Though they might use different words to express it, philosophers, religious figures, and psychologists appear to agree that the perfect is the enemy of the good–that unrealistic expectations are the bane of true satisfaction. The following four myths of marriage serve as examples of ways in which our desire for perfection diminishes our chance for authentic happiness.
The Myth of “The One”
This myth is based upon the idea that if you’re with the right person, there’s instant chemistry and everything falls into place. Social media doesn’t help. Not only are we bombarded with messages that we have to get this “right” and that a “right” choice exists, but we are led to believe that everyone else is in healthier, happier relationships than we are.
In her bestselling book “How To Not Die Alone,” behavioral scientist Logan Ury lists the Romantic ideals that feed the myth of “the one”:
• Love is a gut feeling. You know it when you feel it.
• When we meet our soulmate, we will feel an immediate attraction to them. We will be attracted only to them, and vice versa.
• Our soul mate will intuitively understand us and know what we need before we do.
• We will remain passionately in love with our partner throughout our marriage.
• Our soul mate is the only person we really need. They can fill every role in our life, from best friend to travel partner to passionate lover.
• Good sex marks a good marriage. Bad or infrequent sex (or worse, infidelity) means the relationship is doomed.
• It’s not sexy to talk about money. Love isn’t meant to be practical.
Ury blames this myth and the Romantic ideals that undergird it on “our belief in fate and fairy tales–caused in part by Disney movies, rom-coms, and social media, (which create) unrealistic expectations for finding and sustaining relationships.” She writes, “No one is perfect, including you. Even Prince Charming has morning breath.”
Dispelling this myth requires rejecting the mistaken idea that the work of love is finding the right person. “In reality,” Ury writes, “that’s only the beginning. Staying in love takes work, too. If you expect relationships to be easy, you’ll be caught off guard when they hit an inevitable rough patch.”
The “right” person would just “get” me
This myth refers to the feeling of being perfectly attuned to our partners. It’s not hard to observe that at the beginning of a love relationship attunement does seem to be at its highest point. Or it may be the intoxicating and euphoric effect of cupid’s biochemical cocktail of testosterone, estrogen, dopamine, norepinephrine, serotonin, oxytocin, and vasopressin. This cocktail is not designed to last forever, though. Dr. Sue Johnson writes,
It’s important to emphasize that misattunement is not a sign of lack of love or commitment. It is inevitable and normal; in fact, it is startlingly common. Ed Tronick of Harvard Medical School, who has spent years absorbed in monitoring the interactions between mother and child, finds that even happily bonded mothers and infants miss each other’s signals fully 70 percent of the time. Adults miss their partner’s cues most of the time, too! We all send unclear signals and misread cues. We become distracted, we suddenly shift our level of emotional intensity and leave our partner behind, or we simply overload each other with too many signals and messages. Only in the movies does one poignant gaze predictably follow another and one small touch always elicit an exquisitely timed gesture in return. We are sorely mistaken if we believe that love is about always being in tune.
Johnson adds that “Learning to love and be loved is, in effect, about learning to tune in to our emotions so that we know what we need from a partner and expressing those desires openly, in a way that evokes sympathy and support from him or her.”
Too often, what happens instead is that when we feel a rupture in our connection with our beloved, our attachment system gets triggered and activated, making us feel distressed. Two of the most common dysfunctional ways of attempting to end the distress are through protest or withdrawal. Neither of these responses tends to evoke sympathy and support from our adult partners. What we must learn to do instead is express our needs clearly and calmly—in a way that invites our partner to respond.
They will change for me. Or I can change them.
To paraphrase media therapist Dr. Phil, how has that been working out for you? Depending on how you express your desires—and your mode of expression is key—and you may actually persuade your partner to change certain behaviors. But it’s highly unlikely you’ll succeed in changing the core characterological traits you probably feel most desperate to change—things like introversion, extroversion, their way of seeing the world, their way of processing information, their passions, interests, and preferences, their preferred way of giving and receiving love, and so on.
No other sources or authors need to be cited to dispel this myth. You cannot change your partner. Do not get married to a person you do not accept as is. Whenever a spouse shows up to therapy “sent” by their wife or husband, the therapist should see a red flag. This is a person who is not here for themselves, but to placate their partner. These therapeutic arrangements are almost always unsuccessful and short-lived.
Marriage will make you happy
This myth, the parent of them all, has elements of truth and fiction, but the fiction part is a killer.
Founding psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud defined mental health as the capacity for love and work. Therapist, author, and researcher Dr. Sue Johnson, an expert on adult attachment, writes that “Our closest love relationships shape who we are and, more than perhaps any other single factor, shape our life story.”
More to the point, psychologist Ed Diener, of the University of Illinois, asserts that our relationships are the strongest single predictor of human joy and well-being. Most research indicates that people are generally happier married than not.
Emiliana R. Simon-Thomas, Ph.D. writes, “Altogether, decades of research from human development, psychology, neuroscience, and medicine irrefutably converge on this conclusion: Being in a long-term, committed relationship that offers reliable support, opportunities to be supportive, and a social context for meaningful shared experiences over time is definitely good for your well-being.”
But here’s where the fiction comes in: The idea that an unhappy person will become happy simply by being in a relationship is a myth. We tend to bring our happiness–and unhappiness–with us. Simon-Thomas adds, “Trying to live up to any rigid ideal—including being swept up into the perfect marriage and believing that this will bring you happiness—actually gets in the way of happiness. It’s misleading to expect you will meet ‘the one’ and live happily ever after because it takes effort to 1) get to know people and 2) maintain love.”
No doubt you could name a few myths yourself–either those you’ve uncovered in your own relationships or which you see operating in those of others. One of the best success tips for a happy marriage might be to review and challenge all our cherished certitudes about it.
Relationship workshops are a great way to fine-tune your connection and communication skills:
Learn more here: September 2021 Getting the Love You Want: Live in Metro DC. a couples relationship workshop
August 2021 Keeping the Love You Find: a relationship workshop for individuals