In my practice, I often treat couples who have highly idealistic expectations about marriage. Does that sound contradictory? After all, idealism is romantic, and you need romance for a great marriage. If marriage isn’t just a partnership, but a meeting of souls, then something must be deeply wrong when you have petty disagreements. Soul mates never argue about where the thermostat should be set.
Soul Mate or Partners on Life’s Journey?
Researchers observed that while there are myriad ways people talk about love, two common ways of framing relationships — the “other half/soul mate” approach and the “our love is a journey, look how far we’ve come” approach — both contribute hugely to the way people view conflict in their relationships, but in nearly opposite ways. For people with we’re-on-a-journey view of their partners, everyday relationship struggles are just surmountable hurdles along the way. But for “soul mates,” conflicts are more difficult to deal with — after all if two people are truly “made for each other,” why would they face any conflict in the first place?
This “soul mate” thinking is a set up for disappointment since conflict is inevitable. But aside from the narratives with which we structure our understanding of love, there’s another cultural force that encourages over-idealism of marriage: the narcissistic message that anything less than “the best” is a gross insult. (Aren’t you worth the best?)
In the New York Times opinion page, psychoanalyst Joseph Burgo uses narcissistic home renovators as a comparison to marriage:
The relationship between such homeowners and their contractor often resembles an overly idealistic marriage that starts off well and founders in the face of reality. The inevitable construction delays cause frustration. Unanticipated problems always crop up. And most important, the real product usually falls short of that idealized, perfect vision with which the homeowners began.
Burgo identifies narcissism, or unhealthy self-absorption, as the root problem here; just as homeowners takes pride in and identify with their house and its showy declaration of status, narcissistic marriage partners see the other as a mirror reflecting the best image back to themselves. Any blemish on that mirror—like a disagreement—would confront the narcissist’s view of self-perfection. Giving up the need to be, and be seen as perfect can go a long way towards increasing happiness.
Giving up the Need for Your Partner to be Perfect
I recently heard from the wife of a couple I saw in marriage counseling a year ago. They were on the verge of divorce when they came to see me because of conflict over a grown son. It is not uncommon for couples to seek therapy once the kids are launched. The empty nest can bring to the fore, unresolved parental problems that got tabled for the sake of providing harmony in the home. During couples counseling, James and Harriet worked on some fundamental ways of handling their differences in how much financial support to give their adult son. They learned to manage conflict, support each other, and avoided getting ‘triangulated’ in their relationship. Over time, they found ways to express their appreciation and love more often–something that suffered because–as so often happens when raising kids–the children get the majority of affection and attention. By the time their kids had left home, they were out of practice in showing their love for each other.
When therapy was concluded, James and Harriet had better skills to cope as a team, with the challenges in handling issues with their son. They downsized and moved to Oregon. About a year later, Theo phoned me requesting several phone sessions after the birth of a grandchild brought up old hurts. We were quickly able to resolve the problem because they had a structure in place to deal with conflict and just needed to talk it over and remember what they already knew. But something else happened during that process that shifted them into a deeper place of understanding, acceptance, and love. Harriet gave me permission to quote the letter she wrote to me.
So, here is my key conclusion: I believe that every conflict is multi- (multi-!!) faceted. We can lock onto one dominant element of that conflict, and make it all about that, but that is not accurate. I believe we demonstrate our growing intelligence and personal abilities by learning to examine and include more and more of these many facets into our consideration: our humanity; our upbringing; our personality; our failings; our needs; our goals; our stress; our desires; our fears; etc. etc.
I believe James is a loving, good human being – as I believe myself to be. With that, in my opinion, necessary foundation, I believe we can move forward now. Rather than basic civility, I hope we treat each other kindly and respectfully; acknowledging to ourselves and those around us that we are life-long partners. I hope every day is one of communication and support. Thank you again, Susan. I’m feeling pretty strong right now; encouraged to move forward, but I always benefit from our conversations no matter what.”
Expressing Love in Different Ways
In a different case, a conflict escalated over several years when the ‘honeymoon’ phase settled into a more realistic partnership. Jenny, a self-proclaimed romantic, felt her husband didn’t love her anymore, and wanted counseling to end the marriage. Jenny’s romantic ideals meant that love always had to be expressed in elaborate ways. Homemade cards with hand-written poems, special baked treats, candles, flowers, music—this was how she believed soul mates express their love. Because her husband Dave could barely remember to buy a Hallmark card, she felt unloved.
Our sessions brought out, though, that Dave did plenty of other things to show Jenny that he loved her. He performed a myriad of unpleasant household chores that he knew Jenny hated, like taking out the compost. He cut back on gaming to spend more time with her. He left her the last cookie. Jenny came to see this and was also able to admit that part of why she idealized big romantic gestures was so she could brag to her girlfriends about them. When Jenny stopped demanding Dave fit her ideals and make her look good, and started appreciating Dave on his own terms, the marriage got better—and, since Dave felt more loved and appreciated, he was able to start addressing some flaws he did have. “He’s my teammate, not my soul mate,” said Jenny in our last session.