Movies can create the impression that when two people are in-love they should always be lost in each other’s gaze, smiling when they look at each other, or constantly in a state of “no, you hang up first”. Sex happens slowly in front of a fireplace while you, again, gaze deeply into each other’s eyes while the world turns to sepia. There’s also no mess to clean up because, apparently, when you’re in-love sex is pure and perfect and only comes in the heat of the utmost romance. And the most romantic story is, of course, where you have known each other for years and just never knew you were ‘meant for each other’ the whole time…
People have been exposed to almost completely unrealistic images of love and relationships since childhood from TV, movies, and other media. I’m a big fan of the arts, and I very much appreciate the emotional experiences and escapes (among other things) they do provide. However, trying to make real life align with what we see on screen can be problematic. While these images give people an ideal to aspire to, when they come up short of these images in real life it tends to cause defeat and disappointment, even unnecessarily ending partnerships that might otherwise be strong.
Obviously, love is a complicated topic because its meaning and experience can vary from one person to the next. However, the way society tells people they “should” experience relationships is often out of sync with what a genuinely loving and caring relationship can look like for many people.
In my experience as a therapist in NYC, many people struggle with trying to meet an idyllic fantasy of love that ends up leaving them feeling defeated. Now, before I go further, let me clarify that the following isn’t to say that you should just settle, or tolerate constantly being dismissed, abused, or in other ways hurt or unfulfilled in your relationship. While all relationships have struggles, if you are consistently struggling as a couple, then this still should be addressed.
Let’s leave the movies now and go to real life — where the sex is messy, sometimes you get annoyed at each other and want some space, and sometimes you’re completely out of sync and even have doubts.
In real life, love and relationships are incredibly complicated. The ideal relationship image often is not aligned with the kind of relationship that makes the most sense for their dynamic foundation. In fact, many people carry such idealized fantasies of love that they end up defeating a relationship before it even starts. In many cases, what people seek becomes a glaring version of perfectionism — an asymptotic wish that in reality never ends up touching the point of desire. Coming up short of the fantasy can leave the feeling that the relationship isn’t good enough or right for you, or that you have failed in relationships because you haven’t reached the image.
I have worked with many individuals (and also couples) who endure patterns of struggles in their relationships, whether it’s difficulty with feeling fulfilled, sustaining or starting into relationships, or otherwise. While couples can struggle for various reasons, often based on present factors combined with the impact of their personal histories, many struggle because their expectations of loving relationships don’t align with their relationship dynamic foundation.
What does this mean?
The “honeymoon phase” of a relationship is arguably the most vulnerable that two people can allow themselves to be together. This period of time is when they allow themselves completely out of their personal comfort zones, the emotions are raw, and the grass is the most green and pure (as you haven’t yet experienced each other’s relational dynamic comfort zones). This is an almost impossible (if not fully impossible) state of being to maintain without an eventual shift into both of your own familiar dynamics.
We all grow up observing, experiencing, and internalizing certain dynamics. Often these are formed between you and your parents — you observe and internalize the dynamics of your parents to each other (even if they’re not together) and to you; you experience sibling dynamics (or not having siblings, which creates its own dynamic, as well); and then add in your relationships to peers and others along the way. Throughout these relationships, we end up forming (on a mostly deeply unconscious level) our own sets of familiar dynamics to people. This includes roles and dynamics we may repeat with people.
With each of these dynamic relationships, we are further informing and shaping our level of comfort with intimacy, closeness (or distance), emotional safety, vulnerability, guardedness, and so on. From this develops a personal sense of how we are able to interact with love — how we can show it, receive it, allow it, guard from it, tolerate it, and so on.
As we slowly move back into our familiar dynamics once the honeymoon phase is over, we start to evaluate a couple of different things. On a more conscious level is if the relationship is going to fulfill the fantasy we’ve been carrying about love. However, on a deeper and more unconscious level, we are evaluating if the other can fit in with our familiar dynamic comfort zone. When these two elements are not aligned is where the tension between the two starts to take over and eat at the relationship.
However, it’s important to know that this tension can be resolved and the two can be merged. Most people want to be excited and hopeful about the kind of relationship you want to see yourself in, but at the same time you don’t want that image to end up creating a sense of hopelessness. It is possible with therapy to refine and reshape your own dynamics with love and intimacy, allowing the space to mold the image with who you are and refining some of your deeper own dynamics to connect with the relationship you desire.