On Valentine's Day, while many couples are happily making plans to celebrate, others are remembering the fight they had at breakfast, or the way they went to sleep the night before without saying, "I love you." The sour taste in their mouth, or the lingering ache in their heart is beginning to cast doubts-- are we really in love?
If you are one of those people, slow down. Arguments in relationships are not the problem. It's what you do with them that matters. Yes, they may challenge the idea of the perfect love, but getting rid of that pressure could be one of the best things you do for your relationship.
Trying to sell the benefits of imperfection is never easy. It's especially hard when it comes to the idea of love. Turn on your television, open a magazine and be dazzled by the parade of perfection right before your eyes: the perfect date, the perfect engagement, the perfect wedding, the perfect couple, etc. Yes, there's the wave of nausea at the shiny-ness of it all, but there's also the buy-in.
Even the most emotionally-sophisticated among us harbor some belief that like in the movies, the realities of morning breath, terrible puns, or frustrations like (speaking hypothetically, of course) discovering that your spouse threw out the printer carton with the printer cable still in it -- could you really not see it in there?! -- shouldn't or just plain don't happen in great relationships. We think that the best couples should share only great expanses of seamless harmony dotted with little tiffs here or there, that are somehow parlayed into preludes to passion. And if that's not what is happening in our kitchens and bedrooms each day, then there's something very wrong. Not with our expectations, mind you, but with our relationships.
So here's my quick elevator pitch: Great relationships are not born, they are made. And they are often made strongest by those imperfect moments that are parlayed not into passion, not immediately anyway, but into a big mess.
Those moments don't feel good. Maybe we never thought our lives should be like in the movies, but we really never thought that they should ever feel like this. When these feelings hit, they get us in the gut, and our gut speaks: This shouldn't be happening. I have to stop this. Who are you? I have to get out of here. They make us scared, or angry or defensive. They make us see the person across from us as the enemy. Suddenly, without our permission or planning, an ancient program gets triggered for dealing with threats -- like lions, and tigers or bears. We see red. We stop thinking and start defending or attacking, or hiding from the problem, hoping that it will go away.
How do we relabel and realize that the person across from us isn't the enemy? That not only is he or shenot the lion, tiger, or bear type, but quite likely is the very one to protect us from threats like that? We rethink imperfection.
"Not perfect-ness" is not bad news. It's potentially good news that is not finished yet. That hasn't arrived yet. That's in progress.
Those conflicts and misunderstandings, the unintentional hurting each other's feelings that feel awful in phase one, lead to in phase three -- where you stop lobbing criticisms or preemptive strikes (which is the bread and butter of phase two) -- the beginning of feeling your heart melt and your hurt give way to love, seeing the person across from you not as foe, but as friend (really, really good friend).
You learn something new about them, and they learn something new about you, and together this moment that at first seemed like it threatened to tear the two of you apart has transformed into a solid moment of understanding, cementing and deepening your connection, making you feel even more together than you thought possible before the disagreement happened. The benefits of making up that characterize phase four have long been recognized -- I'll leave it to your imagination.
So, rather than expect that our path in love should be easy -- or, that in fact there should be no path and that we should just arrive -- turn around and reset your relationship GPS. If the goal is greater understanding and intimacy, take a deep breath and dive in to the mess. Take the long view. The mess isn't the end point -- it's the middle. Keep going. Good things await you on the other side. Help each other to be brave enough to not get off the ride prematurely.
Instead of perfect love, which requires you to skip the parts that you don't like, go for true love. Think of true love as more love. It's what you get when you mix it all in: the good, the great, and the less-good and great. If there were no remainder in the mathematics of your love, but rather it all got factored in, suddenly, you're rich. The truth, being more inclusive, gives you more surface area to love. You've got not only the things that drive you crazy, but the things that make you crazy in love.
This is how your relationship grows. Give it that room.
The perfect gift this Valentine's Day may just be imperfection -- deciding to not fear it, together. Vow to each other that you'll hang in differently with a fight. Be willing to stay long enough to see the person across from you, who, in that moment of hurt, feels like a stranger, someone you don't even know, magically transform back into the one you very much know and you very much love.
Happy Valentine's Day.
©Tamar Chansky, Ph.D., 2013
A version of this article was previously published on Huffington Post