Why Love Doesn't Have Any Rules

You’ve seen the headlines in your newsfeed: 8 Proven Tricks to Strengthen Your Marriage, 10 Traits Your Ideal Soul Mate Should Have, 36 Questions That Will Make You Fall in Love. They’re click-worthy, for sure. And we’ll admit: The idea that following a formula or writing a checklist can help you find your one true love sounds pretty awesome.

“Relationships and love are incredibly complicated and can bring with them uncertainty, so it can seem safer to follow a blueprint,” says Melody J. Wilding, a therapist who works with clients navigating the dating world. “As humans, we gravitate toward control and order, so it’s comforting to believe there’s some step-by-step method that can lead us to the ‘perfect’ match.”

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How Pursuing Perfection Can Be a Bad Thing

There’s no denying that a “three-step plan to find your soul mate” or “the ultimate secret to lasting love” sounds intriguing. But if you’re constantly analyzing whether your significant other lives up to a set of standards you found online or forcing him to have the “eight crucial conversations to have before marriage,” the outcome is likely to be the opposite of what you were hoping for, says relationship expert and Psychology Today blogger Jeremy Nicholson, M.S.W., Ph.D. In fact, striving for perfection in your relationship can lead to physical and emotional distress, putting a major dent in your happiness—and your partner’s.

As romantic as the notion of a soul mate sounds, research suggests that this very belief may not be such a good idea in the first place. People who believe they’re meant to “click” immediately with their significant other—or else move on and find someone new—tend to be less committed to a partner, especially when (inevitable) difficulties ariseKnee, C.R., Patrick, H., Vietor, N.A., et. al. Implicit theories of relationships: moderators of the link between conflict and commitment. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 2004 May; 30(5):617-28.. Further, the belief that love can be framed as a “perfect union between two halves” may hurt relationship satisfaction.

As if these aren’t enough reasons to toss out your checklist, know that your “must-have” qualities may be setting you up for romantic failure. “When you start sizing up potential love interests or comparing your bond to some perfect paradigm, you’re setting yourself up to overlook all the positive parts of your current or future relationships,” Wilding explains. “If you’re constantly evaluating how someone meets your checklist, you’re limiting yourself from being open to them, and often you end up less interested simply because you’re closed off to possibility.”

Why There’s No Such Thing as the Perfect Relationship

When you finally find the man or woman of your dreams, everything will be sunshine and rainbows all the time, right? Not exactly. “People have the misguided assumption that when they find their ideal match, everything is going to be effortless—no fights, no problems, just easy, blissful love at all times,” Nicholson says. The problem: This can cause us to walk away from potentially awesome pairings the second we sniff impending difficulty.

As anyone who’s ever been in a long-term duo can attest, difficulties are par for the course of companionship. Furthermore, there’s no degree of compatibility that magically eliminates all interpersonal differences, says Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D., psychotherapist and author of Love Styles: How to Celebrate Your Differences. Even if you find someone who loves Downtown Abbey, eating ramen, and training for triathlons just as much as you do, you’re still going to have arguments. And the stronger we cling to the misconception that everything’s going to be easy-peasy, the more likely we are to freak out when issues arise, Tessina says.

Some of us may even doubt our own (or our partners’) capability to succeed in romance altogether. “There’s a pervasive myth in our society that there is a right and a wrong way to love,” Tessina says. So when your partner says she doesn’t like eating noodles with you anymore (or any difficulty filters in), you draw the uncomfortable (and untrue) conclusion: Everyone knows how to love correctly except me!

But desperately Googling “how to fix my relationship” or “how to get her back” during these times of distress can reinforce our conviction that we are doing everything wrong: We may only take away from the relationship standards that we find online how far off we are from them. Despite the well-meaning intent of those articles that list “10 secrets of blissfully happy couples,” their side effects may be to unintentionally drive home our own sense of incompetence—or convince us that our partner’s foibles are grounds for a breakup.

The Bright Side of “Rules”

We’re not saying it’s pointless to read relationship advice or listen to pointers to improve your chances of lasting happiness. In fact, there are plenty of research-backed tips that can help you avoid and resolve conflicts in your relationships, Nicholson says. Some important skills that have been shown to help improve relationship satisfaction include how to say “I’m sorry” (and accept responsibility for wrongdoings), how to show an interest in a partner by responding to his or her requests (or “bids”) for connection, and how to accept a partner’s need for personal spaceFrost, D.M., & Forrester, C. Closeness discrepancies in romantic relationships: implications for relational well-being, stability, and mental health. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 2013 Apr;39(4):456-69..

Even regularly trying new things with your mate (like seeing an action movie if your go-to is usually a foreign film) has been shown to raise relationship satisfaction and increase attraction and affection. Yet another reminder that “you’re not locked into a set script where there’s only one right way to do things,” Nicholson says.

But while it’s best not to focus too intently on things you or your partner may be doing wrong, there are some serious red flags that indicate going separate ways may be a better option. Emotional or physical abuse is the clearest one—though the former may not always be as obvious as we think, Tessina says. If you constantly feel like you’re walking on eggshells around your partner and they repeatedly put you down or try to control your behavior via guilt trips, ultimatums (if you don’t do ___, I’ll ___!), silent treatments, teasing, or sarcasm, be aware that this is absolutely not OK.

Finally, loss of interest or markedly reduced frequency in sex, the absence of meaningful conversations, and affairs are additional signs your relationship is not working, Tessina adds. In the event you sense these issues are surfacing—and your partner remains unwilling to address your concerns—you may want to seek professional help to enable you to safely distance yourself from a mate.

The Takeaway

A perfect relationship doesn’t exist, and any advice that tries to convince you otherwise may do more harm than good. You shouldn’t necessarily shy away from tips that may help improve your relationship satisfaction, but if guidelines are adding more stress to your life, don’t cling to them as gospel. If you’re not doing every single thing possible to “maximize” your relationship or if your partner has weaknesses (because, well, they’re human), don’t sweat it. So long as neither you nor your partner feels emotionally or physically threatened by the other, you can comfortably communicate, enjoy each other’s company, and weather the occasional conflict, chances are you’re doing just fine.