Why we’re conditioned to blame our partners for our unhappiness.
By March 1, 2010 – last reviewed on April 10, 2017
The Expectations Trap: Perfection, Please
If there’s one thing that most explicitly detracts from the enjoyment of relationships today, it’s an abundance of choice. Psychologist Barry Schwartz would call it an excess of choice—the tyranny of abundance. We see it as a measure of our autonomy and we firmly believe that freedom of choice will lead to fulfillment. Our antennae are always up for better opportunities, finds Schwartz, professor of psychology at Swarthmore College.
Just as only the best pair of jeans will do, so will only the best partner—whatever that is. “People walk starry-eyed looking not into the eyes of their romantic partner but over their romantic partner’s shoulder, in case there might be somebody better walking by. This is not the road to successful long-term relationships.” It does not stop with marriage. And it undermines commitment by encouraging people to keep their options open.
Like Doherty, Schwartz sees it as a consequence of a consumer society. He also sees it as a self-fulfilling phenomenon. “If you think there might be something better around the next corner, then there will be, because you’re not fully committed to the relationship you’ve got.”
It’s naive to expect relationships to feel good every minute. Every relationship has its bumps. How big a bump does it have to be before you do something about it? As Hopkins’s Cherlin says, if you’re constantly asking yourself whether you should leave, “there may be a day when the answer is yes. In any marriage there may be a day when the answer is yes.”
One of the problems with unrestrained choice, explains Schwartz, is that it raises expectations to the breaking point. A sense of multiple alternatives, of unlimited possibility, breeds in us the illusion that perfection exists out there, somewhere, if only we could find it. This one’s sense of humor, that one’s looks, another one’s charisma—we come to imagine that there will be a package in which all these desirable features coexist. We search for perfection because we believe we are entitled to the best—even if perfection is an illusion foisted on us by an abundance of possibilities.
If perfection is what you expect, you will always be disappointed, says Schwartz. We become picky and unhappy. The cruel joke our psychology plays on us, of course, is that we are terrible at knowing what will satisfy us or at knowing how any experience will make us feel.
If the search through all possibilities weren’t exhausting (and futile) enough, thinking about attractive features of the alternatives not chosen—what economists call opportunity costs—reduces the potential pleasure in whatever choice we finally do make. The more possibilities, the more opportunity costs—and the more we think about them, the more we come to regret any choice. “So, once again,” says Schwartz, “a greater variety of choices actually makes us feel worse.”
Ultimately, our excess of choice leads to lack of intimacy. “How is anyone going to stack up against this perfect person who’s out there somewhere just waiting to be found?” asks Schwartz. “It creates doubt about this person, who seems like a good person, someone I might even be in love with—but who knows what’s possible out there? Intimacy takes time to develop. You need to have some reason to put in the time. If you’re full of doubt at the start, you’re not going to put in the time.”
Moreover, a focus on one’s own preferences can come at the expense of those of others. As Schwartz said in his 2004 book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, “most people find it extremely challenging to balance the conflicting impulses of freedom of choice on the one hand and loyalty and commitment on the other.”
And yet, throughout, we are focused on the partner we want to have, not on the one we want—or need—to be. That may be the worst choice of all.
The heightened sensitivity to relationship problems that follows from constantly appraising our happiness encourages couples to turn disappointment into tragedy, Doherty contends.
Inevitably, images of the perfect relationship dancing in our heads collide with our sense of entitlement: “I’m entitled to the best possible marriage.” The reality of disappointment becomes intolerable. “It’s part of a cultural belief system that says we are entitled to everything we feel we need.”
Through the alchemy of desire, wants become needs, and unfulfilled needs become personal tragedies. “A husband who isn’t very expressive of his feelings can be a disappointment or a tragedy, depending on whether it’s an entitlement,” says Doherty. “And that’s very much a cultural phenomenon.” We take the everyday disappointments of relationships and treat them as intolerable, see them as demeaning—the equivalent of alcoholism, say, or abuse. “People work their way into ‘I’m a tragic figure’ around the ordinary problems of marriage.” Such stories are so widespread, Doherty is no longer inclined to see them as reflecting an individual psychological problem, although that is how he was trained—and how he practiced for many years as an eminent family therapist. “I see it first now as a cultural phenomenon.”
First Lady Michelle Obama is no stranger to the disappointment that pervades relationships today. In Barack and Michelle: Portrait of an American Marriage, by Christopher Anderson, she confides how she reached a “state of desperation” while working full-time, bringing in the majority of the family income, raising two daughters, and rarely seeing her husband, who was then spending most of his week away from their Chicago home as an Illinois state senator, a job she thought would lead nowhere while it paid little. “She’s killing me with this constant criticism,” Barack complained. “She just seems so bitter, so angry all the time.” She was annoyed that he “seems to think he can just go out there and pursue his dream and leave all the heavy lifting to me.”
But then she had an epiphany: She remembered the guy she fell in love with. ” I figured out that I was pushing to make Barack be something I wanted him to be for me. I was depending on him to make me happy. Except it didn’t have anything to do with him. I needed support. I didn’t necessarily need it from Barack.”
Certainly, commitment narrows choice. But it is the ability to remember you really do love someone—even though you may not be feeling it at the moment.
Commitment is the ability to sustain an investment, to honor values over momentary feelings. The irony, of course, is that while we want happiness, it isn’t a moment-by-moment experience; the deepest, most enduring form of happiness is the result of sustained emotional investments in other people.