When a couple comes to therapy, they tend to each arrive with a laundry list of complaints about the other. While neither person may claim to be perfect themselves, they find it much easier to talk about their partner. “She never picks up after herself.” “He hardly notices when I’m feeling down.” “She cares more about seeing her friends than spending time with me and the kids.” “He doesn’t listen to me when I talk about my interests.”
Of course, no one is perfect, and some of these complaints are valid, but the sheer extent to which couples become critical of each other begs the question, “Are we expecting too much from our partner?”
Psychotherapist, author, and podcaster Esther Perel is well-known for her insights into modern relationship problems, and she addresses this question well when she points out the historical context of marriage versus today’s connotation. In an interview with NPR, she said:
Marriage was an economic institution in which you were given a partnership for life in terms of children and social status and succession and companionship. But now we want our partner to still give us all these things, but in addition, I want you to be my best friend and my trusted confidant and my passionate lover to boot … So we come to one person, and we basically are asking them to give us what once an entire village used to provide.
On a logical level, most of us would acknowledge that no one person can meet all of our needs. We don’t expect a single friend to be all things to us or share all of our interests, so why do we expect this from our romantic partner? I will explore seven ways we over-rely on our partner that can diminish our own loving feelings and put undo strain on the relationship.
1. Finding your missing piece
The myth of a soulmate has long led to unrealistic expectations being imposed on a romantic partner. Nowadays, this can be exaggerated by technology. Online dating sites can promote the overwhelming notion that there are endless choices in the world, leaving some of us to get stuck in a cycle of perpetual searching or what one researcher called “relationshopping.”
We may unintentionally find ourselves seeking perfection or one person who can fill every imaginable criteria we’ve created in our mind (or on our profile). When we do connect with someone and a relationship develops, we’re then expected to stay connected or in communication almost constantly through text messages and social media.
In truth, whatever qualities we imagine we’re seeking, many of our expectations are left over from our past. We want our partner to be our missing piece and provide the things we longed for or lacked early in our lives. Therefore, we’re more inclined to have certain expectations or to feel hurt by specific things that can have little to do with our current relationship and more to do with ones from our history.
In addition, we are compelled to recreate patterns that mirror what we’re used to and tend to seek out relationships that reflect those of our past. In this way, our partner may be a missing piece to an old but unhappy puzzle.
As a result, many of us unconsciously choose partners who are unable or struggle to provide the very qualities we say we want. We then feel a constant and familiar level of pain or frustration at our partner not being able to meet our wants and needs. It is important that we challenge the underlying belief that another person must complete us and that we take more responsibility for our own happiness.
2. Distorting and provoking
Even when we do choose partners who have the qualities we desire, most of us struggle to consistently accept treatment that’s different from what we experienced in the past. Therefore, we may distort our partner, nit-picking or exaggerating their flaws, reading meaning into their words and actions, or seeing them critically and feeling easily annoyed by things that don’t really matter to us.
We may even act in ways that provoke certain reactions from our partner. For example, a woman I worked with would complain that she hated when her husband would act parental. She often stated that she wished he would trust her more. She was typically a competent person, but she would often make absentminded mistakes that affected her husband directly, like offering and then forgetting to pick up a prescription for him or failing to pay a bill on time. When her husband confronted her, she would react childishly or defensively, and he would inevitably become provoked and speak to her condescendingly.
It is important to be self-reflective and notice what we do just before our partner engages in the behavior we find most objectionable. While it may be easier to notice all the things our partner does wrong, the only person we can completely control is ourselves.
Our power to change the dynamic in our relationship lies in challenging any negative behavior we engage in that elicits an undesirable response from our partner. When we take control of our half of the dynamic, our partner is more likely to do the same.
3. Forgetting your partner’s autonomy
When we first meet someone, we tend to be curious about getting to know who they are as a separate and unique person. As a relationship develops, we start to see our partner more and more in terms of who they are or what they should be to us. We forget that the person we fell in love with is an autonomous individual with their own inner world. Many of us start to form an illusion of connection or “fantasy bond,” seeing ourselves as part of a couple (a “we”) instead of two people who love each other (a “you” and “me”).
When we merge with our partner, we lose pieces of ourselves that keep us vital and connected to who we are. If we sacrifice important parts of ourselves to serve the other or ask our partner to do the same, the relationship itself starts to become deadened and less exciting. Both people start to feel resentment, because, in some ways, we’re actually losing the person we fell in love with. Our partner even becomes less interesting and attractive to us.
When we start to see our partner predominantly in terms of what they offer us or the relationship, while forgetting to take an interest in what’s going on inside them, we fail to understand who our partner is, and we lose touch with them. We don’t honor their autonomy, and we probably limit our own as well.
When a conflict arises, big or small, we hone in on all the ways we were wronged in the interaction, while taking less time to look at our own actions or to understand the situation from their point of view. Instead, we can challenge ourselves to remember that our partner has a sovereign mind that may see the situation differently based on all of their past experiences. We can check in with ourselves and notice if we are respecting their autonomy and our own as well. Keeping a strong sense of our own identity in a relationship is an important component to keeping the love alive.
4. Shrinking your world
When we form a fantasy bond with our partner, it becomes easier to impose certain demands on them, overstep boundaries, or be more critical. We may expect our partner to give up specific activities, or we may demand attention that takes them away from other things that matter to them, relationships that light them up, interests that make them who they are. While most of us don’t do this consciously, we may actually impose restrictions on our partner’s individuality to make us feel more secure.
One rule of thumb I believe in is that when a relationship starts to narrow our world, things get worse for both parties. When it expands our world, both people thrive — not to mention, the relationship itself remains livelier and more sustainable. In large part, this depends on how much we are willing to support our partner’s independence.
No matter the amount of time we spend together, we have to continue to regard our partner’s experience separate from our own. We can be an ally in encouraging them to keep their friendships and allowing them to have separate interests. Supporting each other in this way actually keeps both people in a couple feeling more alive and brings them closer when they’re together.
5. Expecting your partner to read your mind
Many of us feel frustrated by a romantic partner because we imagine that if they “really loved us” they would be able to intuit what we want or need from them. We’re hurt that they didn’t call when we never reached out to let them know it mattered to us to hear from them. We’re angry that they can’t tell we’re feeling bad when we never told them we had a hard day.
We are let down when they buy us a present that isn’t what we wanted, when we have given them no clue as to our desire. We feel unimportant when they don’t spend time with us when we have never let them know we were expecting to spend time with them.
Saying what we want can make us feel vulnerable, but it is often the only way to let another person know us and understand what matters to us and how they can be there for us. We need to be willing to express our wants and encourage our partner to do the same.
6. Expecting your partner to take care of you
Care, support, and nurturance are some of the sweetest aspects of a loving relationship, but when a relationship becomes unequal in terms of give and take, problems ensue. That is not to say that all transactions in a relationship should be measured or equalized, but no relationship can thrive when one person is expecting the other to take care of them completely.
While a partner can offer a huge amount of compassion and support, we can’t expect them to take responsibility for our well-being. One man I spoke to would mope around the house for days until his wife would “set aside everything else and take care of him.” One woman would scream and shout at her partner, deeming it his responsibility to intervene and calm her down. No party in either couple was happy with this arrangement.
While being kind and selfless to another person is rewarding, no one can thrive when they exist entirely in service of their partner, especially when their partner is using them to avoid growing or developing themselves. Both partners are more satisfied when there is a more equal give and take from one adult to another adult.
7. Holding on to fantasy
The truth is that we are all human, and we are all flawed. Our interpersonal actions and reactions are largely shaped by our past. Our earliest attachment experiences influence expectations about how we think people will behave and how relationships will work. Therefore, unless our childhoods were impossibly perfect, we are basically designed to misread and make mistakes. The fantasies we hold on to about how a partner should be are not only unrealistic but based on our own history.
Therefore, the best way to approach a romantic partner is to let go of a fantasy of who that person should be and see them realistically for who they are. Our goal should not be to merge into one, but to come close together and connect in a way that is respectful and loving of the other as a separate being.
With this balance, we can appreciate the natural ebb and flow and give and take that comes from being two people sharing a meaningful experience. And we can empathize with their experience independent of ours. When we keep this as a principle for how we approach our relationships, we don’t just become more accepting of our partner’s inevitable weaknesses, but we feel a greater appreciation, a deeper attraction, and a more vital connection to their strengths.