There are numerous stereotypes about love, relationships, and marriage, and some of them have formed into broadly shared myths. Unfortunately, couples can be led astray by myths that promote unhealthy relationship habits or prevent partners from adopting healthier styles of relating. Often in therapy, I work with couples to break down commonly held myths so that partners can increase their awareness and take control of developing a more satisfying relationship. Here are some of the most common myths that present in couple therapy.
Myth 1: True love is unconditional.
There is a misguided expectation fueled by the media and cultural rhetoric that true love is unconditional. You are swept off your feet by someone who loves you for you, for now and for always. In reality, love is conditional, and it should be. You need to earn your partner's love and make active efforts to maintain it if you hope to sustain a fulfilling long-term relationship. Love requires continuous effort and work. Instead of passively riding the rise and fall of intimacy and passion, it is up to both partners to actively choose to love and connect with one another. The best way to find the limits and expectations of your partner's view on love is to ask him or her directly and seek ways that you can foster a stronger connection. Ideally these efforts will be reciprocated, and your love will grow under the attention and respect that you give it.
Myth 2: No sex means a bad relationship.
It is not true that a lack of sex spells doom for a relationship. Firstly, it is natural for sexual desire and frequency to fluctuate as you experience life's planned or unexpected events. Secondly, if you are unhappy with your sexual relationship, this is something that can be worked on and improved rather than something that will drag down the rest of your relationship.
It is true that deficits in sexual intimacy may cause or be a reflection of other problems in the relationship, such as emotional distance, resentment, or a lack of effective communication. Instead of focusing on the lack of sex as the problem in your relationship, you need to examine your lack of motivation or willingness to face the problem with your partner. Sexual intimacy is something you and your partner can improve together.
Myth 3: Having kids will bring us closer.
Some struggling couples will choose to have a child in hope that it will renew intimacy and meaning within a relationship. If this is your main motivation for starting a family, there is a high likelihood that it will backfire. Research has well documented a precipitous drop in relationship satisfaction for both partners following the birth of a child. If your relationship is already distant or highly conflictual, a child with all of its needs and demands may push you even farther apart.
When starting a family, it is helpful to discuss your expectations for the transition to parenthood with your partner. Of course the needs of the newborn will surpass the needs of the parents and the relationship initially, but how do you each plan to feel connected with the other? What are your expectations for the time that should be devoted to the relationship? How do you plan for these expectations to be met?
It is helpful to recognize that the drop in relationship satisfaction following the transition to parenthood is normal, and it is something that partners can actively work to overcome with time and plenty of patience. You and your partner may not grow closer by becoming parents, but you can sustain a healthy relationship if you choose to.
Myth 4: A good relationship has no conflict.
Conflict certainly has a bad reputation, and it does not help that it feels horrible, painful, or even scary. Some partners who fall prey to the myth that all conflict is bad will find themselves unable to commit to a long-term relationship. Conflict is unavoidable, but rather than viewing it as a bad omen, conflict should be viewed as an avenue to manage differences in pursuit of greater intimacy.
Instead of being concerned with the existence of conflict, partners should be focused on how they repair after conflict occurs. This is a much more accurate assessment of a relationship's health. Couples must learn how to forgive and reconnect following conflict, and these skills will help with managing differences more effectively and maintaining commitment.
Myth 5: There is nothing behind anger.
Anger is a secondary emotion, meaning it is a reactive response to a primary emotional state. Common primary emotions that can trigger an angry response are hurt, fear, and shame. The best way to take away the power and thrill of anger is by looking at what lies beneath it. If you find yourself in a pattern of quickly escalating to anger during conflict or in other avenues of your life, try increasing your awareness of the underlying vulnerability that is triggered. Seek help from a mental health professional if you continue falling straight into anger.
Unraveling the addictive spell of anger can also be initiated by the receiving partner asking questions that probe beneath the surface. I recognize that you are upset, but I feel like you are not expressing all of your feelings. What else is going on? Often when a partner acts irrationally angry to a seemingly small event it is because something vulnerable was triggered that the angry partner is unaware of or unwilling to share. The angry partner is responsible for acknowledging his or her disrespectful behavior and expressing the primary emotion at hand.
Living a relationship through myths can prevent a couple from developing healthy habits and promote unrealistic expectations for both partners. If you find yourself falling into one of these myths, talk about it with your partner and explore ways to establish a healthier connection.