Category: Dating

Relationship Rules and Expectations and How to Change them in your Life

   “Peeps Afloat Together in Muddy Waters” Many thanks to Red Hot Roasters of Louisville for the delicious peep latte! Great inspiration for this “float” we do together in relationships.

Relationship Rules & Expectation and How to Change Them in Your Life

ARGGHHHHH!!!!  That was the memorable utterance that Charlie would yell after Lucy picked up the football again and again, always egging him on to try just one more time.  Do you ever feel the same way about romantic relationships? Just when you have convinced yourself that this time, when you go to kick the football you won’t land on your…well, you know.  Frustrated we either turn inward, blaming ourselves, “Why didn’t you see this coming?” or outward, “AHHH who are these people?!?” or most often, some combination of the two.  We expect that we can see a pattern in the future, projecting based off of small “signs” or “clues” that this person may not be the partner of our dreams, however, it seems only in hindsight that the signs are glaringly obvious.  And, after these relationships crash and burn, it seems, the only thing left to do is hit our heads against the wall or melt into a little ball on the vegetative couch. 

We want some control over this merry-go-round, but often the answer lies in something that feels very out-of-our-control, the relationship rules and expectations that we have learned from a very early age.  Think about it: In your family were you taught that if you just held back your feelings and went with the flow of things, that arguments would dissolve and everyone would get along?  Were you taught that if something flying across the room didn’t occur, that the relationship lacked passion?  Were you taught that a man “wears the pants” in the relationship or oppositely, that if a woman was not dominant in the relationship she was being a weak partner, wife, or mother? 

Families have a “culture” to them, unexpressed rules, beliefs, norms and traditions that dictate family patterns and keep the family running.  Gregory Bateson (1972) calls this “homeostasis,” or a pattern of relationship interactions that keep the relationship in what seems like a business-as-usual pattern.  These patterns can be helpful or harmful, but what they do have in common is that they are established and occur over and over again.  They are also only applicable to the situation in which they were created for.  For example, if in your family of origin an interactional pattern looked like this: Mom got angry à Dad withdrew à Mom followed à Dad got angry and yelled à Mom withdrew, this pattern of following and withdrawing may seem very normal…but may seem very not-normal to the person whose family pattern meant: Mom got angry à Dad got angry à They yelled it out until the anger burnt out.    

We all have established patterns of behavior in our families to function everyday and those patterns are built on relationship beliefs and norms.  However, much like the pattern for building an electric loop for a light bulb would not work if you were to directly apply those same rules to build a toaster, when we apply the same unexpressed relationship rules & beliefs to a person who has never lived inside our family of origin, we end up with a relationship “short/outage” (pun intended).  Due to these norms feeling so innate and comfortable (we did function with them for quite some time) we often think that these rules are somehow the “magna carta” for functioning within relationships.  Even with those norms that we see as dysfunctional within our families, such as the aforementioned flying object example, we may have held on to the relationship beliefs and rules that lead us to those moments, which make that one step further into the flying zone that much closer. 

What to do to score a field goal

If you are feeling overwhelmed and frustrated by this pattern, take it as an alarm bell to start putting yourself in the driver’s seat of your relationship decision-making.  The first step is to reflect on what you believe to be true about relationships, what they should be.  Be very attentive when that word “should” comes up, because it will tell you a lot about what you believe to be “absolutely true” about  relationships and/or what may be a point of great frustration in your relationships. 

1.      Make a list. 

Yes, while it may seem cheesy, JUST DO IT.  Actually seeing it on paper and having it recorded helps you to recognize the pattern when it comes up and helps you not to forget.*   Once you have started this list, recognize that it will be a list that you will add to over time, perhaps even if you are in long-standing relationship, because we are constantly becoming aware of these patterns.  Also, do two things with this list.  First,

2.      Recognize where you think this belief comes from (family, previous relationships, etc.) and how you have seen it play out in your relationships.

This doesn’t have to be anything profound, we don’t need you lying on a couch regressing without the proper supervision of a therapist (little Freud joke there).  Something like, “I expect that the person that I am with will pick up the tab at dinner” followed by “Got this from dad and mom because dad was always the provider.” Then how it is attributing to how you feel now, “Was frustrated because I feel like I am always the one picking up the tab.”   Then finally, step three,

3.      Decide whether you want to keep this relationship rule, change it, table it, or ditch it. 

This may take a little time to think about, so be kind to yourself and reflect on it a bit.  Sometimes when we realize that something that is frustrating us in a relationship has roots in a relationship rule or expectation from the past, we have an immediate decision to keep or ditch.  Sometimes however, we need some time to think about it and that is okay.  Looking at what this rule has given us (possibly a sense of security, or protected us in the past) helps us appreciate the rule for what it is and helps us to decide if these rules are still relevant for our relationships now.  Don’t beat yourself up for having it if you feel like this rule is not one that is healthy. All rules have given us something and it is up to us to put on our detective hats and figure out why that rule was put there and how to find another way if it is no longer helping us and we want to plot another course.  Seek advice from someone you trust or see a therapist if you are wanting help in this area too.   It is sometimes hard to see these patterns that we are used to, and getting advice from a safe and trusted third party can help us see what we are not seeing in our relationship norms.  Although it takes some work, this process truly pays off and can lead to more fulfilling relationships and definitely more awareness on our part.   

*As a caveat, if you are in a relationship where you fear your partner or may be in danger, please keep this list in a place where it is not visible to the other person or protected by passwords on your computer. 

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Notes:

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Dating Health: One + One = Two…but not in the way you may think

Bad behavior in dating relationships.  We have all seen it and/or experienced it at some point in time.  A date that never shows, leaving you staring at the bottom of an empty drink, the person who doesn’t call, then days later acts like nothing happened, the cheater, the I-thought-she/he-was sweeter, the pumpkin eater.  Often we are left thinking, “I thought we had such a connection” or “When we met/went out on our other date, everything seemed so right,” which makes us feel confused when the other person behaves in a way contrary to what we thought of them.  We try and make dating rules in the dating game to protect ourselves from these random acts of unkindness and inevitably become disappointed when they don’t work.  These rules to combat against us slipping into accepting these acts of bad behavior and getting hurt come in varying degrees from “one (bad behavior) and done,” “a second chance,” to “three strikes you’re out,” more like we were playing some high-contact sport rather than dating. If you have just blushed because this sounds like you, rest assured, you are in good company.  We all make small strategies in order to keep ourselves emotionally safe during this time where we are laying our heart, self, or even just libido out for a stranger to judge and either accept or reject.

The tale of the soul mate        

In our culture there is this epic myth of the soul mate, a sacred one other in the world that we must find in order to experience true happiness and fulfill our destiny.  Culturally supported through media and our own folklore of romance, this concept raises the stakes terribly high for dating and puts us in this epic frenzied quest much like Frodo looking for Mordor. Elizabeth Gilbert writes on this topic, and wrote what her friend Richard told her about soulmates in her book “Eat, Pray, Love”, that they “tear down your walls and smack you awake. But to live with a soul mate forever? Nah, too painful (Gilbert, 2006, p. 149).” While I do not deny that the deep connection with another is essential in a healthy relationship, and that many happy couples do believe that they were meant to be together, where we come into problems is where the pressure to find “the one” inhibits our brain from recognizing bad behavior in dating relationships.  Due to the deep connection that we feel, that is based not only in biology (the chemicals in your brain change and change the way you think when attracted to someone), but also in emotionality, we can feel that this connection is greater (and again, more epic) than the actual nuts and bolts of putting a lasting relationship together.  Don’t believe me? How many engaged couples come to marriage counseling without having one conversation about how money will be handled in their relationship?  How many times a week (or day or month?) they like to have sex? What about how often they like to go out vs. sit at home? Number of kids they would like to have or not have at all?  While the phrase “buzz kill” may come to mind when posing these questions, they are essential questions to ask in the dating process in order to ground the relationship into something lasting.

It may seem counter-intuitive, the feeling of connection, let’s call it “amorous” (like/love/something there) may feel long-lasting, however it is actually placing those nuts and bolts, the “structure” of the relationship into place, that will keep the relationship from blowing away in the next sweeping wind. Remember those Venn diagrams from school? Think of combining the two concepts into circles that overlap in the middle: While a relationship that is based strictly on the nuts and bolts may not have that attraction/connectivity that will give energy to the couple and carry the couple on, having all amorous feelings is going to crumble without the basic structure of compatibility and daily functioning that laying that foundation will bring.  If you connect the circles, one plus one, does equal a relationship with two lasting ingredients and without consistently questioning whether or not this one is “the one” or if there is “another one” out there just past the grass-is-greener fence.

And how does this fit into bad behavior?  If the one who is leaving you sitting at the table alone is your soulmate, then what do you have to settle for in your future relationship with him or her?  Would the universe/fate be that cruel?  I think not.  If this one that you have a deep connection with is not matching your expectations (the nuts and bolts!) of what caring, loving and respectful behavior is, then chalk it up to different expectations (different nuts and bolts) that you all have and look for the one in the middle of the Venn Diagram. Funny thing is that in all epic quests, it seems like the character ends up learning more about themselves through the challenges along the way.  With that in mind, know yourself and what you believe to be true about a healthy relationship.  If you are questioning what a healthy relationship even looks like, begin that quest through research, therapy or classes on healthy relationships.  You will be happier in your relationship and will have many fewer run-ins with dragons, tricksters, sirens and trolls.

 

Biographical Information:

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