Saturday, May 10, 2008

A Good Relationship Redefined

I recently came to an unsettling conclusion. That my definition of a good relationship has been out of whack. I used to think that in a good relationship:
  1. You have the same values -- you fundamentally agree on what's right and wrong.
  2. You have the same goals -- you are equally interested in wealth, family, education, health, and leisure.
  3. You have the same vices -- you both do or do not drink alcohol, do drugs, look at pornography, overeat, under eat, overwork, under work, overexercise, or under exercise (to name but a few).
  4. You have the same sexual fantasies -- or at least ones that are complementary and mutually exciting.
  5. You have the same body rhythm -- you like to get up, go to sleep, and relax at similar hours.
  6. You are equally neat -- or equally messy, as the case may be.
  7. You have the same thermostat -- you like the window open or closed.
  8. You have the same politics -- you vote for the same candidate or at least the same party.
  9. You have the same aesthetic -- you like the same art, the same music, the same furniture, and the same clothing.
  10. And you have the same past times -- you both do or don't like going to the movies, reading books, listening to music, visiting museums, and traveling to exotic places on your free time.

In essence, I used to think that in a good relationship you're both the same. It certainly made finding a good relationship very difficult. There was only one person who fit my requirements: me. This narrowed my chances of finding a partner considerably.

My recognition that a good relationship doesn't mean you're the same gradually took shape over a number of years. Though it was painfully slow in coming, three insights pushed it forward. Insights from friends who shared their wisdom with me.

The first insight was that the challenge in finding a partner is not to find someone who won't disappoint you. It's to find someone who'll disappoint you in ways you can handle.

The second insight was that you'll be disappointed in ways you can't handle. When this occurs you won't dream of leaving the relationship. You'll decide to leave the relationship and will start to plan your exit. This will go on until you remember why you're there. Why it is you chose the relationship with this person to begin with. At this point you'll unpack the valise in your mind. Nonetheless, the same thing will happen repeatedly as long as you continue to stay in the relationship.

The third insight was that you must accept your partner as they are. You cannot accept only those qualities you adore. You must also accept fully those qualities you despise. You don't have to like these qualities. Nor do you have to share them. Nor do you have to collude in their enactment. But you can't make your love contingent on change. You must be prepared to take the good with the bad.

This was a long way from where I began. I had always assumed that I'd find my other half. Someone with whom I would form a perfect whole. Then it turned out that this was a myth. That disappointment is part of the DNA of relationship, written into the double helix of human attachment. Not only would I not find the mirror image of myself. I'd find someone who was different in all the wrong ways and would have to accept them without qualification.

Yet to my surprise this came as a relief. Because it freed me from the pursuit of an imaginary relationship. A relationship that exists only in movies and ads. I finally understood that it's okay to love someone even if they failed to live up to your dreams. I finally understood that it's okay to stay with them even if they never attempted to change. The goal isn't to find a perfect relationship. The goal is to find one that's just good enough. And there's lots of room there for disappointment of all kinds.


christine said...

Well said.

Anonymous said...

How important do you feel is sexual fulfillment in deciding whether or not to leave a relationship?

Dr Raphael Gunner said...

This really depends on the value one places on sexual fulfillment. If it's important to you, and if you are sure that it can't be improved, then I think it is a good reason to leave a relationship. I will say, however, that emotional issues are often played out in bed, and it might be worth meeting with a couples therapist before deciding to move on. Emotional intimacy often informs physical intimacy, and when the former improves so may the latter.

Anonymous said...

How do you know if it is "just good enough" or if you should walk away.

Dr Raphael Gunner said...

I think that this can be hard to figure out. You might begin by asking yourself what you get from the relationship and then by asking yourself what you don't get. Ultimately, what you do get needs to be enough, even if it's not everything you'd like. Only you can determine what is enough. But being honest with yourself about the pros and cons of the relationship can be a good way to begin the discussion. All relationships entail a great deal of disappointment, but not all disappointments are equally painful. It's essential to find a relationship that will disappoint you in tolerable ways. If yours doesn't, it's a strong sign that it's time to move on.