Relationships IRL: Do you want Real or Ideal?

Is love the cure-all that's promised in the movies? The landscape of relationships is changing. Let's explore the real vs. the ideal!
real or ideal

“Confusing the real with the ideal never goes unpunished,” Wolfgange Goethe, a German Colonialman of many mediums once said.  Even back then, in the absence of online dating and texting, sexting, and all else we have in between, I think he was onto something.  

Love, as a relational concept has been seen as the perfect remedy to cure the world of its problems.  In the movies “true love’s kiss” is the one cure for overcoming all evil. In our society, monogamous marriage is still celebrated as the ultimate happy ending. We idealize love in many ways, whether it be through the expectation of others or the expectation of ourselves to deserve this idealized picture of what we believe love should be.  

But can our ideal image of what love is really conquer all and give us the ultimate happy ending?


The Promise

Growing up, I remember playing with friends in elementary school, dressing up as a bride, and walking down an aisle paralleled by stuffed animals holding a bouquet of tissues.  I knew exactly how I was supposed to feel…happy…because I was getting married…to a boy! In a pink vs. blue time period, I knew nothing else was an option. I was taught by the media and my grandmother that I should dress pretty and dream of the perfect man.  

This man needed to be tall, dark, and handsome of course.  He needed to also be caring, loving, and funny.  And that’s not all!  He also needs to fulfill all of my economic, social, emotional, and spiritual needs. Why the sexual need was missing, I’m not sure…women I guess weren’t supposed to have sexual needs then according to grandma.  This perfect man also needs to be loyal, faithful, thoughtful, family-oriented, and of pure heart and pure mind. In other words, my perfect man needed to meet the expectations of a fairytale where marriage is a rite of passage. One that is perpetuated through traditional gender-role socialization and expectation. 


Finding True Love

How are you supposed to find this ideal person who meets all expectations on a dating site with only a crappy-taken selfie and a short blurb? Plus, regular people are writing their dating profiles, not professional copywriters. How can we not waste our time swiping right to find our one true love who meets all of our ideals? It’s like we are set up for dating failure before we download an app based on the promise of the ideal.

What’s crazy about this, is that in school, most of us learn about reproductive health and some sexuality, and not about relational needs.  Sure, we get we have certain parts and we understand how the condom fits over the banana, but what about our personal needs?  What about what makes a relationship healthy or toxic?  What’s the difference between a monogamous and non-monogamous relationship?  What are our deal-breakers and can we overlook them if we are in love with someone and they treat us right? 

If we rebel against the usual monogamous expectation, research is not on our side because it tells us that romantic relationships are important for both subjective well-being and health. To keep up with this idea of “having it all” with one person, there’s even a further expectation that we need to keep the fire of romance alive.  We need to keep things spicy while we work our jobs, have our children, work out, eat healthily, and do all the other adulting in our lives.

What was your promise of love growing up? 

Relational Perceptions
If relationships were small kitchen appliances then we are being told that we need the Instant Pot, something that does it all for our cooking needs.  But our instant pot can’t blend a morning smoothie, so can we have that too? What if we don’t want the Instant Pot at all or what if we just want a plain 1-function Crock-Pot instead? We cannot deny that the concept of relationships and the concept of monogamous marriage are changing.  

In the past, when I counseled couples, they usually would get to counseling when they were at a crossroads of whether they would stay together or separate. To them, at that point when they met on opposite ends on my couch, there were no other options.  Now, the younger generations who are seemingly more open-minded are starting to think outside of the box. They are defining relationship ideals to their own standards and needs as opposed to society’s.  Maybe this means staying married and living apart, one person having an agreed upon other sexual partner, friends with benefits, married with benefits, a completely open relationship, a blended family situationship, etc. 

Some are open-minded about these “untraditional” relationships from the start and others may get there through their own experience. Some learn along the way that perhaps their partner isn’t fulfilling all the needs they didn’t know they had at the beginning of the relationship and open up the conversation of options whether to stay, go or explore.  Relationships are the perfect opportunity for both growth, healing, and figuring out your personal needs. After all, compatibility is a logical process, and when we look for a partner, we are naturally inclined to use our minds, to evaluate a person’s traits, values, ambitions, and perceptions. 

When we buy the Instant Pot, we are thinking about what it can do for us and not necessarily how we will feel using it. 

Your Brain on Love

When it comes to love, it’s an emotional process.  We think with our hearts and not with our heads.  When our heart is filled with fireworks we don’t care if the Instant Pot can steam and air fry!  We don’t even want the damn smoothie anymore! We feel good and want to keep feeling good. We tend to react emotionally rather than respond to feelings of love. That’s because it’s hormonal. It propels us towards the euphoric hormones like dopamine and oxytocin, which course through our bodies when we feel loved, are kissing, or have sex. Love is indeed a drug in our brains. Feeling “love drunk” is a real thing.

There are in total, 12 areas of the brain, discovered so far that are responsible for love. They are activated differently depending on if your with a friend, lover, or family member, which is pretty cool! I’ll get nerdy here for a second here to explain. There’s an area in your brain called the ventral tegmental area (VTA) that pumps the feel-good dopamine hormone into the reward-circuitry part of the brain. This leaves you feeling amazing. The Nucleus accumbens also activates, sending the same hormone that is released for new mothers to bond with their babies called oxytocin. Oxytocin is the hormone mainly responsible for sexual arousal, trust, and attachment. Scientists have found that people who have a greater amount of oxytocin receptors, usually mate for life. The angular gyrus is also activated and this is the area involved in conceptual thinking, imagination, and metaphorical language. This is what leaves you with that feeling of possibility after being with someone you love. 

Emotional Perceptions

So yes, the concept of “love is blind” is true. When we are thinking with our hearts and not our heads, we are actually seeing things differently. Our brain chemistry is literally changing our thoughts, and feelings, and instigating our behaviors. On a practical level, nothing could be actually different, we just see things through the lens of love. This is where emotional self-regulation comes in.  This is the ability to be aware of how you feel and make conscious instead of impulsive choices.  Feelings are important in any relationship because they give you such great intuitive information.  You want to be “emotionally informed.” When you are, you are able to use your head to feel with your heart and that’s not an easy thing for people to do, especially when they are love drunk. 

We all know that person who is head over heels for someone that maybe you and your friends aren’t sure about. They may be riding on the high of the feel-good feelings instead of listening to what all of their emotion may be trying to tell them.  Emotionally informed people are wise.  They know themselves inside and out.  They understand what happens to themselves when they are in love. They know what they want and need from a partnership.  They also probably have a lot of relational experience to have learned all this or perhaps went the extra mile to read some books or learn from others’ experiences in their lives. 

Unfortunately, most people have to learn about their emotions the hard way through experiencing the intense negative emotions love brings. We typically know these as heartache, grief, anger, and confusion. When couples arrive for couples therapy, they are usually feeling these things. It becomes a long road because the ideal image was already destroyed or was never there, to begin with.  They weren’t emotionally informed. Most of us go into relationships with the ideal in mind instead of the confidence we want to have in understanding our own needs and desires.


The Ideal

I’m gonna jump right in here and let you know that the Ideal, or whatever you believe to be the ideal doesn’t exist.  I know, shocker!  I’ve found that my clients who go into a relationship with a list of ideals often learn later that those ideals either weren’t what their needs were and realize they could’ve gotten out sooner.  This is because when we look for the ideal, we tend to date the intoxicating or indoctrinated qualities we think we want rather than dating the actual person. 

confusing real

So if you thought, “Hey, this person checks all boxes!” then you are probably projecting ideal expectations instead of taking the time to understand the actual attraction and connection you have with this person. This will most likely will leave you disappointed in the end. I see this with those who say, “I should be with them!” or “They are everything I’m looking for, but we fight all the time.” If it really isn’t working, and you feel you “should” make it work for ideal reasons or expectations, it is probably a sign that your relationship wasn’t real in the first place.  

I asked some of my clients what would be ideal for them in a relationship and this is what they said. 

  • “They must show me affection all the time”
  • “I need to feel fireworks around them”
  • “We must complement each other to be balanced in a partnership”
  • “They focus on being happy instead of being right”
  • “An ideal relationship is something you both fight for not to lose”


Are any of these realistic?

Reality Check

In reality, things don’t always feel easy.  People develop and change, life happens, and circumstances change.  There are options to grow apart, grow together, or grow side by side and parallel. In dating, if we see our potential partner as ideal, we may become someone we’re not to please the other, or becoming someone who may project our own relationship perceptions onto them. In real love, there is a depth of expression that is equally put forth by each person. It comes from within, being our authentic selves and not the ideal caricature we think we need to be to win our partner over. 

A healthy relationship requires more than loving emotions and fiery passions. In a healthy relationship, we understand that we are someone outside of the relationship and there are other important things in our lives other than being in love. If you want to explore more about what makes a relationship healthy, read this post here. When we are emotionally informed, we understand we have needs and also that our partner has needs as well as the partnership as a whole.  


Love is Hard Work

Love at times can be hard, it’s a commitment that is relational, emotional, and physical in many ways. In order for things to work, we generally need appreciation, respect, sexual satisfaction, and great communication to work through the hard things.  

Love is working through the hard things. 

Compromise and adjustment are active elements for relationships to work because it’s not always going to be fun and passionate.  In every relationship, there is a space between and that’s where you want to understand where your patience, tolerance, togetherness, and empathy stand.  Because when you come toward each other in the center, it needs to be for each other’s happiness and your own in order for it to work. You also have to leave room for imperfection along the way. Imperfection is being human, not pretending to be someone else’s ideal or seeing someone else through your own false ideal. No one is perfect, our flaws are arguably our greatest assets because they are our growth and our persona. 

Real or Ideal? 

Now that we understand the ideal isn’t real at all, we can begin to approach our relationships with a new perspective.  One that is becoming emotionally informed of our needs and the space between ourselves and the relationship as a whole. We can approach our relationships with gratitude that they are in turn mirrors of ourselves with opportunities to learn and grow.  We can appreciate both the moments of fun and happiness we experience with others. We can also appreciate the tough moments that put us on our backs and remind us of our humanness. 

Mutual respect and understanding of yourself will continue to guide you as you separate the ideal from the real in your relationships.  As you are guided, perhaps you will be able to decipher if you are indeed settling, trading comfort for happiness, or figuring out if you are really happy at all.  

Get curious about everything! When people date, they are usually asking questions of the other person, but over time the questions stop, and rarely are we asking ourselves the important questions we need along the journey such as…

  • Am I happy with this person?
  • Are they fulfilling my most important relationship needs?
  • Are they committed to me?
  • Am I happy with myself in this relationship?
  • Am I able to fulfill my own needs outside of this relationship?
  • Am I committed to myself? 

Keep up with curiosity as your relationship evolves. Check-in with your partner and yourself, “Do you still like these things?” “Do you want to try something new together?” “How are you feeling about us?” Celebrate growth, enjoy moments of passion no matter how small, and have enough courage to continue to love or make a choice to leave love if it’s no longer what you want. 

Keep it Real

Love is one of the greatest experiences life has to offer.  Everyone should experience love in an intense way at some point in their life because it really is an incredible feeling!  Love is necessary. Love is beautiful, but also not enough. Before settling into an ideal, figure yourself out, keep it real, and define your relationships on your own terms.  Think with your heart when you need to and your head when you need. Most of all, enjoy the ride! ❤️  

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