We all need more than love; we also need to keep our expectations in check

When I was a mere slip of a girl, back in the 1960s, the Beatles' "All You Need Is Love" was hummed, strummed, sung and eventually immortalized as iconic for a generation knowing a lot about narcissistic self-absorption, but not a whole lot about love. It's pretty obvious we haven't learned much in the ensuing 40 years or so; witness the persistence of red plastic hearts festooning a slew of commercial establishments in recognition of Feb. 14.

The hard truth of the matter is love is not all you need, and all the chocolate, flowers, jewelry, cards and red lingerie are merely what marketing mavens would have us believe are genuine expressions of ever-illusive love. Though they may give retailers a little post-Christmas boost, gifts are a poor substitute for the intangibles keeping relationships solid.

Anyone who has been partnered long enough to question why people ever came up with the idea of lifelong commitment understands the notion of relationship minefields. More often than not, some inconsequential exchange ignites a firestorm of accusations, defenses, cross-accusations, angry words, insults, shouting and whatever else couples keep in their "I've been wronged" arsenals.

The other day, I was reading in my office when I came across what I thought was a clever turn of phrase. Maureen Dowd had referred to Bill Clinton as the potential "First Lad." My husband happened to be home, and I was so enthused over Dowd's word play that I immediately went in search of my dear one to share it. I returned to my office when I couldn't find him, but within a few moments, there was a tap, tap, tapping at my door.

As soon as I opened it, I launched into an animated account of Dowd's witty antonomasia. It wasn't long before my husband made a "hurry it up" move with his hands, and I promptly slammed the door in his face. It seems he wanted to ask me a question, not be entertained by an example of a columnist's cleverness.

I share this episode as an example of how individual expectations make up a large part of those minefields referenced earlier. I expected one thing; my husband anticipated something completely different, and voila, tantrums all around. OK, so nothing cataclysmic happened, but the point is how such a situation is handled and understood can either turn into something to laugh about later, or mushroom into a full-blown argument. The greater part of wisdom tells us expectations are not always met. Recognizing this--and not resorting to some version of adolescent pouting, whining or stony silence when those expectations aren't met--increases the odds of avoiding partnership meltdown.

Trouble is, most of us are attached to our expectations. When things don't go according to plan, or when people don't behave the way we think they should, few of us are able to accept the outcome. We may be civil to one degree or another in such situations, but too few of us are able to really let it go. Cultivating the ability to shrug off disappointment (and there will be disappointment) is far more valuable for the long-term health of a marriage or partnership than all the chocolate hearts in Walgreens.

After slamming the door in my beloved's face, there were a number of ways the encounter could play itself out. I might have fumed privately and fed my anger by conjuring up an entire manifesto of slights. Having reached critical mass, I then might have wrenched open the door and, in good banshee fashion, started accusing dear one of endless failings, thus giving him the opportunity to join my scream fest in a volatile exchange leading nowhere fast.

As ridiculous as this scenario sounds, some couples have not progressed beyond this sandbox behavior. Even if the manufactured romance of a sublime St. Valentine's Day dinner coupled with some expensive bauble provides a timeout from the day-to-day drama and an opportunity for the requisite cooing, it's all much ado about nothing if on Feb. 15, we're back to trading accusations of egregious misdeeds.

While it might be pleasant to tell ourselves all we need is love, before too long, we are likely to discover the folly of such limited belief. Besides love (difficult enough to achieve with its components of compassion, affection and empathy), we need patience, humor, tolerance and the willingness to see our expectations fly away like so many rose petals carried off by the wind.

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