So much relationship advice tells men and women not to settle for someone unless they fulfill a long list of demands. For men, these range from, “opens every door you walk through, pulls you close in public and kisses your forehead, sends you flowers to your office, just because…” And men should wait for women who won’t “overanalyze everything you say, who always put enough effort into keeping things fresh in the bedroom,” and so on.
While these articles have a broad appeal—and even have some truth to them—I think they miss the point. They tell you to wait for certain externalities instead of choosing a partner based on their core compatibility and character—the foundation of any relationship. If the foundation is strong, the desired externalities will naturally appear.
Let’s go back to the basics.
The Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus said,
People are disturbed, not by things (that happen to them), but by the principles and opinions which they form concerning (those) things. When we are hindered, or disturbed, or grieved, let us never attribute it to others, but to ourselves; that is, to our own principles and opinions.
Albert Ellis, who developed Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, reiterates this concept of perception and opinions and explains that “how” people react to events is determined largely by their “view” of the events, not the events themselves.
Why is this important when it comes to relationships? Well, all those external acts and feelings that take place or should take place in a relationship at the core depend on our perceptions of and beliefs about the person and relationships in general.
In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Steven Covey talks about an emotional bank account. Like a financial bank account, we make deposits into it and build up a reserve from which we can make withdrawals when we need to. When the trust account is high, communication is easy, instant, and effective.
But if the emotional bank account is overdrawn, the trust level gets very low, flexibility dissipates, and I must be very careful about everything I say. Comments like, “but you did the same thing last week” are another way of saying, “you’re overdrawn.” Eventually, neither person is performing those external acts that are so cherished in the beginning of a relationship. The bank account is simply overdrawn. The relationship may further deteriorate to one of hostility and defensiveness. Eventually it can lead to a closing of the account—a breakup or divorce.
Our most constant relationships require our most consistent deposits. Unlike high school friends with whom you can pick up right where you left off, the people you interact with on a regular basis require more regular investment. Otherwise there will likely be automatic withdrawals in your daily interactions or in their perception of you.
Covey speaks about major emotional deposits we can make to avoid the depletion of those reserves that keep us giving and receiving the external proofs of the intimacy we all crave. Here are four that stand out to me and how perception plays a crucial role in each one of them:
1. Make a constant effort to understand your partner.
Seeking to understand another person is probably one of the most important deposits you can make, and it’s the key to every other deposit. What might be a deposit for you—going for a walk to talk things over, going out for ice cream together, working on a common project—might not be perceived by someone else as a deposit at all. It might even be perceived as a withdrawal if it doesn’t touch the person’s deep interests or needs. Our tendency is to project out of our own autobiographies what we think other people want or need.
2. Clarify expectations.
The cause of almost all relationship difficulties is rooted in conflicting or ambiguous expectations and perceptions about roles and goals. When people feel like their basic expectations have been violated, the emotional trust account is diminished. When expectations are not clear and shared, people begin to become emotionally involved and simple misunderstandings become compounded, turning into personality clashes and communication breakdowns.
3. Apologize sincerely when you make a withdrawal.
It takes a great deal of character strength to apologize quickly out of one’s heart rather than out of pity. People with skewed perceptions of self-identity, relationships, and insecurities can’t do it. They rationalize their own wrong in the name of the other person’s wrong, and if they apologize at all, it’s superficial. Sincere apologies make deposits. Repeated apologies interpreted as insincere make withdrawals. And the quality of the relationship reflects it.
4. Love for the sake of it.
When you make deposits of unconditional love, without strings, you help your partner feel secure and safe and validated and affirmed in their essential worth, identity, and integrity. You perceive emotional and physical deposits as unconditional and not “what can you do for me or what will you do in return.” When we attach strings and conditions to gifts and gestures, we encourage others to violate the primary laws of love.
Relationship advice should be focusing more on character strength and perceptions—disputing irrational beliefs and developing rational views. Without deep-seated, healthy, reciprocal perceptions and communication, none of those attitudes or respectful gestures or presents will last very long.
Yes, all those nice acts and positive attitudes are sometimes very important, but they should be the natural results of a deep foundation, perception, and understanding of each person by the other. Often the smallest genuine gestures are more effective expressions of respect and love than a hundred red roses or the most sensual experience.