By Dr. Richard Kolotkin
Remember dial-up Internet and the thrill you got as you explored a virtual universe for the first time? Wasn’t the novelty of having things like Ebay only one click away exhilarating? Back then there was a friend of mine who, having just gotten a “really hot computer,” told me that he could dial-up and surf the web at “lightning speeds.” He loved his hot system and was certain that it was not just good enough, but was truly “as good as it gets.”
This is all pretty funny now that dial-up is a dinosaur. High speed Internet buries it by comparison and that exhilarating feeling of novelty is nowhere to be found in our “load already!” impatience. With the tech we have now, who could happily go back again?
This is true for a lot of things. Once you’ve been smitten with something great it’s really unlikely that you’ll happily go backwards – having had more makes it really hard to be satisfied with less. Just imagine using that old, once beloved dial-up connection now. That’s how it feels to go backwards – that which once felt so hot now feeling so lame by comparison.
Comparisons like these are everywhere. These standards of comparison, also called “frames of reference,” are defined by experiences. They shape how happy or satisfied you are. They frequently define when things feel “good enough” or “as good as they get.”
But when is it really good enough and when does it truly get as good as it gets? Do these things even exist in a society such as ours that never seems to be satisfied and always appears to want bigger, better, hotter and newer? Are M&M’s truly satisfying when compared to fine chocolate truffles? Can we really say that grilled chuck steak is as good as it gets when compared to a masterly prepared meal of fine dry aged beef? And having tasted the rarefied flavors of the best chocolate mousse prepared to perfection in a fine French restaurant, will you ever be able to taste Jello chocolate pudding in the same way again? With truffle, mousse and dry aged beef as your frame of reference, would you even think of sending an Instagram of your M&Ms, Jell-O or chuck steak to friends and family as a way to proclaim that your life is truly as good as it gets? I think not.
In our society expectations often run high. There are some who, when young, expect to become captains of the universe, write the great American novel, or save the world from hunger or poverty. There are others who expect to always have plenty of time and money for family, fun, travel, hobbies, and a social life both virtual and real. Even those searching for first homes on the HGTV TV network always seem to rhapsodize endlessly about the dream home they are looking for.
But these idealistic dreams often fade into fantasies as reality imposes itself upon you. Work comes before fun. Your champagne tastes cannot be satisfied on your beer budget. Everyone on Facebook blocks you, your wall collapses, and the only thing that your tweets evoke from others is a resounding “uok?”
Unfortunately life is typically full of disappointments and failed expectations, both big and small. Reality is often a very harsh place for most people, but you can forget this and expect that your life will be the exception rather than the rule.
Love and marriage is a lot like all of this – what was hot is now not and the cuddly truffle you thought you fell for looks and tastes a whole lot more like a stale M&M than a rarefied treat. And wanting more you look out there and begin to dream about all those “new and improved” models you see – what you got paling even further by this comparison and the grass seemingly much greener on the other side of the hill.
Love and marriage are always full of high hopes and painful disappointments. But unlike most of the “I’ve moved ahead and can’t go backwards” frame of reference examples I’ve mentioned, in love and marriage you start with truffle, dry-aged beef and mousse and then you go backward from there.
Why? It’s because new love casts a spell that can make love blind. It can make you think that you are eating mousse when all that’s really in your bowl is a dollop of pudding. So blinded by new love, you initially define your lover as your perfect mate or soul mate. But invariably these blinders come off and this newly realized reality challenges you to happily go “backwards” and be satisfied with less. You go from the ideal to the real. And when you compare the real to the ideal – your present love to your idealized love – your present love is likely to pale by comparison and love is likely to feel, for want of a better term, pretty ordinary.
All this is, by the way, just a basic part of the fabric of love and marriage. Time moves on. What was hot is not. And there you sit, your relationship challenged as you compare the reality of your M&M partner to the idealized truffle of a lover that you tasted back when your love was new.
Research shows that about 48 percent of marriages end in divorce and ratings of marital satisfaction have fallen steadily since the early 1970s. There are a lot of things that figure into this, but I think that one of them is that we expect a lot from love and are often disappointed – we expect the ideal but eventually get the real.
That’s why I think that some of the sorry state of love is actually due to the “frame of reference thing” and the fact that things really do change when you marry or partner. But what that common wisdom doesn’t say is that over time the blinders of love will come off and you’re going to have to get your arms around the fact that you’re really not going to dine forever on truffles, dry-aged beef and mousse since it’s much more likely that you’re actually going to spend “the rest of your life” eating M&M’s, chuck steak and a disappointing-by-comparison cup of instant pudding.
Today’s tip: I once read an article, “Good Enough? That’s Great,” in the Modern Love section of The New York Times. Author Daniel Jones, who edits these Sunday Times columns, wrote that he landed on this title after having reviewed more than 50,000 stories of love over the last 10 years for his column. And while I do think that soul mate love can exist and persist, albeit in rare cases, I also think that Mr. Jones is truly on to something.
So what’s my tip? It’s that idealized expectations and rarefied, perfectionistic frames of reference often cloud judgment and that it’s a really a good idea to remember that “good enough” is not just as good as it gets. Good enough can actually be truly great.
[Editor’s note: Richard A. Kolotkin, Ph.D., is a professor in psychology at MSUM, licensed psychologist with a practice in Moorhead, and author of “The Insightful Marriage: What You Really Need to Know and Do to Be Happily Married,” which is available for Kindle.]
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