By Melissa Ritter, Ph.D.
When it comes to other people's relationships it seems everyone thinks of themselves as an expert. Advice, usually bad and critical, flows freely. Unfortunately, many accept these comments as legitimate, even authoritative, judgments on romantic relationships.
From my experience, here's the top 5 in often well-intentioned but profoundly misguided love advice:
He/she is "too good" for him/her—"you deserve better!"
He/she should immediately leave him/her—no questions asked—because of "cheating."
Love has not been declared in X amount of time (the value of X depends on the critic) and so there is something "wrong" with the relationship.
Sex has/has not occurred within X amount of time (again, X varies) so the relationship is a waste of time.
For a relationship to be valuable it has to be "going somewhere." If your relationship is "going nowhere" you have to get out as quickly as possible.
Of course, life is even more complicated and so too is the "expert" commentary on it: there are subsets of all these rules for how love should proceed, that is if you want to do it "correctly." Furthermore, people actually rely on such advice when making choices about a significant relationship. Or they don't follow the advice and feel ashamed of themselves: "what's wrong with me that I didn't walk away?"
But here's the headline: There is no formula! None. Nada. Zilch.
As each person is an individual—distinct, kaleidoscopic—so too is each romantic relationship. One can never know what is truly going on between two people and we'd all be much better off if we kept this in mind when offering counsel to friends and relatives. (An important exception to this is situations involving domestic/sexual violence. I am addressing the broad range of relationships that do not include physical jeopardy for anyone.)
In my experience, both personally and professionally, the only key to relationship well-being is that no party feels consistently exploited or betrayed. I say "consistently" because it is inevitable that in any ongoing romantic engagement one is going to be deeply hurt at some point. This is not the problem. What ultimately counts is if and how the people involved repair—and share—the hurt.
Consider the first of 5: what does it mean when someone says "You/I deserve better?" Clearly this reflects one party's dissatisfaction with the behavior or characteristics of the other. It also conveys an idea about what others presume with respect to our choice of a partner.
There are many reasons for such an appraisal: familial/cultural values and expectations, unrealistic ideas about what a relationship will provide, anxiety about closeness manifest as criticism of the other...and the list goes on. The crucial point is that the assertion "you deserve better" indicates only that someone else is disapproving. "I deserve better," tells us that at least one party is feeling disappointed. We also know that one person is being blamed; there is no collaborative examination of what each partner contributes to the difficulties at hand. Really, we don't know much about what's up. Understanding what's going on when someone feels disappointed—not just placing blame—is crucial.
On to number 2: "cheating" and the exaltation of monogamy above almost all else. Focussing for the moment on only those relationships in which there has been an explicit agreement about sexual fidelity, I have always found a curiously overwrought aspect to the indignation and injury that accompanies this infraction.
The distress consequent to such a violation—and, indeed, "violation" is a word often used by the aggrieved—is built from two potentially unbearable feelings: humiliation and shame. Humiliation is the public aspect of the experience. That others know about and judge the struggles of a romantic union can make the matter debilitatingly painful. Shame is the feeling that something is wrong with us: "what is wrong with me that this has happened?" Couples are made to hew a very narrow conception of what is acceptable between two people who love each other. Step outside the lines and look out: the swift judgment of others, or judgment turned against oneself, is sure to ensue.
But infidelity has a different meaning and, potentially, a different resolution for every couple. It is not one-size fits all. What is required is time and space for reflection on what has transpired, the meaning for each partner. A rush to judgment—"of course he/she should leave!"—is shortsighted and often quite hurtful to the pair. I think Hillary Clinton, were she so inclined, might be able to enlighten us about this topic.
Now to numbers 3 and 4 of my list. They go together because each presumes there is a formula, which, as I clearly stated, does not exist. Everyone does it differently. What matters is how those involved—and only those involved—feel about one another and what is going on between them. Yes, easier said than done. But respecting individual timing and rhythms rather than imposing a formula is what actually helps.
Number 5 has been treated quite entertainingly and persuasively by Dan Savage in his memoir The Commitment. The descriptions of his brother's pithy dismissal of the idea of a relationship "going somewhere" alone are worth the cover price. I loved it. Though admittedly the issue of women who wish to have biological children in the context of a partnered relationship is not addressed.
So where is the "somewhere" we wish to go? This magical location is typically understood as a permanent, monogamous relationship—generally, marriage—often with children. There are a couple of troublesome ideas here: Do we not learn, develop, take pleasure and find meaning in relationships that don't wrap up neatly in a marital denouement? And what if we want to construct our romantic/familial relationship(s) differently than this? Again, using a single, confining standard to determine what constitutes a valuable relationship leaves too many people outside the limits of what is permissible.
I have great compassion for those women being steadily deafened by their biological clocks. However, framing the issue as one of searching for a suitable partner(s)—an inherently human impulse—is preferable to diminishing relationships because they are "going nowhere." Those relationships may not be going to partnered child rearing, but that different "there" might be a place some people want to go. Language does count; it shapes the way we experience others and ourselves. We shouldn't call a different there nowhere.
And if you don't like lists, or just my list, there is a final take away: we would all benefit from being less critical of one another's romantic choices. And less critical of—but much more curious about—ourselves.
About the Author:
Melissa Ritter, Ph.D. is a Supervisor of Psychotherapy at the William Alanson White Institute and Adjunct Clinical Faculty at the City University of New York. She is also the founder and former Chair of the William Alanson White LGBT Study group. She has a particular interest in both the cultural and personal aspects of romantic relationships for folks of all sexual orientation and gender identification. In her New York City private practice she works with adults, adolescents and couples.
© 2011 Melissa Ritter, Ph.D., All Rights Reserved