We all have preconceived notions about relationships. Our parents model them for us when we are young, and we read about couples in books and see them on TV and in movies. Yet, while everyone grows up forming his or her own picture of the perfect relationship, very little, if any, of this picture comes from an individual’s wants and desires. Therefore, we create relationships based on what society wants. In other words, we subconsciously and unintentionally act like we think we are supposed to act, in regard to what our partner and everyone else wants, as opposed to what feels good to us. Unfortunately, this causes many people to lose their sense of self when in an intimate relationship.
Being in a same-sex relationship has not spared me of society’s relationship norms. It took me years to figure out that I wanted something different. While past relationship experiences were somewhat satisfying, they did not provide me with everything I desired. As I began to reflect on my unsatisfying relationships, I asked myself the first of two questions: “Why were my relationships only mediocre?” I realized it was because I was socialized to perceive any relationship a certain way-without considering my own wants and desires. Each relationship had to meet specific criteria based on what I had observed and learned growing up. We all grow up with spoken and unspoken rules about relationships. For example, I remember hearing that it’s improper to live with someone before getting married. (Thank God I listened to my heart instead of my head on this one! Otherwise, I would have been forty-nine before I lived with someone!) Here are a sampling of other rules that I observed growing up in the 1960s and 1970s.
• The woman does the household duties while the man goes to work.
• Men only do masculine household chores (shoveling snow, mowing the grass, and so on).
Thank goodness I grew up during a time when women were questioning-and still question-these gender stereotypes. However, there are a host of other unspoken rules that have nothing to do with gender. For example, many people believe married couples should live in the same home. Although this is a commonly held belief of what it means to be in a relationship, it may not allow people to be at their best. I have multiple friends who are married but do not share a home. This works for them! They are happier with each other having created their own picture of what a relationship can be.
Still, because of societal expectations, each of us brings thousands of beliefs into an intimate relationship. Here are some more examples. Feel free to add ones that speak to you.
• Couples have to take their vacations together.
• Couples have to like each other’s friends.
• Couples have sex all the time-forever.
• Partners are clairvoyant about each other’s thoughts and feelings.
• All couples have to have children. (As a matter of fact, the myth is that having children strengthens the bond between the couple.)
• Couples who really love each other don’t fight or disagree.
• It’s the job of each person in a relationship to make the other person happy.
• Marriage is forever.
As I considered these spoken and unspoken rules and my less-than-desirable relationships, a second question arose: “What do I want from an intimate relationship?” Investigating my personal desires and dreams in this way liberated me. It allowed me to not only think outside the box but ditch the box entirely. Through this freedom, I was allowed to create the relationship I truly wanted. I wanted a relationship that was mutual. My ideal relationship was one where both people regularly practiced and experienced love and belonging. I drew inspiration from Brené Brown (2010), author of The Gifts of Imperfection, who cites bell hooks “To begin by always thinking of love as an action rather than a feeling is one way in which anyone using the word in this manner automatically assumes accountability and responsibility” (pg. 27). It was critically important for me to be in a relationship where I could share myself from a very authentic place; in this place, I could share all my peculiarities and imperfections and still feel love and belonging in the relationship. Additionally, I always wanted my partner to feel safe enough to do the same. Lastly, for me, a phenomenal relationship has clear and honest communication and a desire to continue to grow as individuals and as a couple. When I framed what I wanted in this way, the opportunities around my relationship seemed endless, as long as we explored ideas together. Living this way has allowed Kim and me to create a relationship that we love and are grateful for every day.
Consider asking yourself the following questions.
• Are you in a relationship where you feel free to be yourself?
• If you asked yourself what your perfect relationship would be, what would it look like?