Many individuals and couples come into therapy with a similar relationship complaint: being married isn’t what they expected. More specifically, the reality of marriage is not aligned with their fantasies of marriage.
It’s nice to have fantasies. They give us goals, the drive to achieve, hope, desire, and more. However, when we expect that reality is going to match our fantasies, disappointment results when the picture we painted in our minds doesn’t come true. If our fantasies are unrealistic, even good, positively-functioning relationships can be experienced as bad, negative, and disappointing.
Jennifer and Todd (identities protected here) had been dating for three years and lived together for a year and a half before they got engaged. They were engaged for another year, and then were married. Two years after they were married, they entered couples therapy. Jennifer’s primary complaint was that marriage just wasn’t what she’d expected, and that nothing special happened after they got married. They went on with their daily lives, after getting married, and since they already were living together, nothing was really different.
Todd’s main complaint was that Jennifer didn’t do enough to make his life easier, as he imagined marriage would bring. Todd was more traditional in the idea that marriage meant that his wife would take care of household work, cooking, etc. Todd was becoming more and more frustrated as Jennifer “nagged” him to help more, especially since Jennifer and Todd both work full time. In Todd’s fantasy, he was the one who would work while his wife would maintain the home.
It quickly became clear that an issue clouding their relationship was the fantasies they both had surrounding marriage. Regardless of their positively functioning relationship prior to being married, they’d both subconsciously expected that the marriage ceremony would create and carry a magical aura of happiness around them that would stay with them through their lives. There would be no negativity, and it would be exactly as they painted it in their minds.
These fantasies set the environment for disillusionment and disappointment. When negativity inevitably enters the picture, which may not have been part of the fantasy, the sense is that the relationship is failing. Something must be “wrong” if the marriage isn’t meeting the fantasy at all times.
The reality is, relationships will have negativity at times. There may be mundane moments, and there may be times where you don’t want to be around each other at all. Part of any relationship (whether or not married) is learning to accept that things won’t always be exciting, positive, and romantic.
What keeps a relationship healthy is understanding that a relationship isn’t always positive, so the when negativity, or lack of positivity is present, that it doesn’t necessarily mean the wheels are coming off your relationship. In fact, it is very common for people to futilely jump from relationship to relationship (and marriage to marriage) trying to find the unrealistic fantasy whenever the reality starts to sway from it.
Now, this doesn’t mean that all relationships are good, or that a bad relationship automatically means you have an unrealistic fantasy. If you’re experiencing negativity more than positivity in your relationship, or if you’re overall unfulfilled in your relationship as a whole, then it’s something to look into, either with a therapist for yourself, or a couples therapist (it’s often helpful to be in both — one for you and one for your relationship together). It’s important to be able to discern between a relationship that’s actually bad for you, versus a fantasy that’s bad for your relationship.
Through their work in couples therapy, Jennifer and Todd began to understand the internal issues that were plaguing their relationship (stemming from childhood and their relationship role models, and other influences). They also realized that their current relationship functions on a decent level, but both were disillusioned by the fact that the fantasy didn’t cone true when they got married.
Learning to except relationships as they are, and making relationships function according to our own efforts isn’t as easy as it sounds. It’s ego-bruising to realize that we create fantasies in our lives that keep us from realistic happiness (not only in relationships). Some fantasies can come true, if they’re realistic, while others aren’t realistic (such as having a relationship free of all negativity and being exactly as fantasized).
Jennifer and Todd remain in couples therapy, now more accepting of each other and the positives and negatives that surface at different times in their relationship. They are now working to create a realistic relationship dream that they can achieve together.
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