RE­LA­TION­SHIP

Elle (Canada) - - Story Board - By Flan­nery Dean

Could your

chick-lit ad­dic­tion ex­plain

why you’re still sin­gle?

’m sick. My dis­ease? A form of patho­log­i­cal ro­man­ti­cism that man­i­fests it­self in an in­sa­tiable crav­ing for con­tin­u­ous and chronic ado­ra­tion, the likes of which are found only in Vic­to­rian nov­els and Hol­ly­wood movies.

Pre­dictably, I caught the ro­mance bug when I was a kid from re­peated ex­po­sure to love-cen­tric movies and books, which I was drawn to like a hun­gry dog to an over­turned trash can. I was a soli­tary, day­dream­ing girl. My books, TV shows and movies were silent com­pan­ions that stirred my imag­i­na­tion with­out chal­leng­ing my shaky self-as­sur­ance.

I’ve read Wuther­ing Heights so many times that it feels like a part of my con­scious­ness. I watched and re-watched clas­sics such as Gone with the Wind and Casablanca and grav­i­tated to­ward teen-love dreams like Say Any­thing... and Six­teen Can­dles. I em­braced those ide­al­ized rep­re­sen­ta­tions of love, which I’d like to think played some role in mak­ing me a loyal, lov­ing part­ner but more likely made me the needy why-aren’t-you-act­ing-like-a-teenage-John­Cu­sack nightmare I am to­day.

I spent my 20s per­ma­nently dis­ap­pointed by nice guys who just wanted to have din­ner rather than brood darkly or pro­claim their undy­ing de­vo­tion— and I ro­man­ti­cized my fair share of pouty creeps. Back then, I thought my out­ra­geous ex­pec­ta­tions sur­round­ing love made me deep. Now in my 30s and mar­ried, I’m start­ing to think that my at­tempts to fuse real life and ro­man­tic fan­tasy make me as silly as a teenage boy with a pornog­ra­phy habit hop­ing to find a ready-and-will­ing Jenna Jame­son hid­ing un­der the bed. Dream on, kid.

Still, I tor­ture my hus­band with my con­stant crav­ing for ab­surdly ro­man­tic ges­tures that could only play out in film and fic­tion. I want him to say “I love you”...con­stantly and with mean­ing. (Tears would be a nice touch.) I want him to miss me...when I’m in the next room. I want him to sleep with one of my T-shirts cra­dled in his arms... when he’s tak­ing a nap. If I’m hon­est, I want him to act like a stalker mi­nus the in­san­ity part.

Go ahead and blame movies and TV for un­re­al­is­tic ex­pec­ta­tions about love and ro­mance—at least partly, says Peter Pear­son, a mar­riage ther­a­pist, co-founder of The Cou­ples In­sti­tute in Cal­i­for­nia and co-au­thor of the mar­riage man­ual Tell Me No Lies.

Pop cul­ture bom­bards us with im­pos­si­ble-to-repli­cate mes­sages, says Pear­son, cit­ing a list of rom­coms that al­ways be­gin with drama and end in hap­pily ever af­ter. “Want­ing ro­mance like that is not in a vac­uum,” he says.

Why “harm­less” chick lit might be ru­in­ing

your real-life re­la­tion­ship.

But cul­ture is only one part of the equa­tion. Women may get zinged from bi­ol­ogy too, he says, men­tion­ing evo­lu­tion­ary the­o­ries that sug­gest that women be­come aroused more slowly and there­fore re­quire more woo­ing—likely be­cause it was bi­o­log­i­cally ad­van­ta­geous for us to be se­lec­tive about mat­ing.

Evo­lu­tion­ary psy­chol­o­gists de­bate the mer­its of this idea—some ar­gue the op­po­site, that promis­cu­ity mul­ti­plied chances of suc­cess and was there­fore a strong urge too— but there is some ev­i­dence to sug­gest that women pri­or­i­tize in­ti­macy with their part­ners over al­most ev­ery other facet of life. One study by hap­pi­ness re­searchers that ap­peared in the Jour­nal of Eco­nomic Psy­chol­ogy found that when asked to de­sign their “per­fect day,” Amer­i­can women put sex, cud­dling and gen­eral in­ti­macy at the top of the list (just af­ter a good night’s sleep). Work­ing and com­mut­ing were at the bot­tom of the list. Un­for­tu­nately, the re­searchers didn’t ask the same ques­tion of men, so there’s no way to com­pare the sexes. But the study re­sults re­veal just how lit­tle the re­al­ity of our lives—with work con­sum­ing most of our day and time with loved ones get­ting stuffed in when­ever pos­si­ble—aligns with our de­sires. Given this dis­crep­ancy, it’s no won­der we seek quick and dirty ful­fill­ment through fan­tasy.

And, boy, do we ever. In 2012, ro­mance nov­els rang up $1.4 bil­lion in sales in the United States. A whop­ping 91 per­cent of those book buy­ers were women, more than half of whom were mar­ried or lived with some­one, which sug­gests that ev­ery re­la­tion­ship re­quires a lit­tle fan­tasy on the side. (Though I’ve never read a Har­lequin, I’ve watched Six­teen Can­dles too many times re­cently to set my­self up as some kind of cul­tural elit­ist.)

So while the sexes may not pos­sess iden­ti­cal read­ing lists or PVR sched­ules, we all share a de­sire for a real-world con­nec­tion—we just ex­press that in­ter­est dif­fer­ently, says Ash­ley Howe, a Toronto-based cou­ples and fam­ily ther­a­pist. Ro­mance is re­ally just a syn­onym for in­ti­macy and con­nec­tion, says Howe, and it isn’t sex-spe­cific or a sim­ple con­sumer phe­nom­e­non. It’s a uni­ver­sal de­sire—“an in­stinct.” “To crave con­nec­tion is hu­man, pe­riod,” she says.

It’s how we ask for in­ti­macy that gets us (read “me”) into trou­ble with our sig­nif­i­cant oth­ers. I so­licit af­fec­tion and ten­der words, which ap­pears to be a com­mon re­quest among women in Howe’s cou­ples ther­apy. By con­trast, my hus­band wants to be “ap­pre­ci­ated” and have his good deeds noted. I of­ten hear “Why don’t you ever talk about the good things I do?” from my hus­band, who seems baf­fled by my in­abil­ity to see how he ex­presses his love by help­ing around the house, com­ing home right af­ter work and other more prac­ti­cal ges­tures. Af­ter speak­ing to Howe, I re­al­ize that my hus­band’s re­quest is as emo­tion­ally ur­gent to him as my oft-re­peated de­sire for more ro­mance is to me. The fact that I haven’t been lis­ten­ing sug­gests I’ve spent too much time fan­ta­siz­ing about love and not enough be­ing truly lov­ing. In prac­tice, it seems, my ver­sion of ro­mance looks pretty self­ish. To para­phrase a Woody Allen joke, it looks a whole lot like sex with some­one I re­ally love: my­self.

I’m em­bar­rassed to ad­mit that this may be the ap­peal of fan­tasy for me: com­plete and ut­ter self­ish­ness. Mr. Darcy (as played by a poo­dle-haired Colin Firth in the adap­ta­tion of Pride and Prej­u­dice) didn’t chal­lenge me to grow up or stop think­ing about my­self so much, and he wouldn’t dare tell me that, for ex­am­ple, my eye­brows were asym­met­ri­cal. That com­plai­sance made him down­right ir­re­sistible. My hus­band, how­ever, doesn’t read from a script; he speaks his mind on ev­ery sub­ject, in­clud­ing my eye­brows. That’s what makes him so ap­peal­ing and frus­trat­ing to a patho­log­i­cal day­dreamer used to hav­ing her nar­cis­sis­tic de­sire for com­plete ado­ra­tion sat­is­fied by fic­tion.

Re­search by re­la­tion­ship ex­pert John Gottman sug­gests that last­ing re­la­tion­ships are based on lov­ing acts—like my hus­band care­fully un­load­ing the dish­washer—not the kind of epic deeds I’ve been crav­ing. In fact, Gottman even de­ter­mined a golden ra­tio: five pos­i­tive acts for each neg­a­tive one. “When you look at the hap­pi­est people, and when they tell you why their re­la­tion­ship is so good, they aren’t talk­ing about grand ges­tures,” says Howe. “They’re talk­ing about re­ally tiny de­tails ev­ery day. Love is very sub­tle. It’s a large ac­cu­mu­la­tion of ha­bit­ual things: bring­ing some­body cof­fee, clear­ing snow off their car for them.... That stuff counts.”

This real-world find­ing stands in di­rect con­trast to movies and books that hang their ef­fect on high drama or iconic mo­ments. John Cu­sack and his boom box may have pro­pelled mil­lions of teenage girls’ fan­tasies (they did mine), but if longevity is the endgame, it’s time to turn away from Hol­ly­wood (which isn’t ex­actly known for its suc­cess­ful long-term re­la­tion­ships).

It’s clear that I should start sep­a­rat­ing fact from fic­tion and self­ish­ness from self-knowl­edge be­cause my very real hus­band does a hun­dred tiny things ev­ery day. He vac­u­ums the stairs, he sorts the re­cy­cling and he cleans the kitty lit­ter—all things I hate to do. At night, he gets me a glass of wa­ter (with ice!), and he al­ways presses pause on the TV if I need to take a bath­room break. He en­dures my re­quests for more af­fec­tion and oc­ca­sion­ally even gives in to them.

That’s love. I can fi­nally see it. But I must ad­mit, I never thought I’d be look­ing for ev­i­dence of abid­ing, real ro­mance in a clean lit­ter box. n

It’s how we ask for in­ti­macy that gets us (read “me”) into trou­ble with our sig­nif­i­cant oth­ers.

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