October 15, 2017
There is no perfect partner.
For most of us, a primary goal in all our relationships is to feel good, or at least better, about ourselves. What more satisfying way to do that than to find the perfect partner?
In romantic relationships in particular, what it takes to feel good in the beginning is usually quite superficial, right? It’s about chemistry—physical and intellectual/emotional attraction, which is another way for saying how they look and how they make us feel. (Or how many of our opiate receptors they trigger to open.)
Sure, we’re looking for whether or not we have some basic values in common, and for some degree of compatibility, but we also want them to be presentable enough to meet our friends.
After a bit we get a little more serious about values, and character, and if we’re talking about a potential life partner rather than just a friend, we want to know whether or not they want kids, and if they do, will they make a responsible and loving parent?
Once we think that we are compatible in the character and values departments, and we’ve experienced feelings of love and a sense of concern for their well-being, this is where the rubber hits the road. We’ve decided we want this relationship to last. We’ve made a commitment of sorts.
But wait … at that point it’s not actually a real commitment. We’re still measuring them, unbeknownst to ourselves, against an impossible, idealized yardstick that we have developed over a lifetime of consuming nonsense about relationships from movies, books and our favorite singers.
We need to identify something that is impossible to see at first blush. At least until the heroin glow of falling in love wears off. We need to discover the ‘fatal flaws’.
We all have at least one really, really irritating characteristic that will become wildly unattractive to the other once the heroin glow wears off. For most of us, and speaking for myself, there are more than one!
Here’s what I mean. She talks too much. He’s self-absorbed. She’s a know-it-all. He’s arrogant. She has no self-control. He’s lazy. She’s aggressive. He’s passive. She lacks self-awareness. He’s irresponsible. She’s reclusive. He’s not in touch with feelings. She’s a slob. He’s selfish. She’s wildly emotional. He’s too touchy. She doesn’t listen. He’s a work-aholic. She’s obsessed with working out, or shoes, or flea markets. He’s obsessed with collecting Star Wars trivia, or football, or health food.
Somehow, we have to come to accept that part of them, that permanent and unattractive wart that at first seemed cute or at worst mildly annoying, but which now reminds us of a fingernail scraping down a blackboard. That characteristic that we will not be able to change or convince or cajole them out of. The moment we try, they will dig in their heels and find every counter-argument to discount, minimize or ignore the criticism. And the behavior will not only remain, it will become even more exaggerated. Or they will go quiet, pretend to change, only to become that same person, over and over and over. And you’ll find yourselves bickering about the same personality traits that you were bickering about ten years ago.
THERE IS NO PERFECT PARTNER. At the same time, there is a way out of this profoundly disappointing fact of life:
Acceptance and Commitment.
After working with folks who’ve spent ten, or fifteen, or twenty years bickering about what the other one isn’t doing to make them happy, It has become painfully clear to me that no amount of time will stop the bickering. Until we accept that the partner we have is literally not going to budge one inch from who they actually are — unless it’s a deeply personal choice that they make for their own reasons — emotional maturity and connection and intimacy will be an impossible dream.
I’m thinking of several friends who lead vastly different lives from mine, and from each other. And yet each of them has taught me the same thing. That once they decided to accept their partner’s fatal flaw, after quite a few torturous years of unacceptance, it became possible for them to make a real commitment. That was when they began to experience a deeper love than they had known before, in spite of the flaw.
Let me be very clear. I’m not talking acceptance and commitment in the face of something dangerous. Abuse or active addiction in their many guises can be deal-breakers. At the same time, I’ve seen individuals recover from active addiction, and indeed become stronger and more fully themselves, than they were before the addiction. But the caveat is that of course, there are exceptions. I get it.
A tip: Much easier to accept their fatal flaw if we first find our own. When I came to see how rigid and attached I can be to my own beliefs (about everything), every important relationship in my life changed, at least to some degree. And as I keep changing, so do my relationships. The changes aren’t always seismic, although in a few cases they have been. As I’ve said many times, I remain a work in progress. I have not arrived.
Acceptance has been difficult. It hasn’t been a one-stop shopping trip. But it is commitment that has saved me when I can’t see past my fragile pride or my little idealized sense of self. In every significant relationship there have been moments I was ready to book. When I couldn’t remember why I ever liked this person or was attracted to them in the first place. I even remember hitting that wall occasionally with my son as we were growing up together. At those pivotal and life-changing moments, commitment was literally the thing that kept me in the game.
Acceptance is what opens the door to real commitment.
Commitment is what will keep the door open so that we stay in the game.
Acceptance is the game changer. Without it, we are destined to spend much of our lives bickering, angry, lonely and frustrated, with one foot out the door.
Together, acceptance and commitment allow us to get better at managing ourselves. They enable us to come back to our relationship, as many times as necessary, after being battered and bruised and misshapen by the disappointing reality of our imperfections.
Love is fickle, tastes change, people change — whether we like it or not. If we maintain the illusion of the ‘perfect’, easy, comfortable relationship/partner/friend, we will likely jump from one relationship to the next, or remain in superficial relationships that neither satisfy nor promote growth or emotional maturity.
My experience is that love is a feeling that can be hard to remain connected with. When I’m getting my way, when you’re living up to my expectations, when you’re not disappointing me, I feel the love. For the other times, when it’s hard for me to get in touch with it, I’m grateful for acceptance and commitment.
I made some interesting discoveries while writing this piece. First, that fatal flaws aren’t really fatal. They’re just parts of us, and of ‘them’, that we need to see through a lens of understanding and compassion.
My second discovery was that I’ve been using the terms Acceptance and Commitment, which are literally the name of the type of therapy I do – Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). This article reflects a bit of a reframe for those words.
Take some time to think about your current relationships. Are there things about your partner that don’t improve no matter how much you’ve tried to help them see the light? Might acceptance be worth a try? A shift from what’s wrong with them to what’s right?
I’m hoping some of these ideas can be as much of a game-changer for you as they’ve been for me. As always, please jump in and disagree, elaborate, or expand on my ideas. You can comment below or send me an email. Please share it if you enjoyed it and think it might benefit someone you care about.