Despite all you’ve heard about the essential ingredients for a good relationship, sometimes the things you leave out are as important as what you put in. (Try adding butter to your lemonade and you’ll see what I mean.) Here are five ingredients that should never turn up in a healthy relationship recipe.
The pit of despair
Ever hear the myth of Tantalus? In Greek mythology he stands for eternity in a pool of water that drains when he tries to drink, under a bough heavy with fruit that recedes when he reaches for it. Tantalus is being punished for his evil deeds by the gods, but when we stay in a relationship where we’re constantly hungering for things just out of reach, we’re punishing ourselves with a yawning emptiness where the love we crave is missing.
You know that pit of despair; it’s the one you feel when he says he’ll call and doesn’t, when he introduces you as his “friend,” when he cancels yet another date, when he swears he’ll never cheat again. The one that sucks out your soul as you obsess over uncertainties: Does he love me? Are we together? Will he show up for me? Is he with someone else? Will he ever leave her? Or compulsively monitor his Facebook friends.
In the right relationship, that pit is filled up with the solidity of certainty, not about every little detail (when I ask my husband whether he will install a new ceiling fan over the weekend, I am far from certain it will actually get done), but about the important core things: He loves you. He will be there for you. He is in your corner. A healthy relationship may have occasional potholes of uncertainty, but not sinkholes.
Sturm und drang
Imagine coming home every day and not knowing whether your house will be filled with a flash mob, on fire or gone entirely. Living with constant relationship drama is like that; you never know what you will come home to, and you can’t count on the shelter, safety and warmth you’d hoped for.
Drama is exhausting. It’s draining. It chips away at trust and comfort and reliability. Romance novels have conditioned us to believe that great passion means fireworks, in and out of the bedroom. But constant fighting and making up isn’t a sign of how deep a couple’s love runs, but how much damage they’re willing to do to it. Hate may be the opposite side of the coin from love, but when hate’s on top, the love side is face down in the dirt.
Misrepresentation and fraud
Trying to build a relationship on lies is like trying to erect a high-rise on a cracked foundation patched with chewing gum: it’s never going to hold the weight, and sooner or later that structure’s coming down. Whether it’s little lies (“No, you look fantastic in that sheath dress”) or big ones (“No, I did not have sex with that woman”), if you can’t trust your partner’s word, what’s it worth?
Small “white lies” may seem harmless enough, but they’re not. When I check on my appearance with my husband, I’m not fishing for compliments (well, not just fishing…). I’m soliciting input from the person whose feedback I value most. I know that, like a lot of women, I have a hard time being objective about my own body. But my husband I trust, sees me clearly and can offer me perspective, a mirror of reality held up to my rampant neuroses. If he doesn’t give me his honest opinion, my mirror is warped (and so is my reality). That’s not a license for harsh criticism; where things like “do I look fat?” are concerned, a little sugarcoating goes a long way. But we want it sprinkled over the hard, cold truth, not to hide it, just to make it more palatable.
Lies undermine our ability to trust. They are duping your partner, whether your intentions are good or not. Even if they never get found out, you’re living one reality while your clueless partner is living another. In healthy relationships, partners trust and respect each other enough to tell the truth, even when it’s hard.
My husband knows every deeply held secret of my past, good, bad and ugly. I don’t keep things from him, even things as small as when I splurge on shopping. I don’t have to hide half the bags in the car so I can unpack my booty when he isn’t home and lie about putting on “this old thing?” when he notices I’m wearing something unfamiliar. We’re adults, and we’re open with each other. Keeping secrets is excluding your partner from part of your life, and that kind of compartmentalization breaks up the integrity of a relationship’s foundation.
Mystery, however, can be healthy. To this day my husband is blissfully unaware of the nitty-gritty grooming processes that yield my delicately arched eyebrows, microscopic pores, hairless bikini line and immaculately maintained toenails. He doesn’t know the true terrifying depths of my occasional insecurity and irrational neuroses. This is healthy mystery, and a certain amount of that in a relationship creates appealing glamour. As I like to think of it, it’s just part of the magic.
Jerry Maguire ruined a generation of women. No one completes you; you are complete already. Waiting for your ideal someone to come along and be the other half of you, yin to your yang, and meet all your needs implies that you are only a partial person until they arrive.
Married friends of mine built their entire world around each other; they were lovers, spouses, best friends and each other’s social network. To the rest of the world they were the perfect couple, until suddenly they announced their divorce. No one can bear that big a burden of support, and no one person can meet all our needs. With apologies to U2, two hearts will never beat as one, and if they do, one of them is dead.
What ingredient ruined your past relationships? What’s the best thing that’s missing from the one you’re in?
Phoebe Fox is the author of The Breakup Doctor and Bedside Manners, part of the Breakup Doctor series (from Henery Press). You can find her at www.phoebefoxauthor.com, and have news and relationship advice delivered right to your inbox here. You can also find her on Twitter and Facebook.