On Having Unrealistic Romantic Expectations

Photo by Sarah O' Connor
Photo by Sarah O’ Connor

We are a culture obsessed with romance. And why shouldn’t we be? There’s something about a grand gesture made in the name of love that makes our souls swoon. Romance is fun. It’s intriguing. And this obsession makes its way into our media–shows like the Bachelor and Bachelorette are watched by millions (I don’t really know if they’re watched by millions, I don’t really know much about watching TV at all but it sounds good so I’m saying it), we all wipe away silent tears while watching movies like the Notebook. Even in less obvious examples, love is still woven into the fabric of the stories we love–let’s face it, Pam and Jim’s romance is really what kept us watching the Office for so long, and Avatar was as much romance as it was sci-fi. Scroll through Netflix and count how many of the movies and shows have romance in them. I bet those completely devoid of it will be few and far between.

Finding “true love” is held up by our society as one of the most pure and happy forms of success. It’s like becoming a millionaire in a rags to riches story, or winning the Superbowl as the underdog.

So what’s my point?

Is this love?
Jordan and I at the beginning of our grand romance. Note the wonderfully dorky toe shoes.

Well, these movies shape how we look at our own lives. We may not even be conscious of them doing it, but with every grand kiss, with every plane jumped on by a desperate lover, with every meet cute, we are being sent a message: this is what love looks like.

And if your romantic counterpart isn’t willing to buy thousand dollar plane tickets on a whim to chase you across continents, or to send you a thousand daisies, or to sacrifice his family and friends to be with you, then gosh darnit, it isn’t true love! Even further, if you don’t have a romantic counterpart, then quite clearly you aren’t living life to its fullest. You haven’t checked off the “found true love” box for a successful life–alongside you know, finding a job you love that also makes you rich, living in a really cool place, achieving the perfect balance of travel and stability and having perfect children. (I hope you’re picking up on the fact that I think this list is dumb).

Now, I consider myself as having a pretty good head on my shoulders. I also studied writing and rhetoric, which is all about how media shapes our expectations and feelings, so I feel well equipped to spot how these romantic stories affect me. But sometimes it’s hard to escape the onslaught of expectation.


Sometimes, I look at my relationship with Jordan, and I see nights where we’re so tired we just pass out after dinner, and long Saturdays of watching TV in bed, and popping each other’s zits. And I feel that deep down yearn, the one that pushes me to corner Jordan in the car and tell him he needs to make more gestures. And then we have long discussions about love languages and how he feels that by doing dishes he’s telling me he loves me, when really I require something a little more substantive, like notes and picked wild flowers. And then I feel guilty, because Jordan is above and beyond incredible–he makes me dinner and cleans after a full day of work and lets me drag him to animal shelters and is always up for adventures.

Then I’m forced to turn the question around on myself. If I want him to make grand romantic gestures, then I had better start doing so myself. And what do I do? Well, I buy him beer as a surprise sometimes when he’s had a hard day, or make him dinner, or clean the house up really nicely. And sometimes I’ll write him a note. But I don’t do much more than what he does for me.

Does that mean that what we have isn’t really “true love?”

Just two hula girls in love. Photo cred Semira Menghes
Just two hula girls in love. Photo cred Semira Menghes

Absolutely not, and here comes my beef with media. Those grand gestures aren’t realistic for every relationship. Further, movies and shows fail to portray the every day life of relationships–the fights, the long nights, the boring days. And they miss out on what really makes love love, the thousands of small gestures, the sticking together through those hard times and supporting each other through thick and thin.

When I look at my relationship through that lens, through the lens of real life, I see something incredibly beautiful. I see Jordan rubbing my neck when I feel so tense I could puke. I see us dancing clumsily together while clam sauce sizzles on the stove. I remember the millions of times we’ve made each other crack up, and the time when I puked on his feet and he cleaned it up without complaint and then came and curled up around me. I remember the hundreds of text messages he’s sent me, telling me he loves me or misses me or thinks I’m beautiful. I remember the hiking trips we’ve enjoyed together, and the forts we’ve built together. And when I look at love through that lens, I feel incredibly rich and so, so lucky.

If shared immaturity and love of poop jokes adds up to true love, then Jordan and I are soul mates.
If shared immaturity and love of poop jokes adds up to true love, then Jordan and I are soul mates.

And I wonder if other couples learned to turn their gaze away from the screen as an example of true love, and started to look into their own lives at their own loves, if they wouldn’t find something that made them feel rich and lucky too.

To take a step beyond that even, I wonder what would happen if we stopped using media as a bar of success. I wonder if instead of clutching that checklist of life goals, if we looked at the really amazing things in our lives, the little tiny, gorgeous things that happen every day, if we wouldn’t be happier. I know for me, when I can step away from what I feel I “should” do, and start to really live the things that make me happy and fulfilled, I feel so much more thrilled about being alive. And I don’t mean that I ditch responsibilities or don’t deal with the less pleasant parts of life. I just mean that I relax that piece of me that is clenched around being classically successful. And doing that allows me to notice the lovely things.

Now, I’m not an expert on this stuff. My relationship is only three years old, and I have a lot to learn about the art of living alongside another person. As always I’d love to hear from you–do you think media can be harmful to relationships? Do you ever find yourself having unrealistic expectations?

3 thoughts on “On Having Unrealistic Romantic Expectations

  1. What a wonderful expression of your love for your soul mate. You are a very precious lady❤️

  2. Unrealistic expectations are everywhere! The media is the absolute worst, including Disney who gave us impossible standard for ‘princes’. I try to do the same thing you do, where I relax the part of me that feels a need to conform to some ridiculous idea of success or ‘true love’ and I find myself bowled over with gratitude for the life I have every single time.

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