It is common in therapy for people to mention that their significant other “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.
Talking or thinking in “should” statements can be problematic for one’s emotional health. Feeling that something “should” be a certain way sets people up for frustration and aggravation when the situation is not as hoped. Shoulds have a way of expressing a sense of entitlement, as well as making things more personal than they needed to be. This often creates problems in relationships and with moods in general.
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 may be 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 your partner for wronging you. 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 removes the entitlement, criticism, and blame and brings a sense of autonomy and agency back to your partner.
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 people can get caught up in focusing on outside relationships (or fictional relationships) and ignore what is present in your specific relationships. It’s important to value your relationships for what they actually are. Each couple’s relationship has its own set of dynamics and shapes up in its own way. Too much pressure for a relationship to “be” a certain way generally has the effect of eroding the relationship over time.
Here are three tips for increasing value and appreciation of our relationships:
1) No more “shoulds”. 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 relationship than the happily married you.
3) Accept occasional dysfunctional moments. It’s unrealistic to believe that you’re going to be happy in every moment. Your partner will eventually do something that you may find annoying, or something that may make you 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 and in sync, then you’ll end up being disappointed.
As with anything, balance is the key. The more you can embrace the unique quality of your relationships, allowing room for imperfections, and shedding entitled or external expectations, the more room your relationship can have to flourish.
Contact Nathan Feiles to inquire about therapy.