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Friday, April 20, 2018

Relationships: The Ideal vs. the Real

When people fall in love, they often fall in love with their idealization of their lover rather than the reality.  At the beginning of the relationship before they know each others' habits, doubts and fears, each partner tends to see the best in the other and fills in the missing pieces with fantasies of who they want their partner to be.  But after they have been living together or married for a while, the ideal tends to fall away as reality sets in.  There is, inevitably, some disillusionment, but how each partner navigates his or her disappointment often predicts if the relationship will survive and thrive or end.

Relationships: The Ideal vs. the Real

Some people, who become disillusioned, leave the relationship and continue to look for their ideal mate.  Little do they realize that they will probably go through the same experience again with the next person.  For these people, searching for their "soul mate" can become a lifelong quest that is never fulfilled.

Fictional Clinical Vignette: Relationships: The Ideal vs. the Real
The following fictional vignette illustrates how the initial idealization can turn into disappointment and disillusionment and how psychotherapy can help to get to the underlying issues to resolve the problem:

Cassie
After living together for six months, Cassie realized that her boyfriend, Steve, wasn't the person she thought he was when they first met at an outdoor photography class a few months before.

When she first met Steve, Cassie was struck by his good looks, his kindness, humor and intelligence.  From the moment they started talking, she was immediately drawn to him.  She had just gotten out of a one year relationship with another man, who turned out to be a different person from who she thought he was during the first few months together.

After the photography class, over dinner later, they spoke for three hours and continued the conversation the next day for several more hours.  Since their first day together, they spent time together everyday until Steve eventually moved in with Cassie.

She expected there would be things that annoyed her about Steve and that annoyed him about her.  But she didn't expect him to be so different from the person she originally fell in love with.

When she first met him, Steve was living temporarily with a friend because he was new to New York City.  At the time, he was living out of boxes and suitcases, so when he moved into her apartment, Cassie made room for Steve's things in her closets and drawers.  She also made sure to buy things that she knew he would like to eat.  She wanted him to feel comfortable.

But after a few days, Cassie realized that, unlike her, Steve was sloppy.  He left his clothes and things all over the apartment--dirty socks on the floor, newspapers piled up in the living room, his toiletries taking up all the space on the bathroom counter they shared, and puddles of water on the floor after he took a shower.  And the worst thing for Cassie was that he didn't seem to mind living this way.

The first few times, she tried to be tactful when she spoke to him about his sloppiness, hoping that he would be neater.  She didn't want him to feel that her apartment wasn't his place too or that she wanted to boss him around.   But, even though he apologized and said he would try to be neater, he continued to be sloppy, which angered Cassie.

She also began noticing other things that bothered her: He tended to drink from the milk carton and leave it on the kitchen counter so it spoiled.  She also saw that if she left for work earlier than he did, Steve got up and left for work without making the bed or tiding up in the kitchen.  He also left his dishes and coffee cup in the sink.

Finally, Cassie suggested that they talk, and she mentioned the things that were bothering her.  Steve told her that he would try to be more considerate, but he also felt that Cassie was being picky about certain things.

Relationships: The Ideal vs. the Real

During their talk, Steve reminded her that the few times when he did make the bed, she wasn't happy about the way that he did it because she had a particular way that she preferred.  Cassie admitted that she tended to be somewhat of a perfectionist and she realized that she would have to let go of some of her perfectionism if the relationship was going to work.

Later that week, when Cassie spoke with her two close friends about Steve's sloppiness, both of her friends told her that their husbands were the same way. They said they used to argue about these things a lot in the beginning, but they gave up after a while.

With a long sigh, Cassie hesitated before she brought up what she was thinking.  Then, she told her friends that she felt disillusioned about Steve and their relationship.  She said he seemed so different when they first met.  She wondered if she had made a mistake in getting into a relationship with him. Her friends suggested that she talk to a psychotherapist first before she ended the relationship precipitously.

A few weeks later, Cassie felt so troubled about her relationship that she contacted a psychotherapist to be able to talk things out.  She didn't want to break up with Steve, but she wasn't sure she could stay in the relationship either.

As Cassie spoke with her psychotherapist about what was going on at home, she began to cry.  She said that, when she and Steve first met, they had sex all the time.  But, she said, shortly after they moved in together, they had sex once a week or less, and she didn't feel as attracted to him as she once did.  All she could think about was his sloppiness.  She also wondered if he felt less attracted to her because she criticized him for being sloppy.

When Cassie spoke with her psychotherapist about her family, she said that her mother also tended to be a perfectionist.  Her mother told Cassie that she had to "put her foot down" when she and Cassie's father got married because he tended to be sloppy.  After that, Cassie's mother controlled things in the relationship, and the father became much more passive.

Cassie told her psychotherapist that she didn't want to be controlling or have Steve become passive.  She said she just wanted the man she met when they first got together.  Then, she cried.

Her psychotherapist explained that almost every couple starts their relationship with an idealized image of each other.  Then, after they get to know each other, that idealization falls away and reality sets in and the couple has a chance to develop a more realistic relationship.

She asked Cassie questions about whether she and Steve had shared values and still enjoyed the same things together.  Cassie responded that their values were the same.  She also said that, lately, since things were strained between them, they weren't enjoying the same things together as much as they used to before.  She said she noticed that Steve was more apprehensive around her at home, and she realized that he probably expected her to be critical about the things he did or didn't do things at home.

As her psychotherapist normalized Cassie's experiences in her relationship, Cassie realized that she didn't know if she was ready to let go of the "idealized Steve" that she thought she was in a relationship with in order to accept the "real Steve."  She said that as she heard herself say these words, she felt immature.

Over the next few weeks, Cassie talked in therapy about being a perfectionist and how unhappy it made her--even before Steve was in her life.  She felt like "perfection is my norm."  They talked about how much shame there was underneath her perfectionism, and worked on helping her to overcome her shame (see my article:  The Connection Between Perfectionism and Core Shame).

Over time, Steve became more self aware and he was more conscientious about being neat and considerate.  He even told her that he realized that he preferred it when the apartment was neat and tidy.  Cassie could see that he was really trying, but she still felt like she missed the "idealized Steve," even though she realized that he never existed--except in her head.

In her psychotherapy sessions, Cassie talked about all the prior relationships that had a similar pattern where she thought each boyfriend was "wonderful," only to find out later that each of them had flaws that she couldn't stand, which led to her ending those relationships.

But now, at age 30, she was trying to focus on what was more important, and she realized, on an intellectual level, that the fact that she loved Steve and he loved her--although not in the head-over-heels way that they did at first.  She also realized that he was a good person, which was more important than some of his habits than annoyed her.

Casie told her psychotherapist that she just wished she could feel this on an emotional level and not just on an intellectual.  She kept thinking about what her mother might say if she knew how sloppy Steve was.  She knew her mother would disapprove and she would expect Cassie to control him, like her mother controlled her father (see my article: Ambivalence and Codependence in Mother-Daughter Relationships).

The more Cassie and her therapist talked about it, the more they both realized that Cassie was still seeing things from her mother's perspective and still trying to please her--rather than developing her own perspective.

Relationships: The Ideal vs. the Real

Over time, Cassie and her psychotherapist worked in therapy to help Cassie distinguish her own views from her mother's views.  As they did this, Cassie felt more like an adult.  Over time, she felt on an emotional level (and not just on an intellectual level) that she was satisfied in her relationship with Steve and, if anything, their love was growing in a more mature way.

Conclusion
It's normal to idealize the person that you're with when you're first in a relationship.  Over time, both of you get to know the "real" person you're in a relationship with and not the ideal.

Some people have problems accepting anything less than the ideal.  Often, this has to do with unconscious underlying issues, including still trying to live up to parents' expectations.

By letting go of your concept of the ideal and re-evaluating your relationship and what's most important to you, you have an opportunity to see your partner and your relationship in a more realistic light so that your love can mature and grow.

Getting Help in Therapy
Many people, who have problems with the disillusionment that reality is different from the ideal, are helped in psychotherapy (see my article: The Benefits of Psychotherapy).

A skilled psychotherapist can help you to discover the underlying issues that are getting in your way and help you to make decisions about your relationship and your life (see my article: How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

Rather than struggling on your own, you owe it to yourself to get help in therapy.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist (see my article: The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrative Psychotherapy).

I work with individual adults and couples.  One of my specialties is helping client to overcome traumatic experiences and deal with unresolved issues.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me.