Holding any of these beliefs can make your relationships more difficult. Do you identify with any of them?
Our success in relationships doesn’t just depend on our personality and on our compatibility with the other person. As with everything in life, our cognition (what we think and feel) about events and things in our life have just as much influence. It’s a Buddhist cliché that our beliefs get in the way of clearly seeing the truth as it is.
Our beliefs provide a framework with which we understand the world. They are sometimes necessary, because otherwise we’d be questioning the meaning of every single little thing that happens to us. Beliefs are an interpretational shortcut that let us quickly imbue our lives with meaning. Since humans are meaning-making creatures, no wonder we develop beliefs about literally everything.
The problem with beliefs is that they often come from unreliable sources: personal experience, intuition, common sense, authority, tradition. Culture, more specifically popular culture, is an especially unreliable way to get our beliefs from. Its power is based on repetition and pervasiveness. So when our beliefs come from movies, magazines, TV shows, they should be especially suspect.
Getting to the point here: popular North American culture peddles certain beliefs about relationships that are known to be harmful. These beliefs actually increase your risk of being unhappy in relationships, because they put undue pressure on you and your partner.
1. Disagreements are bad
According to this belief, disagreeing means that you and your partner aren’t compatible somehow. Some people even interpret disagreements as a proof that their partner doesn’t love them enough.
Although love does come from a certain degree of similarity, disagreements happen. Whether it’s disagreeing over something small, like what to make for dinner, or something big, like whether to have children or not, no one can be expected to agree with another person 100% of the time.
I’m reminded of an episode of Black Mirror called “Nosedive”. In this episode, social media influence permeates our lives to the point where jobs, relationships and even housing depend on how well you’re rated by others. Everyone wears pastel colours, everyone is insufferably polite and nice, and everyone is using everyone else to boost their own rating.
At the end of the episode, the main character ends up in prison… where nobody can rate her.
Agreeing all the time is a little bit like that over-nice, repressed society. Disagreements can be productive, even liberating. Disagreements remind us that we are all different people with different needs and different goals.
Disagreements show us that couples are not a unit. Disagreeing with your partner doesn’t mean you don’t love them; it just means that you are different. And working through disagreements can make relationships stronger, too: you learn more about each other, and you figure out how to live harmoniously despite being different.
2. Your partner should be able to read your mind
I used to get into that one all the time with my ex. Somehow, I was supposed to understand what he thought and how he felt without him telling me anything about it. When I asked him about his feelings or his needs, he would sometimes tell me: “we’ve been together long enough; you should know!” Well, sorry mister, but I’m not a fucking mind reader.
I have to admit that I expected this of him as well. Somehow, I believed that he could guess my state of mind. (Although he was pretty observant and a good judge of what others are feeling/thinking, it still isn’t okay.) This belief turned catastrophic for our relationship.
Somehow, people in relationships think that they know their partners better over time, which leads to some laziness about communication. In a famous study by Swann & Gill (1997), people in relationships were asked to answer questions about their partners. The longer they were in the relationship, the more confident they felt about the accuracy of their answers. However, the accuracy was always the same: about 40%. But as they grew more familiar with each other, people believed that their accuracy improved, up to almost 100% confident.
Basically, we don’t know other people well, but we think we do.
Does mind reading still seem like a reasonable expectation to you? It seems even more ridiculous after seeing this data.
3. People don’t change
A lot of people also believe that their partners don’t change. We complain: “you’re not the person I married/fell in love with”. But why would they be? People change. All the time. Even at a biological level, all the cells in our bodies are replaced after some time.
There’s a process in psychology called attributional biasses. One of them is how we tend to believe that our own good traits and deeds are based in stable, unchanging characteristics. When you do something nice, you think: “I’m a good person!” This process also makes us believe that our own bad traits and deeds are based in contextual, temporary characteristics. For example, if you act in anger or do something wrong, you tend to put the blame on circumstances rather than your own traits. Coming home, cranky, you snip at your partner for something insignificant. When your partner raises the problem, you put the blame on “a bad day at work” rather than being a bad or mean person.
Interestingly, we tend to do the opposite with other people. We attribute their good deeds to context, and we attribute their bad deeds to unchanging traits.
So, when it comes to believing that people don’t change, we arguably would apply this belief to their flaws rather than their good side. A partner who cheats is dishonest and unfaithful; a partner who spoils us is in a good mood.
In reality, much of our behaviour is actually of the contextual kind. We have tendencies based on our personalities, but we are able to act differently in different circumstances. So if we acknowledge this about ourselves, why do we have trouble acknowledging it in others? That’s a question for better psychologists than me, but it should make you reflect on how you interpret your partner’s behaviour. Maybe they just had a bad day, too?
4. Sex should be mind-blowing every time
This belief happens at the intersection of porn culture and Hollywood romanticism, and it’s super harmful. Related beliefs include: “we should always want and be ready for sex” and “sex will always be good if we really love each other”.
As you can guess, I’m not a big fan of romantic comedies, but there’s one sex scene I like in the movie About Time, where the main character travels back in time three times to have better sex with the girl every time. Here’s a video of the director explaining the scene:
I like this scene because it admits that sex with a new partner can be just meh. It takes the main character three times to get it right. In real life, it usually takes more than three times, but you get the point. And I’m sure you can think of similar instances in your life, where sex was just meh, even though you love the person very much.
Thing is, sex is a kind of performance. It requires commitment and connection, sure, but also requires skill and knowledge. Loving your partner isn’t enough to be good in the sack, though. I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t nail Hamlet right without a little practice first, no matter how much you love the play. So why do we have this expectation about sex?
Sex can suck. Sometimes you screw up a recipe. Not every painting is worth hanging on a wall. Not every story is worth publishing.
Not every sex session is going to be amazing.
5. Men and women are different
Okay, sure, men and women are different in some small ways. But in general, on any given measure, the differences between genders are smaller than the differences between individuals of the same gender.
From this belief comes the idea that men and women can’t understand each other. That their needs, their desires and their goals are so dissimilar that we need to spend our lives trying to figure out what the other wants… and that once we “know”, we hold some kind of secret formula or something. Or, if we don’t know, we spend our lifetimes struggling to understand them.
Thing is, people are not their gender. Every person is different, with different goals, needs and interests. If you want to know what someone wants, ask them.
6. Good relationships don’t need work
This false belief is somewhat related to the first one. If you think that disagreements are bad, then you think that relationships don’t need work.
Thing is, every relationship needs work. Sometimes people fuck up. Sometimes people change. Sometimes life changes and forces us to deal with new situations.
In my experience, the best relationships are those where people work at it all the time. They are constantly paying attention to the other. They check in all the time. They understand that people change, that life changes, that nothing is constant or eternal—especially not relationships.
Good relationships don’t just happen. Good relationships are the product of work and commitment and compassion. Good relationships are not destined: they are made.
Common denominator: the fixed mindset
I don’t have the space to write in depth about the fixed vs. the growth mindset here today, but here’s a great piece on Mind Pickings about it. What all these beliefs have in common is the idea that things are somehow destined, fixed, that people don’t change and that relationships are meant to be (or not).