Do We Expect too Much from Our Romantic Relationships?

Those who are old enough and wise know every honeymoon ends. “Well, my marriage is still really good, but … ” Hard to give an honest answer here, except to your best friend – perhaps. The question emerges: do we expect too much from our relationships?

The romantic ideal or soul mate is a recent invention. The span of history reveals marriages made for lots of unromantic reasons beginning with simple survival, sex, and procreation. Add the use of marriage to cement political alliances between countries, a big dowry to benefit the receiving family, and the safety net women needed in societies offering them no place as a solo act. Socrates, some suggest, married a woman he didn’t care for because a good citizen was expected to produce males to serve and defend the state.

Such relationships didn’t shoot for sexual compatibility, a like sense of humor, or shared child-rearing philosophies. Bad couplings survived to avoid scandal and church community condemnation. Personal fulfillment, for females in particular, didn’t enter the picture. Happiness as a “right” was not in the conversation.

Times change. We believe in the notion of a soul mate, at least in the West: marriage for love and for life to a partner who completes us. In my parents’ heyday, mid-20th century America, once married you were expected to make public social appearances only with your spouse – other than allowances for amusements like athletics or card games. You were a matched-pair to the world and treated as a unit. Routine presentation of yourself by yourself triggered questions. “Where is Joan?” “Where is Steve?” Whispers followed. Take more steps, and you risked social condemnation and religious ostracism.

The unrecognized dilemma today is this: can any individual fulfill the other over an ever-longer lifetime? Will the marriage grow stale well before the spouse dies? Is love crushed under the drop-hammered pressure to meet expectations? Can the partner be superlative at all the roles we posit as the romantic ideal: sexual wizard, protector/defender, sparkling and encyclopedic conversationalist, comforter, therapeutic listener, and take-no-prisoners bread-winner; matched to you in child-rearing style and devotion, values, religion, and political party? A person who recognizes your uniqueness while acknowledging your status, preciousness, and liberty, too. Providing security and excitement, both.

The assumption I’m challenging is the notion that, if he or she is the “right one,” no one else is needed. He is enough. You will be filled to overflowing by the “everything” bottled within the human container who sleeps beside you, leans over, and pours his understanding, intellect, and emotions into you; instinctively knowing whenever you need to be “topped off” (in the gasoline/petrol tank sense of the phrase).

Perhaps it was easier in my parents’ America. Neither thought about witty intellectual repartee or personal fulfillment. They wanted appreciation from the spouse, a joint effort at financial survival (mostly engineered by the man), and kids (mostly cared for by the woman). Men and women of the time were rarely intimate – sharing feelings, “communicating” – in the way we think of intimacy today. No one even talked about the idea.

Child rearing philosophy? The parents in my boyhood environs imagined they’d do what came to mind when the situation called for it – if they considered the question at all. More is wanted now, especially by the female (who seeks equality and perhaps a career outside the home). Attitudes toward sex have changed, too, an enormous topic. Let me say only that the sexual revolution of the ’60s took us from viewing female desire as “suspected,” dutiful, grudging, reproductive, and passive to “expected,” intentional, pleasurable, recreational, and active.

In sum, too many relationships survive with a surfeit of contempt: the partners linked because of money or the children and not by love, like adjacent members of a chain gang. Many others have companionship and limited or absent sex.

The crippling power of the romantic ideal also can lead to a point where someone else, real or imagined, appears in the mind, like smoke billowing from a magic lantern. “I could do better,” you say to yourself; I need someone “more understanding, more passionate, a better provider.” Abuse needn’t be part of the disappointment, nor infidelity. A bored, unappreciated partner is one who can be won by another; at least, the fantasy of another.

The challenge of changing our cultural model of marriage is, perhaps, impossible. Parents read us fairy tales, and we devour novels and movies perpetuating the dream. Our friends portray more bliss than they experience. Biology has programmed us to be momentarily blinded to the lover’s flaws once Cupid’s arrow strikes, to “feel” the honeymoon will last even if we “know” otherwise.

Comes the dawn, we discover we are out of joint with our spouse. Is it then so unreasonable to find partial fulfillment in lots of different places, perhaps compensating for much of the Disney World fantasy that doesn’t exist beyond its gates? Finding friends who “get it,” stimulating our brains by ourselves, having guiltless interests discovered after our marriage, traveling alone or with others to places we want to see, attending shows without the mate, and eating the Thai food our partner hates? In other words, assuming an active role and responsibility for transforming ourselves, rather than viewing the spouse like a bad employee in the relationship store’s complaint department?

This model doesn’t mean giving up on your spouse, but supplementing her instead. Renegotiate the marital contract as needed, go to therapy, look at what is yet possible. Realize that human nature requires fluidity and flexibility in a relationship as time passes, not the worship of a static statue of the two young lovers as they were. Reinvest your emotions, remember the good times, create more of them in the areas where you do match, and recall the struggles surmounted to build a rich if bumpy passage through life. Look at the part of the glass that remains half (or more) full: sweet, aromatic, enchanting. Maybe the magic is not so much gone as gone to sleep. If so, can Prince (Not Always) Charming’s kiss awaken it?

I am asking questions only you can answer.

Meanwhile, beware those folks who claim, “you deserve it,” even if they are referring to shampoo. Worse yet, the promise, “you can have it all.”


I’m not suggesting you must lead a life of misery tied to a cruel, insensitive, dishonest brute of the male or female variety. Vanished love is cause enough to move-on. People needn’t be evil to become less than satisfying.

But, scan the environment and observe: nothing is ideal, dust piles up in rooms ignored, untended bridges collapse, and sometimes the search for the perfect is the enemy of the pretty good; in part because of what we don’t know about the cellophane wrapped, new or imaginary person and what we do know about the shopworn partner.

Perhaps relationships should not be measured only by what happens between the mates. If you have a satisfying job, raise good kids, live in a safe place, and enjoy close friends, might all these be indirect fruits of your relationship? Marital therapist Esther Perel believes perhaps you shouldn’t complain if you have a B- marriage, but get top marks in all the other areas; because the marriage provides a platform for the rest.

Please join me in a toast. Raise your glass to human value despite imperfection, to the worth of a shared road with a loving, sustaining partner who is not a Greek god or goddess (who were frankly more than a little troubled themselves).

Many things are possible in life, but fantasy only takes us so far.

My advice?

Take reality the rest of the way.

The top image is a cover scan of a romance comic book, as is the third and final image of Forbidden Love, both downloaded by Chordboard. The painting between them is The Kiss, by Gustav Klimt. All come from Wikimedia Commons.

Finding Your Soul Mate: Everything You Need to Know


The idea of a “soul mate” goes way back. How far back? Before the notion that destiny had a hand in marriage and before Eve was allegedly created for Adam by removing his rib. All the way back to Plato, 2500 years ago.

Indeed, in his writing you will find the idea of a “better half,” quite literally. If you believe you are missing something in the relationship department, you can do worse than consult the wisdom of the ancient Greeks.

Plato deals with the proper mate in his Symposium, the story of a dinner party in which everyone takes a turn praising love. The most famous of these speeches is by the poet Aristophanes, who says we were rather different creatures at the dawn of mankind. Humans came in three varieties: males, females, and hermaphrodites (people with both male and female sex organs). These folks were big and strong — pretty full of themselves — and attempted a heavenly assault on the gods.

Zeus, heaven’s CEO, decided to put the insolent hoard in its place. He cleaved each of the three types of Homo sapiens in half to make them all weaker — cutting them down to size and making two people out of each one. Since they all began with two faces, four legs, and four arms; they were left with one head, two legs, and two arms, exactly as we are today. Similarly, because they originally had two sets of sex organs, now they had but one, the standard allotment for you, me, and our children. Of course, Zeus had to do a bit of sewing to make appearances seemly.

What happened next speaks to the question of looking for your soul mate:

“Now, when the work of bisection was complete it left each half with a desperate yearning for the other, and they ran together and flung their arms around each others’ necks, and asked for nothing better than to be rolled into one … “

Aristophanes story thus explains why we are always trying to make “two into one.”  “Each of us is forever seeking the half that will tally with himself.” We wish “to be merged, that is, into an utter oneness with the beloved.”

The author also explains sexual preferences. The original man, when cut in two, sought another man — his second self — to retrieve the love he lost. The women who began our race also wanted their earlier female counterpart. Only the hermaphrodites desired a heterosexual relationship because their other half was of a different gender.

Later on in this work Plato offers us a speech by Socrates as the ultimate word on love. No soul mates, I’m afraid. For Socrates, love must always be the love of something; and his target is loftier than any of the preceding speakers imagined and free from a preoccupation with mere physical beauty. Indeed, it is so spiritually beautiful, wise, eternal, and perfect as to be beyond even his description. This was the original meaning of a platonic relationship: one in which the partners take part in the most elevated, transcendent discourse.

For those of us living on earth, however, my hunch is Aristophanes’ story has the greatest appeal. It is certainly entertaining and set Western civilization in pursuit of the perfect mate: one who is “hot,” fun to be with, and shares the same interests. Ah, well … perhaps something was lost in the fog of time and translation.

Should you wish to learn more about love I suggest you cozy up to Plato. On the other hand, the Collected Dialogues (of which the Symposium is one) offer cold comfort if you are looking for a warm body.

Still, if you really get into it, you won’t be thinking of human touch. You will be enamored of wisdom — face to face with virtue’s self.

And you will have become a philosopher.*

Socrates would be pleased.

The above painting is an African mixed-media canvas by Turgo Bastien, sourced from Turgoart on Wikimedia Commons.

*The word philosopher derives from two Greek roots: philo, meaning love and sophos, meaning wisdom. Tread lightly, however, when you meet a woman called Sophia. Sophos is the root of her name!