Want a Good Relationship? Try Limiting Your Expectations

In real life, no one can be your everything.

Posted Dec 05, 2020 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch

Klee Four Leaf Clover/pixabay
Source: Klee Four Leaf Clover/pixabay

In her novel, A Little Life, one of Hanya Yanagihara’s characters, Willem, an actor, remembers a play he was in early in his career. There was a scene in the play in which the wife says to her husband that she is leaving. He replies:

“But don’t you understand, Amy? Relationships can never provide you with everything. They provide you with some things. You take all the things you want from a person – sexual chemistry, let’s say, or good communication, or financial support, or intellectual compatibility, or niceness or loyalty – and you get to pick three of those things. Three – that’s it. Maybe four if you’re lucky. The rest you have to look for elsewhere. It’s only in the movies that you find someone who gives you all of those things. But this isn’t the movies. In the real world, you have to identify which three qualities you want to spend the rest of your life with, and then you look for those qualities in another person….That’s real life. If you keep trying to find everything, you wind up with nothing.”

This is great advice. I usually see couples when they are essentially struggling with the same issues – their disappointment, or being fed up with each other – and they’re talking about cutting and running. And what I usually find myself saying is much the same: What are the three things that you most want your partner to do differently? Three things, not 30. What has to change most for you to feel like the climate of the relationship has been improved?

What’s powerful about limiting your list of wants to three, either at the beginning or toward the end of a relationship, is that it forces you to prioritize, to decide what is truly important to you and your life. It may be someone attractive, or easy-going, or high sexual chemistry, or loyalty, intelligence, kindness, or a good sense of humor, is someone who's a hard-working provider or a great parent.  

By limiting your list to three you also have a realistic shot at success in finding someone: It’s doable, you have a good chance of not being disappointed. And if you’re on the repair side, ditto: Your partner doesn’t have to feel that he or she has to do the extreme makeover or lose their personality; they can more easily fully focus on what is important to you. The key is making your request behaviorally concrete; it must be clear so that he or she knows exactly what you are looking for, and what to do, if they're willing.

So, what’s your top three at the front or back end of a relationship? What do you need most? What’s really important out of all the things that can feel important? Choose. Be realistic. And as Yanagihara suggests, then go ahead and try to find those other needs in other people, or in other areas of your life. 

And what if your list changes over time? It probably will. That is the nature of adult development and relationships. But the same criteria remain, and the process is still the same: What are the three things on your list now? This is about updating a relationship contract, and having it fully represent who you both are right now, not staying stuck in back then. 

Pick three not thirty. Fight for them. Be clear and concrete. It's a recipe for success.

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