Real-World Romance for Real-Life Partners
Last month, I finished revising and updating The Fantasy Bond with my husband, Robert Firestone. While working on this book, now called Challenging the Fantasy Bond, I became aware of what a delicate balance it is to keep a relationship real. In a romantic relationship, people have a tendency to either move toward idealizing their partner or going in the other direction and being overly critical of them. These reactions result from the unconscious belief that it is possible to have a partner who can fulfill our long list of requirements, for example: they must be attractive, intelligent, sensitive, responsible, funny, and share our interests. In other words, they must be a completely compatible companion for life, attuned to us 24/7.
We are taught to expect this from childhood fairy tales to modern-day Romcoms. It doesn’t matter if the actual examples in our lives have fallen short of this – our parents’ or our peer’s relationship, or even our own -- we tend to look at these as anomalies, with an eye to a future in which our perfect partner will materialize. Who doesn’t want that kind of love story? But there is a reason romantic fiction always takes place when the couple first meets and ends when they fall in love. This is the first chapter of the relationship, before the partners get down to the business of establishing a life together.
Typically, people imagine their new relationship partner to be perfect and then, after coming to know them better, they come to realize habits or characteristics that bother them. They become aware of interests that they do not share. Their image of the perfect partner becomes tarnished. People may try to preserve this image by idealizing their partner, overlooking negative qualities and even imagining positive ones. For example, they may act like their partner is funnier or more intelligent or more interesting than they actually are. This involves selling out on one’s self; to make more of their partner, a person must make less of themselves. This strategy is particularly harmful because it diminishes the chance of genuine relating – the partner being built up doesn’t feel seen and the other loses a sense of their personal self-worth.
Or, when flaws in the perfect partner begin to become apparent, people might become disillusioned and angry. They can feel victimized, like they are not getting what they are entitled to. This often leads to becoming critical of the partner, focusing on and even exaggerating any of their faults and shortcomings. This kind of judgemental or mean attitude is supported by a person’s critical inner voice. The voice is a self-protective defense that can discourage intimacy by espousing a negative point of view about the person, their partner and their relationship. It attacks the person (What are you doing with that loser? You deserve better than this!) and their partner (They are so stupid/ unattractive/ weak/ etc.) and their relationship (This relationship is doomed to fail! Where’s the love/ passion/ compatibility?) Pretty soon, a person is turned against both their partner and themselves.
In having the original expectation and the reactions when it is shattered, people are overlooking a fundamental reality. Each one of us is a unique human being with our own interests, some that we will share with our partner and some that we won’t. And because we are human, we are imperfect. We have strengths and weaknesses. There is no perfect person, thus there can be no perfect partner.
In thinking about this, a term that was coined by pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott comes to mind: the "good-enough mother." This not-perfect parent provides a safe environment and an emotional connection, and meets some, but not all, of their child's needs. Because the parent is less than perfect, the child adapts and develops skills to deal with disappointment and frustration. The child is offered a genuine relationship with a genuine person rather than trying to relate to someone who is projecting an image of perfection.
Similarly, the psychologist John Gottman, PhD has written about the “good enough relationship.” In this type of relationship, people are not looking to have all of their needs met by their partner. They don’t assume their relationship will be free of conflict. They don’t expect to resolve all their disagreements. Gottman quotes Dr. Dan Wile, “When choosing a long-term partner… you will inevitably be choosing a particular set of unsolvable problems.” In the “good enough relationship,” people don’t look to their partner and relationship to solve all of their problems or to heal their childhood wounds. They are not looking for their missing piece.
Gottman has identified reasonable expectations for partners that have to do with how they treat each other. Treat one another with kindness, love, affection and respect. Do not tolerate emotional or physical abuse. In his research, he has observed that these partners are good friends and have a satisfying sex life. They trust one another and are fully committed to each other. They manage conflict constructively to arrive at mutual understandings and compromises that work. And they are able to repair effectively when they hurt one another.
With realistic expectations, the not-perfect, good-enough relationship gives each member of the couple a chance to be real. Each has the opportunity to maintain their sense of self, while appreciating and supporting their partner’s unique interests and qualities. In Daring to Love, I write about the importance of preserving each partner’s individuality in a relationship.
Two fundamental factors contributing to the success of your relationship are your own continued development as an individual and your appreciation and support for your partner’s individuality. To this end, you are learning to value your independence and striving to maintain your integrity by remaining adult, open, undefended, and honest in your interactions. You are also learning to respect the fact that your partner is a sovereign individual, separate from you and your relation- ship. A relationship thrives when two strong individuals bring their distinctive and varied qualities to their partnership.
To keep a relationship real, it’s best to avoid getting caught up in the fantasy of the perfect relationship. You can become aware if you are idealizing your partner or running them down. You can aspire for a “good-enough relationship” in which you and your partner are two unique human beings creating a genuine connection in a real and imperfect world.