There is a common reason that relationships fail and most are unaware they do it. I was recently asked about how you can have a ‘chill’ break up, for a piece in the press. When writing my answers on the best ways to do this, what to avoid, the best times etc, one thing that came up was doing it before things go too far. Before you have picked enough holes in the relationship that it has become unhealthy or even toxic.
This then got me thinking about another conversation I had with a client about what they wanted in a new relationship and the fact that she just went back to emphasising all the negatives she wanted to avoid, rather all of the positives she would like to find.
This is common in all of your relationships, whether it is something that you are looking to find or whether you are in a relationship already, relationship researchers suggest that we overemphasise the negatives and underappreciate the positives.
We are constantly looking for the faults, the things we aren’t happy with, rather than focusing on the good things and what we like about someone.
There are several reasons why this could happen.
You could be looking to get out of the relationship because it has triggered your attachment style and you have gone into an insecure space. You could hold relationship beliefs that are negative and so the smallest issues make you re-think your relationship. You could have got so used to relationships being a certain way that anything that doesn’t fit that normal, means that find it too uncomfortable to remain.
If you could build the perfect relationship, what would it look like? Perhaps more importantly, how does your current relationship stack up to that idea?
In a lot of cases, expectations for today’s relationships seem to be higher than ever before. Now that relationships are a choice, mediocrity isn’t acceptable. It’s all or nothing, and no one wants to settle, when they could have more.
The want it all now and not prepared to wait, is an expectation that can lead to relationship discontent.
The secret to avoiding settling seems simple: have high standards and demand only the very best. So, are you pickier than others and always want the absolute best possible option – are you a perfectionist when it comes to choosing a partner?
Or are you a satisfier – satisfied once quality surpasses a minimum threshold of acceptability. For you, “good enough” is perfectly fine. As long as their relationship exceeds their predetermined benchmarks for “high quality,” you are content.
Being a satisfier has its own issues. If good enough is based on previous relationships when getting 20% of what was possible made you feel you were getting enough, then getting 30% will feel like a huge improvement. When actually you are still missing a massive 70% of what you could have.
Perfectionist personalities will tend to exhaust all options and explore many possibilities to secure the flawless partner. You might think that sounds ideal, almost like common sense way of deciding who to be with. But there are massive downsides to approaching a relationship in this way.
There is a myth in perfection, because the research reveals that perfectionists report more regret and depression and feel threatened by others whom they perceive as doing better. They also experience lower self-esteem, less optimism, happiness and life satisfaction.
In a relationship they are looking for things that live up to expectation and if not, they can start to look towards others that can fulfil this desire.
In long-term relationships, people tend to prefer more of a “’til death do us part” approach rather than a “’til I find something better” idea. As a perfectionist, that means someone needs to keep up a certain level, for a very long time and so can lead to an avoidance of getting closer to someone entirely.
Overall, the implication for your relationship is clear: The continuous pursuit of perfection could be fine for a car, but in your relationship, it may result in failing to recognise the truly great relationship that’s right in front of you for what it is. Impossibly high standards can make an excellent relationship seem average.
You may also undervalue your relationship by being too quick to identify imperfections, notice the negatives and find problems.
I have talked about the negativity bias of our brains before. We have an in-built tendency to pay attention to the negative aspects of our experiences, just in case we need to remember where the danger has come from in the past, or in relationships, where the loss and pain has come from in the past.
So, when your relationship is going well, it doesn’t register. You take it for granted. But the problems? They capture your attention and become your focus.
The bickering, insensitive comments, forgotten promises, the messes and the inconveniences – all stand out because they deviate from the easily overlooked happy status quo.
This tendency is so pronounced that when a relationship doesn’t have any major issues, research suggests that people inflate small problems into bigger ones. Again, there could be a deeper underlying issue here i.e. looking for a way out, or looking to create some drama or chaos in the relationship.
Rather than be thankful for the relative calm, people manufacture problems where none previously existed. You could be your own worst enemy without even realising it.
Take the time to recalibrate where your mind is taking you. The key is to separate the critical from the inconsequential in order to distinguish minor issues from real problems.
Identifying the true deal breakers will allow you to save your energy for real problems, and allow the minor stuff to simply fade away.
There are certainly annoyances that can become deal breakers in otherwise generally healthy relationships. There are some perfectly legitimate reasons on that list as to why you are with the wrong person, but others that can easily be addressed in conversation. But if your partner disrespects, hurts, neglects or abuses you, those are behaviours that shouldn’t be ignored and should rightly end your relationship immediately.
In another study, researchers asked participants to consider both deal breakers and dealmakers (qualities that are especially appealing), when determining whether a relationship was viable and it turned out the deal breakers carried more weight. The negativity bias strikes again.
The fact that people tend to focus more on the dealbreakers rather than the dealmakers is further evidence that you might not be giving some aspects of your relationship enough credit.
To help you better appreciate your partner’s good qualities, consider the qualities that individuals find most desirable in a long-term partner. What are the fundamental things that can keep a relationship going and more fulfilling?
What have you been missing in your relationship? Surely there are boxes that your partner checks that you’ve neglected to notice. Start giving credit where credit is due.
In fact, you could even give your partner even more credit than they might deserve. Instead of being realistic, give your partner the benefit of the doubt, with an overly generous appraisal. Would you be lying to yourself?
Yes, but maybe only a little bit. But research shows that these types of positive overstatements help the relationship by decreasing conflict and increasing satisfaction, love and trust.
Holding overly optimistic views of your partner convinces you of their value, which reflects well on you – you’re the one who has such a great partner, after all.
Your rose-coloured opinions also make your partner feel good and give them a good reputation to live up to. They won’t want to let you down so they’ll try to fulfil your positive idea of them. All of which benefits your relationship.
This doesn’t mean to ignore things if they are bad and I would suggest giving the benefit of the doubt only once or twice, maximum. (For the younger people out there. ‘Benefit of the doubt’ means to accept someone is being honest or sincere, that they have made an error by accident, even though you may be unhappy with what they have done).
Is it time to stop being overly critical of your relationship? Instead find the faults, look for the parts of your relationship you’ve been overlooking or taking for granted and that will help you gain a more positive perspective of where things actually are.
If you know where to look and what to appreciate, you may just realise there are a lot more reasons to happily be into your relationship than you thought.