Once the winter holidays are over, the stores can’t seem to help themselves. Valentine’s Day red and decorations hit the stores right after New Year’s and the spotlight gets turned on to our relationship. With the big day looming, many people start to think: “Is our relationship wonderful enough? Romantic enough? Supportive enough?” “Am I glad I’m in the relationship I’m in?” We may find ourselves trying to keep up with the metaphorical “Joneses” who seem to be more affectionate, more mutually helpful, and better at managing conflict than we are.
Social media certainly doesn’t help. Most of the posts about relationships celebrate how happy, happy, happy people are to be with their sweetie doing sweet things: vacationing and weekending in picture-perfect places; frolicking in the snow or on a beach or sharing exotic food, amazing cocktails or craft beer. A few posts contain complaints and rants but, admit it, if a Martian were to learn about American relationships on social media, it would come to the conclusion that it’s 99% fun and romantic with only a complaint or two in the mix.
The result of all this posted merriment is, for at least some people, anxiety and discontent. As an advice columnist, I get frequent letters from worried men and women that say something like:
- “My boyfriend/girlfriend/fiancé/spouse is fine I guess but am I missing something?” or
- “My boyfriend/girlfriend/fiancé/spouse doesn’t measure up to my past boyfriend/girlfriend/fiancé/spouse.” or
- “I worry that my boyfriend/girlfriend/fiancé/spouse thinks there’s someone better.”
No relationship was ever helped by such comparing and supposing. Perfectly fine partnerships end because of fantasies about other people’s wonderful pairings, comparisons with past relationships or imaginations about someone who would be more perfect than the perfectly fine person someone is with.
If you recognize yourself as one of those who worries your relationship is lacking because it doesn’t lend itself to romantic Facebook posts, stop comparing.
Remember that no one really knows what goes on between two people except them. Once people go home and off line, their very private lives may or may not be anything like what is on FaceBook. People we think are a terrible mismatch may actually find each other very exciting. Those who we think are a match made in heaven may find living with each other as a daily hell. It’s ridiculous to compare yourself with what you only think is going on.
Recognize that people’s idea of the perfect relationship may be very different from your own. One academic couple I know divided their house in two. The living room is his library. The dining room is hers. They each spend far more time with their books than with each other. But they both describe their relationship as perfect. It is. For them.
In contrast, a couple who came for an initial therapy session reported that they went everywhere together – even grocery shopping and to the town dump. They couldn’t imagine having independent interests. In 40 years, they never spent a night apart. When asked why they were seeking counseling, they replied that their adult kids were worried that they were suffocating each other. Did they think so? “Oh no,” they replied. “We love each other’s company.”
Each of these couples had found the perfect match. You might not want to live their way but that doesn’t mean that either they — or you — are wrong. The prefect relationship is one that suits you and your partner.
Quit comparing your present significant other to past partners, your best friend’s relationship or the prince (or princess) charming you dream of. It’s unfair to ask anyone to be constantly compared and come up short. Imagine if that were happening to you. It’s painful to always feel like you are a disappointment.
Start Enriching Your Relationship
Remind yourself of the things you love about your partner. Every night, before you go to sleep, think about why you are grateful to have him or her in your life. Research shows that being grateful deepens relationships. An unexpected outcome of those studies is that being grateful also makes us more kind.
Take responsibility for your own role when things aren’t as sweet as you’d like. You can’t make your partner be different. But changes in your own behavior can and do set something different in motion. Couples are an ecological system. Your partner is likely to react positively to something you do to make a positive change. If there is genuine abuse going on, it’s of course important to let go and move on. But if things are generally okay and you’d like them to be better, start doing better yourself.
Do random acts of kindness. In the hubbub of daily life, it can be easy to forget to do the little things that make your partner smile. Make it a point to quietly, regularly, do the random helpful and appreciative acts that make life a little easier or more pleasant for that most important person in your life. Use the language of courtesy (please, thank you, excuse me). Be generous with compliments. Do something that is usually her or his chore — just because. It’s not necessary to make a big splash. In fact, most people would rather have 100 little things than 1 big important one (although occasional huge expressions of love are wonderful too).
Reach out and touch your partner, regularly and often. Touch says as much, sometimes more, than words. Simple things like holding hands, hugging, stroking your partner’s arm or hair are the stuff of real intimacy and reassurance. Loving touch affirms your connection and lets you both know that your relationship is special.
People who have positive, loving relationships are happier, healthier and even kinder than those who don’t. As yet another Valentine’s Day approaches, take the opportunity to focus on what is unique and special about the relationship you have. If you want to increase the love, stop comparing your relationship with some mythic ideal. Instead, pay more attention to doing the little things that enrich and deepen your connection.