Are you right now or have you ever been in a romantic relationship? Would you say it’s important to be yourself in that relationship? As in, truly be the person you are, flaws and all, and hope the other person loves you? In fact, would you say that being false in any way in a relationship negates real love? I would. I’d say it’s essential to be ourselves in a romantic relationship – true, loyal, fierce love depends on it. Your heart person is basically contractually obliged by the rules of love to adore you despite your imperfections – sometimes even because of your imperfections. That’s what love is! It’s being vulnerable and open and candid and real and learning to cherish someone in their full humanity.
A couple of social psychologists over in America beg to differ. A new paper published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin suggests that being your 'best' or 'ideal' self is more important than being your 'actual' or 'true' self in a romantic relationship. University of California academics Muping Gan and Serena Chen conducted a series of tests and surveys on hundreds of people of varying ages and in short and long term relationships. When they first asked members of the public what they thought, 70 percent of people said they felt it was more important to be your actual self in a relationship – but once the researchers looked into this further, they found evidence to suggest the very opposite. In one of the surveys, participants were asked to rank their feelings of authenticity in a relationship, taking into account how often they feel able to 'be themselves' versus how often they 'felt artificial'. They were also asked to explain what their 'ideal' self was and how often they felt like that self (i.e. describe a dream version of who they wished to be, and how closely they resembled that dream in their partner’s company). The outcome was surprising: people whose behaviour was more consistent with their 'ideal' selves around their partner had higher levels of satisfaction in their relationships. Which is to suggest that successful love is predicated on striving to be our best selves, not allowing ourselves to be our real selves.
So, according to this study, we should all envisage the perfect version of ourselves and then use the time we spend with our partners to budge closer to becoming that person. We should be looking for someone who helps us to be the person we strive to be, not necessarily the person we are. The whole idea, to be honest, makes me exhausted. We’re already expected to be as close to perfection as possible in our public lives, on our social media timelines and in our professional capacities. Now we have to be perfect in our most private lives, too? Ugh. Here I was thinking my relationship was the one place I could truly be myself; a little refuge from life, just me and my chosen person against the world.
To get some expert advice on this tiring existential dilemma, I spoke to consultant psychologist Miriam Charalambous and psychotherapist Perpetua Neo about authenticity, perfection and love. Both Miriam and Perpetua said they have clients who come to them distressed because they can’t work out how to be perfect, and that the pressure to be perfect often leads to anxiety, depression and other mental health problems. The constant pursuit of perfection is wearing us down and wearing us out.
'We are all flawed; nobody is perfect and we shouldn’t have to be,' Miriam says. 'Especially when it comes to finding and keeping a romantic partner. The more you are your true self, the more likely it is that you’re going to find a match that’s suitable and long-lasting. It’s like false advertising, to appear to be one person when you first start dating. You are far more likely to have your needs met if you start out being yourself.' But Miriam doesn’t want us to give ourselves permission to relax into all our imperfections, when they may affect other people. Love does not mean getting so comfortable with someone that we get away with our worst behaviour. 'I’m talking about spending a high percentage of your time with someone being true to who you are. That should not imply that we can be selfish. It’s not about saying "take me as I am or leave it" because a relationship is about compromise and respecting your partner. There are two people in a relationship and you need to be flexible enough to give and take. So long as you are good and kind to your partner, it’s better to be yourself than someone you are not. Perfection does not exist, there is no such thing, so always trying to be that in a relationship is just setting yourself up to fail.'
Perpetua agrees that chasing perfection is a futile, even dangerous act. 'It takes gargantuan amounts of effort and energy to only maintain your best self 24-7. It's nerve-wracking. Imagine the prep work you have to do before your first date, then imagine extending that all the time. Think about this in terms of wearing makeup. You can't wear falsies, have perfect hair and ten layers of highlighters, bronzers and illuminators all the time. Your mask has to come off some time. And having a person love you and know you for being the polished person you can be, as well as the real person who wakes up with messy hair and is grouchy, and everything in-between, is how we feel truly authentic. I’ll tell you why we can’t be perfect all the time – life happens, that’s why. You can't always be the 'perfect you’. There are times when we will slip up and feel more vulnerable, and it is during these times that we need and want the most support from the person we love. To know that the real us is loved and worthy of love.'
And that’s just it, to me. Being in a loving relationship is about feeling safe and supported. It’s the right to be vulnerable with another person and still hope that they will love you. What do you think; is it more important to have someone who accepts the true you, or someone who challenges you to be the best version of yourself?
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This article originally appeared on The Debrief.