Are Our Romantic Expectations Too High?

Is holding out for a partner who makes us see the world in new ways asking too much?

More than once during my tenure as a dating blogger, I've been at a dinner party or cocktail gathering where someone has said: "Modern-day Americans want too much. They have these unrealistic notions of what a romantic partner should be — a sexual dynamo, a confidante, and a soul mate all wrapped up in one. It's too much to expect from any single individual. And it helps to explain why people are taking longer than ever to get married, and why they divorce so often too." (And doesn't Lori Gottlieb touch on all this in her book about "Mr. Good Enough?")

The implication is that we should lower our expectations — and be more accepting, for example, of a person who might be a good provider, a reliable communicator, and a sane man, even if he's not intellectually stimulating, or creative, or particularly funny.

So ... is it silly to yearn for someone with whom you can have great conversations … or someone who makes you laugh all the time … or someone who consistently fascinates you with his observations, or his stories about life's little details? Should you look for a guy you can stand who is financially and emotionally stable, and be done with it?

Nope — not according to a recent New York Times piece by writer Tara Parker-Pope, who presents a good argument about why those seemingly ancillary personality details (like creativity, intelligence, and humor) are so important.

"For centuries, marriage was viewed as an economic and social institution, and the emotional and intellectual needs of the spouses were secondary to the survival of the marriage itself," she writes. "But in modern relationships, people are looking for a partnership, and they want partners who make their lives more interesting. Caryl Rusbult, a researcher at Vrije University in Amsterdam … called it the 'Michelangelo effect,' referring to the manner in which close partners 'sculpt' each other in ways that help each of them attain valued goals."

Or, as Gary W. Lewandowski Jr., a professor at Monmouth University in New Jersey, tells Parker-Pope: "People have a fundamental motivation to improve the self and add to who they are as a person. If your partner is helping you become a better person, you become happier and more satisfied in the relationship." Research by Lewandowski and others shows that the more a relationship helps a person to accumulate knowledge and experiences, the more committed and satisfied she feels. And those kinds of experiences include vacations, expanding your social network, or even talking about the news or an interesting movie. Similarly, people who are creative or funny or intellectually sharp can help us become a bit more mindful, ourselves, to opportunities to see the creative possibilities when, say, decorating a dinner table or to see the humor in a situation or to think through the different sides of a political debate.

I was glad to read the article, because I feel strongly that the most satisfying partners are the ones who help me expand my understanding of the world. Also, Parker-Pope has given me fodder for the next time someone says, "Oh, why is it so important to meet someone who's brilliant? Why do we so value good talkers, or funny people, or deep thinkers? Isn't it enough to meet someone who pays the bills on time, and doesn't drive us crazy?" To which I will say, "Not quite."

But what do you folks think? Are you with me — or do you feel like we do put an unnecessary emphasis on finding a partner who will help us grow and change, and see the world in new ways? Do you think it should be enough to simply find someone we get along with well enough — someone we don't want to kick out of bed, literally or figuratively?