Valentine’s Day. Get Real.

“Real” in the Expectations

How many people will be disappointed when the ‘big day of love and romance’ arrives this Saturday and their expectations and fantasies are are left unfulfilled.  Are you dreaming wistfully about a fantastic day of flowers, magnificent expensive gifts, musical or poetic serenades, professions of everlasting love, perpetual hot sex or trips to Paris?  Then, when when the day doesn’t turn out as fantasized, you’re left with some amount of sadness and cynicism or even resentment.  Uh-huh. You’ve set yourself up for disappointment again.

Our expectations tend to be through the roof when it comes to Valentine’s Day – and loving relationships in general. We can blame that on romantic fantasy – stories that we’ve been inundated with since kindergarten about instant, almost effortless love and romance and “living happily ever after” (the details of which are always conveniently left out).  Then later, when reality inevitably collides with our great expectations it can become a bit of a trainwreck.

Hot and heavy romance fades, and after a few years in a relationship, hot sex eventually becomes at best, OK and somewhat regular if we’re lucky. But what lasts? What is real? What is the glue that holds a relationship together long-term?

Breathless fantasy and sex sells, but cultivation of real lasting love is ignored by marketing

Rarely mentioned amidst the breathless and over-the-top propaganda in film, music, books, and online about love, sex and romance is the fact that real, lasting love is based on friendship, respect, and trust – things that take time to develop and daily work to cultivate and maintain. That is the real WORK of relationship.  And it’s not as instantaneous, glamorous or breathless as expensive gifts, professions of everlasting love, love at first sight, flowers, exotic trips, chocolate, serenades, etc.  But that shiny, fluffy stuff ain’t where it’s at, honey. The fluff is nice as a side dish, but the main course is what a relationship requires to survive long-term in decent health. And that can’t just be cultivated one day a year. It has to be maintained every day. It may not be as glamorous as the breathless fantasies, hot romance, and instant gratification of ‘love at first sight’ – but it is the basis of good relationships that last.  Don’t expect to hear about it in many ‘love’ songs though.

Dr. Bill Cloke (who’s had a long and thus far happy marriage himself) elaborates:

…long-term love is sustained not by romance alone but by the daily activities of following-through on promises, showing up both emotionally and physically when needed, owning up to responsibility for your part in any conflict, and by being the kind of person who is worthy of being loved. All of the above is the definition of being a friend. One of the true secrets to long-lasting marriages is that friendship amongst couples can deepen when each party acknowledges that there is work to be done on themselves and in how they treat each other.

Valentine’s Day is a celebration, not a responsibility. If we can carry that in our hearts and make each day a special Valentine by being loving, kind and concerned about one another, then we are actively creating true love.

Now, that’s not to say we ought to neglect to do our part on Valentine’s Day – but keep it real and keep those expectations and priorities in check.  Turn off the propaganda and work on what’s right in front of you. The ‘best friends’ approach to love and relationship encourages partners to take influence from each other and to not become overly-defensive when a partner expresses his/her feelings – even when they are negative.  Keep your promises. Do what you say you will do. Be there emotionally and physically when needed and most of all (this part is hard or impossible for people who tend to be abusive) own up to your responsibility and your part in any conflicts or issues. RARELY are relationship issues only one person’s fault – or mostly one person’s fault. It takes two. Even where there is abuse – one person wields power over the other by being abusive, and the other person gives up their power by tolerating it (by not setting boundaries or leaving if boundaries fail).

If there’s no friendship, it won’t last. No shortcuts. 

One of the things that a counselor said to myself and my ex just before our relationship ended was that the friendship in our relationship had been destroyed (there was abuse involved), and friendship is what holds relationships together long-term.  Not hot sex or romance – but friendship, respect, empathy, and trust. Because there had been abuse – those elements of our relationship were destroyed.  There was nothing left except a toxic wasteland of unresolved hurt and anger.  Abuse thoroughly and fairly quickly destroys the friendship, respect and trust that is needed as a foundation of any lasting involvement.

My ex, who still didn’t seem to GET that concept, wanted to remain friends even after we split.  I finally had to tell him that we could not be friends because his abusive behavior (and my willingness to put up with it for too long) had destroyed our friendship long before that.  Once that friendship, trust, and respect is lost in a relationship, it is difficult if not impossible to get it back. And if it isn’t cultivated by both partners to start with, the relationship won’t last. It really is that simple. Don’t bother getting in a hurry or believing the appearance of effortlessness in romantic fantasy or film.  There are no shortcuts to this level of real intimacy and it does require some consistent and ongoing effort.

Partners with the best relationships seem to have an established system for working through and resolving conflicts or issues where both people take some responsibility for the problem – and for any necessary change. And they keep their promises and follow through, checking in with each other as time goes on. Forget the blame-game. They are friends above all and they work to establish and preserve that foundation. As Dr. Cloke puts it:

…no blame, no shame, no swearing, yelling, name calling or during discussions about important matters. Don’t make it personal.

No matter how much love and passion there is in the beginning of a relationship, for love to last a lifetime it must be actively made, fashioned by a collaborative process whereby couples work together to create and embellish their emotional bond.

In order for this to happen, people have to get out of their narcissistic corners and have the willingness to see where the other person is coming from and to understand – even if not agree with – someone else’s feelings and be willing to consider them as important as their own without becoming defensive or blaming. Yep. It’s hard to do that, but this is the work of relationship.

MORE common sense from Dr. Bill Cloke (and from my own personal experience I can wholeheartedly affirm what he writes below from a woman’s point of view):

To not defend ourselves, but instead hear what is being said, and then be able to express our understanding through acknowledgement will beat a box of chocolates any day.

How can we distinguish between realistic expectations and romantic ideals? Understand this foundation for realistic romance: Central to every couple’s Valentine’s wishes is embracing the reality of what it takes to make a relationship work over the long haul. Before an act of romance, in either giving or receiving, ask yourself the question, “Is this going to help sustain my relationship over time or not? If the answer is yes, you’re in the realistic expectations spectrum. If it’s no, you’re living in romantic ideals la-la land.

And so, just what are realistic expectations on Valentine’s Day and beyond? We can expect to be treated with respect, common courtesy, kindness, understanding, compassion and empathy. Expect the common courtesies, the helping hand, being reasonable, fair, open and emotionally connected, all of which are primary ingredients of true romance. When I speak to women in therapy about love, what they say is it’s not so much hearts and flowers as it is about someone they can depend on. A good sense of humor, anger management, and a positive attitude trump romantic ideals every time.

In or out of a relationship, get those priorities in order

Put friendship first and romance second in your love life.  Romance should be dessert, not the main course. If you’re looking for love, keep that in mind.  Those ‘sweep you off your feet’, ‘love at first sight’, instant-gratification involvements rarely go on to become healthy relationships and in fact are justifiable cause for suspicion (ie: if s/he seems too good to be true, s/he probably IS).

Buyer beware when it comes to romantic fantasy and expectations, especially on Valentine’s Day. Nevermind the marketing – sex and fantasy sells and those profits are undoubtedly tidy.  But real lasting love is priceless, it can’t be bought and there are no shortcuts.  Strengthen and celebrate those daily things in your relationship that are real and lasting, and don’t buy into the marketing fantasy muckety-muck. 

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