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Relationships • Breaking Up & Heartbreak • Perfectionism, Expectations & Messing up

Are My Expectations Too High?

When we contemplate leaving a relationship, it is usually because – in the privacy of our hearts – we harbour expectations of being able to meet another, and in key ways, better kind of person. We are restless inside because we can no longer overlook the shortfalls in the present partner: a problem around emotional intelligence or sexual compatibility, beauty or vigour, wit or kindness. But no sooner have our doubts arisen than we may start to wonder whether we really have any right to harbour them. Anyone with a modicum of self-awareness, and therefore insight into their own deeply imperfect and in key ways unattractive selves, is liable to ask: who are we to complain? Isn’t it folly to hope for something better? Should we not merely accept and be grateful for what we have found? How much are we allowed to hope for? Aren’t we craving ‘too much’? 

We can start with the good news. The sort of character we are dreaming about does exist somewhere on the earth, probably in multiple incarnations. We’re not foolish to picture them. We’ve probably met approximations of them in many different contexts over the years: on the arm of a friend, in the pages of a magazine, lost in a book opposite us in a cafe. We are – let’s assume – not asking for anything plainly crazed (the mind of Einstein in the body of a Hollywood star with the kindness of a saint and the resources of a titan). We are not naive, we know roughly what we’re worth and what we could conceivably attract. We just think – with reason – that we can have a shot at improving on the current candidate. There are seven billion inhabitants on the planet, one or two of them must be able to answer our more ambitious hopes.

Yet none of this is, in itself, any sort of guarantor. There is enough ill-luck, poor timing and unfortunate happenstance in romantic life to ensure that we may well quit our relationship and end up never finding anyone who is remotely able to honour our dreams. Perfectly-suited prospective partners constantly walk past each other and die unfulfilled and alone on opposite sides of the same street. Knowing that there really are people out there who could match our criteria says nothing at all about our chances of finding them in the time that remains. 

We cannot – therefore – legitimately or in good faith ever tell anyone who is thinking of leaving their partner that their expectations for a better alternative can practically be met. We can – at best – eke out a philosophically-hedged ‘perhaps’.

But when we wonder whether our expectations are ‘too high’, we might pause and ask something slightly different: too high for what?

If by ‘too high’ we mean, too high to be entirely certain that we’ll be able to begin a deeply satisfying relationship with a prized candidate, then yes, in that sense our expectations may well be too high. ‘Perhaps’ is as good as we can get. However, if we’re wondering whether our expectations are ‘too high’ to leave our relationship for an uncertain but more honest future, if we’re wondering whether it is wrong to define an idea of the kind of person we want and then stick by it whether we actually find them or not, then the answer might be a resounding ‘no’.

In other areas of life, we can accept well enough and often deeply respect, people who stick by particular ideas they believe in, even when success doesn’t necessarily or immediately follow. There are people who will create a certain kind of art over many decades, and pay little attention to whether or not it meets with worldly acclaim. Or who will run a business that doesn’t alter its products simply to achieve greater profitability. Or who will stick up for particular ideas in politics, even if this prevents them from reaching high office. They would of course always prefer to have the applause, money and power – but it might be even more important to them to know that they are abiding by the art they believe in, the products they love and the ideas they identify with.

We would naturally prefer to have what we believe in and the right result from the world, but if it comes down to a choice between dumbed down art and acclaim, or shoddy products and high profits, or expedient politics and a job in government or – to shift to the romantic realm – someone to share a bed with but few of the psychological or physical criteria we are truly looking for, then we may prefer to pay the price of loyalty to our original ambitions. 

There might be, in the context of relationships, two reasons to live like this, the first practical, the second more psychological or existential. At a practical level, there is an advantage in freeing ourselves from a frustrating relationship even in the absence of any immediate prospect of a successful replacement. Being alone gives us a more effective basis for finding love than being shackled to a partner we are surreptitiously looking to edge out. We are free to tell the world what we are seeking, we don’t have to lie or hide in the shadows, we won’t have to marr the start of a relationship with a messy exit from a previous one.

But beyond this, it may still be wise to abide by our real expectations whether or not there is a candidate around who can meet them. Our soul is liable to be slowly destroyed by leading a life that privileges mere companionship over companionship with the right person. We may not be able to escape the consequences to our self-esteem and to our sense of dignity if we know that our fear of being alone has trumped our ability to discriminate in favour of the kind of person who doesn’t secretly irritate or bore us. We may no longer like ourselves very much when we daily have to contemplate how far we’ve drifted from our genuine expectations in order to assuage an ultimately unnecessary terror of our own company.

Japanese history is filled with examples of what commentators have termed ‘noble failure,’ people with strong notions of what they respected in a given field (art, politics, business, culture) who remained loyal to their beliefs despite meeting with little or no worldly success, and sometimes having to pay a great price for their positions. A poet might end their life in obscurity in a hut outside the city, a potter might find their plain but handsome earthenware ignored in favour of more lacquered and showy examples and a politician might see their plans for a better society bar them from advancement at court. And yet these people could, in the Japanese mind, be viewed as something other than mere ‘losers’. They might, from one perspective, have lost, their art wasn’t recognised, their businesses failed, their projects weren’t enacted, but they are deemed to be worthy of respect nevertheless because they had something superior still to immediate fame, riches and applause: good ideas of what they wanted. Enacted on a far more modest scale over less consequential things, we too may – in romantic life – lean on the concept of noble failure to frame what might occur to us after our exit from a relationship. Our nobility will stem from not allowing our fear of loneliness to govern our conduct and from ensuring that who we spend time with matches an ambitious concept of human nature – even if this means we are predominantly alone for the long term. We will ultimately prove more loyal to love on our own than we ever could be in the wrong company – just as a lover of music might prefer silence to the wrong kind of background noise.

We may, after exiting a relationship, not succeed in any standard way. Our life may look a bit odd. We will have left an apparently sound-enough union in order to start a rather arduous existence by ourselves. But we will be something more interesting than merely sad, we’ll have failed nobly in the pursuit of love, we’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that we preferred to be true to our hopes than in the company of a human we couldn’t any longer respect.

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