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True or false:
- Couples with great relationships don’t fight.
- Most people expect too much from marriage.
- All the good men/women are already taken.
- Love can heal all wounds.
- If my partner were more like me, we’d have a better relationship.
These are some examples of commonly held beliefs about love, but do these beliefs help or harm your ability to sustain a relationship? Just as importantly, how do you know these beliefs are true? In this book, we call these beliefs “myths” because we consider them to be unsubstantiated ideas that many people accept without question. A myth is defined as “an unproved or false collective belief that is used to justify a social institution.” Myths are not personal ideas; they are collective attitudes or stories that possess the power to influence a large number of people. Myths may or may not contain some truth, but whether or not they do, we often repeat them as received wisdom.
Such beliefs can get us into a lot of trouble. When everyone around us seems to share the same ideas, we rarely question them. We don’t even see them as beliefs. We regard them as facts, universal truths, or as the way things are, and we act accordingly. When we unquestioningly accept a myth, or a system of thinking and doing things, we become locked into a fixed and rigid perspective that makes it impossible to entertain other points of view. It’s the mental equivalent of going through life in a straitjacket.
On the other hand, when we recognize a myth for what it is — a point of view that can be subject to question — we open ourselves to the possibility of considering other ways of seeing and doing things. Relaxing a fixed perspective allows us to access a wider range of responses. This makes it possible for us to be more creative and better able to understand another person’s perspective. Suddenly, we can see things from a more expanded point of view, and the world opens up.
Relationships require open-mindedness in order to thrive. Loosening our attachments to widespread myths about love enables the kind of flexibility that strengthens relational bonds. In a relationship, more openness translates into greater mutual understanding.
Our goal in writing this book is to encourage this kind of open and flexible approach to your romantic relationships and committed partnerships. We aren’t asking you to stop believing what you believe. We aren’t hoping to install a different set of beliefs or a new version of software into your brain. Rather, we want to encourage you to recognize when certain ideas about love have become so deeply embedded in your thinking that it hasn’t ever occurred to you to question them. When we step back and see these ideas for what they are — as points of view or opinions, not reality — we free ourselves of inaccurate or unconscious assumptions that may not be serving us, particularly in the context of our relationships.
The ability to consider other perspectives enables us to communicate with greater understanding and trust, which minimizes conflict. Relationships aren’t meant to conform to certain standards or fit certain ideals; they aren’t right or wrong based on some external measuring stick. Instead, when two people share love, empathy, and compassion, they create a unique partnership that may or may not conform to society’s beliefs and definitions.
Freeing ourselves from the hold of rigid beliefs is one of the most empowering things that we can do in our lives and in our relationships. This is an essential part of the process of cultivating the kind of wisdom that characterizes all great relationships. The dictionary defines wise as “marked by deep understanding, keen discernment, and a capacity for sound judgment.” An essential step in the process of assessing what is true is to evaluate what isn’t true. While a myth may contain a kernel of truth, it isn’t true in its entirety.
Myths are attractive for several reasons. One is that by adopting them, we feel integrated within a larger community of people who share the same collective perspective. Also, they free us from the responsibility of having to assess people and circumstances on an individual, case-by-case basis. This discernment takes work, and myths provide us with a prepackaged description of “the way things are.” But the price that we pay for this “shortcut” is a loss of our ability to see things for ourselves. Another consequence is that living by culturally approved myths blunts our passion for living and diminishes trust in our own judgment.
Accepting myths without questioning them prevents us from experiencing the full measure of freedom, passion, and personal power that is available to us when we take ownership of our own inner authority.
If it is in fact true that the truth will set you free, then perhaps the first step is recognizing when something isn’t necessarily true. Believing something to be true when it may not be can be dangerous business indeed. When we act in ways that affirm such untrue beliefs, we can create self-fulfilling prophecies that provide more “evidence” that validates potentially inaccurate views. Over time, we become incapable of seeing these beliefs for what they are, especially since our larger society already holds them as true.
This can be particularly dangerous in relationships, where distinguishing reality from perception can require exceptional powers of discernment. When we act in accordance with beliefs that are unverified, we’re not operating from an accurate compass, and so we can end up in places other than where we intended to go.
Another attractive aspect of myths is that they often “feel” true. In relationships, when we experience difficult emotions — such as disappointment, anger, helplessness, guilt, resentment, or some combination of the above — we usually don’t attribute those feelings to ungrounded beliefs. Instead, we usually blame our partner or ourselves. It may never occur to us that no one is “at fault.” Rather, we may simply need to revise a belief about “the way things are.”
Seeing a myth for what it is and questioning its validity enables us to exert more influence in our relationship. In so doing, we can see our relationship not as a fixed entity but as an evolving process, one that expresses itself moment to moment in a constantly shifting dance. Having cultivated certain ideas and myths over a lifetime, we tend to resist letting them go. To overcome these beliefs, we must develop empathic understanding and respect for our partner, rather than trying to get them to conform to our beliefs. This means being more concerned with listening than with being heard, and with giving rather than getting.
Challenging an assumption requires us first to recognize that what we have held as a fact may not be entirely true. Acknowledging this possibility can be a daunting prospect, since at times it can shake the foundation of our world. No one wants to face that. Yet despite our reluctance to reevaluate the legitimacy of long-standing beliefs, sometimes life experiences trump our resistance to change.
The mind is incredibly powerful, but it’s not infallible. It provides wisdom and valuable guidance; it is how we make sense of an overwhelmingly complex world. But if we don’t check the accuracy and trustworthiness of the information we receive, our minds can mislead us. If we take shortcuts — by accepting widely held myths and bypassing the process of inquiry — these shortcuts may not lead to reliable pathways to the truth. Especially in relationships, what is true for others may not be true for oneself. Just because many people say something is true doesn’t necessarily make it so. Distinguishing belief from reality is itself a process of liberation that frees us to live in accordance with what is true for us.
One indicator of emotional maturity is the number of illusions about the world that one has given up. The process of examining our beliefs can be humbling because it requires us to be willing to detach from previously held positions. Yet the payoff is huge. We gain freedom, passion, creativity, personal power, wisdom, and fulfilling relationships. And all we have to give up are our illusions.
Some things are worth losing. Don’t believe everything you think.