Maybe. There’s nothing inherently wrong with having—or pursuing—ideals, but we must keep them in perspective. Most of us forget that the definition of an ideal is “existing only in the imagination; desirable or perfect but not likely to become a reality.”
We’re also not aware of how we created our desire or belief about what is perfect. More than likely, we borrowed it from someone else’s ideal, which was probably borrowed from someone else’s, and so on. We might have even adopted an ideal based on what we think someone else’s ideal is!
For example, like most girls, I grew up dreaming about the ideal marriage. When I was in elementary school, that looked like me raising a lot of orphaned children with kind of a mystery man who didn’t have a strong identity (probably because I grew up without my father and didn’t have a clear role model here). I borrowed that ideal from television. My husband was probably a combination of the dads from every TV show from “Leave It to Beaver” to “The Brady Bunch” and “The Cosby Show”.
As I became exposed to more media, family structures, and life experiences, my view of the ideal marriage changed, but I was still largely borrowing from other sources. I didn’t give much thought to what would work for me because I didn’t know myself very well yet.
I sought what I thought would fix a life that felt broken. I wanted a husband who thought I was attractive because I didn’t feel it, and I had family members reminding me that I needed to be smart, since I wasn’t that pretty. I also wanted someone whose family wasn’t as poor as mine, preferably with parents who were still married. I thought these were the elements of a “real marriage”, since that’s what I often heard at church, where I went to become a better person (again, because I felt I was defective and broken).
It took me at least another decade before I realized that I had become a blend of what I thought other people wanted me to be. My ideals were their ideals, not necessarily mine, and this was one cause of my unhappiness.
I had tried to do “all the right things”. I had been the “trophy girlfriend” with the perfect hair, nails, make-up, and wardrobe. I spent a lot of hard-earned dollars I wish I had back, trying to appear independent and low-maintenance. I went to college and became smarter, as I was advised to do. Yet I was also advised not to get too smart because no one would want to marry me.
I didn’t talk about controversial topics on first dates, and I withheld sex a lot more than I wanted to. I did mostly what I was told I “should”. Now, that is a trigger word for me. When I hear it, I ask, “Who says I ‘should’?” Almost always, it is my mother, the church, my friends, “experts”, or someone other than me. They meant well, but they barely knew themselves, and I was taking advice from them!
Today, my ideal marriage is much like what my ancestors probably had: compatibility and partnership, with or without the legal status or papers. What works for me in this moment has nothing to do with what I wore or ate—on our first date or at a fancy party we called a wedding. It has everything to do with who we are becoming, both individually and together. We are not formally married, but our families and lives are intertwined, and we seem to achieve and experience more this way than before.
It’s possible this will change, we will change, and our ideals will change. I accept that now in ways I might not have before, and this opens me to possibilities for happiness beyond what I think is available to me.
In short, our ideals limit us because they are largely borrowed and average, mediocre, or standard. When we allow them to be ever-changing and customizable guidelines, we open more opportunities for happiness. So, yes, your ideals might be keeping you from being happy.
Not sure what you value most in a relationship?
Nance L. Schick, Esq., is a workplace attorney, ethno-religious mediator, and conflict resolution coach based in New York City. Her goal is to keep managers and small business owners out of court and build their conflict resolution skills so everyone has a better work experience. She is creator of the Third Ear Conflict Resolution process, author of DIY Conflict Resolution, and an award-winning entrepreneur acknowledged by Super Lawyers (ADR, 2018, 2019 & 2020), the New York Economic Development Corporation/B-Labs (Finalist, Best for NYC 2015 & 2016), U.S. Chamber of Commerce (2015 Blue Ribbon Small Business), Enterprising Women Magazine (Honorable Mention, 2014 Woman of the Year awards). She has been in a mutually loving and supportive partnership for more than eight years and is having more fun than she ever imagined possible!