The Pursuit of Perfect: How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Start Living a Richer, Happier Life - Tal Ben-Shahar (2009)

Part II. APPLICATIONS

Chapter 7. Optimal Love

The course of true love never did run smooth.

William Shakespeare

At this point in the book, having already shared with you much about myself, I would like to take self-disclosure a step further and admit that my favorite song is Whitney Houston’s “And I Will Always Love You,” with Celine Dion’s “Let’s Talk About Love” a close second. Of my top ten all-time favorites, eight are love songs (Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Lee Ann Womack’s “I Hope You Dance” somehow found their way onto that list). I love love. For as long as I breathe and my eyes can see, I will be moved by Shakespeare’s words of devotion, and I will stay up, sleepless in Cambridge, watching Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks unite.

Like many others, I learned about romance from my favorite songs, poems, movies, and self-help books. And while one does not need to be a student of human relations to know that “love is the answer,” finding the answer to the question “What is true love?” requires more than the ability to rhyme. It requires reason.

With the best of intentions, some poets, songwriters, movie directors, and relationship gurus have led us astray. They have depicted love as sweet, seductive, delightful, alluring. The trouble is that this image does not reflect reality and is potentially harmful. Here is an excerpt from one of the leading self-help writers of the twentieth century:

Perfect love is rare indeed—for to be a lover will require that you continually have the subtlety of the very wise, the flexibility of the child, the sensitivity of the artist, the understanding of the philosopher, the acceptance of the saint, the tolerance of the scholar and the fortitude of the certain.1

This beautiful passage captures the essence of written words on love, spoken words on passion, and sung words on lust. So beautiful—and so harmful! Because, in fact, perfect love is not rare; it does not exist. Buying into the illusion that it does will lead to one of three outcomes. First, it may prevent us from ever finding a romantic partner, because we will always be waiting for that perfect person who has the flexibility of a child, the sensitivity of an artist, and so on. Second, we may decide to enter a relationship with a partner who does not have the qualities of a saint or philosopher, with the feeling that we have compromised, while continuing to seek, consciously or not, that perfect person. Finally, we may believe that we have found the perfect partner, only to feel profound disappointment and frustration when we discover our partner’s flaws, as we inevitably will.

There certainly is a place, even a need, for writing, poetry, music, and films that depict the saintly and the beautiful. I have no doubt that more people make love after watching Pride and Prejudice or Titanic than they do after watching Family Guy or Married with Children. And I certainly would refuse to relinquish 85 percent of my CD collection on the grounds that the songs are too romantic or that they fail to provide a fair representation of true love. The challenge is to come to terms with the fact that art is not (always) life, that our bedroom at home will differ—perhaps slightly, perhaps a great deal, but differ it will—from the film set where each perfect costume has been perfectly placed as it was perfectly torn from the lovers’ perfect bodies. While something may be lost in translation from the movie set to our bedroom set, much more can be gained. What we need is love, like in the songs and movies and books and poems, only more—more real.

Real Love

There comes a time in the course of every long-term relationship when we realize that our partner is not God’s perfect gift to mankind, or womankind. Inevitably, the same realization sooner or later strikes our partner. We become fully aware for the first time of each other’s flaws and imperfections, not in the superficial sense of perceiving these faults as cute or endearing but in a deep and sometimes troubling way. For example, we may realize that our partner has a streak of anger that we never noticed before or that he or she is gripped by insecurity and anxiety or has a tendency toward inconsistency and breaches of integrity. And even though we all know and accept and pay lip service to the idea that no one is perfect, facing the truth that our partner is no exception to this rule can be shocking and frightening.

The point of realization has parallels to the point when children understand that their parents are merely human—hence flawed—and they suddenly feel more alone and less secure in the world. A partner may then come along and take the place of our “perfect” parent. But the partner’s eventual and inevitable fall from this perch of perfection—when his imperfections are exposed—can be more devastating to us than our realization that our parents are only human. In addition to our feeling more alone and insecure, our sense of judgment may be shaken as we realize that we were wrong about our partner—this time, unlike our earlier experience with our parents, without the excuse of childhood innocence. Our heart is broken and, worse, so are our reassuring illusions.

What happens at that point, when one or both partners wake up from the illusion of perfect love, is a crisis of confidence—in one’s own judgment, in the judgment of one’s partner, and in the future of the relationship. The crisis can signify either the beginning of the end of the relationship or the beginning of real love. One way or another, the relationship changes. It is transformed and can never be the same again.

While not all relationships should or can be sustained, while not all partners are compatible, the dissolution or deterioration of most relationships is avoidable. To realize the potential inherent in the relationship, it is necessary to accept that there are flaws in the partner and in the partnership. Needless to say, accepting flaws does not mean being resigned to them; a willingness by both partners to work on their failings is a prerequisite for a flourishing relationship. The healthy approach is one of active acceptance, which means that before we start working to improve what needs to be improved, there has to be a fundamental acceptance that these flaws exist.

The Perfectionist who has been forced to recognize that his partner is flawed may shift from one extreme and unrealistic view (that his partner is perfect) to an equally extreme and unrealistic view (that his partner is completely flawed). When, for example, a Perfectionist becomes aware of a jealous streak in his partner, his perception of the partner may shift radically and sometimes instantaneously, from loving and caring to obsessive and smothering. Accepting human flaws as a fact of life, which is the way of the Optimalist, creates the space within which the nuances and complexities that are part of every relationship can exist.

The expectations that we have of our partner and the promise that love holds are important in creating a thriving partnership. At the same time, these expectations must be realistic or else they will lead to disappointment and frustration. While it is pleasant—exalting, even—to be admired by your partner as the epitome of perfection, it is also liberating not to be placed on a pedestal. Of course, this feeling of liberation comes only if the loss of the illusion is replaced with loving acceptance. This will not happen instantaneously, but acceptance has to emerge for the relationship to thrive. Acceptance is not a call for mediocrity, for compromise, but rather a prerequisite for the attainment of optimal success and happiness on a personal as well as interpersonal level.

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Do you accept the flaws in your partner? If there are flaws that you find difficult to accept, are they related to flaws in yourself that you do not accept?

The impact of perfectionism begins even before a relationship starts. The Perfectionist’s fear of failure—manifested, in the context of romantic relations, in a fear of rejection—prevents the Perfectionist from trying to initiate relationships, from making the first move, unless she is certain that her interest will be reciprocated. Not only is the Perfectionist concerned about being rejected, but she also has unrealistic expectations of potential partners. The all-or-nothing mind-set magnifies every imperfection into a deal breaker and prevents potential relationships from ever taking off. And then, once the relationship takes off, every bump, every disagreement, every conflict is catastrophized and experienced as a potential relationship-ending threat.

And They Quarreled Happily Ever After . . .

In many romantic movies, the protagonists fight and quarrel—this is necessary in order to hold the audience’s attention—but then after ninety minutes or so, they resolve their disagreements, they kiss passionately, and from then on (we are led to believe) it’s smooth sailing into the sunset and the happily ever after. It happened to Mr. and Mrs. Smith, it happened repeatedly to Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, and even Wall-E and Eve show us that that is what love’s about.

Of course, this pattern is the opposite of what usually happens in real relationships. The initial stages of a relationship—courtship, marriage, honeymoon phase—are often relatively conflict free. But then, for as long as the couple is together, there is conflict. To many, conflict within a relationship means that the relationship itself is in trouble; perfect harmony—the absence of conflict—is considered the standard we should all strive for. The Perfectionist assumes that the initial stages of the relationship should be used to iron out all potential disagreements in preparation for the smooth ride ahead, just like in the movies. Just as the Perfectionist expects her partner to be flawless, so she expects the relationship to be conflict free.

As it turns out, conflict is not only unavoidable but is actually crucial for the long-term success of the relationship. Psychologist John Gottman, who has, for many years, researched thriving and failing relationships, has shown that couples in successful long-term relationships enjoy a five-to-one ratio between positive and negative events.2 For every expression of anger or criticism or hostility, there are five instances where the partners act kindly to each other, show empathy, make love, express interest, or display affection toward one another.

While Gottman found Aristotle’s golden mean to be around the five-to-one ratio point, we should keep in mind that the ratio is an average across many relationships. There are successful relationships where the ratio is three to one and others where it is ten to one. The key messages from Gottman’s research are, first, that some negativity is vital and, second, that it is essential to have more positivity than negativity. Little or no conflict within a relationship indicates that the partners are not dealing with important issues and differences. Given that no person or partnership is perfect, absence of conflict indicates that the partners are avoiding challenges, running away from confrontations rather than learning from them. At the same time, while conflict is important, relationships that do not contain significantly more kindness and affection than harshness and anger are unhealthy.

Another element that Gottman emphasizes is that not all conflicts are alike. Some couples are quiet and never raise their voices, whereas others thrive on volatility; for the former, an annoyed or a disappointed look may be an expression of negativity, while the latter may show their displeasure by gesticulating wildly and throwing plates across the room. Long-term relationships that fall into either category can succeed, as long as partners are generally careful to separate the person from the behavior. Doing so is as important in the living room or the bedroom as it is in the classroom or the boardroom.

It is healthy for partners to challenge one another’s words and behaviors, if there is unconditional acceptance at the heart of the relationship. What is most destructive for a relationship, Gottman found, is hostility—an attack on the person—be it in the form of name-calling, insults, hurtful sarcasm, or other ways of putting the partner down. Telling your partner that he is an inconsiderate slob is an attack on the person; telling him how it upsets you to enter a smelly kitchen after you had agreed that he would take out the garbage is focusing on the behavior.

To make matters worse, more and more couples engage in public displays of contention. Sanctioned by our culture of reality shows that have brought voyeurism to prime-time television, many couples feel comfortable airing their dirty laundry in public. Strife, when public, adds humiliation to the equation, embarrassing not only the person being chastised but also those who are forced to witness the interaction. In essence, what a relationship needs is basic respect and common courtesy.

Gottman’s advice to couples, beyond striving to higher levels of respect and acceptance, is that they should accentuate the positive aspects of the relationship. Accentuating the positive does not necessarily require radical change and transformation. Just as architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe once asserted that “God is in the details,” so have relationship researchers illustrated that love is in the details. Lasting love is not founded on the lavish one-week cruise or the nine carat diamond but rather on the day-to-day, ordinary expressions of love.

Peter Fraenkel of the Ackerman Institute for the Family recommends introducing “sixty-second pleasure points.” Fraenkel suggests that rather than relying primarily on special events or special gifts to sustain a relationship, each partner should initiate as few as three pleasure points each day. A passionate kiss, a thoughtful or funny e-mail or an amorous text message, a simple “I love you”—all these can go a long way toward sustaining and cultivating love. Heartfelt compliments are important, too. Mark Twain once quipped that he could live for two months on a good compliment. If we fail to appreciate the positive in our relationship, then the positive, instead of appreciating, will depreciate.

Compliments and other forms of accentuating the positive are not merely pleasant in and of themselves, they also amount to a good long-term investment. Just as depositing money in a savings account when things are going well can generate interest and can help us weather financial difficulties, so can positive actions committed regularly generate goodwill and help a couple weather hard times within the relationship.

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Come up with a list of sixty-second pleasure points, and, in writing, commit to doing at least three of them per day for the next week. They can be different ones or the same ones each day.

Conflicts, like positive acts, can strengthen a relationship. Think of daily conflicts as a form of vaccine. When we inoculate against a disease, we are in fact injecting a weakened strain of the disease into the body, which is then stimulated to develop the antibodies that enable it to deal with more major assaults later on. Likewise, minor conflicts help our relationship develop defense capabilities; they immunize the relationship and subsequently help partners deal with major conflicts when they arise.

There are parallels between a conflict-free relationship and an overprotected baby. A newborn baby who is placed in a sterilized environment for a year will be less resilient and more vulnerable later on in life than one who has been living in the “dirty” real-world environment. Children who grow up on farms and are exposed to more dirt and germs than their more urban counterparts develop stronger immune systems and are less likely to have allergies and asthma later in life. Failures, conflicts, and hardships are important for cultivating resilience, both physically and psychologically. As couples continue to have conflicts—alongside positive interactions—they build up the immune system of their relationship.

Gridlock

According to sex therapist David Schnarch, sooner or later, every long-term relationship experiences what he refers to as gridlock, the point at which couples feel stuck in a conflict and see no way out.3 This is not just a regular conflict that is easily resolved or forgotten but an intense and recurring conflict that seems unsolvable. These recurring conflicts usually revolve around issues relating to children, in-laws, money, or sex. What kind of education should the children receive? What is the desirable frequency of sexual relations, and what turns each partner on? Gridlock often challenges the sense of self of one or both partners, because it confronts them with a choice between integrity (holding on to their beliefs) and getting along with their partner by compromising.

It is not uncommon for relationships that reach gridlock to come to an end. The partners may divorce, or, if for one reason or another they choose to remain legally bound, they may be spiritually, physically, and emotionally apart. What Schnarch suggests, though, is that gridlock is a critical point, an opportunity for personal and interpersonal growth: “Marriage operates at much greater intensity and pressure than we expect—so great, in fact, couples mistakenly assume it’s time for divorce when it’s really time to get to work.” Partners who successfully overcome gridlock emerge stronger as individuals and as a couple; their relationship becomes more authentic and intimate.

One of the most important ways of cultivating intimacy and depth within a relationship—of getting to know, and to be known by, our partner—is through dealing with interpersonal problems, which Schnarch refers to as “the drive wheels and grind stones of intimate relationships.” The mere realization that conflicts—from minor disagreements to major gridlock—are not only inevitable but also beneficial is liberating and can potentially take away some of the threat that a Perfectionist experiences with each bump in the road. Deviations from the straight line are not indicative of an inherent flaw in one of the partners or the relationship but rather are part of the process, with the general direction being toward greater acceptance, intimacy, and passion.

Sex

Schnarch, whose work has revolutionized the area of marriage counseling and sex therapy, points out that sex can actually get better with time. As Schnarch puts it, “Cellulite and sexual potential are highly correlated.” Our potential to peak sexually is greater when we are in our fifties or sixties, and sex with the partner we’ve been with for decades can be significantly better than with a new person. This flies in the face of conventional wisdom. After all, sexual arousal is generally higher at twenty-four than at sixty-four, and our physical reaction is more pronounced when encountering a sexy stranger than it is when we see our partner of three decades. However, as Schnarch points out, great sex is not the product of the immediate biological, physiological response to our partner; great sex combines our hearts and minds in addition to our bodies.

Schnarch compares “genital prime—the peak years of physical reproductive maturity—with sexual prime—the specifically human capacity for adult eroticism and emotional connection.” And when it comes to sexual prime, older can be better: “If you want intimacy during sex, there isn’t a 16-year-old that can keep up with a healthy 60-year-old. People are capable of much better sex and intimacy as they mature.”

In terms of Carol Dweck’s fixed and growth mind-sets that I described earlier, we can understand Schnarch’s perspective as a growth mind-set: sex potentially improves over time, as we become more intimate—more comfortable, more at home, more open, more accepting—with our partner and, no less importantly, with ourselves. The fixed mind-set in relation to sex would be the notion that sexual capabilities and performance are immutable, unchanging—I am either good in bed or I am not, we are either a good fit or we are not.

Because after a certain age there is gradual physical decline—the fifty-year-old body cannot do everything that a body half its age is capable of—the person who does not recognize the difference between sex as a purely physical act and sex as encompassing both mind and body may assume a decline mind-set. While the growth mind-set suggests that sex gets better with time and the fixed mind-set that sex does not change, the person with the decline mind-set expect that sex will get worse over time. The decline mind-set takes away from the joy of sex and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy—sex really does get worse.

Understanding that love can intensify with time and that, with it, sex can improve takes us from a decline or a fixed mind-set to a growth mind-set, from the Perfectionist’s way of thinking to the Optimalist’s. Deviations from the straight line—an imperfect performance in the bedroom, a heated argument, or a cold exchange—are not indicative of a tragic flaw but rather part of the natural flow toward a better, more intimate relationship. The fixed mind-set leads to the all-or-nothing approach, where each imperfection is catastrophized. The growth mind-set, in contrast, allows for imperfection in oneself, in one’s partner, and in the relationship.

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What do you need to do to bring more joy to the bed-room? What do you need to let go of?

Help Meet

As I discussed in earlier chapters, one of the most dominant characteristics of Perfectionists is their defensiveness. Needless to say, it is very difficult to cultivate intimacy when one or both partners immediately go on the attack when they are criticized. By refusing to accept criticism, Perfectionists lose the opportunity to gain insight into themselves and to grow.

In the King James Version of the Hebrew Bible, God says, after creating the first man, that “it is not good that man should be alone, I will make him an help meet for him.” In this context, the word meet means “competition” or “encounter,” as in athletic meet or a meeting of the minds. Help meet is a translation of the Hebrew phrase ezer kenegdo, literally meaning “help against him.”

The phrase ezer kenegdo has caused biblical translators and commentators much anguish. How could it be that a benevolent God created the woman to oppose man? To resolve the apparent contradiction, later translations replaced help meet with the phrase help alongside. Some commentators explain the phrase to mean that if a man is righteous, his wife will be his help, and if he sins, his wife will be against him. I would suggest, though, that the phrase be taken at face value—help can truly come through opposition. It is within a help-meet relationship that the man and the woman challenge one another, each helping the other attain greater heights.

In his revolutionary work The Subjection of Women, nineteenth-century English philosopher John Stuart Mill called for the liberation of women.4 He argued that “the principle which regulates the existing social relations between the two sexes—the legal subordination of one sex to the other—is wrong in itself, and now one of the chief hindrances to human improvement.” Only when a man and a woman are equal can they “enjoy the luxury of looking up to the other, and can have alternately the pleasure of leading and of being led in the path of development.” In healthy relationships, the man and the woman, at different times, take the lead and further the development of their partner.

The notion of leading and being led, of a help-meet partnership, applies not only to the relationship between a man and a woman but to any other intimate relationship. In his essay “Friendship,” Ralph Waldo Emerson recognized opposition as a necessary precondition for a friendship. In a friend, Emerson wrote, he was not looking for a “mush of concessions” or “trivial conveniency”—in other words, for someone who would agree with everything he said. Rather, he was looking for a “beautiful enemy, untamable, devoutly revered.”5 The philosopher Edmund Burke echoed Emerson’s sentiments about relationships: “He that wrestles with us strengthens our nerves, and sharpens our skill. Our antagonist is our helper.”6

A person who only wants to be “beautiful” and supportive toward me without ever resisting or challenging what I do and say does not push me to improve and grow; a person who disputes what I say and do without caring and supporting me is antagonistic and harsh. A true friend will be both beautiful toward me and behave as an “enemy.” A beautiful enemy challenges my behavior and my words and at the same time unconditionally accepts my person. A beautiful enemy is someone who respects and loves me enough to question my ideas and behaviors; at the same time, her opposition to any of my words or actions does not change how much she cares for me as a person.

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Who are the beautiful enemies in your life? In what ways have they helped you? How can you become more of a beautiful enemy to others?

My wife, Tami, and I have had our fair share of disagreements and disputes—and will undoubtedly continue to have them. We have encountered minor conflicts and have had to deal with major gridlock. But as a result of confronting these issues and resolving them, our relationship has become stronger and we have matured individually and as a couple. Why? Because underneath the hurt, frustration, irritation, or fear there is always a strong desire to learn and grow and make our relationship better.

We dislike conflicts and certainly do not seek them out; but when they find us, we plunge into the storm. And when we reach the ominous stillness in the eye of the storm—the point of realization and recognition, the point of knowing and of clear seeing—we hold one another and together, leading or being led, make it out to safer shores. Conflicts do not necessarily happen for the best, but we are learning to make the best of conflicts that happen.

EXERCISE

Image Sentence Completion

Complete the following sentence stems as quickly as possible; try not to think too much before you write. Then read them over and consider what you can learn about yourself and your relationships. Some of the stems relate to a particular person (for X, write the name of a person you care about), and others focus on relationships in general.

To improve my relationship with X by 5 percent . . .

If I open myself up 5 percent more . . .

To create more intimacy in my relationship . . .

If I accept X 5 percent more . . .

If I accept myself 5 percent more . . .

To improve the relationship I have with myself . . .

To bring more love to my life . . .

I am beginning to see that . . .