Rarely a day goes by where I don’t hear a complaint about how significant others “should” be a certain way, or “should” be doing things differently. For example, “My husband should be putting me first”, “My wife should leave me alone for 15 minutes after I walk in the door”, “My boyfriend shouldn’t want to have sex so much”, “My girlfriend should check with me before making plans”, and so on.
Becoming Aware of Cognitive Distortions
In Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT), there is a concept known as “cognitive distortions.” These are the areas of our thought processes that can lead to conflict and friction if we don’t become aware of them. “Should statements” are cognitive distortions because they reflect entitlement — the idea that something is owed to us. Moreover, “should statements” make an issue personal.
For example, let’s say you have a hard day at work, and when you get home you expect your spouse will make dinner for you while you relax. Assuming that there’s not a previously established agreement about making dinner, if you feel that your spouse “should” make dinner for you because you had a hard day, it has now become a personal issue. The expectation that your spouse is responsible to make you dinner when you have a hard day now puts your spouse on the spot. If he or she comes through, then all is well, but if not, then the spouse becomes the disappointment (which sets up a projection of the bad day onto the spouse). Of course, it’s reasonable to be able to ask your spouse to cook dinner, but it’s important how the request is approached internally and then communicated to your partner. A “should statement” in a relationship is essentially criticizing our partner for wronging us. It’s the next-door neighbor to “you’re wrong, and I’m right”, even if it’s said with a sweet tone.
A more balanced internal approach would be: “It would really be nice if my partner would cook dinner tonight.” This lightens the situation as a whole by removing the entitlement, criticism, and blame.
Valuing Your Relationship
“Should statements” are often based on external influences — e.g., my parents did ‘this’ for each other, so you should do this for me; the perfect relationship in that movie looked like ‘that’, why aren’t you doing that for me; etc. Too often we get caught up in the details that are not present and ignore what is present in our relationships. It’s important that we value our relationships for what they are, and not make external comparisons of what we think they “should” be.
Here are three tips for increasing value and appreciation of our relationships:
1) “Should” No More! “Should statements” can be toxic to relationships. Practice removing these statements completely from your vocabulary (even in non-relationship scenarios). When you catch yourself thinking or saying “should”, replace it with, “it would be nice if…” (or a variation of this).
2) Embrace your uniqueness. Start to take notice of what makes your relationship tick. What do you and your partner bring to the relationship that works for both of you? Relationships are the unification of two unique personalities, values, opinions, passions, and so on. Your happily married best friends could have a completely different style of functioning relationship than the happily married you.
3) Accept occasional dysfunctional moments. It’s unrealistic to believe that we’re going to be happy in every moment. Our partners will do something that we may find annoying, or something that may make us want to spend some time without them. This is okay, as long as it’s not the majority of the time. If you fall into the trap of believing that a wonderful relationship means you’re always happy, then you’ll end up being disappointed.
As with anything, balance is the key. The more we embrace the unique quality of our relationships, allow for imperfections, and shed entitled or external expectations, the more room our relationships have to flourish.