Remember the fairy tales we read as children? Snow White? Cinderella? Beauty and the Beast? Each ended with one version or another of “…and they lived happily ever after.” This Valentines week, I’m going to let you in on a little secret: True love bears no resemblance whatsoever to a fairy tale’s romantic ending. Starting in childhood, whenever “happily ever after” is pinned to the end of a fairy tale, novel, or movie one begins to internalize the dangerous myth those words perpetuate: that once you find your true love, the hard work’s over and you can relax and coast through the next fifty or so years hand in hand, in wedded bliss. “OK”, you might wonder, “Then how should the story go?” The answer is actually quite simple. Instead, every love story should begin—not end—with those very same words, just rearranged a bit to represent genuine, real, adult love: “Ever after they lived, happily and…” Those ellipses at the end feel really scary to many of my patients, and I understand why. In pop culture, we never hear what happens after that so-called happy ending. “Happily and… what?” It has been repeatedly embedded into our collective consciousness that certainty is the end-all-be-all, that if anything other than happiness is introduced into a relationship then it’s a warning flag—that if suddenly you find yourself having to work at love, then that love should be cast aside. Our collective mindset, in other words, wants us to believe that true love is easy, and that enduring love is also out of our hands. Reader, if you take nothing else away from this week’s blog, please take away this one insight: many of the love lessons our culture tries to instill in us are wrong, pure and simple. The love story doesn’t end when the curtain falls—that’s where it truly begins. Why? Because the work of love is where the true romance lies. The work of genuinely getting to know your partner, of empathizing with them even when you vehemently disagree, of giving compassion even when you’re exhausted, of trying to listen when you are about to explode in anger, of showing gratitude even when (inevitably) they disappoint you. It’s hard, it’s infinitely complex… but it is entirely within our capability. So this Valentine’s Day, I want you to take control of your love life once and for all. And I’m going to tell you how.
In television, movies, and books, consumers are frequently presented with an image of love that is passionate, blissful, and all-encompassing. Characters such as Wesley and Buttercup in the movie The Princess Bride, and Edward and Bella in the movie Twilight, exhibit undying devotion and affection which sustains them through every hardship they encounter. These movies, and others in this genre in which we have been immersed since childhood, present an idealized view of a love relationship, which may cause us to develop unrealistic expectations for the love relationships in our own lives. To have a successful romantic relationship, one must first understand the components of a REAL love life, as opposed to a fantasy.
A romantic relationship may evolve through three phases – the first phase is what we might call the “romanticized phase,” or “phase of idealization.” This is where you feel enraptured and incredibly excited about the other person. You think about them almost all of the time, there are frequent calls and/or text messages, and you feel that they are the greatest thing that has ever happened to you. Feeling as if you are on Cloud 9 can last as little as a night or two, or as much as several months. However, it is important to note that this romanticized phase will always end. (This does not necessarily mean the end of romance in the relationship, which is different).
The second phase is what we might call the beginning of the “reality phase.” This phase begins when you are still having fun together and are attracted to each other, yet you begin to notice the flaws in the other person, or they comment upon flaws in you. You begin to feel disappointed in a variety of ways. They may let you down or make you angry…or you may feel neglected or poorly treated. Some of this may be normal disillusionment and expectable in a real relationship. At other times it may be that the person is too self-absorbed and narcissistic to be able to truly satisfy your basic needs. (Look for a subsequent blog on “The Narcissist”).The beginning of the reality phase of a romantic relationship can be a difficult phase to negotiate, and for this reason many romantic relationships end here.
However, there is hope for conquering this phase. It is important that you talk with your romantic interest about some of your feelings and concerns, and listen to theirs. Do you try to resolve conflicts together? Are you willing to compromise? It is important to get good at talking, listening, and finding a middle ground, with a willingness to make some changes. Intimacy and commitment can feel scary, and make you or your partner want to run away from the relationship, but those feelings can be talked through as opposed to acted upon. Past deep disappointments in love, significant unresolved losses of a loved one, parental divorce, or growing up in a family where the relationships were characterized by emotional distance, can all result in fears of a close and lasting commitment. If you have persisting fears of intimacy that interfere with your love life, or you repeatedly end promising relationships before they can mature, then these issues can be addressed and resolved in psychotherapy . The therapeutic process can assist you in moving on into a healthier and more satisfying relationship.
At this point you may be thinking, “This sounds too complicated. Is there anything I can do to prevent this phase and continue the romanticized phase?” Unfortunately, there is no way to prevent the reality phase from emerging. However, take comfort in the fact that YOU get to decide whether your partner’s traits are satisfying enough to continue on. It is important to recognize that without self- reflection on the part of your partner, independently or through psychotherapy, their negative traits will persist over time. If they frequently disappoint or make you feel inadequate – such that you never develop a comfortable contentment – you may choose to end the relationship.
In the alternative, if you feel that you can fully accept your partner’s flaws, and that the good attributes outweigh the bad, then you may feel willing to continue. Ultimately, if you can each accept each other for who you are, within the context of working on the relationship to bring greater satisfaction, then the bond can develop into a real and durable one.
Sometimes your romantic interest decides to end the relationship. This may elicit feelings of self-doubt, or fears that you are flawed and not good enough. You may question whether you should have behaved differently. Feelings of confusion may arise if you and your partner had seemingly enjoyed your time together both emotionally and physically. There are no simple answers to these questions. Perhaps you chose someone with significant narcissistic problems, who is incapable of mature love. Alternatively, perhaps your own fears of intimacy, excessive emotional dependency, rushing the relationship, or holding back emotionally or physically may have contributed to the demise of the relationship. Sometimes these patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving are unconscious and result from earlier dysfunctional love relationships in your life, and can be addressed and resolved in psychotherapy.
The third phase of a romantic relationship is what we might call the “durable real” phase. Here, you have a wide range of feelings toward that other person. At times you feel love, affection, and sexual excitement. You really enjoy being with them and can’t wait to see them. At other times you may feel furious, and want out. You may feel relatively neutral at times, and just experience your partner as a companion. At other times you may feel ambivalent, as your partner can meet some of your needs, but not others. These conflicting feelings and impulses are the hallmark of a REAL relationship. If you work hard to keep the relationship alive, and motivate yourself to understand your partner; prioritize their happiness in addition to your own, and genuinely try to please them; then it’s possible to build a life together of passion, trust, and devotion. To develop and maintain an adult love relationship, it is essential to align your thoughts and expectations toward what is possible and real (as opposed to fantasized).
At times even a satisfying, mature love relationship can fall into crisis, manifested by stagnation or intense and persistent conflict. Prior repressed emotional traumas, upsetting life events, and aging and health concerns can all serve to undermine what had been very satisfying. Here again individual and/or couple’s therapy can make a significant difference in bringing about understanding that will “unstick” the relationship, provide a tangible pathway toward improvement, and restore the prior feelings of satisfaction and an intimate bond.
If you would like to know more about the real work of love and romance, I encourage you to download “Session 8: What Makes Commitment So Challenging?” from my book, Becoming Whole: A Healing Companion to Ease Emotional Pain and Find Self-Love,