Love is the most beautiful and perhaps the most incomprehensible thing in the world. We find it in movies, in books, in the strength of a “yes” declared before the civil authorities, and in the embrace that binds spouses at the end of a hard day’s work.
Love does not differentiate on the basis of nationality, age or political affiliation. But as widespread as it is, it has proven to be fragile. The high divorce rate confirms that the traditional “until death do us part” fails many times in real life. Especially when imperfect people expect perfection from someone like them.
The beginning of a relationship revolves around the “chemistry” between lovers. We are attracted to manners, intelligence, humour. We enjoy the evidence of affection, the small gestures of kindness. We notice the bright spots, leaving the shortcomings in the background.
It takes monotony and time for the faults to make their way under the spotlights. What happens when the initial fire is extinguished influences the outcome of the whole story.
At first, people are fascinated by each other’s qualities, by the way their presence fills a seemingly empty space. Some easily notice the partner’s faults, measure and weigh them, then choose to validate what is favourable and good, without denying the existence of negative parts. Others deceive themselves that imperfections do not exist; at least not to the extent that they could ruin a common future. Although they notice disturbing things, they prefer to attribute them to circumstances, to chance, and hope that one day they will disappear by themselves, or that they will show up less often, without endangering the perfect harmony of the couple.
Despite what many people believe, love is not a lottery. Its permanence does not oscillate according to the whims of uncontrollable circumstances. Each of those involved has a say in achieving and maintaining the degree of satisfaction that makes all the difference between “until death do us part” and “until divorce rips us apart.”
This is visible even at the beginning of the courtship, in the way a couple relates to the pros and cons of the person in question. Even if they prioritise the positive aspects, recognising the flaws of a possible partner helps them to realistically assess the potential of the relationship and the compromises that need to be made. They may be willing to accept a person who is not funny but displays depth, or a man who is jovial despite being far too talkative. They judge the whole, not its parts, thus testing how they balance each other.
Usually, strengths and weaknesses come from a common root. Speaking of ambivalence and compromise, the author of an article dedicated to couple relationships admits that he reconciled with his wife’s lack of punctuality because he saw how her complicated relationship with time makes her not only late, but also adventurous and spontaneous, which always brings freshness to their relationship. Likewise, his wife has learned to accept the frequent changes of mood of her husband, as well as the heavy pessimism, because they come with a lot of empathy and capacity for reflection, which helps defuse interpersonal conflicts.
Those who accept their partner from the beginning, for better or worse, manage to remain faithful to their admiration for the partner. In the aforementioned case, time does not become a difficult enemy who denounces everything they have constantly striven to ignore – a whole world of unspoken expectations – but the brave friend who brings two people closer together without complexes and masks.
On the other hand, those animated by the illusion of perfection ignore the defects of the chosen person, creating a greater chance for future dissatisfaction. Passed by the idyllic phase and confronted with the unadorned reality of an imperfect partner, they end up wondering who the person next to them really is. The survival of the whole depends on this question or, rather, on its intention.
In general, we have difficulty accepting the changes requested from us, but we demand that others adopt opinions, behaviours and habits that are in line with our own needs, especially when those others are our spouses over whom we have a major influence. And especially when they begin to distance themselves more and more from the attributes of original perfection.
Finally, change seems to be the only solution to the dissatisfaction generated by the other’s shortcomings; 70% of a conflicts between partners come from the inability to accept the partner’s mistakes and, implicitly, to manage the differences between expectations and reality. Hence the pressure of change, of imposing directions that one should follow for the sake of the other.
But we know that no one can be changed by force—not in the long run, and not authentically.
Certainly, loving partners will agree to make small behavioural adjustments to cultivate peace at home: taking the garbage out (if that represents a frequent reason for discussion), giving up tasteless jokes, waking up early in the morning, not eating noisily.
Fundamental changes are difficult to achieve and an intrinsic motivation is needed to trigger them. Pessimists do not become optimistic overnight (in fact, some never change), noisy people do not suddenly become silent, people who are clumsy in the kitchen do not suddenly become master chefs, and dreamers do not switch automatically to practical, action-oriented people.
The partner should be encouraged to understand why the other thinks they need to change and offer support towards the desired progress, not imposing their own view, and keeping in mind that they should also show a willingness to change. There is usually room for improvement on both sides.
Marriage is not doomed to failure even in the absence of a desire for change. Research shows that people who shape their expectations according to the dynamics of the relationship, viewing the good qualities of their “better half” with gratitude and the defects with understanding, have a high degree of marital satisfaction.
Change can be achieved under certain conditions. In order to appropriately consider what the husband or wife has to offer at a given time, while ignoring their shortcomings, a connection based on understanding, security and attachment is needed. If the essential needs are not met, then even a single flaw can outweigh a hundred good qualities.
Reciprocity also helps us to be tolerant of our life partner’s shortcomings. A recent experiment measured a person’s ‘flaw tolerance’, demonstrated by a group of people who were led to believe that their partners had launched a harsh wave of criticism about them.
Many participants chose to reciprocate by enumerating a long list of their partner’s vices, even if initially—before they saw what their partners had “said” about them—they had limited their complaints to one or two negative characteristics.
Fear influences the way in which we view the other’s mistakes, our acceptance of them. Those who believe that they are critically evaluated also become less willing to accept the imperfections of the evaluator; they feel attacked and so they respond defensively.
The reaction is similar whether the fears are justified, anchored in everyday feelings and experiences, or unjustified (people with low self-esteem especially tend to accumulate such fears).
Some voices argue that long-term marriages work not necessarily because of the good things the couple does for each other, but because of the bad things they don’t do despite the usual, inherent problems that have arisen over time; due to the maturity they show when proposing and negotiating solutions; due to their understanding of the other’s weaknesses, bad days, and difficult moments; due to the love expressed despite the flaws that the other half is or is not ready to correct; and due to the love received despite their own mistakes.
Although a universal recipe for a successful marriage is slow to emerge, the golden rule is also effective among lovers. Only by giving what we want to receive will we be able to fully declare, “I love you for your flaws too.” After all, we all want to be loved as we are—and from there it can only keep getting better.
Genia Ruscu holds a Master’s degree in counselling within social services.