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Do our partners need to accept our flaws – or is it up to us to work on them? 

As Jennifer Garner and Ben Affleck vow to work on their marriage, a new study claims that relationships are about trying to be your "ideal" self rather than your authentic one

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By Caroline O'Donoghue on

I flip-flop on the word “flaws” a lot. On the one hand, they’re something that we have been taught to embrace in ourselves and in others. The internet’s foremost dating service,, hinges their entire advertising campaign on the idea of “loving” your imperfections, and encourages customers that there is someone out their to appreciate your flaws. A fucked-up pot for every fucked-up lid, so to speak. “Someone out there who loves your dad jokes,” promised one poster. “Someone out there who really digs your Running Man,” said another. But what if your dad jokes are awkward and racist? What if your Running Man isn’t necessarily appropriate at a funeral? Do you deserve a lid for your pot if your pot voted UKIP? 

This is one of my flaws, by the way: I make a lot of glib comparisons as a way of working up to a point. It’s a very annoying quality in a girlfriend, I assure you. But what I’m getting at is this: at what point do your flaws stop being cute, loveable quirks to be embraced, and when do you admit that you have to straight-up work on yourself? When do you look at another person and say: I love you more than I love my own flaws, and I will work on myself in order to preserve your happiness? 

According to a paper in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, while 70 per cent of people believe that a healthy relationship is one where you feel like you can be your “authentic” self. According to the psychologists that tested these people, that belief is untrue: a healthy relationship is one where you are inspired to be your “ideal” self. Or rather, that being with a particular person helps us be our ideal selves. Coincidentally, this research has been presented on the same day that the un-divorce of Jennifer Garner and Ben Affleck started trending all over Facebook. The couple, who announced their seperation in June 2015, have decided that they will not divorce, and plan to work on their marriage. Whatever flaws Jen or Ben have, they have decided they are worth working on. At least one person, seemingly, has decided that their love is worth changing for. 

Coincidentally, this research has been presented on the same day that the un-divorce of Jennifer Garner and Ben Affleck started trending all over Facebook

It’s something that I think about a lot in my own relationship. When my boyfriend and I first met as friends, he told me that his last relationship had failed, in part, because of how blandly permissive it was. She was kind, pretty, smart and maternal, and he spent years hating himself for being unable to love her in a way that she deserved to be loved. She accepted him the way he was, believing he would “come around” to having children eventually, and he – being 25, and nervous – started immediately acting like a prick as a way of pushing her away. “If being nice were the only quality you needed for being in love with a person,” he said to me, when I broke up with my boyfriend, who shared many of the qualities his ex-girlfriend had. “Then everyone on earth would marry their first love.”

Four years after meeting, we found ourselves arguing in our own kitchen. We were having a Difficult Conversation. Difficult Conversations are both worse and better than proper fights: better because they tend to be more civilised, and feature a lot less door-slamming; worse because they are filled with pregnant pauses and feelings that, while necessary to express, aren’t always the easiest to hear. When the Difficult Conversation was over – the clock striking 2am, our eyes heavy with exhaustion and relationship rhetoric – we hugged each other for a long time. “When people talk about relationships needing work,” he said. “Is this what they mean?” 

We agreed that it was. Because it felt like work: it felt exhausting, and difficult, and satisfying in the way that good work does. It was work, but it was work that was worth doing. We were pushing each other, and each of us snapped back at being pushed, but we moved a few inches, all the same. We realised that we had never truly “worked” with someone before, and had always vainly  committed to the idea of embracing our defects. We saw what the psychologists from PSPB saw in their study: that if we committed to the idea that our “authentic selves” deserved to be loved without question or criticism, we were dooming ourselves. 

So it felt gratifying, somehow, to read this morning that Jennifer Garner and Ben Affleck have decided to call off their divorce in order to work on their marriage. Obviously, I have no idea what that work entails for their relationship, but I think most relationships can be boiled down to one simple question: is the person you’re in love with flawed in a way you think you can work with? And, conversely: are you flawed in a way that’s worth working with?  


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