Almost all of us have wrong beliefs and expectations in our relationships, and yet we rarely realize it. This week, I want to take a look at five of the most common ways we end up sabotaging ourselves. As you read this, I ask that you turn a critical eye to your own relationships and ask yourself whether you can do better.
The easiest way to sabotage your relationships is with expectations. Dr. Dan Gilbert, bestselling author of Stumbling on Happiness, once said that “expectations are a happiness killer.” As soon as you have a future expectation, it puts you into chronic stress until you either get what you want, or don’t. In relationships, this translates to what I call “business-deal love,” meaning that you’re maintaining a standard of behavior toward them in the expectation that they’ll do the same. If they fail to hold up their end, then you have the right to withhold something in return. That’s how most of us live, the trouble is that it will never allow for lasting happiness, because humans mess up. We can’t always live up to these expectations, which is why truly unconditional love—which is the only way to be really happy—requires you to abandon them. It’s a paradox. Give up your expectations of a great relationship, and you get a great relationship.
Manipulation usually follows expectations, it’s just another word for trying to get what you want. So, why is that a bad thing? I’ll give you an example. When I got married I hated cleaning toilets, and my wife hated football, and each of us tried to pull the other into doing what they wanted. My wife wanted me to clean the toilets; I wanted her to watch football. By this method, we were almost divorced. Eventually, I had a change of heart and gave up on my own desires, deciding to focus on meeting her needs instead. One day, she came up to me and said, “Let’s go to the football game.” In relationships, you get what you want by giving up that very thing.
3. Thinking It’s Supposed to be Easy
Very few people learn to be happy when hard times hit. My best, broadest definition of hard times is “not getting what you want.” It’s painful, and that triggers us to think something is terribly wrong. The trick is in realizing that life isn’t supposed to be easy. I heard a quote from the famous French writer, Marcel Proust. He said that looking back over his life, he realized that he hadn’t learned anything from the good times. It was only the difficult and painful seasons of life that made him the man he was. In relationships, this is one more reason not to rely on your own expectations. Of course, we would all rather that things be easy all the time, but life isn’t supposed to be painless, and having good relationships doesn’t mean never having problems. Instead, we have to approach those problems in love and try to learn from them.
4. Getting Angry
Anger is proof that you have a wrong goal. If you find yourself angry about something in a relationship, it’s usually the result of an expectation that you never should have had. Here’s the counterpoint. As I’ve lectured around the world over the past twenty years, I’ve asked most of my audiences this question: “Have you ever had something happen in your life that you hated at the time, but looking back you realized it was a good thing?” To date, I can’t remember a single person that didn’t raise their hand. In fact, people often go a step further and say they’ve had many experiences like that. The point is that most of the time, there’s no way to tell for sure whether an experience will turn out to be good or bad for us. If a relationship is making you angry, try asking yourself whether you have an expectation that you might need to let go. The best way forward is to approach every situation believing that it is (or at least, can be) good for us, and search for the lesson to learn.
5. Not Living in the Present
Most people are constantly living in either the future or the past, and each of these come with their own problems. Living in the past brings unforgiveness, guilt, hopelessness, depression, and regret. Living in the future brings anxiety and worry. In fact, in the concluding line of the 2008 Democratic National Convention, Tom Brokaw called this the “age of anxiety.” Why? Because we want what we don’t have and we don’t want what we do have, and that keeps us focused on either the past or future. The only place to find happiness is in the present, and that’s really what everything on this list has been about.
Relationships are the only place you can express love, and you can’t live in love if you’re ranking anything else above that. This means that living in love means prioritizing relationships. In order to do that, you’ll need to let go of expectations, of goals, and of past mistakes. Remember that relationships can only take place in the present. They happen right now. Don’t live another day in the wrong moment, but recognize the goodness you can have right now.