We develop all sorts of ideas about relationships from our families and friends, our own experiences and, of course, from our culture. We develop these ideas from movies and sitcoms, too.
In fact, therapist Anna Osborn, LMFT, has worked with several couples who’ve used on-screen couples as examples of what their relationship should look like. “I’ve had to gently remind them that those people are being paid money to follow a director’s script,” Osborn said.
We might not realize it but these distorted beliefs pervade our psyche and deeply affect our relationships. For instance, we might end a relationship prematurely, running away at the first sign of trouble, said Alyssa Mairanz, LMHC, a psychotherapist in New York City who specializes in relationships. Which means we squash the opportunity to build a strong bond. These beliefs can make it “almost impossible to find meaningful, satisfying relationships,” she said.
These beliefs create unrealistic expectations, said Osborn, a psychotherapist who practices in Sacramento, Calif., and virtually coaches couples across the country. They become “‘reasons’ for why we can’t connect with another — rather than stepping back and better exploring the roadblocks we’re creating on our own.” This is precisely why it’s important to examine your beliefs about what healthy relationships really look like. Below you’ll find a range of distorted ideas, along with the facts.
Distorted belief: If I have to work at my relationship, then it’s not healthy.
Couples shouldn’t be in a constant state of conflict or upheaval, said Kaela Scott, a registered clinical counsellor who specializes in eating disorders and relationships in Vancouver BC. However, all healthy relationships take work.
“There are no two individuals who will always see the world through the same lens,” Scott said. “When we find someone that we want to spend years or a lifetime with, we are going to have moments of disconnect, moments where we have to fight to make things work and many, many moments of growth.” Working through your issues is what helps you evolve and become even closer.
Distorted belief: If my partner really cares about me, they would ____________.
According to Osborn, individuals tend to fill in the blanks with black and white behaviors, as in: “If you really cared about me, you’d never be late,” or “If you really cared about me, you’d always remember what I say.”
The problem? Emphasizing such behaviors as the only ones that show love creates a skewed reality in a relationship, she said. “When we judge someone’s singular actions as reasons for why they don’t care, we often lose all sight of the millions of other ways they show love.” It also reinforces the belief that your partner should be continuously proving themselves to you in order for you to care about them or feel cared by them, Osborn added.
Distorted belief: How my partner acts is indicative of their feelings for me.
People’s behaviors and reactions may have more to do with them and less to do with us. According to Paris Williams, who’s pursuing a master’s in counseling and focusing on attachment theory at Lincoln Christian University, this is a prime example: A wife tries to initiate sex with her husband. He brushes her off, which she interprets as him no longer being attracted to her.
However, he actually feels insecure about his performance the last time they had sex. In other words, him not wanting to have sex has nothing to do with her. (Which is why being honest with your partner is so important.)
Distorted belief: Love is a feeling.
“How we feel about a person or how someone else makes us feel is completely about us,” said Rosy Saenz-Sierzega, Ph.D, a counseling psychologist in Chandler, Ariz. who specializes in working with couples. While important, feelings are fleeting. They change with every new situation.
Even more than that, love is a choice. “Being in love should really be called ‘being in the act of love,’” Saenz-Sierzega said. That’s because love is “a committed, thoughtful decision one makes that’s part of a layered process that includes choices, behaviors, and emotions.” For instance, these choices include ignoring minor annoyances, spending time together, getting to know each other and respecting each other, she said. “This is how we stay in love.”
Distorted belief: I shouldn’t have to tell my partner what I need. They should know.
According to Osborn, “Communication is essential in every relationship, and any expectation that others should know our thoughts, needs and desires when we haven’t shared them is setting up an impossible standard.”
After all, our partners aren’t mind readers. And our needs are regularly changing. Because we are regularly changing, Osborn said. “What worked for us as a couple when we first met is likely to have evolved over the years.” Not talking about our needs around these topics means that “we are operating from an out-of-date system manual that leads to disconnection and hurt.”
In fact, holding any of these distorted beliefs can lead to disconnection and hurt in your relationship. Which is why, again, talking honestly with our partners is so powerful. It helps you set the record straight, minimizing misunderstandings. It bolsters your bond. And it helps you grow as an individual and as a couple.
Stay tuned for a second piece with more inaccurate ideas about relationships.