Why can't people just love the one they're with? Niamh Devereux investigates.
It was the catchphrase of summer 2018: ‘I’m happy, but I could be happier’. Other than ‘I’m loyal, babes’, this break-up line was the most used expression on this year’s Love Island, churned out by the guys whenever a shiny new gal entered the villa and distracted them from their current partner (mainly poor Laura). Although these fellas seemed pretty smitten with the lady they were seeing, they cut the relationship off instantly when temptation was served up on a bikini-wearing plate, leaving many viewers scratching their heads. Not so much about the men wanting to get to know other people – they were fledgling romances after all – but more so about the reasoning. ‘I’m happy, but I could be happier’? Really!?
Look, I’m well aware that I’m talking about a game show, and of course drama is required to keep us tuning in for over eight weeks; if all the couples had stayed together from the beginning like Jack and Dani, it wouldn’t exactly have been gripping TV. The thing is though, this is something that translates from fast-paced entertainment to real life. In fact, the guy a friend of mine was seeing for a few months delivered this exact line when ending things with her recently. Yes, a 31-year-old man actually quoted Love Island to her during a breakup. We now laugh about the fact she got ‘Wes’d’ (or Josh’d, or New Jack’d…), but it pretty grimly sums up modern dating culture, which works on the assumption that there could always be someone better out there if only we carry on searching.
Where has this ‘grass is always greener’ mentality come from? It seems to have spiralled in latter years, and relationship psychologists reckon that it’s down to a variety of reasons. Mainly, though, it appears that it’s thanks to the ‘throwaway’ culture we find ourselves in – we swipe, swipe, swipe on dating apps until we find our ‘perfect’ type, then we meet them, spot some traits we dislike, and go back to swiping. Put simply, there are too many options these days, leading us to get overwhelmed and paralysed from pursuing anything at all, or simply ending up single because of the deceiving perception that there’s always going to be someone better, more suited, more ‘your type on paper’ out there.
Instead of working on the current relationship, and enjoying it, the brain is clouded with ‘but what else is out there’ thoughts, which will ultimately kill what you have going on in the present moment, no matter how great the person you’re seeing is.
In fact, in his now globally famous book The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz describes this way of thinking as ‘maximising’. “Maximisers treat relationships like clothing,” he writes.
I expect to try a lot on before finding the perfect fit. For a maximiser, somewhere out there is the perfect lover, the perfect friends. Even though there is nothing wrong with the current relationship, who knows what’s possible if you keep your eyes open.
Megan 2 days into her marriage
“Obviously my husband is a nice guy & I rate him massively, but it’s only been 2 days into our marriage and I dunno now I’ve met the next door neighbor, I dunno it’s just hardddddd”#LoveIsland
— MarinaSapiano (@MarinaSapiano) July 8, 2018
I got in touch with Dr Sean O’Connell, a Chartered Psychologist based in Dublin to further decode this relationship enigma. “I think the potential culture of being happier, and wishing for more happiness signifies a dangerous drain on meaningfulness in our lives,” he tells me.
When it comes to this harmful way of thinking, Dr O’Connell notes that there are clear signs to look out for. “Beware of your mind comparing and contrasting – that’s a big one amongst peers and especially thanks to social media and TV shows – and watch out for ‘fairytale’ thinking. Many are familiar with those childhood stories of happily ever after. Does your mind sometimes say “I MUST live happily ever after from now on, and if anything disrupts that, then it’s not working?”
For further insight, I reach out to Trish Murphy, experienced couples therapist and author of #Love: 21st Century Relationships on her thoughts surrounding the ‘happy but could be happier’ mentality. According to Trish, the issue is firmly with the dumper, not the dumpee.
When someone says this, it means that they are disappointed. This is not necessarily a bad thing as it means they see potential for improvement, but then there is the work of acting on this potential. The problem is whether this disappointment can be habitual – we can blame another person for not making us happy. In reality it is not another person’s job to make us happy, it is our job to do that. Our personal happiness is a complex thing and it involves commitment to the long haul of fulfilment, facing our fears and worries, connecting to other people and dealing with our own negative thinking.
This is the problem with seeking somebody to ‘complete’ you – the best relationships occur when each person is content and comfortable in themselves. As the old mantra goes, you can’t love somebody else if you don’t love yourself first. Grade A cheddar cheese it may be, but it’s true. As psychotherapist Dr Sheri Jacobson summarises: “The biggest gift you can give yourself is knowing who you are. When you don’t know who you are, you are chasing everything around and that’s when you’re not satisfied because you don’t know what happy means to you.”
But finding ourselves aside, how do we overcome the culture of too much choice when we have found someone else, who is pretty damn special, but they’re not ‘enough’? How exactly can we work towards appreciating the person we’re happy with right now, rather than wondering if there’s someone out there that’d make us even happier?
Firstly, you need to really ask yourself how sure you are that you can do better than this person, and whether you have given them a real chance; have you made every effort to get to know them and nurture the relationship? The only solution, it seems, is to put the countless other options out of your head and put your whole heart into the person you’re seeing. Only then will you know it’s not meant to be, but if you don’t really try, you’ll never really know. Trish agrees:
There is a line from a song that goes ‘love the one you’re with’ and this is a great practice. We all want to be loved for who we are and feel very aggrieved if someone is just with us until someone better comes along. So don’t be that person, give the relationship time and if it is not for you, then end it with honesty. And always remember it is not your partner’s job to make you happy – it’s your job.
Yes, it might take some self-discipline; after all, once the lovely, fuzzy honeymoon-stage gleam wears off, and you’re faced with a perfectly imperfect person, warts’n’all, it may be tempting to cast your eye back into the world of singletons rather than work at something. That’s the easy option, to abandon ship. But if you are looking for something meaningful, and genuine, in this world of quick fixes, maybe don’t give up so fast. Of course, we should never settle, but this is different. As Dr. O’Connell advises me, “At the end of the day, relationships are about three questions: Will you be there for me? Do my feelings matter to you? Can you respond to my needs?”
If you can honestly answer yes for all three, perhaps you should reconsider having your head turned (the Love Island references continue, soz) at any available opportunity and recognise that real human connections are rare, and shouldn’t be treated frivolously. Otherwise, you could be looking back at that deadly person you let slip away and think ‘I’m happy, but I could have been happier’.
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