Don't Call Your Relationship "Perfect"

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TalkToKidsAboutSex_slide03_Syd copyIllustrated by Sydney Hass.
We blame Disney and the fairytales we read as children for everything that goes wrong when we reach adulthood. The jury is still out on whether we'll learn to converse with woodland creatures, but a recent study, published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, has proven one thing we've known all along: Expecting to have a perfect, romantic relationship — and live happily ever after — doesn't lead anywhere fun. But, don't stress just yet. Just like in so many of those fairytales, all it takes to save your relationship is a change of heart.

The study offers two "frames" that couples can use to view their relationships: as a union, or as a journey. The study's authors, Dr. Spike W. S. Lee (no, not that Spike Lee) and Dr. Norbert Schwarz, use a quote from Aristotle — “Love is composed of a single soul inhabiting two bodies” — to explain the "unity" frame. If you call your S.O. your "other half" or your "soul mate" you're probably looking at him or her through a unity frame. Meanwhile, people who think of their relationship as a journey share an attitude closer to that of many wedding vows: “I, ____, take you, ____, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, etc.” Because, unlike the quote from Aristotle, this quote acknowledges the ups and downs that couples are bound to run into during a life together.

Without mentioning these established "journey" and "union" frames, Drs. Lee and Schwarz went on to survey 73 people who had either been committed, engaged, or married to their significant others for at least half a year. Given a brief quiz, participants had to identify five phrases and mark whether they had heard of them before. Some were completely random ("cross your fingers," or "drink like a fish"), while others evoked one of the two frames: "We are one," "my better half," and "made for each other" were on the quiz attempting to skew towards the unity frame; the love-as-journey slant offered up "we've walked together," "a long trail," and "look how far we've come."

Once sufficiently exposed to one of the two frames, participants were either asked to describe two times they had fought with their partner, or two times they had celebrated together. Finally, they rated their satisfaction with their relationship on a sliding, numerical scale. The research findings were as expected: "Participants who had to recall conflicts reported lower relationship satisfaction after exposure to unity than journey expressions... In fact, after exposure to journey expressions, participants who had to recall conflicts were as satisfied with their relationship as those who had to recall celebrations." In other words, when you're faced with images that suggest already-attained unity and perfection, everything else pales in comparison. Meanwhile, if you've just read several phrases that reinforce a realistic, ups-and-downs journey frame, you're more able to remember past conflicts with your S.O. without thinking less of your relationship.

But, the study did find that participants who described celebrations as opposed to conflicts were more satisfied with their relationships overall — regardless of what frames they had been presented with. So, it's not that thinking of love as perfection will lead to unhappiness; it's that this kind of mindset will only makes the bad times feel worse. Minor relationship issues can be magnified into major flaws when you hold them up to an impossible standard.

Even Disney finally owned up this year, in Frozen: A perfect relationship doesn't — and shouldn't — exist. (Adorable trolls even sang a song about it.) And, as this new research goes to show, couples who accept the flaws in their relationships make for longer journeys — and better movies.