Updated: 2 days ago
There are two dominant narratives about romantic relationships in our culture. Either they’re REALLY good - and if so, that’s great, or they’re BAD, and if they are, that’s a PROBLEM.
We have an extensive shared vocabulary for talking about all of the wonderful aspects of relationships. We celebrate the joy of connection and intimacy. We love the idea of there being a “soul mate” or “true love” out there for everyone. We recognize the beauty and value of the support and stability a long-term relationship can provide - as long as the relationship is continuously “happy,” or “fulfilling,” anyway.
And, on the other hand, we have lots to say about relationships that aren’t good. We speak of “toxic” relationships, and how bad they are. We tend to agree that some relationships are “doomed” to “fail,” some relationships just aren’t worth staying in, and at a certain point, some relationships dynamics inevitably lead to a breakup – or ought to.
If we think those are the only two ways of experiencing a romantic relationship, we obscure about 98% of the spectrum of what being in a relationship is actually like, and we give ourselves approximately two options: either our relationship is AMAZING, or it must be BAD - and therefore not worth keeping.
That’s kind of a tough bind to be in! It leaves many people constantly wondering if their relationship is “good enough,” and if their relationship’s imperfections are an indication that they shouldn’t be in the relationship at all. (I’m a relationship coach, so I spend a lot of time talking to people about matters like these.) It also leads people to think that if they just find the perfect partner, they’ll ALWAYS be deliriously happy in their relationship. We hang onto the belief that if we just find the right person, they’ll never annoy us or disappoint us or hurt us.
But here’s the thing. No relationship is perfect. It’s inevitable that your special person will annoy you at times, no matter how wonderful they are, and how well-suited you are for each other.
Isn’t it obvious?!?!
Your partner never loads the dishwasher correctly! They do that terrible fidgeting thing every time they’re nervous, and it drives you crazy! They never apologize when they do that thing that you hate, even though they KNOW you hate it! They have all of those irrational fears and insecurities and they take them out on you all the time! They don’t like your mother as much as they should! They can’t read your mind when you expect them to! They aren’t always as good in bed as you want them to be! Sometimes they are more interested in their phone than they are in hearing about the awful thing that happened to you at work!
How dare they?!
I once saw a delightfully tacky placard in a souvenir shop that said, “Marriage is all about finding that one special person you want to annoy for the rest of your life.” Even though I wasn’t married at the time, I recognized the truth in this statement instantly, and years later, I made it the opening line in my wedding ceremony, of which I wrote every word, with the exception of my spouse’s vows. (I probably should have written, or at least edited those, too, but that’s another story.)
I’ve decided, though, that it’s more appropriate to say that marriage is all about finding the one special person who you want to annoyed BY for the rest of your life.
Mutual annoyance could be the most underrated feature of marriage!
I’m only half joking!
If you’re thinking that the simple way to avoid this problem is to simply not get married, think again. You and your person do not have to be married to get on each other’s nerves. You don’t even have to have been dating very long in order for annoyance to crop up, or conflict to arise.
And this isn’t necessarily an indicator of disaster. In and of itself, it almost certainly isn’t.
No matter who you’re with, there are going to be times when you aren’t that thrilled with them or with your relationship. It’s a feature of relationships in general, not your person in particular. Intimate partnerships often give us the opportunity to share the very best (or “best,” if you will) of ourselves with another person. They also provide plenty of opportunities to share the worst – “worst” - parts of ourselves with another person, and of course, everything in between. And in turn, we get to experience all of these aspects of our partner, too.
This means it’s pretty much inevitable that sometimes you’ll like what you see in your partner and sometimes you won’t (just as it’s pretty much inevitable that sometimes you’ll like what you see in yourself, and sometimes you won’t). In addition to getting on each other’s nerves, you and your person, depending on the nature and duration of your relationship, will quite likely experience moments of intensely painful disconnection. You may misunderstand each other, and hurt each other’s feelings. You may argue with each other and blame each other and feel abandoned by each other.
And of course, these kinds of dynamics present opportunities to learn how to become more aware of what you’re doing, and to learn how to change the way you relate to your partner, and how to grow and evolve in many other ways. Taking advantage of these opportunities is usually a great idea – recognizing that it’s normal for relationships to be challenging doesn’t mean you’re required to remain fixed in patterns of behavior and interaction that you don’t like. But the fact that the challenges arise – the fact that your partner confuses you and confounds you, and the fact that things between the two of you are hard sometimes is not necessarily an indication that there’s anything terribly wrong with you, or your partner, or your relationship.
More than anything, it’s an indication of the fact that sharing a life with another person is inherently challenging. When we’re involved with another human animal on an ongoing basis, we encounter all of their quirks and idiosyncrasies. All of their wounds and fears and blind spots and defenses.
We’re all slightly nuts, in our own ways, and most of us barely know how to relate to ourselves, much less to another person on a deep and ongoing basis. Relationships, no matter how good our intentions are, are learn-as-you-go endeavors. No matter what your prior relationship experience includes, there’s no dress rehearsal for whatever you’re experiencing with your current partner in any particular moment. The only way to navigate a relationship is to figure it out as you go along.
The fact many romantic relationships include a lot more than just romance exponentially increases the potential for challenges of all flavors and varieties. In this historical era, many couples share more than just a singular romantic bond (which can be fraught enough by itself) – they also share a living space, and financial and bureaucratic responsibilities. They may parent children together, or take care of pets, or give care to their parents or other kith and kin. They may share social and familial responsibilities, or professional duties. This is a lot for one relationship to encompass. Is it any wonder, then, that we may at times feel like our partner is pushing all of our buttons at once?
One of my objectives as a coach is to normalize the fact that romantic relationships are not always easy or fun or happy, and to bring awareness to the fact that many of the things that we consider relationship “problems” are really just par for the course – experiences that nearly everyone has in one form or another. I’ve worked with a lot of people who feel so much shame and self-doubt as a result of believing their relationship is “broken” or “dysfunctional” or “imperfect,” when much of the stuff they’re experiencing is just a natural result of two people being intimately involved and trying to make their way through life together. There’s no shame in relationship challenges.
If we let them, our romantic relationships can be our greatest teachers. The intimacy in a romantic relationship may push us to confront our own selves in ways that few other experiences in life are likely to, and if we accept the challenge, we can find the opportunities for tremendous evolution and growth.
Doing this, however, isn’t necessarily easy or comfortable – and that’s one reason why people flee their relationships. Most of us are deeply conditioned to seek out comfort and pleasure, and avoid discomfort and aggravation at all costs. There are so many messages out there in our culture that emphasize individual satisfaction, and urge us to identify and prioritize our own needs and wants.
And that’s valuable, but only to a point. If we want to experience deep, lasting intimacy with another person, we have to be able to accept the full spectrum of experiences that come with romantic partnerships with greater equanimity and curiosity. Instead of resisting the fact that there will be times when our partner drives us nuts and our relationship seems like more trouble than pleasure, we could embrace these realities. We have the option to accept that being intimately involved with another human can bring us moments of feeling deeply disconnected and frustrated – and to learn to appreciate these moments in their own way.
And when we adjust our expectations in this manner, we’re in a better position to regard our partner’s “imperfections” as neutral features of their humanity, rather than flaws in the most loaded sense of the term. We’re better positioned to regard the difficulties in our relationships as puzzles to be solved, rather than high-stakes, high-drama problems. The reward for doing this sometimes-uncomfortable work is that we develop a deeper level of comfort with ourselves and our partner. We learn how to enjoy our person in new ways and to new degrees. Our experience of our relationships becomes richer and more nuanced.
Doing this also enables us to develop a clear sense of what’s right for us and what isn’t in a partner and in a relationship. This is so important.
Accepting that challenges are a normal part of romantic relationships does not mean that you have to stay in your romantic relationship if you are unhappy.
Just as I see people who are ready to break off a relationship the moment a hint of dissatisfaction arises, so too do I see folks who are terrified to acknowledge how unhappy they are in their relationship. Accepting that no relationship is perfect does not require you to relinquish all of your boundaries and preferences. Recognizing that a certain amount of annoyance and disconnection and other flavors of difficulty is to be expected in any relationship does not mean that you are obliged to put up with a particular amount or degree of these things.
How to fine-tune your sense of discretion about what is right for you and what isn’t within your romantic partnerships is another topic for another time. For now, the point is that if we don’t recognize that all sorts of “imperfections” are a predictable, unavoidable, natural part of any relationship, our understanding of who is right for us and what sort of a relationship is right for us is always going to be predicated upon unrealistic expectations.
Want some help figuring out if your relationship is perfectly imperfect, or truly not right for you? Schedule an introductory coaching session with me here. All sessions held via Zoom - no shame, no blame, no judgments, and completely confidential.