The world is a complex place so it’s really hard to create an accurate mental understanding of it. Most of us do a fairly good job creating a functional reality that allows us to exist and contribute to society. Whatever assumptions we make about the world to get us through our day to day life tend to work well enough to allow work, shopping, recreation, education, etc…. to continue. This is because these assumptions are trivial – the assumption that a cashier will give you change is a fair one because that is their role. A teacher is supposed to teach, fitness instructors are supposed to instruct and co-workers are supposed to do their jobs. These are basically social conventions – implied behaviors and actions for specific roles. Members of society have a collective understanding of all these roles so it’s expected that those playing one of them do so appropriately. Doing so makes society function more effectively because we don’t need to vet every single interaction.
For less superficial roles like romantic partners, it is a lot more complicated. The interactions are more frequent and cover a deeper range of topics. However, we may still apply the same social convention approach to roles – that is we assume that a girlfriend or boyfriend is a particular thing, plays a particular role and should therefore act a particular way. This is what everyone else in our life does – the sales person sells, the lawyer applies the law to get you what you want, the police identify and charge criminals – so we do the same thing with the more intimate social partners. This works very well for transactional interactions because you are making a very general assumption about their potential behavior based on your understanding of the role; a composite understanding of EVERY experience, real or thought, about anyone who played this transactional role before. This approach doesn’t work as well when it comes to deeper non-transactional interactions. The issue becomes that of assumption testing, and more accurately assumption failure, because the understanding that one creates about a girlfriend and the role that she plays ARE going to be tested in a relationship, and some of them are going to fail.
Your understanding of a romantic partners has been shaped by the modeling of your primary caregivers, television, books, siblings, peers, and social exposure. As you begin to date, the understanding evolves and starts to acquire aspects of each relationship. It’s a complicated thing but over time you start to get a clear understanding of what a girlfriend is supposed to do, why she is doing it, what you are supposed to do and what a relationship is supposed to be like. Eventually the role of girlfriend becomes clearly defined – it too is a composite of all of the behaviors that you have come to associate with the role of a girlfriend. At some point the evolution of this understanding slows and the role become more solidified turning now into expectations. You close off to information seeking and choose to move forward with what you have running on the belief that you know all you need to about how a romantic partner is supposed to act and what they are supposed to be. With repeated exposure, their actions will shape your understanding of how the role is supposed to be played but any deviations from the existing role will be resisted and need to be assimilated over time.
The problems really begin because people now enter your life, not as new people with new things to learn about but instead enter as bit players to fill a role in your life. There are expectations for how they should be your significant other, based on your experiences, and your new partner is being held to your old views / roles. We have less concern about learning from them and more concern about getting them to act in a particular way – a way that is compatible with our view of what a girl or boy friend is supposed to act. This is almost completely unworkable because people tend not to respond very well to having their autonomy replaced with a list of demands and expectations, disappointment and anxiety when they act like themselves.
In my opinion, the key thing that taxes a relationship is a lack of information exchange about ones personal definition of what a romantic partner is supposed to be. It isn’t necessarily that being kept in the dark is bad or the wrong thing, it’s just that a lot of people have the tendency to fill in missing information with stuff they make up based on their past experiences. If we don’t directly ask someone what their motives are, we can wait to hear what they are or we can do what we’ve been doing most of our life and make an assumption about what the motives are based on our experience. The problem with this type of manufactured life is that it tends not to reflect reality. The outcome is that you think your new girl friend acts the way she does for the reasons your OLD girlfriend/s would have had. You are living in the past because you are holding onto antiquated role definitions. Your actions are unfair and generally lead away from happiness because you are transferring your old roles onto new people; you are not allowing them to determine their role and how they should fill it.
I am aware of the impact of my past as I can sense it in the back of my mind telling me stuff that it couldn’t possibly know with any certainty. For example, having had a girlfriend that died, a part of me is always certain that something has happened when I don’t hear from a romantic partner. Most of my friends didn’t have a partner die so they’re just know that they are running late. Time for that assumption to go. I had a girlfriend who lived in a different province so I became accustomed to not seeing her for weeks at a time. While I’ll miss them like crazy when they are not around, it isn’t abnormal for me to not spend a lot of time with my girlfriend because I normalized not seeing them. This one isn’t working for me because I really enjoy spending time with my girlfriend and can’t think of any good reason for us not to hang out. I’ve had three girlfriends who were working hard to complete a second degree so I have been able to normalize tabling couple activities until later when school is out and they have the time to reconnect. Being distant with someone I live with is not unusual for me, in fact, it’s actually what I have come to expect out of relationships because people who want to do well in school HAVE to focus on school and deprioritize the relationship. But since I’m not in a relationship with someone who is in school, there really is no reason for me to transfer this understanding / role onto them. We CAN spend time together and we SHOULD remain connected.
So, what does this mean to the single or the newly involved people? The same thing it means to those involved in more long term relationships. You need to be very aware that you are allowing your partner to be who they are, act how they need to and say what they say without an attempt to force them to behave as your antiquate role template outlines. You need to not transfer or project motive or intentions on them. You need to ask them questions when you don’t know why they did something you don’t understand. You must remain diligent to ensure that you are affording your partner the dignity to be who they are and not use your influence to shape their actions to conform to what your role expectation demand they be.