Rocketclips, Inc./Shutterstock
Source: Rocketclips, Inc./Shutterstock

Without realizing it, many of us hold overly idealistic views about relationships. The “happily ever after” belief is one of the most solidly ingrained of all romantic beliefs.  People cry at weddings, even involving people they don’t know very well, after imagining the eternal bliss of the partners. In part, the tears we shed at weddings reflect our own yearnings for the perfect relationship.

Of course, it’s better to be optimistic than pessimistic when entering into a new relationship. Hoping that things will work out well, you’re likely to overlook some of the problems that come with adjusting to a new partner. However, at a deeper level, it’s possible that the hope you hold out for a relationship can ultimately doom it. If you expect that your relationship will fill an inner void, you’ll be asking it to do impossible things for you.

The idea that we hold such dysfunctional attitudes about ourselves and our lives is central to the cognitive theory of depression. According to this view, if you expect too much out of yourself and your life experiences, you’ll invariably be disappointed. Feelings such as depression follow naturally from the perception that you’ve failed to get something you wanted. If what you want is unattainable, you’re setting yourself up for chronic sadness.

Overly high expectations for relationships can set you up for chronic disappointment no matter how great your partner may be. As part of a larger study on personality beliefs and personality disorders, University of Pennsylvania psychologist Rita Ryan and associates (2014) used items from the “Warpy Thoughts” Scale (WTS; Parslow et al.., 2006) to assess the dysfunctional attitudes that can influence our happiness and our relationships.

People with “warpier” (dysfunctional) thoughts about relationships, they found, were more likely to endorse beliefs consistent with borderline personality disorder. In other words, the more unrealistic our expectations about romantic relationships, the more likely we are to fear, for example, being abandoned by our lovers. This fear, in turn, could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Believing your lover will leave you at any moment will only make you anxious and clingy.

In addition to dysfunctional beliefs about relationships, the WTS measures beliefs about the importance of getting approval from others, and beliefs in your own ability to influence the moods and feelings of others. Together, these three sets of beliefs were found in Parslow, et al.'s work to hang together statistically into a related group.

The 10 items on the scale tap each of these beliefs.

With this background, let’s take a look at those 10 key items. See how you would rate yourself on a 1 to 5 scale, in which 1 represents “strongly disagree” and 5 represents “strongly agree":

  1. If other people criticize me, I am not a worthwhile person.
  2. Other people’s approval is very important to me.
  3. I can make everyone like me if I just try hard enough.
  4. I find it impossible to go against other people’s wishes.
  5. Unless I get constant praise I feel I am not worthwhile.
  6. Life is unbearable unless I am loved by my family.
  7. If I love somebody who doesn’t love me, I must be inadequate.
  8. I can prevent people from feeling upset by thinking about what they might need.
  9. If I have a fight with my friends, it must be my fault.
  10. If the people around me are upset, I usually worry that I have upset them.

Based on the data reported by Parslow et al., taken from an online sample of 4,500 adults, an average score would be about of 20, or between a rating of 2 and 3 per item. Women generally had higher scores than men, and people 45 and older had lower scores than younger participants. Scores in the range of 30 or higher would indicate that you are above the norm, but if you’re 45 or older, the higher end of the range would be closer to 28 or 29.

Parslow et al found, interestingly, that scores on the WPS in general related only modestly to questionnaire measures tapping a person's current level of depression and anxiety. This suggests that rather than reflecting a stable personality trait, your dysfunctional notions about relationships may be changeable. You may have higher scores when you’re feeling vulnerable, such as after a breakup, and lower scores when you’re feeling secure in a relationship.

The good news about dysfunctional beliefs in general: Once identified, you can challenge and change them. In answering these 10 items, you may have noticed if you’re more likely to agree with statements that reflect your desire for approval (the first 5), your actual dependence on being loved (questions 6 and 7), or the extent to which you think you are responsible for other people’s feelings (the final 3 questions).

Pull out those items on which you scored the highest and ask yourself why you agreed with them.

To challenge and change those thoughts, examine their validity. Is it really true that you have the power to influence the way others around you are feeling? Do you always cause fights? When you’ve been criticized, does it actually mean you’re worthless? Must everyone around you really like you?

It may be difficult for you to challenge these thoughts on your own. Talk to close friends and family members and ask them to help you. The next time you blame yourself for a disagreement among other people, try to describe the situation as realistically as possible and see whether this person agrees with you. Those who know you best may also be able to give you guidance when you get in a self-blaming frame of mind.

Seeing your relationships in a more realistic light is the first step toward enjoying it. If you can stop blaming yourself, if you can define yourself independently from your partner, and if you can resist the temptation to base your self-worth solely on being loved, a new reality can replace unduly high expectations, and you’ll be on your way to personal and relationship fulfillment.

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Parslow, R. A., Christensen, H., Griffiths, K. M., & Groves, C. (2006). The Warpy Thoughts Scale: A New 20-Item Instrument to Measure Dysfunctional Attitudes. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, 35(2), 106-116. doi:10.1080/16506070500372279

Ryan, R. B., Kumar, V. K., & Wagner, K. (2014). The personality beliefs questionnaire-short-form: Relationship of personality disorders schemata with entitlement and dysfunctional thoughts. Current Psychology: A Journal For Diverse Perspectives On Diverse Psychological Issues, doi:10.1007/s12144-014-9254-1

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2015