Editor’s Note: Strong relationships are at the core of a happy life, but sometimes, dealing with the people in our lives is tricky. That’s why Thrive Global partnered with The Gottman Institute on this advice column, Asking for a Friend. Every week, Gottman’s relationship experts will answer your most pressing questions about navigating relationships — with romantic partners, family members, co-workers, friends, and more. Have a question? Send it to [email protected]!
Q: I’ve dated a handful of guys, and in every relationship, my friends tell me that I deserve better. It’s one thing to say it as a way to console someone going through a breakup, but my friends have told me this while I was in the relationship, and was happy. It always gets to my head and makes me re-evaluate the relationship, and I end up finding something wrong with him, even if it didn’t bother me before. I’ve always been pretty confident, and I don’t think that I have particularly low standards when it comes to men, so why is everyone telling me I need to be more picky?
The question I have is, what kinds of things are your friends pointing out? I ask because it may be appropriate to have both high and low expectations, depending on what aspect of the relationship we are discussing. Let me explain.
There is a myth some people believe (including some couples therapists) that if you lower your expectations, you will find a life partner faster and won’t be disappointed by the relationship. However, research on marital expectations by Donald Baucom, clinical psychology faculty member at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, showed that people get what they expect. If you lower your expectations, you will be treated poorly. If you raise your expectations, you will be treated well.
When it comes to how we are being treated by a partner, we need to have high expectations so that we ensure we will be treated well. This means we should always expect to be treated with kindness and respect. We should expect that our partner is honest and loyal. We should also expect that our partner treats others respectfully, including their own friends/family and our friends/family.
If your friends are pointing out a lack of kindness, respect, honesty, or loyalty when they say you deserve better, you may want to seriously consider their advice and re-evaluate the relationship.
I had a client once who shared that her friends voiced concern about the person she was dating, including how he was treating them, and how he was treating her. Her friends noticed that he wasn’t very kind to them or interested in them. He also had mood swings and a short temper at times. My client said that he always had a good explanation for why it was happening and what needed to change so that he wouldn’t behave that way again. She decided to ignore her friends’ concerns and ended up marrying him. After marriage, things got worse. The relationship became emotionally abusive and ended two years after the wedding.
If you see signs early on that someone is disrespectful or has difficulty managing their anger, get out immediately. This kind of behavior does not improve over time and you should never tolerate emotional or physical abuse.
On the other hand, there are aspects of the relationship in which you may need to lower your expectations. According to Dr. John Gottman, psychological researcher and clinician who did extensive work over four decades on divorce prediction and marital stability, we need to settle for the “good enough relationship.” What he means is that all relationships have conflict, so we shouldn’t expect a conflict-free relationship. Conflict, however, is not negative. If handled constructively, it gives couples the key to understanding one another better.
You will also never find a partner exactly like you, so you have to expect differences between you that may lead to conflict. Dr. Gottman’s research showed that 69 percent of problems that a couple deals with are perpetual problems, meaning they are not solvable. So we shouldn’t expect to solve all of the problems we have with our partner either.
If your friends are saying you can do better due to differences between you and your partner that are causing conflict, then you need to ask yourself, is this difference livable for me? According to Dr. Dan Wile, clinical psychologist and developer of Collaborative Couple Therapy, choosing a partner is choosing a set of problems you can live with. No matter who you choose you will have differences, so success in a relationship is about choosing the differences you can live with and then dealing with those differences constructively.
In addition to managing conflict constructively, the “good enough relationship” should also include a strong friendship. You want a partner who is interested in you, admires you, and supports you emotionally. Your partner should also honor your dreams and work toward creating a sense of shared meaning with you.
So next time your friends tell you that you can do better, ask what they mean exactly and evaluate for yourself if their concern is an area of high expectation (how you are being treated) or low expectation (differences that can create conflict) before deciding whether or not to end the relationship.
More from Asking for a Friend here.