Separate reality from romcom fantasy

It is the month of February, regarded as the month of romance and love.

Even our children come home with discussions about Valentine’s Day at school and who will be their “Valentine”.

We are influenced from a very young age about cultural and social practices that we accept as the norm, including issues around love and romance.

Movies and the media can be powerful influences in the way in which we perceive and experience our partners and relationships.

Through this as well as our strong desire for love, admiration and having our emotional needs met, we may have romantic expectations which can be unrealistically high.

We may wonder, why does my partner not give me red roses for Valentine’s Day, write me love letters or songs, or buy me fancy gifts? Unhappiness and resentment can then ensue.

So how can we manage these expectations without giving up completely on the idea of romantic love?

Research has unearthed some insights that can help us feel happier and less wronged in love.

Romantic comedy is a genre that frequently depicts exaggerated plot lines and unrealistic outcomes, like when your loved one fills your room with more roses than you can count, or when he/she chases you down at the airport to express their undying love – just in time.

In romantic comedies, relationships are full of romance, intimacy, and passion – often merging the best aspects of both new relationships and longer-term bonds.

We see lots of compliments, gift giving, and affection, predominantly initiated by men.

But this is not a true and accurate depiction of real, healthy relationships – which mostly involves much messier things like acceptance of difference, acknowledging and being honest (to yourself first) about your flaws, and making, often difficult, compromises.

Although the idealised versions of romantic relationships we see in movies may seem innocuous, we are all susceptible to information from media to provide ideas of what is “normal” and expected.

Older viewers can better discern reality from fiction, but younger viewers, who don’t yet have many experiences to inform their beliefs, may be more prone to incorporating these idealised versions into their idea of what a relationship is supposed to be like.

Research indicates that frequent viewers of romantic media content may be less likely to believe that they can change or that they can shape their relationships, more likely to believe that their partners should know what they need, and more likely to believe that emotional and sexual intimacy should be perfect. Many also report lower relationship satisfaction.

For many of us, it’s not until we really reflect on our expectations and where they originate from that we can start to shift our perceptions and expectations.

The following ideas may help to loosen these up a bit.

Separate what’s realistic from what’s unrealistic. Make a note of all your expectations for relationships, for yourself and your partner or potential partner. Highlight all the ones that could be unrealistic.

How do you know which ones those are?

One way is to try to imagine doing or being everything on your list. Is it possible? For example, can you always tell what other people want? Do you always say or do the right thing? Do you never make mistakes?

Having expectations of having your needs met is fine – but having unrealistic expectations can become problematic.

Furthermore, think about what relationship dynamics were the norm in your family of origin and how these may be contrasting to (or not) the Hollywood versions.

Separate what you’ve been told “should” matter from what actually does matter, to you. Take another look at your list of expectations.

For every item, ask yourself, is this actually something that matters to me? For example, does it really matter if your partner wears certain clothes, says certain things, or likes certain activities? Without judging yourself, accept that your needs are different to others.

Discover what you like and prefer, and the rest belongs in Hollywood.

You may find that you actually don’t like being serenaded in restaurants, getting your house covered in cut roses and don’t really enjoy being whisked off for the weekend to an island to return ready for work on Monday morning.

Separate your wants from your needs. A need is something that fulfils you at a deep level and is mostly something which we cannot live without.

This again will differ from person to person but the fundamental need for love, belonging and acceptance is true for all of us on a biological level.

A need, if unmet, fundamentally affects the quality of your life. For example, maybe you don’t need your partner to buy you flowers, but you do need to feel valued and cared about.

Or maybe you don’t need your partner to guess what you want, but you need to feel heard when you say what your preferences are.

It can be hard to figure out the underlying need behind many of our expectations, so this may take returning to again and again.

Also, our needs shift and change as we grow and mature. Your core needs can act as a guide in terms of what you pursue and expect from life.

Once we start to disentangle our inner and outer needs from the expectations that media creates for us, many of us can better separate reality from fantasy and extricate ourselves from the romantic comedy trap.

By figuring out what generates happiness for you, and letting the rest go, you will be able to focus on and get a lot more of what actually makes you happy in relationships.

No relationship is perfect, but resisting the influence of romantic media enables us to create happier moments and appreciate ourselves, our partners and relationships for who and what they are and not who or what they “should be”.

Mostly, relational satisfaction comes from pursuing what makes you truly happy.

This requires conscious effort and persistence to not be influenced by the power of movies and the like, but to develop the capacity to learn to trust your own feelings and needs; as well as to know that relationships and life are meant to be messy, and not happily-ever-after fairy tales, even though that little child in all of us may continue to wish for this.

Carin-Lee Masters is a clinical psychologist. Write to her at helpmecarin@inl.co.za or send a WhatsApp message or SMS to 082 264 7774.