The Myth of the “Perfect Person”
Philosopher John Armstrong’s How to Worry Less About Money is one of the best books on money I’ve ever read.
He’s the first thinker I know to point out that many of our money problems are not about money at all — they’re about psychology. Financial freedom isn’t about being filthy rich. It’s about psychological freedom.
Recently, I found another great book by Armstrong titled Conditions of Love: The Philosophy of Intimacy.
In it, Armstrong dispels a common myth that many of us hold — the myth of the perfect person.
Let’s take a look.
Love is not a treasure hunt
Many of us see love as a treasure hunt.
This delusional belief goes something like this: “There are billions of people in the world. I haven’t met her yet, but — somewhere out there — the perfect person is waiting for me. I just have to keep trying. When I meet her, all my problems will be solved!”
Most people today would choke on their cappuccinos (squirting milk out of their noses, no doubt) if you said, “I’m searching for the Holy Grail. It’s only a matter of time until I find it.” But nobody bats an eyelash when we say, “I’m searching for Mr. or Ms. Right. I just have to meet enough people and it’ll be okay.”
“One major theme of this myth is that there is a ‘right’ person for each of us. If we can only find this person our problems will be over. … Correspondingly, what goes wrong in love always derives from attaching ourselves to the wrong person — or the wrong person getting attached to us.”
What’s so problematic about this belief?
At first, it sounds pretty reasonable. After all, some people are clearly “wrong” for us. I would not want to date a drug addict or marry a woman who beats me each morning with a baseball bat.
Here’s the mistake, though: Just because some people are better than others does not mean that the perfect person exists.
You might as well say that, because some foods are more nutritious than others, there is a single food that will give you all the nutrients you need for the rest of your life. (Please, don’t even get me started on Soylent.)
It gets even worse.
Our expectation that a perfect person exists guarantees failure, says Armstorng:
“…the demand for compatibility is never satisfied. The list we make always leaves room for new demands — and hence new ways in which people can turn out to be incompatible. … When people agree about almost everything, the few points of difference can still seem — to them — enormous. …the ‘right person’ is specified so closely that they will never find such a person; they will always be disappointed because whoever they find will fall short in some way, will fail to meet one of their requirements. But, in their own eyes, this is not a shortcoming of their own; it is simply bad luck.“
When we are ensnared by the vision of a perfect person, we compare all others to a unreachable standard… and find everyone lacking.
To seek perfection is to climb a staircase that never ends.
“I’m perfect just the way I am… But everyone else sucks.”
This impossibility of finding perfection isn’t what bothers me most, though.
For me, the most frustrating part of the “myth of the perfect person” is how it lets us ignore the other half of a successful relationship — ourselves.
“Attention is diverted away from the seeker. They have no responsibility to be loving; they imagine that when they do find the person love will be easy, will flower spontaneously and survive of its own accord.”
To say, “I’m just waiting for Mr. Perfect to come along” is to say that you have no personal responsibility for what happens to you.
When a relationship fails, we do not consider that we might lack humility, empathy or understanding. Instead, we invoke a convenient excuse and say, “We just weren’t right for each other.”
The ideal of Ms. Right objectifies love, which blinds us to the need to work on ourselves:
“The problem is not finding the person but in finding the resources and capacities in oneself to care for another person — to love them. Searching for the right ‘object’ diverts attention from finding the right attitude.”
“I’m going to IKEA to buy me a wife.”
The search for love is fundamentally different from the search for flight tickets, buried treasure, or living room furniture. Desk lamps do not change. People do.
“A second problem with this attempt to find the ‘right person’ is that it does not pay enough attention to the ways in which priorities change through a relationship. A woman who has — as she thinks — no interest in having children may, from within a loving relationship, come to have a different view.”
Many people (myself included, in the past) have a mental “checklist” of all the qualities they want Mr. or Ms. Right to have — smart, funny, reads Schopenhauer, can deadlift 300+ pounds, blah, blah, blah.
Two mistakes here: (1) a checklist assumes we know what we want and (2) it assumes our needs will not change over time.
Before I met my wife, my plan was to stay single and continue my travels around the world. I didn’t want to marry for at least another decade, and couldn’t ever see myself “settling down”.
After meeting her, these priorities changed. I saw new value in community, solidarity, and many other things I did not think of before. Even the idea of kids (gasp!) suddenly didn’t sound so bad.
Ten years ago, I had no idea who I would be today. And, in turn, I have no idea who I will be in another ten years. How could I possibly calculate “perfect”?
“The calculation — the picturing of the perfect partner — presupposes that we can enter a relationship with a clear-sighted and complete understanding of our needs and capacities. This is to see a relationship as a kind of garment which merely goes on top of, and does not in any way change, the inner person.”
This way of thinking that comes from high school textbooks — where problems are clearly defined and have “right” answers — does not transfer well to love, politics or decision-making in the real world.
Incommensurability: You Are Not a Jigsaw Puzzle
Now, a final point on why the search for perfection fails.
Humans have many needs, and not all of them are compatible. Some needs drive us towards relationships; others pull us way.
A person in a wonderful relationship may start to crave freedom and independence. But when this person goes through a divorce or a breakup, he may find that — after a few months of feeling “free” — he suddenly misses his former partner and wishes he could go back.
There is no free lunch, no choice without some accompanying shadow, says Armstrong:
“…even if we rationally (and sensibly) come to a [relationship] conclusion one way or another, we still have to live with the consequence that something important has been sacrificed. And the scar of this sacrifice lives on in our experience of love, introducing a permanent pain and dissatisfaction into otherwise very healthy relationships. Love, then, can never be the coming together of two perfectly compatible creatures. We are not like jigsaw pieces which can, if only we find the correct piece, lock together in perfect accord. It is as if each person actually belongs to several jigsaws at once and hence fits perfectly into none.“
Personally, I’ve found a sort of stoic acceptance valuable here.
By not believing in a perfect solution, I’m more able to appreciate the ups and downs of life, and a lot more able to withstand the inevitable conflicts (“Did you really forget to put your socks in the washing machine, again?!”) that come with any relationship.
Love as cultivation
One last thing before you go.
If we reject the myth of the perfect person, what “mental model” should we use in its place?
To start, let’s look at this paragraph from Armstrong:
“One of the ordinary tragedies of love occurs when one person is well intentioned and well disposed towards another, but has no adequate idea of how to make the other person happy. It is one thing to feel loving towards someone, another to translate this feeling into words and actions which make the other person feel loved.”
I did not have a happy childhood.
One of my most vivid, and painful memories, is of my mother and I both in tears after another nasty argument. “Why can’t you understand?” said my mother, “I love you so much. Why can’t you understand?”
It is one thing to love, and another to express love.
“People can be better or worse at seeing opportunities to make their affection apparent… This has nothing to do with strength of feeling or intensity of longing. Instead it has everything to do with perceptual acuity and imagination.”
Realizing love is not simply about finding the right person. It’s also about cultivating a set of valuable skills:
“…love is an achievement, it is something we create, individually, not something which we just find, if only we are lucky enough. ….love is dependent upon many other achievements: kindness of interpretation, sympathy, understanding, a sense of our own needs and vulnerability. And these kinds of capacity and awareness do not spring suddenly into being. Each requires patient cultivation… We place too much emphasis on finding the right person and not nearly enough upon the cultivation of qualities which allow us to deserve love and which enable us to give love…”
Work on yourself, and good things will come.