You’ve likely heard of the 80/20 rule when it comes to diet (both Jillian Michaels and Miranda Kerr use it to guide their healthy eating habits), but there’s another area of your life that you should be applying the principle to: your dating life.
In this instance, the theory goes that in a healthy relationship, 80 percent of it should be amazing, and the other 20 percent should be … things you can live with. In other words, you’re never going to find a person who is 100 percent what you want all the time, but if you have a relationship that’s 80 percent great, then you can’t sweat the other 20 percent.
I used to think this was a weird rule, but as I’ve gotten older and better adjusted to reality, I’ve realized that it makes a lot more sense than I previously thought. In fact, it’s really smart: Instead of obsessing about finding the “perfect” relationship—which is unattainable, since nothing is perfect—and always coming up short, the 80/20 rule gives us permission to embrace our relationships, accepting our partners for who they are (and accepting ourselves, by extension).
Sounds great, but from a psychological standpoint, is it a good idea to practice such a rule, or should we all be holding out for the 90/10 relationship, or the 95/5 relationship, or whatever the magic formula may be? And what counts as being OK for the 20 percent imperfect part? I tapped Hannah Green, a Bay Area psychotherapist specializing in individual and couples therapy, to find out more. Here are eight reasons why you should put it into practice.
It’s great for your psyche.
“I believe the 80/20 rule is a very consistent part of reality, and that bringing our expectations into alignment with reality is healthy,” says Green. Even if you do believe in the idea of a soulmate, not even your physical, mental, and spiritual ideal can possibly stand up to the stringent list of demands we all tally in our heads while dating.
Case in point: No one is tall, wears impossibly soft scarves, doesn’t bite their fingernails and loves to read in bed while classical music softly filters from upmarket speakers—and even if they are all of those things and more, there will inevitably be some other things you’ll find lacking as dating progresses. That’s just how we are, as humans: We dig for fault, the way pigs burrow for truffles. We, like the pigs, are trained to do it.
“Realistic expectations result in less stress, more self-esteem, and better relationships,” says Green. Relaxing into a mostly-good relationship is calmer and more realistic than searching endlessly for the Holy Grail of connection—and leaves you feeling better about yourself as a result.
It keeps you from living in a fantasy world.
Green doesn’t mince her words here: Holding out for the 100 percent relationship, or even the 95/5, “is a pipe dream that keeps us from growing up and enjoying sustainable relationships,” she says. Instead, accepting real life for what it is—and others for who they are, namely people who, like everyone else, have flaws—results in an all-around better life.
This doesn’t mean settling for someone who isn’t right for you, obviously. The 80/20 theory, in practice, is more about remembering that no one is perfect, and reveling in your imperfect relationship, which is lovely anyway, or perhaps lovely because of its imperfection. “It is quite brave and revolutionary when people drop the fantasy and start practicing acceptance and gratitude for where their problems are,” says Green.
It’s a reminder we’re all human—including you.
“As our couples therapist once told us, ‘Yes, you are a pain in the ass, but you are his pain in the ass,” says Green. “The point being that human beings are a pain in the ass sometimes—we have quirks and sore spots, we get sick, grumpy and scared.” The first or tenth or hundredth time someone shows their “flaws,” or “weaknesses,” that ghost of doubt can rear its ugly sheen: Should I leave? Is this person, whom I thought was so insanely wonderful just last week, actually wrong for me?
Though those questions are totally valid—and often the answer to them is yes—if you’re in a mostly great relationship, someone getting hangry or overly clingy or distant isn’t cause to peace out. It’s just a reminder that you and your partner are both annoyingly human. To ignore or avoid this fact “is in essence to stay in childhood, nursing a fantasy and missing out on the real character of life and of our partners,” Green says.
It forces you to be an optimist.
“The trick is to actually enjoy where you and your partner have your problems,” says Green. “Think about it: Do you want someone else’s?” In the grand scheme, do the little details of life really matter? No, and the fact that I even get stuck on tiny things reflects negatively on me and my inner perfection-freak. The next step is to embrace it, notes Green: “Enjoying where you have your problems, rather than trying to eliminate problems altogether, is the key to great relationships.”
This seems important—maybe even vital, the long-sought cracked code to having fun in long-term relationships. As Green elaborated, I found myself nodding along with her insights. Hypothetically given the choice between your mate having “a crazy mother” or “an aversion to oral sex,” she says, or no longer “leaving his skinny jeans on the bedroom floor,” but “wearing smelly football jerseys every day,” would you trade one for the other? “No,” she points out. “You love his sexuality and his cute pants! Someone else can enjoy the football-loving partner with the Betty Crocker mom.”
It makes you less self-centered.
So what counts as being OK for the 20 percent “imperfect” part? Green’s straightforward answer to this question surprised me, given that the “me” culture in which we live always tells us we should always put ourselves first (while being undying critics of ourselves and others). “I believe at least trying to practice acceptance and gratitude around anything that doesn’t endanger you or your core values is possible, and could be beneficial for you and your relationship,” she says.
It obviously “doesn’t benefit us to practice the 80/20 rule in regards to physical, emotional, or sexual abuse,” she adds. If you’re living in the gray area, unsure of whether a particular quirk or facet of your partner’s personality is OK, “couples therapy can help people be clear about what is sustainable and what is not,” notes Green.
It helps you sort out your own issues.
“We tend to wait for the perfect relationship to avoid dealing with our own issues around intimacy and perfectionism,” says Green. “Once we take responsibility for this, we can start to practice relating to ourselves and our partner” in a healthier manner.
After taking stock of all this, and acknowledging that no one is perfect, and saying yes to imperfection, we’re left with … real life. “We can question our ideas of perfection, and start to redefine perfection altogether as reality rather than fantasy,” declares Green. “We can start cultivating a positive attitude, and we can choose not to believe the stinking thinking that tells us we should bail if something doesn’t fit our idea of perfection.”
It has nothing to do with settling.
Quite simply, “your life should be better as a result of staying in the relationship and working through issues rather than worse,” says Green. If you’re not sure, talk about it with someone, like “a therapist, or someone who you trust and has the kind of relationship you want,” suggests Green, which “can help you be clear on this point and to move forward with confidence.”
One thing to keep in mind: “Switching partners will not result in zero percent problems, but in a new 20 percent—and a new opportunity to practice acceptance and gratitude,” notes Green. If a different 20 percent sounds pretty good right now, it might be time to consider jumping ship. But if it’s just about your aversion to problems in general, and you’re happy with your mate, that’s another thing entirely. “If we want to have good and happy lives, putting energy into adjusting our attitude gives us much more bang for our buck” than trying to change everything we perceive to be “wrong,” explains Green.
It’s relevant to all facets of life.
“The 20 percent problems theory extends to all aspects of life,” says Green. “When the dishwasher gets fixed, the dog gets sick. The problems move, but are not transcended, no matter how much money and time we devote to stamping out problems all together.”
Instead of losing your mind every time something goes wrong, the 80/20 rule of relationships—and life—is about embracing the fact that nothing is ever perfect, but sitting in my cozy studio listening to Jeff Buckley, eating green chile chicken stew, while my boyfriend is at a coffee shop nearby writing a movie review is good enough. In fact, it’s great, because it’s reality—it’s my reality—and I wouldn’t trade it for any other iteration.