely to put burdensome pressure on your partner. So, go ahead and make a date with your girlfriend: It will strengthen your romantic partnership.
7. "Happy couples have sex [x] times a week."
“As long as each partner feels their needs are being fulfilled, there is no magic number for the amount of sex a couple should be having,” said Aimee. “Many people are perfectly content in a low-sex partnership. It’s a personal choice.”
8. "My soul mate will automatically understand what I need and want."
No one will perfectly understand how to make you happy.
Communication is the cornerstone of productive relationships. If you’re the silent type, commit to working diligently to voice your thoughts (lest you drown in unmet expectations and a sea of resentment). Couples must talk — to establish boundaries, give each other clues as to how to “win,” and set priorities.
9. "Getting married (or having a baby) will save this relationship."
“If you and your partner are at each other’s throats, trust me, a deeper psychological and financial commitment will only add fuel to the fire,” said Aimee. “Piling bad decision upon bad decision not only prolongs the inevitable, but it might make the breakup all the more complicated.”
10. "If I work hard enough, I can make this relationship work."
A long relationship does not necessarily equal a successful relationship. A breakup may be the best solution for a couple who is incompatible. Plus, if approached with honesty, kindness, and empathy, both partners will be free to find someone who truly makes them happy.
“Hours and hours of work cannot save a relationship between people with differing values and goals,” said Aimee. “That time and energy is better spent on understanding and improving yourself so that you can make a better choice — from a much more self-empowered place — the next time around.”
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Aimee Hartstein, LCSW, is a licensed psychotherapist with 20 years of experience. She specializes in relationship and couples counseling.