When Your Relationship Is Not What You Think It "Should" Be

Our stories about what a relationship "should" be keep us suffering.

Posted Jun 10, 2020

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There comes a time in every relationship when you realize that something you think you need and “should” have is not available. What you do when you discover this can determine the future of the relationship, and your contentment within it. Our partner will have limitations, just as we will. It might be something small and meaningless, or something more serious, like unacknowledged anger issues. Sometimes it can be hard to tell if these are deal-breakers in the relationship.

Lily recently walked into the bedroom to find her husband, Ken, asleep. His sweater, which was covered in dog hair, was draped across her pillow. She wasn’t in the room but for a few seconds when Ken turned over, spun around to face her, and began unleashing his anger. “Look at it,” he said, accusatorially. “It’s dog hair. She’s been in here, sleeping in the bed. I had to change the pillowcases.” His tone was furious and aggressive. There was also a pile of laundered clothing on Lily’s side of the bed. “What is all this?” she asked. “Put it away,” he said sharply, and then turned back over and, after a few sighs, seemed to be back asleep. And no, he wasn’t dreaming.

Lily felt blindsided and completely confused. Why was he attacking her about the dog? Was he implying that she had left the door to the bedroom open? She had no idea what had just happened. But, given that it was late, she went about her nightly ritual, moved the clothing and hairy sweater, and went to sleep.

Ken was already at the breakfast table drinking coffee when Lily got up. She was carrying a lot of feelings as she sat down to join him. “What happened to you last night?” she asked. “I walked into the bedroom and you shouted at me, attacked me about the dog hair.” “I attacked you?” he said, raising his eyebrows, making a face and other mocking sounds.

Lily spoke quietly, “In my world, that was an emotional attack.”

Ken responded: “I didn’t shout at you. In what universe did I attack you? You think everything is an attack. Whatever you think, I’m sure it’s right.” Lily didn’t say any more. But when their daughter arrived at the table a few minutes later, Lily humorously told the story of what had happened the previous evening, mocking Ken’s rage and actions. As Lily put it, “I expressed myself to Ken, again, backhandedly this time, and let our daughter validate my feelings since he would not acknowledge anything had happened.”

Lily and Ken had been married for 14 years, with a lot of happiness.  Ken had always been quick to erupt over small things. But when his eruptions were done, which was also quickly, he carried on as if nothing had happened. He didn’t remember his anger. Anyone who pointed it out (which Lily had done many times) was then deemed to be distorting reality and attacking Ken. When these eruptions occurred, Lily was left feeling wounded and in need of an apology, which rarely came.  She wasn't "gaslit" as she didn't doubt her experience in any way, but still, she wanted Ken to acknowledge his behavior.  

After “the dog hair attack,” Lily felt upset, closed off, and emotionally attacked, even if it was in a small way. Maybe worse than the attack itself was the feeling of being further mistreated by what she believed was her husband’s demand that she pretend nothing had happened.

Lily desperately wanted to tell Ken that this was not OK, but she also knew no apology or empathy would be forthcoming. Rather, she would be judged for attacking him and inventing the whole thing. She felt trapped and alone. At the same time, Lily was angry and disappointed in herself for not having the courage to tell Ken how she felt. Lily believed that to truly respect herself, she had to be willing to be honest about how she felt.

She also knew that letting the incident go and moving forward would be the best choice if peace was what she wanted, and indeed it was. As Lily saw it, there was no good option. What she longed for, really, was a simple apology, an acknowledgment that he shouldn’t have spoken to her like that, even if it meant nothing to him.

For Lily, everything wrong about the marriage, a marriage she also very much enjoyed, was contained in this one incident. 

But her response felt inauthentic and incomplete; making fun of his behavior with her daughter didn’t take care of Lily—it didn’t make her feel more understood or loved. Was there a way to take care of herself, she wondered, even if her husband couldn’t give her what she needed?

When Lily and I dove into this experience together, we discovered a couple of powerful “shoulds” operating in the background of her mind, which, although not the problem, were intensifying her suffering. 

To begin with, Lily believed that she “should” be able to share all of her feelings with her partner and have them lovingly received. And that if she couldn’t share her truth, all the time, she should not be in the relationship. Lily also believed that she “should” have the courage (and be willing) to share her feelings with her partner, no matter what consequences doing so would create.

Together, we unpacked Lily’s suitcase of “shoulds,” exposing each to the test of the light. Was it really true that Lily “should” be willing to share all her feelings, no matter what consequences the sharing would create? Was sharing, even when she knew it would meet with defensiveness and rejection, really the self-respecting choice?

Was it possible that, in certain cases, the self-respecting and self-caring choice was to acknowledge and honor her experience—to herself—and not to her husband? Was it possible that the self-compassionate move was the one that took care of her pain but protected her from more aggression and misunderstanding?

And was it really true that she “should not” be in a relationship in which she could not share everything? Did Ken really have to always understand how she felt in order for her to feel good about herself? Furthermore, what if the story she was telling herself—that Ken had intentionally hurt her and was now bullying her into silence—was just a narrative of her own making and not the truth?

It occurred to her too, that when this happened in the future, she could simply hold up a "stop" hand to her husband, tell him she didn't like or wouldn't stand for his tone, or simply leave the room. She could choose to act in alignment with her discontent rather than explain it in words.

With her “shoulds” brought to light, Lily immediately felt freer. She realized that self-respect could come from not sharing rather than sharing—from actively choosing to protect herself from her husband’s defensiveness and anger.  This process was not about excusing his behavior but rather about seeing how her judgments about the what the relationship "should" be like were causing more suffering not less.

She accepted that her husband's defensiveness was his issue and not something she could fix—and certainly not something that more disclosure on her part was going to change. She discovered that it was enough to acknowledge her experience to herself and take care of herself in the moment; she did not have to share all her feelings with her husband—even when they stemmed from his behavior.  

She also saw through her belief that a worthy relationship was one in which everything could be shared and received with an open heart. This marriage was worth a lot to her, and worth staying in, and at the same time, it contained a difficulty she couldn't change.  And so, she started accepting her relationship for what it was and was not, which brought a lot of peace. 

She was better off taking care of herself in the relationship that actually existed and with the partner who actually existed. Finally, Lily loosened her grip on the story she was telling herself about her husband’s intention to hurt her and his "demand" that she pretend nothing had happened.  She decided to let the meaning of his eruptions be the meaning he ascribed to them and not the meaning she had constructed.  When she let go of the idea that he was "doing that to her,"  the whole thing felt a lot lighter.

When what you want is not possible, and yet you still value and want to stay in the relationship, it is a good idea to investigate the stories you’re telling yourself about your partner and what’s happening in the relationship. Get to know the narrative you’re writing in your head about your partner’s intentions. So, too, it’s important to uncover the silent “shoulds” running in the background of your mind, the “shoulds” that are continually stoking your suffering. Unpacking your stories and “shoulds” is not a replacement for trying to change bad behavior, and not about justifying bad behavior, but it will free you to live more peacefully within your relationship—as it is.

One caveat: If your relationship feels abusive in any way, it's important to leave, not to learn how to work with it.  This article is not meant to encourage you to find peace with what is consistently hurtful or to turn a blind eye to bad behavior.  Leaving an unhealthy relationship is an option that needs to be considered.  At the same time, every single intimate relationship, even the very best one, contains difficulty.  Joy and difficulty.  We often feel happy and want to stay in relationships that also contain aspects we don't want and that are painful.  In this article, I hope to offer a path and some peace for anyone who chooses to accept and  stay in a relationship with elements that are not okay, and particularly elements that you cannot change.  

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