Stories of romance pervade our culture—in films and television shows, books and magazines, and even in the advertisements and billboards all around us. They are often lovely and exciting. But all too often these pervasive images and concepts are translated into unrealistic emotional and relational expectations in our real lives. Does that kind of romantic love actually exist? Do these romantic fantasies lead us to expect that our marriages and long-term relationships can really be based on and sustain those kinds of momentary emotional highs?
We crave the fantasy of enduring romantic ecstasy. Many of us live for our wedding day––“the most important day of our lives”. We say to our mates: “you complete me”…or at least you ought to!
There is such a thing as love, and there are beautiful moments. But love is about life, and life is not about isolated moments but rather the long haul.
The romantic myth can be traced to the onset of the Industrial Revolution. Before that, there was no expectation of division of labour within the family unit. In modern times, however, a family structure and ideal evolved with the man assigned the role of breadwinner, while the woman is responsible for providing emotional and practical support. The female role in this model revolves entirely around managing and delivering family support.
An image of male/female interaction was born. The man fights and works, and in return an appreciative, saintly wife takes care of his needs––a whore in the bedroom, a kitten other times, a dedicated mother and homemaker––and looks oh so good on his arm in public. The fantasy is of boundless, joyful female compliance, where she is so totally in sync with his needs that “the things which give him pleasure, also happen to drive her wild as well”.
As Terrence Real puts it, “The sexual mother image of abundant Goddesses such a Mae West is emotional pornography.” The man dreams of receiving perfect nurturance and limitless giving from his woman, while she sees him as the perfect lover and husband––her Prince Charming.
Many men are raised to believe that a good woman…a real woman… is happy to take care of her breadwinning guy. This service gives her so much pleasure that she needs and demands nothing in return. Men have been taught to expect that once they’ve fought and worked to get the girl of their dreams, they will be gratified by their trophy ever after.
But of course over time, in real life and real relationships, this fantasy simply doesn’t work.
The media rarely celebrates the image of a woman who puts her job first, criticizes her lover, is assertive with him, and tells him she wants something different from him. Our popular relationship mythology does not include the realities of argument, conflict, vigorous negotiations of differences, and loneliness at times.
Real relationships are not just romantic. Real relationships include the acknowledgment of pain and the ability and willingness to hear out the other’s feelings, including their insecurities and worries. Real relationships do involve expectations of some devotion and attention––but not all flowing in one direction. Real relationships today involve an expectation of MUTUALITY.
As women now redefine gender roles through their work outside the home, their economic freedom and different expectations, newer generations are rejecting the model they inherited from their mothers, where women are barred from confrontation. Women do not want to be their partner’s ‘manager’. They don’t want to use their mothers’ tools for managing the men: being indirect, manipulative, alternatively silent and passive or screaming and resentful. They are unwilling to accept being ignored, punished, and wounded if they dare to speak out within the couple/family unit.
More often that not, although it is the man who needs to acquire skills, it is the woman who does the brunt of the work, since common wisdom says that women are the emotional extroverts. Men are of course just as emotionally capable (and vulnerable) as women, but acknowledging this is very difficult for many of them.
The best first step a woman can take is to learn to express herself assertively and state her needs. In many male/female relationships, this will upset the balance and call for a review of the status quo. There is a 50/50 chance this approach will work. These odds may seem discouraging, but they are far more attractive than the 80/20 chance of separation that results from the frustrated resignation of both men and women to the current status quo.
Note: this post borrows heavily from Terrence Real (1997) and words extracted verbatim from his book are when possible distinguished by quotes.
Real, Terrence, 1997: “I don’t want to talk about it: overcoming the secret legacy of male depression”, Scribner Paperback, Simon & Schuster, New York (pp 304-311)