The value of keeping relationships real.
Posted November 28, 2022 | Reviewed by Hara Estroff Marano
- Fantasies can misguide you in relationships.
- It is important to be aware of how past relationships may impact present ones.
- Good relationship choices lead to greater happiness.
- A real relationship is often different from how you imagined, but that can make it more satisfying.
Frequently, my patients want to form new relationships unburdened by patterns, memories, and fears imported from earlier (usually failed) connections. They want to be fully present in a relationship and resist versions of themselves warped by characters from (what they hope is) a discarded past.
But Debbie could only wish to be emotionally independent. “There’ve been a lot of men in my life,” she said. “And none are really gone.” What she meant was that every time she met someone new, she’d react as if they were some warmed-over version of a former guy. She never felt “free,” to use her word, to learn about them on their own terms.
She’d make assumptions as if they were someone she had known; she’d act on those assumptions; the guy would become bewildered, annoyed, and decide that the whole thing just wasn’t worth it. By the time she came to see me, she knew what was going on—that she was in thrall to her old relationships—but she couldn’t help herself.
Debbie was attractive, around 35, and divorced. She’d come to the city three years earlier, assuming that she’d make a new start. As a commercial artist with an established client base, it shouldn’t have been hard, at least on its face. But like most people who assume that a change in geography somehow changes them, her relationships remained rocky. As we spoke, she acknowledged that she felt out of control, destined to make choices that would continue to destabilize her.
An affair that had sent her into retreat occurred just when Debbie thought that New York might change the course of her career. She had always been successful as a commercial artist, but, since making the rounds, she’d fantasized that—someday, of course—her work might be shown at MoMA. A few people suggested that she try serious art. It was a heady time. “No one ever before said I was that good.” In her spare time, she took painting classes. She approached galleries.
Unfortunately, a gallery owner approached her, although not as she might have wished.
Everard was a former Londoner who had come to New York ten years earlier, intending to work for a big auction house. But then he started an art advisory business on the side. Ultimately, he opened a gallery. When he met Debbie, he clearly had an eye for talent. Nor was he shy about letting her know. Their affair was fueled, in part, by his encouraging her ambitions as a budding, serious artist. He introduced her around. He sold a couple of her pictures. Mostly, though, he allowed her to imagine an alternative, glamorous existence of openings, international buyers, and commissions from MoMA trustees. “I got hooked, I guess, on my fantasies.”
When the affair inevitably ended (Everard found someone else to “encourage”), Debbie couldn’t shake how she’d felt around him. “I still have a hard time living in the real world,” she told me. “I want every guy to make me feel like Everard did—really going somewhere with my art.”
What interested me, however, was why. even when she understood the motivations that inevitably led her to a fall, she still allowed them to take hold of her. Why would she give in to stirrings that she knew, from past relationships, did her no good? Perhaps, I think, because she always had. It had become a pattern. She couldn’t tell whether a relationship was based on real, growing affection or just on some high that she got, before it all crashed and burned.
The pattern emerged quickly, as soon as she started college. Before she graduated, she'd met a local painter whom, she thought, was the handsomest man she had ever painted. “I married him because he inspired me. Even though we competed.”
The problem was that she met someone new. He was a professor of statistics at a local university, and they’d been introduced by a mutual friend.
When Debbie started dating him, he seemed nice enough, but (at least from her perspective) there was no spark. “He doesn’t know much about art,” she told me. “He says that if I want to go in the direction of serious painting, then I should try, but he has no basis for encouraging me.” In other words, here was a guy who didn’t fit Debbie’s pattern. In fact, he was the opposite: he didn’t flatter her or push her towards serious art, and he wasn’t likely to hurt her or leave her.
The challenge with Debbie was to help her distinguish between short-term excitement—the pattern that we’d discovered—and what might lead to happiness in the long run. Okay, Larry had not been exposed to art. But, as it turned out, he was really nice to Debbie. He wasn’t selfish, and wasn’t preying on her ego.
I suggested that Debbie give him a chance. “You could teach him about art. Bring him to some galleries.” The point was not to allow old patterns, deeply rooted in her past and in her fragile ambitions, to derail a promising relationship. “Even if Larry is not, finally, The One,” I said, “at least you’ll have the experience of being with someone who doesn’t recycle your self-defeating tendencies.” I hoped she’d notice the difference, and get to like it.
When we seek romantic happiness, we are frequently our own worst enemies. We prefer to live out temporary fantasies rather than pursuing real-life, long-term goals. We tell ourselves, “Don’t settle,” but what we’re really saying is that we don’t want to compromise with our fantasies.
At some point, however, we have to learn how to navigate our fantasies, and the best way is to actually see how it feels. If we learn anything from Debbie, therefore, it’s that trying to get past the pull of our fantasies —especially when they are tied up with our greatest ambitions—is far from easy. We can even be aware that we’re falling into our old ways and do it anyway. But if we ever want to be happy for the longer term, without all the usual awful blowback, then we have to try.