Long before I had ever gone on a single date, I already had plenty of ideas — drawn from influences including my parents, my sassy babysitter Kimmie, and the acclaimed television drama Step By Step — about what things are most important in a serious relationship. My preconceived notions ranged what my potential boyfriend's career should be, to how he should act when we wanted different toppings on our pizza. And, like most belief systems based on the teachings of teenaged babysitters and/or Suzanne Somers, my ideas about what a successful serious relationship should look like were eventually revealed to be wildly off-base.
After a lot of trial and error, I'm finally in a happy and healthy serious relationship today, a situation which gives me zero authority to tell you how to live your life and/or pick your pizza toppings. But it has given me a decent vantage point to assess my old values, and to see how they compare to what it's actually taken to maintain a loving, serious relationship.
I'm not saying your ideas about what's important in a relationship are necessarily as off-the-mark as mine were — you may have had better teachers than ABC's TGIF line-up — but we can all benefit from periodically sorting through our long-held beliefs about what makes and breaks a relationship, holding them up to the light, and seeing if they have any basis at all in reality. Here, I'll go first!
1. WHAT I THOUGHT WAS IMPORTANT: that we have the same exact taste in everything
Reasoning: When I first started dating, I found myself in the company of many guys who found my taste in music/movies/music/pizza toppings to be about as appealing as some water that had been used to boil a hot dog. This created some conflicts, where said guys treated me like a moron. Obvious solution: date someone who has the same exact taste as me! That's the only way to prevent being treated that way, right?
WHAT WAS ACTUALLY IMPORTANT: dating a respectful person
Reality: It turned out that having the same taste is not an express ticket to Mutual Respect City (plenty of disrespectful jerk-offs have the same taste in music as you). It also turned out that having the same taste isn't essential to having a respectful relationship — but having respect for each other is.
I know that that sounds obvious, but for years, I thought there were shortcuts to being respected in a relationship — acting a certain way, or having certain interests — when really, the only way to feel respected in a relationship is to hook up with a respectful person. A respectful person will respect you, even if they find your passionate love for TV shows about pretty little teenaged murders to be a little weird.
2. WHAT I THOUGHT WAS IMPORTANT: that my partnered life looked exactly the same as my single life
Reasoning: Why should I act different just because I'm in a relationship? That's sexist! Why do I have to change because of some guy? Why can't I go out drinking with my friends six days a night any more? Why do you care where I am? What do you mean, I said I would meet you for dinner two hours ago? WHY ARE YOU ALWAYS TRYING TO STIFLE ME???
WHAT WAS ACTUALLY IMPORTANT: that I stay true to myself (without being a dick)
Reality: This was a hard one for me. There's a difference between "changing who you are" and "acting considerate," but it can be hard to distinguish, especially since there are a lot of people out there who think that getting into a relationship means that you have to change in shitty ways (i.e. completely give up your individual identity).
Encounter enough of that, and it can be tempting to frame acting inconsiderate to your partner as "being me" or "not acting like a boring married person." But there's a sweet spot — a way to stay true to the person you were during all your single years, and still make space in your life for this new person that you care about.
3. WHAT I THOUGHT WAS IMPORTANT: THAT MY RELATIONSHIP BE VERY "EXCITING"
Reasoning: Relationships are kinda boring... so let's liven things up by dating guys who are "emotional" (read: love to fight), "free" (read: likely to show up drunk to dinner with your parents and then call you "bourgeois" if you complain about it), and "challenging" (read: don't actually like me). It made me feel glamorous and important, like the stakes in my relationship were really high — which kept me and the dudes I dated interested longer than we otherwise might have been.
WHAT WAS ACTUALLY IMPORTANT: THAT MY RELATIONSHIP BE engaging
Reality: The alternative to the "exciting" relationship isn't, as I long thought, the "let's silently watch TV together for seven hours because we secretly resent each other" relationship. There's also the kind of relationship where you stay interested and engaged because your partner is interesting and you genuinely like being around them.
In that kind of relationship, you don't need the jacked-up emotional reactions of the "exciting" relationship to convince yourself to stay with them. In fact, most people that you can have a genuinely interesting relationship with will stand for very few "exciting" relationship tactics (I learned this one the hard way, by starting some pointless and baffling fights with a very chill and grounded ex who was thoroughly perplexed by the entire operation).
4. WHAT I THOUGHT WAS IMPORTANT: THAT THE PERSON I DATE HAve A COOL JOB
Reasoning: The cooler job a person has, the more important that person is. And the more important that person is, the more worthwhile a human being they must be. And the more worthwhile a human being they are, the more fun it is to spend time around them. A fool-proof system, right?
WHAT WAS ACTUALLY IMPORTANT: THAT THE PERSON I DATE HAS A PASSION
Reality: After my 10,000th relationship with a dude who had a totally envy-inducing job but still acted like a total tool, I realized that having a cool job doesn't mean you have a cool personality. What I was actually in pursuit of was a partner who had a passion — and while passions can be lots of things, they aren't always what we do for work.
5. WHAT I THOUGHT WAS IMPORTANT: never having to admit I'm wrong
Reasoning: All relationships are just power struggles where both parties are constantly trying to push their own goals to to the top of the list, right? So admitting that you're wrong is giving your partner ammunition to use against you next time, which will only weaken the relationship in the longterm. So really, if you think about it, I'm doing the relationship a favor by refusing to admit that I have ever been wrong, or will ever be wrong at an undisclosed future date. I'm the one who's trying here!
WHAT WAS ACTUALLY IMPORTANT: that we don't fight about silly bullshit
Reality: The kind of thinking that leads you to believe that the ideal relationship is one where you never have to admit that you're wrong, is just, well wrong. When you realize that, in a decent relationship, your goals aren't always in conflict, and in fact, usually support each other, it becomes a lot easier to admit that yes, you're the one who left the popsicles out on the counter. Not that easy, but easier.