by Tal Ben-Shahar
The course of true love never did run smooth. —William Shakespeare
My favorite song is Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You,” with Celine Dion’s “Let’s Talk About Love” a close second. Of my top 10 all-time favorites, eight are love songs (Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Lee Ann Womack’s “I Hope You Dance” somehow found their way onto that list). I love love. For as long as I breathe and my eyes can see, I will be moved by Shakespeare’s words of devotion, and I will stay up, sleepless in Cambridge, watching Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks unite.
Like many others, I learned about romance from my favorite songs, poems, movies, and self-help books. And while one does not need to be a student of human relations to know that “love is the answer,” finding the answer to the question “What is true love?” requires more than the ability to rhyme. It requires reason.
With the best of intentions, some poets, songwriters, movie directors, and relationship gurus have led us astray. They have depicted love as sweet, seductive, delightful, alluring. The trouble is that this image does not reflect reality and is potentially harmful. Here is an excerpt from one of the leading self-help writers of the 20th century, Leo Buscaglia:
Perfect love is rare indeed—for to be a lover will require that you continually have the subtlety of the very wise, the flexibility of the child, the sensitivity of the artist, the understanding of the philosopher, the acceptance of the saint, the tolerance of the scholar and the fortitude of the certain.
This beautiful passage captures the essence of the written words on love, spoken words on passion, and sung words on lust. So beautiful—and so harmful! Because, in fact, perfect love is not rare; it does not exist. Buying into the illusion that it does will lead to one of three outcomes. First, it may prevent us from ever finding a romantic partner, because we will always be waiting for that perfect person who has the flexibility of a child, the sensitivity of an artist, and so on. Second, we may decide to enter a relationship with a partner who does not have the qualities of a saint or philosopher, with the feeling that we have compromised, while continuing to seek, consciously or not, that perfect person. Finally, we may believe that we have found the perfect partner, only to feel profound disappointment and frustration when we discover our partner’s flaws, as we inevitably will.
There certainly is a place, even a need, for writing, poetry, music, and films that depict the saintly and beautiful. I have no doubt that more people make love after watching Pride and Prejudice or Titanic than they do after watching Family Guy or Married with Children. And I certainly would refuse to relinquish 85 percent of my CD collection on the grounds that the songs are too romantic or that they fail to provide a fair representation of true love. The challenge is to come to terms with the fact that art is not (always) life, that our bedroom at home will differ—perhaps slightly, perhaps a great deal, but differ it will—from the film set where each perfect costume has been perfectly placed as it was perfectly torn from the lovers’ perfect bodies. While something may be lost in translation from the movie set to our bedroom set, much more can be gained. What we need is love, like in the songs and movies and books and poems, only more—more real.
There comes a time in the course of every long-term relationship when we realize that our partner is not God’s perfect gift to mankind, or womankind. Inevitably, the same realization sooner or later strikes our partner. We become fully aware for the first time of each other’s flaws and imperfections, not in the superficial sense of perceiving these faults as cute or endearing but in a deep and sometimes troubling way. For example, we may realize that our partner has a streak of anger that we never noticed before or that he or she is gripped by insecurity and anxiety or has a tendency toward inconsistency and breaches of integrity. And even though we all know and accept and pay lip service to the idea that no one is perfect, facing the truth that our partner is no exception to this rule can be shocking and frightening.
The point of realization has parallels to the point when children understand that their parents are merely human—hence flawed—and they suddenly feel more alone and less secure in the world. A partner may then come along and take the place of our “perfect” parent. But the partner’s eventual and inevitable fall from the perch of perfection—when his imperfections are exposed—can be more devastating to us than the realization that our parents are only human. In addition to our feeling more alone and insecure, our sense of judgment may be shaken as we realize that we were wrong about our partner—this time, unlike our earlier experience with our parents, without the excuse of childhood innocence. Our heart is broken and, worse, so are our reassuring illusions.
What happens at this point, when one or both partners wake up from the illusion of perfect love, is a crisis of confidence—in one’s own judgment, in the judgment of one’s partner, and in the future of the relationship. The crisis can signify either the beginning of the end of the relationship or the beginning of real love. One way or another, the relationship changes. It is transformed and can never be the same again.
While not all relationships should or can be sustained, while not all partners are compatible, the dissolution or deterioration of most relationships is avoidable. To realize the potential inherent in the relationship, it is necessary to accept that there are flaws in the partner and in the partnership. Needless to say, accepting flaws does not mean being resigned to them; a willingness by both partners to work on their failings is a prerequisite for a flourishing relationship. The healthy approach is one of active acceptance, which means that before we start working to improve what needs to be improved, there has to be a fundamental acceptance that these flaws exist.
The expectations that we have of our partner and the promise that love holds are important in creating a thriving partnership. At the same time, these expectations must be realistic or else they will lead to disappointment and frustration. While it is pleasant—exalting, even—to be admired by your partner as the epitome of perfection, it is also liberating not to be placed on a pedestal. Of course, this feeling of liberation comes only if the loss of the illusion is replaced with loving acceptance. This will not happen instantaneously, but acceptance has to emerge for the relationship to thrive. Acceptance is not a call for mediocrity, for compromise, but rather a prerequisite for the attainment of optimal success and happiness on a personal as well as an interpersonal level.
—This post was originally published in Kripalu: Thrive.
Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar, CLO of WholeBeing Institute, is an author and lecturer who taught the largest course at Harvard on “Positive Psychology” and the third largest on “The Psychology of Leadership”—with a total of over 1,400 students. Author of Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment, he consults and lectures around the world to corporate executives, the general public, and at-risk populations on topics that include happiness, self-esteem, resilience, goal setting, mindfulness, and leadership. He holds a doctorate in organizational behavior and a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and psychology from Harvard.