Congratulations. You’ve done it. You’ve actually found a person you enjoy spending time with, you’re forging an emotional connection, and you finally don’t have to walk into a party by yourself and pretend you’re totally cool standing alone, scanning a crowded room for your people. Everything is now great, right? Yay! But… there’s just one teeny-tiny thing. Your partner has a trait that bothers you. What if you just can’t get past the fact that this lovely human you’re really into just happens to have a grating laugh? Wears horrible mandals? Is an entire foot taller or shorter than you are? Now what?
I've been in this situation before. And while we might be preoccupied with one or two of our partners' superficial traits, I'd first say we should remember the ice caps are melting, weekend brunch has been replaced by worthy marches, and the world is semi-aflame, so let’s take a beat, take a step back, and gain some perspective. Finding a human you connect with in this crazy world is truly a gift. Superficial issues are just that — superficial. But because this one thing is bothering you, perhaps to the hindrance of your relationship, this is worth figuring out because suddenly this trait is no longer superficial — it matters to you. So let’s discuss.
I was once set up with a really outgoing, interesting man with a laundry list of good sh*t going for him, but all I could relay to my friends post-dates was that he was rockin' a dad bod minus the kids. Was he nice? Yes. Was he interested in my thoughts, my life, even my cat? Yes. But still! After a few more dates and a nagging suspicion that perhaps I was truly a horrible, judgy monster person, I realized that I actually just wasn’t ready for a relationship. And guess what? He wasn’t that into me, either. With mutual relief, we amicably parted ways and now he’s about to marry a former model. Add that to his laundry list of good sh*t going on.
After that experience, I wondered if being preoccupied with a physical trait that the person can’t control, like the shape of their nose or their height, was an indication that something bigger was wrong with the relationship. Something like incompatibility, or disinterest, or emotional unavailability. I spoke to Dr. Gary Brown, Ph.D and licensed family and marriage therapist, about this and he laid down some truth.
“If you find yourself looking for little things that bother you, you might be looking for an exit strategy," Dr. Brown says. "If you find yourself being excessively picky, then it might be saying more about you than about your partner.” However, he notes we all have idiosyncrasies and preferences, and the first step towards resolving this issue is to determine if the trait is a deal-breaker for you. Because once you realize that it is, the trait is no longer superficial for you.
So what now? I asked Dr. Brown if it's ever okay to talk to your partner and ask them to change the way they act or adjust their look, and if so, how on earth do you phrase that without A.) looking like a total jerk and B.) hurting their feelings. Thankfully, he had a helpful answer: "It's OK to ask, but it's not OK to have an expectation of their response."
When talking to your partner, think of it like serving them a sh*t sandwich. Preface it with something you like about them, the tough stuff next, and finish off with another kind thought. If they say no or aren't open to changing, then you have to evaluate what really matters for you in your relationship.
To do this, Dr. Brown introduced me to his 80/20 Theory. He suggests identifying what your "must-haves" are in a relationship: emotional connection, kindness, shared values, chemistry, communication, and so on. If you're 80 percent happy with your partner, and the remaining 20 percent is a little meh, consider if your must-haves are included in that 80 percent. If they are, then focusing on the good you're experiencing with your partner will help you overlook the meh. This isn't about settling; it's about realistically adjusting your expectations of what your ideal relationship is supposed to look like. My therapist helped me adjust my "tall, dark, and handsome" wish list to "happy, healthy, and kind," and it's been a game-changer for me. It's a way of evolving your process of assessing another person.
So. Let's say you've employed the 80/20 Theory or had a constructive conversation with your partner, but you still find your busy, brilliant brain drifting back to their shuffling walk or their unfortunate haircut. Now it's time for some tough love. Instead of looking at your partner, look at yourself. I consulted Dr. Fran Walfish, a Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist, and she was illuminating on the subject of self-esteem.
"You need to ask yourself why you care about those external things," she explained. "Hopefully, you will arrive at the truth, which is that you care too much about the way others view you, and your choice of partner. We all care a bit about what others think of us and that’s a self-esteem issue." When we are overly concerned with what others think about our partner, we're engaging in narcissism because we're viewing our partner as an extension of ourselves, not as a separate person. Dr. Walfish continues, "Self-esteem is strengthened by our own accomplishments and achievements."
When we can focus on feeling grounded in ourselves, less self-critical and more accepting of our own flaws and superficial "imperfections," there's a solid likelihood you'll find that one thing that bugged you in your partner suddenly becomes less important. So please remember, you found someone you enjoy, who enjoys you, so go out there and enjoy life together. And just don't look down at those mandals.
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