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The Myth of Romantic Expectations

Do new lovers promise too much, too soon?

Many new relationships fall apart after just a few months. Though there are many explanations for why that happens so often, one of the most common is how lovers change their expressions of love towards each other as their relationship matures. The wonderful romantic feelings of lust and passion in most new relationships can exaggerate the positives and deny the negatives. Basking in this magical intertwinement, they experience a wonderful sense of unconditional adoration and acceptance that leads them to believe their love could never die.

Eventually those fantasy layers must fall away as the couple gets to know each other. As each partner discovers the other more fully, there is an understandable and continuous reexamination of their relationship. As their fantasy relationship is replaced with a more authentic interaction, can they navigate the difficult path from lust to deeper love? Will their early expectations pale in comparison to their more seasoned connection? And, if not, will they cease to trust the ecstasy they once thought would last?

In my practice, I meet people every day who reveal their discouraging stories of failed relationships they once believed would last. They know only too well what it’s like to be entranced by the amazing wonderment of new love and to experience the sorrow when it unexpectedly evaporates. They don’t want to give in to cynicism or to withhold love just to avoid loss. Yet, the prospect of another disappointment haunts them. They wonder whether a current love, no matter how glorious, can ever transform into long-term commitment.

It’s not that these people are unrealistic or hopeless romantics who haven’t learned from their past experiences. To the contrary, most of them have read multiple self-help books, endlessly “surfed” the Net for dating clues, sought advice from trusted friends, and have done their personal therapeutic work. Yet, the “forever-love” needle in the romantic haystack stays elusive. They’ve given their best to be to wonderful partners, and often received the same quality treatment in return. Yet, those early moments of sweet connection don’t seem to continue.

Being privileged to be part of so many of these personal journeys over the past four decades, I have been able to observe how relationships begin, blossom, thrive, or end. It’s not that these relationship seekers don’t give it their best. Most give every new chance at intimacy everything they have, intentionally focusing on what is good and doing their best to let go of what is not. Yet, like sand slipping through fingers, these relationships dissolve, often without either partner’s really knowing why.

Relationship experts suggest that there are some common reasons why relationships don’t last. Perhaps the people just weren’t meant for each other, or didn’t give the relationship enough up front to give it a chance, or didn’t have the skills to take their relationship to the next level. Maybe they just weren’t ready to make a commitment and needed more single time. Or, maybe they just approached relationships with too much pessimism because of past failures, and sabotaged their chances before they got off the ground.

I have a different slant. I believe that many intimate relationships end because the partners give too much up front. They willingly indulge, support, pamper, adore, and forgive each other, often without regard to whether the other deserves that devotion. Could it be that new lovers are inadvertently setting themselves up for failure because they simply cannot sustain those constantly positive responses as the relationship faces real-life challenges? The wondrous blush of unconditional love, lust, and passion might actually be creating a romantic myth, an unworkable promise that this magical phase of a relationship will continue forever.

This romantic myth is often created and maintained in the way new lovers talk to each other. Their tone of voice, choices of words, and self-sacrificing timing ensures that each partner will feel like the center of the other’s universe, a symbolic beloved child deserving of continuous and unquestioned care. As time passes, and the fantasy world of new love yields to the challenges of real life’s demands, could it be that the partners expect those indulgent expressions of love to continue and think that love is gone when they don’t?

If new lovers were not seduced and enthralled with too-early promises of enduring devotion, would they be more likely to develop the skills over time that are needed for a long-term relationship to thrive? If the way newly intimate partners spoke to each other in more authentic and realistic ways, would they be more likely to continue that authentic intimacy as the relationship matured? Or, even if they just recognized that the way they spoke to each other was a blissful love-drama, would they make sure to stay authentic and real underneath?

I believe the answer to all of these questions is a resounding “yes.”

It’s not difficult to identify these seductive and over-promising romantic phrases. The words that inhabit them literally cover every romantic greeting card, popular song of enduring love, and poems written by lovers for their devotees. They often include words like “forever,” “always,” “ever-lasting,” and “never,” as if the feelings of the moment will automatically persist intact into the future. As intimate partners utter them to each other, each is willingly seduced that unconditional love and acceptance will be guaranteed forever.

Perhaps listing some of these romantically seductive phrases can alert new lovers to recognize when they are caught up in this ill-fated mythology. If they see these verbal offerings as the sincere and passionate statements of in-the-present intense attachment, they can still readily enjoy them while simultaneously preparing for a more realistic future relationship.

These romantic phrases fall within five categories. Though each can be taken separately, they are overlapping as well. Notice how they can make new, devoted partners believe that their perfect love will always stay exactly as it is, no matter what may befall them in the future.

The Five Categories of Phrases that Feed Mythical Romance

1. Forever Promises – Expressions of faith that current feelings will never change:

“I’ll love you forever, no matter what happens.”

“Don’t ever be any different. You’ll always be perfect just the way you are.”

“I can’t ever imagine loving anyone but you.”

“We’ll be together for the rest of our lives.”

“Nothing or no one will ever part us.”

“I would never want to live without you.”

“There is nothing you could do that would make me love you less.”

2. Unbridled Appreciation – Expressions of love that convey the partner is perfect:

“The more I know you, the more I know how much I want you to feel complete.”

“I never knew what love was until you became part of my life.”

“Your very presence makes me feel that I can do or be anything.”

“I didn’t even know who I was or what I wanted until you.”

“I would never be the same again if you weren’t at my side.”

“The two of together make one perfect person.”

3. Total Adoration - Expressions of love that put the other partner on a pedestal:

“You are the most incredible person I’ve ever known.”

“Your voice is so incredibly sweet. It’s like music to me.”

“Just seeing the way you walk into a room makes my day.”

“You’ve got the sexiest moves I’ve ever seen.”

“What an incredible body. It’s perfect.”

“Everything you do is amazing.”

“You always know exactly what to do.”

4. Blind Reassurance - Expressions of love that ignore any negatives:

“There is nothing you could do that would make me love you less.”

“Even when you think you’re at your worst, you are more than enough.”

“You’re even more beautiful when you’re angry.”

“You just get frustrated and a little sarcastic when things don’t go your way. A lot of people do that. It’s okay.”

“You can say things that hurt me, but I know you still love me underneath, so I don’t let them bother me.”

“Whatever you think is wrong with us, we can fix. We’re that terrific together.”

“So we’re not compatible in every way, but look at how amazing we are when we’re good.”

5. Symbolic Parental Indulgence – Expressions of love that “baby” the other partner:

“When you’re sad, I’ll rock you in my arms and make you feel safe.”

“You’re my baby girl. You never have to worry when I’m near you.”

“Lay your head on my breast and rest. You don’t have to be a warrior all the time.”

“Whatever you need, I’m here to take care of you.”

“I love to love you, especially when you’re scared or insecure.”

“You’ll never have to feel alone again, because I love protecting you from abandonment.”

“You can let down your walls because I’ll never let anyone hurt you again.”

Forever promises, unbridled appreciation, total adoration, blind reassurance, and symbolic parental indulgence, are the core feelings that many new lovers spontaneously both offer and experience when they are together. These feelings and the expressions that accompany them are often offered to heal past heartbreaks and to insure comfort and security in the future. No wonder they are so seductive. Everyone aches for a haven where love is constant and failure is highly unlikely.

The sadness is that none of these thoughts, expressions, or behaviors is likely to sustain in any long-term, committed relationship. Great long-term partners always have them at hand to offer when times are hard and the gift of unconditional love is what is absolutely legitimate. Even then, most people can only do some of them, some of the time, no matter how much they intend to love and please their partners. If these romantic expressions gently transform into realistic agreements, they have a much greater chance of holding.

Appreciation automatically deepens when it is earned. In flourishing relationships, there will always be natural places where each partner sincerely adores the other’s personality characteristics or behaviors. Reassuring a beloved partner when he or she needs support is one of the core ways quality couples are there for each other, but it must be realistic. Reassurance, given too easily or without having legitimate options, can weaken another’s resolve and resilience. And, though symbolic parent/child interactions are part of every quality intimate relationship, the partners in mature relationships never take those offerings for granted.

Even though they may be unrealistic predictors of the future, exaggerated romantic phrases will always be part of every new love, and they should continue to be. Basking in the haven of unconditional adoration should be an inalienable right for people who are enmeshed in the magical discovery of romantic love, as long as those feelings and phrases are not expected to remain intact forever. And they never need be fully lost. The partners in great long-term committed relationships keep those sweet early promises of guaranteed safety and rapture ever ready to re-emerge. They keep them always at hand to deepen their sacred moments.

Dr. Randi’s free advice e-newsletter, Heroic Love, shows you how to avoid the common pitfalls that keep people from finding and keeping romantic love. Based on over 100,000 face-to-face hours counseling singles and couples over her 40-year career, you’ll learn how to zero in on the right partner, avoid the dreaded “honeymoon is over” phenomenon, and make sure your relationship never gets boring.

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