Do you have a fantasy of what a perfect partner for you might be?
Do you sometimes (or often) judge the person you’re dating or married to as lacking against this fantasy and wonder whether there’s someone else better out there?
Do you have a list of what this perfect partner should look and be like?
Or do you sometimes look over at your honey while folding laundry in your frayed and bleach-stained pajamas and wonder if the lack of spark between you two means your relationship is doomed?
Do you believe that the lack of sex and romance, bickering, conflict and power struggles you’ve been wading through signals a death toll for your relationship?
Do either or both of these beliefs feel familiar? Would you say that maybe – just maybe – they sometimes keep you feeling confused, stuck, or unsatisfied in your romantic relationship?
If so, today’s blog post is for you.
With Valentine’s Day a mere week away, this post is dedicated to challenging two of the most widely held cultural introjects many of us seem to have about romantic love – the myth of the perfect partner and the myth that love should be easy – and instead offer up some alternative ideas that may bring you some ease and help deepen the experience of love in your life.
So keep reading and let’s turn these beliefs inside out in the week leading up to Valentine’s Day…
The Myth of The Perfect Partner.
Let me begin by saying what I’m sure you already know: There is no such thing as a Perfect Partner. In my personal and professional opinion, the concept of a Perfect Partner is a myth, a fantasy sold to us and fervently fed through most songs, paperback romance novels, compulsive Tinder swiping, and certainly most all Disney movies ever.
It’s a cultural introject – a widely held social belief – that most American Millenials have, in particular, swallowed whole causing us to consciously or unconsciously still hold out for The Perfect Partner.
The Myth of The Perfect Partner often causes us to have unrealistic expectations of others (and often of ourselves, too) which can lead to a great deal of emotional pain in and out of relationships.
“So what’s the alternative?”, you might be asking, “Give up the idea of a Perfect Partner and settle?!”
No, not exactly.
I’m not advocating that anyone fundamentally settle, but I am advocating for an expectation reframe around the idea of The Good Enough Partner versus The Perfect Partner.
What’s a Good Enough Partner?
The Good Enough Partner is an idea I’ve toying with derived from the concept of the “Good Enough Parent,” an idea coined and made famous by pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, MD.
Essentially, Winnicott’s idea of a Good Enough Parent was one in which the parent had sound nurturing instincts, devotion to the child, and ultimately inevitably screwed up and “failed” as parents in a way that allowed their kids to experience disillusionment with them and the world in ways that felt manageable and tolerable.
In other words, a Good Enough Parent helped their kids to learn how to cope with and face an imperfect world including themselves as imperfect parents – a key developmental task that children must face in their development and emotional growth towards adulthood.
(Caveat: Screwing up and “failing” as parents does not include egregious harm like physical, verbal, or emotional abuses. It means, perhaps, having to miss your kid’s soccer game because of an unavoidable board meeting. Big difference.)
A Good Enough Partner, if we were to extrapolate on this idea from Winnicott, might then be a partner who had sound relational instincts, devotion to the relationship, and who screwed up or “failed” in ways that actually helped foster our own growth and development as adults.
In real life, this might look like someone who meets most of our deep needs but not all of our surface wants.
It might mean a partner who, because of their imperfections, actually allows us to grow stronger in our personal empowerment and in our ability to navigate through the world.
And, of course, reframing our expectations from expecting and seeking out a Perfect Partner to a Good Enough Partner might allow us to more easefully connect and form relationships with others we may have previously disregarded because they didn’t measure up to our fantasy of “Perfect.”
So What Qualities Does A Good Enough Partner Have?
My belief is that many characteristics of the Good Enough Partner – someone with sound relational instincts, devotion to the relationship, etc – may then be qualities that can’t be seen by eye but instead felt through the heart and soul. In other words, it’s the exact opposite of a Dream Partner List that requires someone be 6 foot or over, highly educated, with a big salary, great wardrobe, and thick wavy hair.
So what qualities or characteristics might compose this Good Enough Partner? While I think that’s a highly personal list you need to clarify and generate on your own, others have some pretty great ideas about this that you might use as a starting point.
For example, renowned psychotherapist and 35-year ALS survivor Mariah Fenton Gladis, MSS in her wonderful book “Tales of Wounded Healer” talks about choosing a man – her loving husband Ron – with “nerves of steel and heart of gold” and, because of her early losses, that she had a “deep need for a partner who she could trust impeccably and whom [she] could trust impeccably and who would protect, cherish, and stand by [her].”
One of my other favorite psychotherapists Clarissa Pinkola Estes, PhD gives a wonderful and robust list of attributes of what you might seek in a partner in her audiobook “How to Really Love a Woman” which includes qualities like “Choose someone as though you were blind” and “Choose someone who’s willing to be like you – both strong and sensitive.”
My belief? I think that some of the qualities of a Good Enough Partner might also include commitment to you and to the relationship, a willingness to grow and learn to do the work on themselves and on the relationship, someone who will not run away from the hard stuff of life (aging, illness, weakness, loss), and someone whose soul you love.
Bottom line: The Myth of The Perfect Partner creates, for many, hugely unreasonable expectations that might get in the way of connecting and experiencing the love we’re longing for. What I would invite you to do instead is a search for and embrace a Good Enough Partner – someone who has the qualities and characteristics that you personally believe can provide a sound relational home for you to grow and to love in. But even when you find or embrace a relationship with this person, I can guarantee you it won’t always be easy.
The Myth that Love Should Be Easy.
I think that another big introject that causes pain for many people in relationships is the myth that love is easy. In my personal and professional opinion, this couldn’t be more untrue.
Love, specifically romantic love, I truly believe, is challenging. It’s hard. And it’s hard for a reason:
Whenever you get two or more people together, conflict is inevitable at some point. And if you throw those two people into a relationship where they live together, share the same bed, have sleepless nights, juggle work, commutes, kids, in-laws, sex, money and all the other triggering stuff of life, love is going to inevitably get tough sometimes. And that’s okay, that’s actually normal.
But that’s not what the collective social message would have us believe so, inevitably, when things get tough and rough and challenging, many of us get scared and assume that the relationship we’re in is with the wrong person.
With the right person, love would be easier, right? Wrong.
Caveat: In no way am I implying that emotional, verbal, or physical abuse is okay in relationship. It’s not. If you feel you may be dealing with an abusive partner or an abusive relationship, please reach out and get support as soon as you can.
Romantic Love vs. Individuation vs. Mature Love.
Movies, stories, songs and love-centered holidays like Valentine’s Day by and large celebrate romantic love, specifically the heady, romance-filled early stages of love that sells onscreen and off. One of the ideas I’ve really taken away from the extensive work of famed psychotherapists and love researchers John Gottman, PhD and Julie Gottman, PhD, is there are actually three stages of love, romantic love being only one of them.
Romantic love is that stage in relationship when we’re falling in love, literally flooded with a cocktail of hormones that makes us practically addicted to one another, a stage of relationship where we’re projecting our fantasies and idealizations all over that other person imagining them into “The One.”
Romantic love is the stage of relationship that implies effortlessness – that love will be easy once the Prince and Princess get together and the curtains close and the lights dim. But romantic love is actually only the first stage of relationship and in reality, actually, the love story is just getting started.
In the next stage – the individuation stage – the cocktail of hormones fade and the projections upon our beloved loosen and fall. We begin to see our partners more clearly (and they us) and the power struggles and conflicts emerge as two individuals try to figure out how to make room for two very different people in the relationship.
This stage can last months, years, or decades depending on the context of the individuals in the relationship, and it’s often a time many people might call it quits in the relationship. But if two people can weather the challenges of the Individuation Stage, they may enter the third, less media-glorified stage of Mature Love.
In the Mature Love stage, two people have largely resolved how to make space for both people in the relationship and there’s a greater sense of safety, connection, and acceptance of one another for who the two actually are.
Now, it’s not to say that conflict or challenge won’t exist once you arrive at the Mature Love stage nor will ease be absent from the Individuation stage. Ease and conflict exist across all these stages and it’s a critical reminder that love is not always easy. Love can be hard.
Indeed, as the ever-wise Mr. Fred Rogers said: “Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like struggle. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.”
Love is not always easy and it’s something we work for and through in relationship. The Myth of Love Being Easy is just that – a myth. So I wonder, given this can we all have just a bit more compassion for ourselves and our relationships when we find ourselves struggling?
Wrapping Up & Moving Forward.
Valentine’s Day (or any holiday or time of our lives celebrating romantic love) can be a wonderful but challenging and triggering time for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which is the absurd double dose of Myths lots of us ascribe to: The Myth of the Perfect Partner and The Myth that Love is Easy.
So if you’re feeling challenged as Valentine’s Day approaches and it’s because of the myths we explored today, I hope that unpacking and challenging these two pervasive myths felt helpful and easeful to you in some way.
But no matter what, please remember, relationships are hard, complicated, triggering, and yet so utterly worthwhile if we do the work. If they weren’t, I wouldn’t have a profession and almost all works of music, art and literature wouldn’t exist. So if you’re feeling challenged in a relationship this Valentine’s day, you’re not alone and I invite to continue to take really good and gentle care of yourself. And, as always, reach out if you need support.
Now I’d love to hear from you in the comments below: At some point in your life did you (or do you still) believe in either of these myths? How did believing in either or both of these myths impact your life? And if you no longer or never believed in these myths, what’s another belief about love that you hold instead?
Until next time, take very good care of yourself.