It is only imperfection that complains of what is imperfect. The more perfect we are the more gentle and quiet we become towards the defects of others. —Joseph Addison
When Mr. J and I talked about getting married, I argued in full support of living in a duplex. He could have one side—the one with fishing tackle on the dining room table and the mustard-yellow recliner in front of the big screen. My side would be lined with carefully shelved books and fresh flowers and clean countertops. We could sneak back and forth when we felt like it. Everyone laughed at the idea. I laughed at the idea. But I was only half kidding. Though I grew up in the household of two happily married parents, I wasn’t sure about the whole marriage thing for myself.
I like my quiet. My space. My stuff. I value order and cleanliness. I like things to go my way. Marriage, at least the way I understood it, meant a lot of times things would go his way. It’s about sharing and compromise and commitment and trust. In other words, it is not all about me.
And there was more: I was very comfortable, happy even, living on my own. I was getting to know myself and becoming clear about what I wanted, what I needed, and how totally crazy, irrational, and self-absorbed I could be. I was learning to live with my own imperfections; I wasn’t sure anyone else could.
But Mr. J had this incredible, good-natured spirit and energy about him. And I wanted a piece of that. I knew I needed that in my life.
The energy exchange
Every relationship—the one you have with your mother or best friend, the one with your spouse or grocery store checker—is based upon this kind of energy exchange, according to neuroscientist Peggy La Cerra.
This is why we are drawn to others in the first place. “Being alive is an ongoing search for energy, and relationships provide an invaluable form,” La Cerra writes. Romantic relationships begin then from this place of selfishness. The other individual has something we want—energy—and when we get a piece of that, we feel good, cared for, revitalized, and loved.
In other words, we have an agenda from the get-go. We want a mate who brings good energy and one who folds the whites. This need for cooperation and care stems from our evolutionary ancestors. The cave dwellers who lived and worked together tended to last longer than those free agents who refused to wash the clamshells. Cooperation was a biggie in the cave.
These days, if we have a partner, aka “Energy Supplier,” who is willing to grow, adapt, clean the house, cook, chew with his mouth closed, and tell us how great we look in those jeans—we’ve got a good thing going. We do not want a partner who can’t find the toilet brush.
“People really want gods and goddesses,” says family therapist and author Terry Real.
“We all want a free pass for our imperfections and yet we all want perfection in our mate,” he says. “But we are woefully imperfect human beings. If you do find your god or goddess, what would they want with you? You’ll still be imperfect.”
Imperfection and disillusionment
When you realize sometime after the wedding that the “God” you married is actually transforming back into his human state, it’s easy to become disillusioned.
We enter what Real calls the “Knowledge Without Love” phase. We know our partner never picks up the towels, or
wipes off the counters. We know he gets snappy when he’s stressed and it’s just not cute anymore. It’s not even OK; we don’t like it. Not one bit. In this stage we clearly recognize each other’s imperfections, but we don’t have a lot of love or patience for them.
Our focus goes to our partner’s failings, instead of to what we can do to support the relationship. We become a self-centred energy sucker and the relationship shifts from a unified, cooperative approach into the Janet Jackson Model of “What has he done for me laaate-ly?”
The gap between real and ideal
This process—the shift from the honeymoon phase to the youmake-me-crazy phase—can be sudden and mystifying. Though the common misconception is that opposites attract, research shows that we generally enter into relationships with people who have similar backgrounds, behaviors, and attitudes. We relate best to people who are like us. And, perfection seekers that we are, we like it when our partner represents some aspect of our ideal. When our partner, the kind and patient person who listens well while whipping up a tasty carbonara, becomes more real than ideal, it’s disappointing, unsettling, and totally and completely annoying.
This makes it much easier to blame him for all the failures in the relationship, as well as the growing unemployment rate, and the hostility in the Middle East. When you’re focused on the imperfections—especially those in others—they show up everywhere.
So we go to work trying to change our partner, I mean the situation, for the sake of the relationship. We do this by nagging and criticizing. We roll our eyes and respond sarcastically. We interrupt and overreact to show our displeasure, and hopefully, motivate him to knock off all his freakin’ irritating behaviour.
Sometimes people do change or they are willing to work to improve at least some aspects of their behaviour. But mostly what you get when you try to force your partner to live up to your own expectations of perfection is angry. Angry that those same old issues keep cropping up and angry that nothing is getting better. This anger leads to sadness and an emotional chasm. A spiritual disconnect occurs, too, when you live with judgement, impatience, and intolerance for others. Spirit emanates from love and compassion. It doesn’t usually cast a vote on who is the better driver.
A healthier, more practical way to nurture a life-enriching relationship is to drop the self-righteousness and hypocrisy and get real about the baggage you’re bringing into the relationship. Then you have a real shot at building a relationship that is interesting, honest, and sustainable out of all that imperfection.
“What rankles us can also unite us,” Real says. “Perfect is boring. With imperfections you have the capacity to dive deeper into your own growth.”
How imperfections power relationships
The cosmic joke, then, is that the same flaw-filled moments and behaviours that drive us crazy in our relationships are essential to helping us heal, connect, and learn.
Greater Intimacy – Closeness emerges from a mutual tolerance. To be less than perfect and still be loved is a gift and one way we learn how to love others. When we ’fess up to our imperfections and take responsibility for our mistakes, we’re showing respect and vulnerability to our partner.
An expression of sincere emotion can do this too. When you open up and say, “I’m afraid” or “I’m not good at this” or “I feel embarrassed,” or when you offer a genuine apology and say, “I’m sorry,” you are inviting your partner in.
He then can offer up empathy, support, forgiveness, or insight. He can share the moment of discomfort with you and you become allies.
“That kind of sincere sharing promotes compassion, inspiration, and creativity within couples,” says relationship guru Katie Hendricks, of The Hendricks Institute and co-author, along with her husband Gay Hendricks, of Conscious Loving: The Journey to Co-Commitment. Oh, and here’s a tip: Don’t be a jerk when your partner is sharing his vulnerabilities. This kind of disclosure can be enlightening and helpful, but if misused as a weapon during a fight, it will undermine the intimacy and trust you’ve established.
Greater health and healing – Plenty of research indicates that our mental and physical health, longevity, and well-being is influenced by our mates. If one person makes bad or unhealthy choices, the other tends to as well. When my husband opts for a milkshake, for example, I’m rarely standing at the door saying, “No, honey. That’s not a smart choice.” More likely, I’ll give him a quick kiss, hand him the keys to the car, and push him out the door while yelling, “Make mine chocolate!”
But romantic relationships do contribute to healthier habits as well, and can help heal old wounds.
Real and other family therapists and psychologists like Harville Hendrix, PhD, say we are unconsciously attracted to people who we believe will satisfy the emotional needs that we didn’t get met in childhood. Real calls it our “unfinished business.”
Often, he says, we choose to be in relationships with people who are a milder version of our parents or childhood caregivers. These people then inadvertently help us recreate our early challenges so that we can, with any luck, master them, move beyond them, and finally grow up.
“The imperfections then become a resource for our own healing,” Real says. “Our imperfections harken back to childhood and the relationship can become a Petri dish that can help grow a new you.”
Greater self-knowledge – Another way our partner’s flaws benefit us is through greater self-understanding. Think about this: If there is something that really bugs you about him, you probably do it too. The things we are able to see in others are often the things we need to work on within ourselves.
Instead of lashing out then, next time he procrastinates, let his annoying behaviour teach you something about yourself. Then get up and clean out that closet you’ve been meaning to get to for the last two years.
Part of being in relationship is about picking the person with the issues that you can live with, issues that match up best against your issues. If you can remember that your mate’s imperfections aren’t manifest simply to make you batty, you’ll do better. And, no matter what he says, your flaws do not make
you the devil incarnate.
Instead of getting hung up on every little thing, lighten up a bit. Laugh together a little more. Let a few things go and offer up some compassion and forgiveness to each other. That can make day-to-day marriage management a whole lot easier.
Relationship tips and taboos
Taboo: Making it personal
The other day, my husband, Mr. J, parked so close to the rock wall in our driveway that I couldn’t open the door. Fortunately, aided by my squealing (think puppy locked in a car with the windows rolled up squealing), he quickly noticed his error and moved the car so I could actually get out of the vehicle, thus ending the drama. Or so he thought. It was not over for me. “How could you do that? I mean, why would you park there so I couldn’t get out?”
“I guess I just wasn’t thinking,” he said.
“What! What? I am your wife, how could you not be thinking of me? Did you forget I was sitting there? I gave birth to your child, for goodness sake, and you can’t bother to make room for me to get out of the car? I am always thinking of you,” I huffed.
Except perhaps in that moment, when I was thinking mostly about how ticked I was. We ended up spinning into an argument about how I overreact and he’s self-absorbed. It was not a good night, but we did have a quiet dinner.
What if I hadn’t taken it all so personally?
We all do stupid things. Mistakes happen. But everything that comes up is not a statement of your value to the relationship. It is not always about you.
Tip: Offer compassion
“The Dalai Lama says that being compassionate is the one time when it’s OK to be selfish,” says Dr. James Doty, director of The Center for the Study of Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. “Because when you are compassionate to others, you also benefit so greatly by doing it.”
When you give to someone else, when you offer kindness and compassion, not only does the recipient feel better but your own stress levels decrease and you become more nurturing. All this is good for the relationship. With compassion you step into what Peggy La Cerra calls “enlightened self-interest.” In other words, you give a little, you get a little, it’s all good.
Taboo: Expecting too much
When I got married, a wise friend of mine told me, “Don’t expect him to fulfill your every need. He can’t do it all. He doesn’t have to do it all. Give to yourself and find family and friends and others to give you some of the things he cannot.”
That’s good advice for any relationship. We are multidimensional beings with varied interests and desires and no spouse or mother, or partner or girlfriend can fill all the roles in our lives, and they don’t have to.
Your spouse’s inability to pick upholstery colours, for example, isn’t a shortcoming or failure. His apathy when it comes to the green mouldy stuff in the fridge isn’t anyone’s fault. Differences—while at times hard to live with—don’t have to be a liability.
Tip: Remember the alternative
When you’re caught up in the niggling annoyances of a relationship, consider the alternative, says self-help and relationship guru Arielle Ford. What would it take to forever eliminate the muddy shoes in the doorway or the wet towels on the carpet? Probably the end of the relationship or the demise of your significant other. This is a bone-jarring alternative.
We all have little habits and traits that are probably not going to change—ever. Mr. J pours out his pockets on the counter each day and it makes me crazy. But when I realized that to have clean counters would mean I no longer had Mr. J, things got really clear. I’ll take a cluttered counter any day, as long as I have him in my life.
Tip: Stop keeping score
I used to be a scorekeeper—silently weighing how much I do during the day compared to how much he does. I decided to change that bad habit when I realized one night that he takes out the garbage, every single night, without complaint. He just does it. I’ve found that by appreciating what he does do, instead of making comparisons, I feel better and we’re more cooperative.
Same is true with arguments. Our disagreements basically fall under two categories: parenting and communication, with a little give-me-the-remote thrown in. But we know that both of us have made a bunch of mistakes over the years, so it’s not even worth keeping track. There are no grudges here. We’re doing our best, and sometimes even that is terrible. But if you both continuously throw out gold stars or red cheques every time someone does something, your relationship becomes more performance-based than a partnership. That way, somebody is bound to lose and that is bad for both of you.
Taboo: Looking for balance
No matter how much effort you put in it’s never going to be equal so get over it. There is no such thing as balance in life or in love. There are entire weeks where I’m making the meals and doing the laundry and the bulk of other chores while he’s immersed in work or on a special fishing trip or whatever it is that is attracting his attention. And then life will tilt back a bit and he’ll step in and do more than his share when I’m out with the girls or consumed by work, or whatever it is that’s driving me that week. We go like this, back and forth. Sometimes totally engaged and working together, other times half-zoned out with the partner picking up the slack.
It’s not a perfect process. Relationships are rarely a slew of equal moments shared 50/50 but ultimately it all evens out. Everyone gets a shift. The key is to keep talking about what’s important to each of you and the relationship, to expand and constrict around the needs of each individual, and then to find time to regroup as a couple.
Tip: Watch your words
Choosing your words carefully when you’re talking over problems, imperfections, or daily dilemmas can make the process more productive. If something is bugging you, it’s definitely worth talking about, but phrase it as a question or request rather than as a complaint or criticism.
Here’s how it works: You feel angry and overwhelmed by the amount of responsibility you’re taking on at home. Instead of launching into a “you-never-do-anything” monologue, start the conversation differently. “I’m feeling tired and overwhelmed and it feels important to me to have some help around the house. Would you be willing to do the dishes tonight?”
By making a request you invite your partner into the process. It allows you to state your needs and gives him an opportunity to meet them without feeling criticized or nagged. You may not get the answer you want, but hopefully, it will be the start of a respectful conversation.
Other words like “thoughtful” and “understand” have been shown in research to help diffuse arguments and lower stress. “I statements,” where you begin with “I” and then express how you’re feeling or what you need, also work to put your focus solidly on yourself and to share your experience without blame.
“Often, during an argument or disagreement, we slip into our territorial or reptilian brains and experience the fight-or-flight emotions and behaviours that leave us feeling defensive and combative,” Katie Hendricks says. A careful choice of words can eliminate that edgy feeling, connect you to your cognitive brain, and help you communicate effectively to solve problems. “The big payoff is that you spend less and less time in repetitive patterns that never seem to resolve the big issue,” Hendricks says.
Tip: Take time-outs and give do-overs
My friend Kelly is good about giving do-overs and she reminds me of the importance of making space for screw-ups.
Sometimes we just get it wrong. We don’t do it on purpose. We’re human and we make mistakes. In these moments remember that not everything has to be a life lesson. Not everything needs to be talked about or understood or explained or apologized for. Not everything means doom to the relationship. Sometimes, a mistake is just a mistake.
This is the prime time for a do-over. When someone—as in you—veers wildly off course into anger or blame or over-reaction, take a deep breath and ask for a do-over. Make sure you offer plenty to your partner too. Most of us do a lot better
when we get a second chance.
Or, try a time-out. Don’t just huff out of the room, but mention that you need a break and ask if you can finish the conversation when things have calmed. Then go someplace quiet, take some deep breaths, clear your head, and come back to deal with the situation in a less confrontational way. I even do this with my daughter. Sometimes instead of giving her one, I offer a time-out to myself, and then I run like crazy for the bedroom. A pause can help you move from the big emotion to a more productive problem-solving perspective.
Even the good among us think about the merits of revenge. Anthropologists say it’s a universal trait to want to go after those who came after you. In other cultures, revenge worked to deter those who might do future harm. In intimate relationships, it doesn’t work so well.
Forgiveness, another evolutionary quality, is a better way to go. Research out of Stanford University indicates that those who cannot forgive, experience greater stress and health problems including heart disease, cancer, high blood pressure, and lower immune response. Hanging onto the stress of what happened can actually make you sick. Forgiveness is the antidote.
Tip: Give a good hug
Hugs, handshakes, and even high-fives have been shown in studies to boost performance and promote healing. Another study indicated that students who received a touch on the back from a teacher were twice as likely to participate in class, says Tiffany Field, the director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine.
Touch unleashes a physical and emotional response that reduces stress, eases dark moods, and helps us feel better. Lack of touch has been associated with more aggressive and violent behaviours.
Make time for this kind of physical connection with your partner. Hold hands. Reach over and pat his arm, or gently place your hand along her cheek. Give a shoulder rub. Hug him when he walks through the door. Physical contact is a basic human need. Make sure you are reaching out, in a literal way, to each other.
Tip: Take care of yourself
There comes a time in every relationship where you need to take a clear-headed look at what’s going on and ask, “Am I getting enough from this relationship to make what I’m not getting OK?” Obviously, violence in a relationship, or abuse of any kind, is a deal breaker. Seek professional help, call a domestic violence hotline, and learn how to get out of the situation in a way that won’t put you at greater risk.
An act of faith
Every union has a unique set of challenges and issues and imperfections that ebb and flow with the happenings and circumstances of our daily lives. To be deeply connected to one another is to live gracefully with your partner’s imperfections, as well as your own. This can be hard to do, but when we work at it, we also have a shot at knowing ourselves better. We get a chance to love and be loved and the freedom that comes from that. It’s all an act of faith, for sure, but that is the spark of all spiritual growth.
IN THE MOMENT PRACTICES
Focus on fondness
Often we pick and fret and worry about all that our partner isn’t doing right. If you’re romantically involved with a human being and not a blow-up doll, you’re likely to find plenty of flaws to dwell on. But for five minutes, while you’re doing the dishes, or folding the clothes or driving to work, or listening to a song that you love, focus only on the good things, the things you love about this person, the things that make you laugh. Get very specific, and as your mind starts to wander to the irritations (yeah, it will), bring it back to fondness. When we remember what we truly love or appreciate, we also act more loving. Just a few minutes of focused fondness can ease a little relationship strife and promote better feelings.
Next time your partner walks in the door, get up, greet him with a hug or a kiss, and hold tight for a minute. This isn’t a sensuous, let’s-get-it-on kind of touch, just a tight, loving, nurturing embrace that’s good for both of you.
A moment of appreciation
Turn the television off, put down the iPad and the iPod and the iPhone, and sit down and talk to your partner for twenty minutes.
Start by sharing five things you appreciate about him, preferably specific things you experienced that day. Perhaps he checked in from work, or did the dishes, or gave a good hug, or picked up the kids from childcare.
Don’t ask or expect him to share his appreciations with you. If he does, great, but this is your gift of love and compassion to him. It also helps you see that despite all of the imperfections there is plenty of good going on in the relationship.
This practice, particularly if you do it daily, or at least several times a week, helps you connect to that goodness.
One path: A focus on what works
His sarcasm makes her crazy—and makes her laugh.
The way she gets so emotionally wrapped up in things bugs him a bit, but he loves how caring and compassionate she is.
Despite twenty years together, thirteen of them married, and the changes and challenges that come in any relationship, Kristin and Josh Mauer say they focus more on what works than the irritants and imperfections in the relationship.
“There have been times when I’d try to change her or she me but I don’t think that would ever work out. I don’t think we really want to do that,” says Josh, thirty-seven, manager of a landscape company. “I know myself better. I know who she is and it’s all OK. I think we can understand the differences and not get upset about all those little things. Everybody has their stuff—things that are negative—but we don’t get too wrapped up in all that.”
Five years ago, though, things weren’t quite so easy. Financial challenges pushed Kristin to take a job she despised that kept her away from their two daughters. Josh’s long workdays at the company he built added stress and the relationship was bowing under the pressure.
“It was just kind of a gray time,” said Kristin, thirty-five. “I got to a point where I was just totally lost. I stopped doing the things I liked to do; we had financial stress, and a routine that consisted of chores and duties. It created a lot of friction. We lost our solidarity.”
Instead of calling it quits (both admit they thought about it), the couple sat down, re-examined their values and their dreams for the future, and realized their marriage was part of that plan. Then they made some big life changes.
Josh sold his business and took a job in Mississippi. Kristin was reluctant to move away from both of their families, but she agreed to the change because it allowed her to be home with their daughters and together Josh and Kristin reconnected as a couple. Out of one of the most difficult times in their relationship evolved one of the best.
“There definitely are bumps in the road,” Josh says. “But the big thing is what are you going to do about that? Are you gonna cut and run away or stay and make it work?”
To make it work, Kristin and Josh, who now live in Virginia, rarely focus on the other’s flaws and they often move beyond disagreements by agreeing to simply let them go.
“Nobody needs to be right or wrong. It isn’t about winning,” Kristin says. “It’s about accepting each other and the circumstances and moving on and moving towards what matters more.”
“You can get pissed, but the bottom line is it’s really not that big of a deal. Why hold on to it and let it flood through the rest of the day?” Kristin says. “You can choose what to focus on,” Josh says. “I think Kristin and I focus on all the good there is.”