Applying ACT to our relationships isn’t easy. It’s often quite a challenge. And that challenge is all the greater because of all the stuff and nonsense that’s been pumped into our heads over the years. From our very first fairy tales, in which the prince and princess lived happily ever after, to the Hollywood endings of most popular movies, books, and TV shows, we hear and see the same old myths again and again. Here are the big three:
Myth 1: The Perfect Partner
Did you know that somewhere out there, in the big wide world, there is a perfect match for you? The partner of your dreams, who will fulfill all your fantasies, meet all your needs, and live with you in everlasting bliss. Yeah, right. And Santa Claus is real too.
Truth is, there’s no such thing as the perfect partner, just as there’s no such thing as the perfect couple. (As the old joke goes, there are only two types of couples: those who have a wonderful relationship, and those whom you know really well.) But how hard is it to truly let go of this idea? Have you ever found yourself comparing your partner to others? Dwelling on their faults and flaws and shortcomings? Thinking about how life would be so much better if only they would change? Fantasizing about the partner you could or should have had? At times we all get caught up in these ways of thinking, and it’s a recipe for frustration, anger, disappointment, and numerous other forms of misery.
Myth 2: Love Should Be Easy
So, love should be easy, should it? Hmmmmm. Let’s look at this proposition more closely.
When you live intimately for a long period of time with another human being who has (a) different thoughts and feelings, (b) different interests, (c) different expectations about housework, sex, money, religion, parenting, holidays, work-life balance, and quality time, (d) different styles for communicating, negotiating, and self-expression, (e) different reactions to the things that you enjoy or fear or detest, (f) different drives for food, sex, sport, play, and work, (g) different standards of cleanliness and tidiness, (h) friends and relatives that you don’t get on with too well, and (i) lifelong, deeply entrenched habits and quirks that annoy you…it should be easy?
Does that sound convincing to you?
Of course, our minds are quick to point out that if our partners were more compatible, if they didn’t have so many differences from us, then our relationships would be much easier. Good point, but now we’re right back to myth 1: the perfect partner. The fact is there will always be significant differences between you and your partner in some or all of the areas mentioned here and also in many others. That’s why relationships aren’t easy. They require communication, negotiation, compromise, and a lot of acceptance of differences; they also require you to stand up for yourself, to be honest about your desires and your feelings, and—in some situations, where something vitally important to your health and well-being is at stake—to absolutely refuse to compromise. This is quite a challenge. But as long as you expect your partner to think and feel and act just like you, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment and frustration.
Now there’s no denying, some couples have more in common than others. Some couples are naturally optimistic, calm, and easygoing. Some couples have excellent communication skills. Some couples have very similar interests. And let’s face it, if you’re both passionately mad about rock climbing, it’s a lot easier to agree on your vacation plans than if one of you loves sunbathing on the beach and the other absolutely hates it. But no matter how much you have in common, there will always be differences that challenge you. (Later in the book, you’ll learn how to stop struggling and make peace with these differences, thereby dissolving much frustration and resentment.)
Myth 3: Everlasting Love
Usually when people talk about “love,” they mean an emotional state: a wonderful mix of thoughts, feelings, and sensations. The problem with defining love this way is that feelings don’t last very long. Just as the clouds above continually change—shrinking, growing, dispersing, and reappearing—so do our emotions. Thus, as long as we define love as a feeling, it can never be everlasting.
Of course, in the early days of a relationship, those feelings of love are more intense, last longer, and come back more quickly than they do later on. We commonly call this “the honeymoon phase” of a relationship, when we are totally intoxicated by those Romeo-and-Juliet, head-over-heels-in love feelings. This phase doesn’t last long—only six to eighteen months for most relationships, and rarely more than three years. And when it is over, we generally experience a sense of loss. After all, it does feel good! So good, in fact, that when the honeymoon phase ends, many people break up with their partners, reasoning, “I don’t feel in love anymore, so clearly this is not the right partner for me. I’m out of here.”
This is a great pity, because often an authentic, loving, deeply committed relationship only develops once the honeymoon phase is over. In the honeymoon phase, it’s as if you’re on a drug that intoxicates you and plays with your senses. And when you’re “high,” your partner seems wonderful. But you’re not seeing reality; you’re seeing a drug-induced fantasy. And when the drug wears off, you see your partner as they really are. You suddenly realize that the knight’s shining armor is covered in rust spots, and his white horse is really a gray donkey. Or the maiden’s pure silk dress is actually cheap nylon, and her long golden locks are really a wig. Naturally this comes as a bit of a shock. But herein lies the opportunity to build an authentic intimate relationship between two people who see each other as they really are. And as this relationship develops, there will be new feelings of love—perhaps not as intense or intoxicating, but potentially much richer and more fulfilling.
Moving Beyond the Myths
There are many other common love myths. (For example, “My partner should always know what I want or how I feel; I shouldn’t have to tell them.”) And if we use these myths as a guide for our relationships, we set ourselves up for a painful struggle with reality. A struggle that reality always wins.
So what’s the alternative? A miserable relationship where we “settle for what we’ve got,” “suck it up,” and “get on with it”? Far from it. My aim in this book is to help you create the best relationship you possibly can—one in which you treat each other with love, kindness, and consideration, make peace with your differences, appreciate what you each have to offer, handle your emotions more effectively, support each other to thrive and learn and grow, and make the most of the time you spend together.
Does that sound unbelievable? If so, good! I encourage you not to believe anything just because I say so. Instead, test these ideas out and see what happens. Treat every exercise, every skill, every strategy as an experiment. So play around with the tools, techniques, and strategies; test them out and carefully observe what happens. If you try something and it has the desired results, stick with it. If not, drop it, and try something else. And very importantly, if you’re ever feeling stuck or frustrated, remind yourself of…
What’s in Your Control
Our aim in ACT is to help you make the most of your life—and the more you learn to focus on what is in your control, the more empowerment and fulfillment you will experience. In contrast, the more you focus on what’s out of your control, the more disempowered, dissatisfied, or disappointed you’ll be. So when it comes to your relationship, it’s important to know what’s in your control and what isn’t.
For example, can you control your partner? Ha! You wish! You can learn skills for influencing your partner’s behavior—but you’ll never be able to control them. And when you apply these influencing skills in your relationship, here’s what will happen: either your partner’s behavior will change—or it won’t. There’s a good chance it will, but no guarantee.
Note: Whenever I use the words “influence” and “influencing,” they have a specific meaning: “influencing in considerate, honest, caring ways that are healthy for your relationship, and good for the well-being of both parties.” If one partner uses methods such as aggression, lying, deceiving, gaslighting, threatening, intimidating, the “silent treatment,” or other methods that are disrespectful, dishonest, or detrimental to the well-being of the other—I will call this “manipulation,” rather than “influence.” It’s a very important distinction; manipulating your partner may get your needs met, but it’s not healthy for your partner or your relationship. In contrast, knowing how to constructively influence your partner’s behavior, in honest, fair, and considerate ways, is fundamental to building a healthy relationship.
Okay, so you can’t control your partner, but you can influence them. How? Through what you say and what you do. So if you want to successfully influence your partner’s behavior, you need to first take control of your own behavior: control over what you say and what you do. The more you can control your own words and actions, the better your ability to constructively influence your partner.
And therein lies a problem. When we’re feeling reasonably good, and the situation isn’t that challenging, it’s relatively easy to take control of our actions. But the more challenging the situation, and the more difficult the thoughts and feelings showing up, the more likely we are to lose control over what we say and do, and act in ways that further strain the relationship— such as yelling, blaming, criticizing, name-calling, or “giving the cold shoulder” or “the silent treatment.”
Now it’s a given that difficult thoughts and feelings will show up when there are problems in your relationship; you can’t expect to feel happy, content, and relaxed amid ongoing tension and conflict. But you can learn new skills to take the power and impact out of all of those painful thoughts and feelings; to “unhook” yourself from them, so they can’t bring you down, overwhelm you, or jerk you around. Much of this work involves learning such skills—and the stronger they become, the more control you’ll have over your actions. And greater control over your actions will enable you to not only influence your partner more successfully, but also to behave more like the sort of partner you want to be. It will help you cut back on things you say and do that stress your relationship, and enable you to do things that improve it instead.
Russ Harris is an internationally acclaimed acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) trainer; and author of the best-selling ACT-based self-help book, The Happiness Trap, which has sold more than one million copies and been published in thirty languages. He is widely renowned for his ability to teach ACT in a way that is simple, clear, and fun—yet extremely practical.