If you are like me, your childhood probably included a steady diet of Disney princess movies. I love princess movies (Beauty and the Beast will have my heart forever), but they don’t exactly paint a realistic picture of what a romantic relationship looks like. Do you think Snow White and Prince Charming ever fought? Did Cinderella and her prince argue over how they were going to celebrate the holidays? Obviously not. Their relationships were perfect. And, without consciously realizing it, the little-girl version of myself just assumed that this was what real life was like.
Flash-forward to my year as an eager, young counseling intern. Working with engaged couples, I quickly learned that real-life couples definitely don’t agree on everything. But I also saw that they can still have thriving and healthy relationships.
I worked with them to improve their communication skills, identify assumptions they had been making, and develop shared goals. Just because their relationships weren’t Disney status didn’t mean they were doomed to fail. Because of their examples, I learned a lot about letting go of my princess-perfect expectations about being with someone.
Gerard and Jessie Pepper are the hosts of Marriage Is Funny, which focuses on the realities (both good and bad) of marriage through sharing their own experiences. One of the main themes of their podcast is that they strive for a “great love” rather than a perfect love. Not measuring up to expectations was “exhausting” and “disheartening” for them both. Gerard says, “I’d just beat myself up over it, and I couldn’t get past the fact that I wasn’t meeting the expectations that I thought I was supposed to be meeting.”
I know that Gerard and Jessie are not the only couple who have had this experience. After listening to Marriage Is Funny, I was inspired to share some insights I have gained about dealing with the expectation of perfection as a pre-marriage counselor. Your relationship might not be perfect, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t great things going on.
Aren’t Expectations a Good Thing?
First things first, having expectations in marriage is normal, and many of our expectations are healthy. For instance, it’s good to expect to be respected by your partner, and it’s healthy to have the expectation of mutual trust. The trouble is, many of the expectations we have about our relationships are arbitrary, and we tend to cling to them without giving much thought to it.
Many of the couples I met with expected that they would have the same approach to managing their money only to find out that one partner preferred separate spending accounts, whereas the other assumed they would have joint accounts. Others expected that they would have the same routines and habits but quickly found that one partner needed some time to recharge after work before jumping into a “How was your day?” conversation.
Gerard says that his and Jessie’s expectations “were actually preventing us from appreciating what was going on between us.” We can become so focused on the fact that we aren’t meeting our individual standards of perfection that we become blind to the good that is happening. Voltaire is credited with saying, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” and it certainly rings true here.
Recognizing how arbitrary expectations are hurting your relationship is a critical step in making your relationship great, not perfect (just the way it should be). For example, your different communication styles may leave you wondering if your significant other is willfully ignoring your words. In fact, your communication styles are just not in sync. Some couples experience this when they are arguing. Often, one partner wants to hash out the conflict right then and there, whereas the other needs time to process and think. Not acknowledging communication styles and learning to work with your differences could lead to resentment.
The same can be true for your and your significant other’s love languages. You may think that your significant other never shows his love for you, but in fact he’s been showing his love for you with a totally different love language than your own.
Where Do These Expectations Even Come From?
Our expectations about our ideal relationship can come from the movies we watch, books we read, our parents, our family members, and our friends. Maybe your recently married friends purchased a house within a few months of marriage, and now you feel like you should do the same. Or perhaps there’s a couple in your life that you would categorize as “the perfect couple.” They never fight, they are successful, and they seem like they have their entire life together. But that’s often not the case.
In one recent podcast episode, Gerard and Jessie share how they brought different expectations about their marriage to their relationship. Jessie’s family would have huge birthday celebrations, so she expected that she and Gerard would do the same in their marriage. Jessie and Gerard also share how on their first Valentine’s Day as a married couple, they thought they should go out to an elaborate dinner because, well, that’s what you do on Valentine’s Day. Although the dinner was delicious, it wasn’t an amazing experience for them. They only went out because they felt as though it was expected of them.
Jessie says, “I think that most of these expectations that we had were things we picked up along the way [when we saw] other people experiencing things . . . and if it’s appealing, and if it feels like something you want for yourself, you kind of collect those and take them with you as you go.”
Too often we give a great deal of power to our expectations. If we are meeting these expectations, we are on the right track. If we aren’t meeting these expectations, we aren’t satisfied with the way our relationship is going.
Letting Go of Perfect
One of the hardest parts of a relationship is letting go of idealism. Often, we think we know what we want (like that list you made of qualities in your ideal partner when you were 10, and the fact that he had to be an astronaut was at the top of your list), but we really don’t.
Jessie says that she and Gerard realized that they had to make a decision—learn to manage their expectations, or let their expectations manage them. So, on the next Valentine’s Day, they decided to have a group of friends over for drinks because they valued that much more than an expensive dinner out with just the two of them. Once you let go of “perfect,” you have the freedom to be honest about what you want your shared expectations to be.
Dr. John Gottman, relationship expert and author of The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, reminds us that every relationship is composed of “two individuals who bring to [the relationship] their own opinions, personality quirks, and values. So it’s no wonder that even in very happy marriages, the husband and wife must cope with a profusion of marital issues.” And some of these disagreements, he says, might never go away. That’s right, you and your significant other might never agree on certain things. But that doesn’t mean your relationship is imperfect or a failure.
Dr. Gottman says that your relationship can thrive even when you haven’t fully resolved conflict in your relationship. The key, he says, is to open a dialogue about these conflicts he calls “perpetual issues.” Talk with your significant other about your different expectations and what they mean for you. You might be able to come to an agreement or, at the very least, make the conflict less raw by understanding your significant other’s perspective.
Create guidelines for your relationship. Together, you can draft a blueprint for how you will approach different situations as a united front. For example, you might agree to make an annual appointment with a financial adviser who can help you draft a financial plan that you both agree on. Or, you might come up with an after-work agreement where you both have an opportunity to recharge. Keeping an open line of communication is key to managing expectations and creating guidelines you can both agree on.
Without the disapproving glare of perfection staring you down, you are free to explore the guidelines for your relationship that are unique to you. This collaboration, called “shared meaning” by Dr. Gottman, gives you a foundation to honor one another’s aspirations. “Perfect love is impossible,” Gerard says. “We realized that we would rather strive for great love.”
Photo Credit: Corynne Olivia Photography