From “one true love” to “happily ever after” we are inundated with images and storylines about love that don’t quite fit our experiences. Those stories can sometimes create expectations which cause us to be confused or dissatisfied with the reality of our relationships even when the reality is positive. Self-help books, family advice, and people that we know in long-term relationships can sometimes help us counteract these stories and give us more reality based perspectives. However, I’ve found in my practice that even people with relatively reasonable expectations about relationships retain some misconceptions or lack some information about relationships as I have come to understand them through both my psychotherapy practice and my experience in a 19 year long relationship and 16 years of marriage. I’m going to expose two of these myths.
Myth: If someone loves you, they won’t hurt you.
This myth has different levels of severity. If you believe it in an extreme form you will expect a lover to magically know what you need. A client with this belief will say things in session like, “They should know that it hurts me” or “I shouldn’t have to ask for what I want.” In less extreme forms, a person with this belief will understand that you have to communicate your needs at the beginning of a relationship but will believe that once those needs are articulated, the lover will be so motivated by their love that they will just do those things from now on because you have told them what meets your needs. In a more attenuated form, a person suffering with this myth knows that needs must be communicated, and that lovers must be reminded of our needs because change is hard, but that ultimately if someone really loves you, they will eventually understand you thoroughly, see the world as you do, and give you what you need.
Reality: Being in love means you will be hurt.
No lover automatically knows all of our needs. Even if told multiple times, no lover will be able to perfectly synchronize with our needs because our needs are nuanced, change over time, and are inevitably and unpredictably altered by our environment in any given moment. Even if a lover is really skilled at reading our needs, this belief would meet with disappointment because our lovers have their own needs and only by eliminating their subjectivity could they be available to us for the fulfillment of our needs all the time.
This means that sometimes when we hope or expect our partner to meet our needs we will have the expectation violated. The violation of our expectation will hurt. We may feel like there is distance in the relationship.
Myth: If you love someone, you won’t hurt them.
The best way that I can think of to bust this illusion is to respond to it with a question, “If you could, would you choose to never influence your partner to grow and change?” Most likely you want your love of your partner to have a positive influence on their life. You may want to bring out the best in your partner. Now, on the one hand, we would all like that positive influence to come easily and through touching greeting card moments that we’d be happy to share with others. But the reality is that sometimes our love for our partner encourages them to grow and change because loving us hurts them. Just imagine for example a person with a hard time asking for their needs to be met. Their partner will almost certainly (and without any intention to do so) hurt them by not fulfilling their needs. The hurt will encourage the person in the context of a loving relationship to learn how to ask for their needs to be met. Hooray! Though it is painful, that is a relationship that is working.
Reality: Being in love means hurting your partner. . . and you don’t even have to be trying.
Whether it is pain that encourages growth, unmet needs, or challenged expectations, hurt will come into every relationship. What I see sometimes in my practice is that people rush to try to eliminate the pain they are causing their partner. Kindness and love motivate that intention. But sometimes, what we need most when we’re in pain is not relief but company. You might say to your partner with compassion, “I’m sorry that our relationship is hurting you, and I’m so thankful that you’re willing to face that challenge and stay in the relationship with me. I want to be there for you as you face that challenge” or “I know that you need this my love, and I’m sorry that I can’t provide it for you. I know that is causing you pain and I wish that it didn’t and I also know I can’t be someone other than who I am. How can I be there for you despite this gap in our relationship?” The acknowledgement of the pain doesn’t need to include an immediate reaction to eliminate it. But being with the pain of a partner compassionately can build the relationship despite the pain.
Now, none of this suggests that if we’re causing our partner pain, we should just shrug our shoulders. Often, there is something to learn about communication, empathy, or connection. We should endeavor to attend to that first. But if it appears that changing our behavior would require that we become someone we are either incapable of or whom we do not want to be, then we must acknowledge that saying so may bring our partner pain. Conversely, if our partner is bringing us pain, it doesn’t always mean something is wrong with the relationship. Sometimes, the pain is just an indicator of the growth we are being encouraged to experience in this relationship.