When two lovers first get together the relationship is largely chemically mediated; romance flows freely and whatever disagreements or differences are largely ignored, overlooked, or spun in a positive light. Over time, the ease of ignorant bliss gives way as we live together and chemistry wanes, we tend to find that proximity creates friction and experience leads to disappointments at best and sometimes outright disillusionment by the things we see and experience from our partner that we just plain don’t like.
Research suggests that there are fundamentally five ways to deal with disappointment and disillusionment in a romantic partner, each with varying degrees of effectiveness:
1. Tolerate. Being put out by but choosing to put up with the other person. To tolerate another is sort of like living with a trick knee – his or her foibles give you fits, but you just accept a lower quality of life. Though foibles may be irritating, annoying, or sometimes embarrassing or even painful.
2. Retaliate. Retaliation may take one of two turns – leave the other person in the lurch and good riddance, or gird one’s loins for battle. Like the couple in the War of the Roses film, some couples find, when love feelings have died, a continued way of relating through conflict. The divorce rate in America is over 50% so we know what a large number of people do when face with disillusionment – run for the hills.
3. Manipulate. Human beings are master of getting others to do what we want. We use guilt (Alright, I’m just your mother – the one who suffered through childbirth to give you life…), shame (You disappoint me…), fear (if you don’t change I’ll leave…) and anger (You haven’t seen me angry yet!). We also cajole, criticize, snipe, stonewall, nag, and oh yes, model the ‘good’ behavior we want from our partner. Whether the manipulation has a positive or negative slant, it’s rarely pleasant for the one being manipulated. A “there’s something wrong, fix it” mentality is a difficult foundation for a relationship.
4. Negotiate. Ah, now we’re getting into the purview of psychology. Therapists love to get two people into a room and mediate which is a fancy way of saying each person gives a little, compromises, so each can claim a win. I’m reminded of the story of the bear and the hunter who met at a stream where the bear was fishing for lunch. When the hunter drew a bead on the bear he held up his paw and said, “wait a minute – let’s talk. What is it you want?” “I want me a bear coat,” sneered the hunter. “And I want lunch – perhaps we can come to some compromise if you’ll just put down your gun.” A half hour later the bear, lolling on the grass and burping murmured, “well he got his coat and I got my lunch!” negotiation leads as often to no as it does yes, and rarely do two people leave feeling like they got an even exchange.
5. Relate. Relating is simply about acceptance of the other and commitment to that person above all else, including what we want. Acceptance is recognizing the other person for who he or she is and being attentive to the circumstances of the relationship moment by moment. Commitment is a state in which one’s romantic partner knows she or he is embraced by you fully, even when there are disagreements. Commitment leaves no room for disappointment or disillusionment, only acceptance. Acceptance and commitment means that there is no hidden agenda for changing one’s partner or for leaving. Acceptance and commitment eschews the quid pro quo nature of a contractual arrangement between partners – “if you love me then I’ll love you.” Relating from a position of acceptance and commitment is more a covenant relationship; a one-way commitment – “I choose to love you irrespective of what you do or don’t do for me.” It provides a foundation for trust and security between couples, which in turn provides a platform from which a partner can choose to make changes for the sake of the other, not because he or she has to, but because she or he wants to. Then when there is friction it will be like iron sharpening iron, two people whose living together causes the rough edges to smooth out over time, leading to maturity.
So how do we move from tolerating, retaliating, manipulating, and negotiating to relating? The key is acceptance. Love your partner because, not in spite, of those quirks and traits that make each one of us unique. Remember that no one is perfect, and no two people will be perfectly aligned on every issue. Disagreement in relationships is bound to arise, and is normal. In fact, disagreement in and of itself is not even necessarily harmful to your relationship; research has demonstrated that what matters most in relationship satisfaction is not how often you experience conflict, but rather the ratio of negative interaction to positive interaction. Specifically, couples who experience 5 positive interactions for every 1 negative interaction tend to feel more satisfied in their relationship. All that being said, solving differences can be helped immensely when partners feel accepted by one another.
Acceptance of others, of course, tends to be much easier than acceptance of ourselves. However, accepting ourselves for those quirks and traits that make each one of us unique can facilitate our ability to accept our partners. Often we criticize traits in others that reflect disliked traits in ourselves. Practicing self-compassion can ultimately enhance our relationships with others, especially our romantic partners.