Why Romanticism Can Drive You to Marry the “Wrong” Person

June 2, 2016 (Updated Jun 2, 2016) by — Intended Audience: , .

Our culture is in love with the fantasy of the perfect spouse who will meet all our needs and never fail us. But in reality, a significant part of developing our capacity for meaningful long-term relationships is learning how to bear with one another’s imperfections.1 I’ve touched on these themes in other posts previously (including some videos), but wanted to share an excellent article I recently came across that gives a nice overview of how Romanticism (as a common philosophical approach to relationships)2 has distorted our expectations, and ironically made it harder to experience the kind of relationship it promises to deliver.34

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But though we believe ourselves to be seeking happiness in marriage, it isn’t that simple. What we really seek is familiarity — which may well complicate any plans we might have had for happiness. We are looking to recreate, within our adult relationships, the feelings we knew so well in childhood. The love most of us will have tasted early on was often confused with other, more destructive dynamics: feelings of wanting to help an adult who was out of control, of being deprived of a parent’s warmth or scared of his anger, of not feeling secure enough to communicate our wishes. How logical, then, that we should as grown-ups find ourselves rejecting certain candidates for marriage not because they are wrong but because they are too right — too balanced, mature, understanding and reliable — given that in our hearts, such rightness feels foreign. We marry the wrong people because we don’t associate being loved with feeling happy.
“Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person”, by Alain de Botton: The New York Times

A continuation and further exploration of the above (by the same author): How Romanticism Ruined Love.

This, following on the above article, explores applying a psychoanalytic5 lens to this topic: How We Choose a Partner.

And finally, several books by other authors that touch on these themes and which helpfully point us toward healthier approaches to relationships:

Footnotes

  1. This doesn’t mean that we excuse or ignore bad behavior. Rather, we need to learn skills like how to forgive and how to constructively handle conflict
  2. Romanticism has dominated Western approaches to relationships for centuries. It’s not about whether you consider yourself “romantic” or not–rather it is a way of thinking about (and idealizing) relationships that most of us have been born into (unless you were born into a non-Western culture), and which influences us in all sorts of ways without our knowing it. 
  3. The point here isn’t that “romantic” gestures (such as flowers, etc.) are problematic–it is good and appropriate to express to one’s partner our appreciation, admiration and affection in ways that are meaningful to them. Rather, it is the promise of Romanticism (that a fellow imperfect human is somehow supposed to resolve, or fix, all of our brokenness and struggles such that we no longer feel emotional pain) which we need to learn to resist being seduced by. 
  4. It is also worth pointing out that if Romanticism truly can’t deliver what it claims to, then it follows that finding a good marriage partner is not about finding the “right” one (or avoiding the “wrong” ones). That is why I have put “wrong” in quotes in the title of this post–because if you have already married someone whom you are having relational difficulties with, that doesn’t mean they are the “wrong” person (as that would be a return to the Romanticism approach which I, and the linked resources, are suggesting doesn’t work so well in real life). Rather, you and your partner likely need help in learning how to work through certain things, and those struggles would likely come up with any partner you would choose in the future. That is one of the reasons I encourage couple’s to stay together, because whatever they’ve not been able to work through with each other is going to keep coming up in subsequent relationships until the necessary emotional and relational muscles are built. 
  5. Psychoanalysis is one of the psychological approaches which I draw from in my work with clients. 

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